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Guest Thinkers

What Have We Become?

One could hardly call me a conspiracy theorist;  I don’t put much stock in Area 51 theories, alternate possibilities of the JFK assassination, or any such popular underground thoughts.  But I do believe that American Public Education has been usurped.

John Taylor Gatto‘s “Some Lessons From The Underground History of American Education” appeared in the 2002 edition of Everything You Know Is Wrong (EYNIW).  The EYNIW synopsis outlines the original intent of education and the historical (widely secret) events that have shaped what we now consider education’s purpose to be.  Educational institutions began as places where intellectual curiosity, worldliness, and spirituality were explored, fed, and cultivated.  Yes, they were bastions for the elite and public schools originally were established to counter the elitists.  But something went very wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Gatto writes that public education had become the vehicle for social management and the premiere institution for societal construction where the commoner was to be kept common.  Since Reconstruction, public education has become merely an extension of both private industry and government.  Gatto utilizes the words of famed educators like Ellwood P. Cubberely, Edward Thorndike, and Benjamin Bloom and others to make his case.  To maximize his point that public education was forged into a social engineering tool for the commoners, Gatto provides some startling quotes:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata,careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow, the prescribed custom.  This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” ~ William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education 1889-1906

…We shall not try to make these people [the lower and middle classes] or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.  We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters.  We shall not search for the embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply.  The task we set before ourselves is very simple… we will organize children… and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.” Rockefeller’s General Education Board, Occasional Letter Number One, 1906.

These men, their publications, and the reform movements birthed from their ideas has essentially taken education to a place that centers on creating good common citizens, productive workers, and contributors to the status quo.  If you think otherwise, just read your district’s – or any public school district’s – mission statement.  Is the phrase “productive citizen” or the word “citizen” present? These are the remnants of said philosophies.

Gatto’s work (available online) resonates with me and many others who have a deep sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the aim of our public education system.  Those of us who reject the idea that schools are to first and foremost produce good citizens and skilled workers are increasingly being marginalized by the “great machine” –  a term I use for the seemingly unstoppable train of political movements, think tanks, boards of education, and state organizations who seek to hold schools accountable (particularly high schools) as training grounds and indoctrination camps.  A close-to-home case in point:

The New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee is “…composed of the

leadership of New Jersey’s major education organizations, is working to

build public awareness and support for a more rigorous high school

experience, one that allows students to succeed in the workforce or in

pursuing higher education.

.. The Steering Committee grew out of the New Jersey Education Summit on

High Schools convened in 2005 and supports the work begun at the

National Education Summit on High Schools held in Washington, DC in

February of that year. The Steering Committee

is co-chaired by New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, Prudential

Financial Chairman and CEO Arthur F. Ryan,

and Montclair State

University President Susan A. Cole and is composed of the leadership of

New Jersey’s major education organizations.”

The Committee was formed a few years ago to address the perceived inadequacies of NJ high schools as preparatory institutions for the workplace.  The Committee claims that though NJ high schools may be graduating over 90% of their students, have  “good” SAT scores, and have a high number of students going on to  post-secondary education, we are not producing good workers.    They tell the public (at their numerous public meetings) that NJ businesses are facing certain outsourcing of jobs – not because of the economic realities of the “flat world” – but because our students are not skilled enough.  The Committee’s aim is to hold high schools to a higher industrial standard; produce better workers, produce a better middle class, produce better earners.  The Committee has a plan – to institute Regents-style exit exams in math, science, and language arts and to have students partake in workplace readiness activities in high school. 

As a high school administrator in NJ, this is my new professional reality.  This is what my government says my new mission as an educator is to be.  I should not think of creativity, of cultivating a love of learning and life for my students, of offering my students opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.  I am to make good workers of them.  I am to foster a stronger middle class.  I am to produce producers – not inspire or lead students to self actualization… not unless the leading leads to a good job.

Public education has been hijacked.  Not in this generation, but many moons ago when compulsory education was legislated.  The public scorn for mandatory education was so strong, Bruce Curtis, in his book Building The Education State 1836-1871, notes that:


schools were burned to the ground and teachers run out of town by angry

mobs. When students were kept after school,  parents often broke into

school to free them. At Saltfleet Township in 1859 a teacher was locked

in the schoolhouse by students who “threw mud and mire into his face

and over his clothes,”  according to the school records—while parents

egged them on.”

As a result of generations of social engineering, it is no wonder the homeschooling movement has become so popular.  Many parents have rejected the government’s means to and end and the end to those means.  Private schooling, too, is an alternative for the disenchanted – though, admittedly, many private schools are also guilty of the same sins of public education.

As and education leader, I face a dilemma.  How do I swim in the current of the public school agenda while holding true to my deepest convictions about children, learning, and the point of learning?  How do you?

– Mike Parent, guest blogger


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