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August 24, 2003

Back when they didn’t even try to hide it. From the Report of the Committee on Education, United States Senate, 1888:
We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes. [Page 1,382.]
More here. Discuss. [02:12 PM]
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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Back when they didn't even try to hide it.:

Copeland ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 04:45 PM:

I've worked as a substitute teacher for 7 years and it's discouraging to see the ill effects of a system built to serve an assembly line. Some changes in teaching social skills have improved the rowdy atmosphere in schools. But I agree that structure and curricula need an overhaul.

When I began my student teaching I was shocked to find so many 9th graders who could not put together a coherent paragraph. Focus on reading and writing skills is needed for comprehension in all subjects.

The traditional American curriculum included a study of the Classics. There should be a greater awareness of the Greek and Latin materials in translation, electives in those source languages, and a much greater offering of modern languages in public school.

Glen Engel-Cox ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 04:56 PM:

Yow. Fascinating reading, that link. Seems like it could have been in a Robert Anton Wilson or Thomas Pynchon book.

As an aside, I wish that I had learned (been taught) a second language in grade school--it wasn't until I volunteered as a tutor for a Chinese couple trying to master English that I started to discover all sorts of things about the language I had taken for granted.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 05:54 PM:

Gatto is an interesting figure. Although I actually agree with a lot of his indictment of the public school system, I don't think the near-conspiratorial outlook he has on the school system is terribly sound. A comedy of errors is a better description than an evil conspiracy. Furthermore, there is at least one area he won't touch: why, if Prussian model schooling is harming American children, isn't it harming the billions in the rest of the world subject to schools built on the same model?

I suppose one could claim that it is (in fact, I do claim that), but it really undermines arguments that start by saying that America's schools are bad. It destroys this entire line of thought about how harmful public education is to liberty and how it's all Thomas Dewey's fault. It takes the whole right wing libertarian edge out fo the discussion.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 08:41 PM:

Few people would argue that our educational system is Good, much less perfect, but how you tackle a problem your approach counts a lot.

Starting with the assumption that our school system is some kind of uniquely evil conspiracy to create conformist work-drones strikes me as kind of goofy. (So, for that matter, is the view that public schools exist to teach lawlessness, godlessness, and evolution, and maybe convert kids to homosexuality on the side.)

In any case: There have been *many* changes for the better since the years since those hair-raising quotes were made. Schools might cut literature and art classes, but its generally for budgetary reasons, not because the Board believes that their students are all headed for factory jobs.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 09:29 PM:

Gatto strikes me as someone who, to quasi-quote Mullah Nasrudin, has seen one angel. However, the stuff he digs up about the roots of American public education is very striking, and I wouldn't be anywhere near so quick to dismiss him with the usual cries of "conspiracy theorist." (As if the powerful, unlike the rest of humanity, never conspired.)

I don't buy some of his more fanciful flights, like the stuff about the influence of the Hindu caste system on nineteenth-century social reformers, but his material showing how many of the founders of modern public education were consciously pursuing an agenda of social control seems very solid.

Sometimes you need the visionary obsessives to bring this sort of thing to light. I've become mistrustful of the smug facility with which we ever-so-moderate sensible people dismiss them. The daily world we live in looks more like the gothic night of conspiracy with every passing day.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 10:47 PM:

It also goes along with the very prevalent practice of not asking the guys on the shop floor what they do, and what they think about it, when trying to make improvements.

This despite lots of evidence that letting the people executing the process run the process produces much, much better economic results, and the similar lots of evidence that the only people who actually know what's going on are the folks doing the actual work.

It's not at all hard to believe that the captains of industry have motivations primarily social, and there is scarcely any distance at all from there to the idea of backing an educational system intended to fulfill a social agenda.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 11:30 PM:

Why are people nattering about a "conspiracy?" It wasn't secret, it was right out there in public, and it was a serious philosophical building block of the public school system in America. None of that implies that there is a secret, evil agenda, nor that current education officials and scholars are secretly trying to continue to enforce the philosophies upon which the system was built.

It is useful to know about the founding history of an institution. It can reveal some flaws that are so deeply embedded in the structure that you can't find them in other ways. It is a mistake to assume that a) those flaws have necessarily had the intended effect, or b) that they are still having an effect. It is, however, something to look at when considering the problems of the system.

The thing I want to know is why the master's thesis for an education major which was riddled with spelling errors, grammatical errors, and poorly argued was accepted and approved for this woman who was teaching English at the local high school. How does this happen? My high school English teacher would have flunked the paper before getting to page two.

Of course, it doesn't help that, evidently, since its inception the goal of public education has at very least bifurcated.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2003, 11:36 PM:

"Why are people nattering about a 'conspiracy?' It wasn't secret, it was right out there in public, and it was a serious philosophical building block of the public school system in America."

Good point.

catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 01:13 AM:

This is a point often brought up in some of my discussions of the dismal public school system. Not what Patrick's quoted here specifically, nor the article itself, but the fact that there's a distinct degree of disadvantage to a higher education when your prospects -- or your ambitions -- only go so far as a McJob. The backbone of our economy is factory jobs, farm labor, fast food -- intellectuals, generally speaking, don't keep the guts of the country running.

To take from the experiences of friends of mine: one woman with years of experience in the computer industry, but no degree, has been out of work for two years now because she's too over-qualified for McDonalds (K-Mart, Safeway, name your equivilant poison) to hire. Even if she got that job, she and her boss would both know as soon as something better comes along, she'd be jumping ship. Without even a formal college education, she's been effectively priced out of that market, and yet she's stuck in a position where it'd be easier, financially, if she could get that sort of position.

Compare that to a friend of mine who began working at McDonalds while still in high school, and didn't pursue anything beyond her high school diploma, as far as education is concerned. She isn't bringing a BA or a PhD to the table, but her boss knows if he hasn't got a lifer there, he's at least got the high likelihood of a long-term employee. Higher education wouldn't do her a lot of good at that position, and if she needed that job, an education might even prevent her from getting it.

I have a difficult time envisioning a world in which everyone was so well-educated that they'd all be too bored to work fast food (although, y'know, that'd probably be good for the collective waistline of the country), or, perhaps more to the point, a world in which everyone was so well-educated that there would be no one left to take the fast food positions /because/ those positions would be too boring.

I happen to think that education is the answer to pretty much all evils, and that practicality (on the McJob level, anyway) aside, it ought to be pursued. It seems likely, although maybe not absolutely inevitable, that if we manage to develop a so-well-educated society that no one can be bothered to do backbone work, that we may find another way to /do/ the backbone work.

Of course, that combined with aging research, could make for science fiction utopian hells in which we all wither away spiritually while living on and on and clearly I need to stop now because, if nothing else, dinner is ready. :)

Kellie ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 01:00 PM:

Eep. Reading those quotes, I have to wonder if there's a contextual element that we're missing. That perhaps there was a voice from society saying, "Find a way to preseve our social order." Or something else that makes those little tidbits only shocking as compared to horrifying. If the framers of the education system really wanted to maintain social order in the manner their quotes seem to suggest, they should've adopted a school system more like the German one. You start specialized tracks in sixth grade or so.

The goal of public education nowadays seems to be a completely political one. Find a new way to say it's broken, find a new way to say it can be fixed, and then come up with a new way to screw it over under the guise of fixing it. All while trying to get more votes. The people actually running the system do nothing more than play catch-up with the current political figure doing the string-pulling. Pretty soon the system is going to hit rock bottom, and then we'll have to create a whole new institution, complete with strategies and ideas that may shock later generations when the institution falls apart.

Wow. That was really cynical of me. Nothing like three months as a public school teacher to cure you of any idealism you had for that institution.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 01:58 PM:

God, that is appalling, and it makes me really angry.

My girls attend classes that bore them to tears and making them crazy. It gives me a heavy heart. But we can't afford private school, nor homeschooling.

It's not right, that the human spirit should be so boxed up.


Copeland ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 02:08 PM:

The implication of that 1888 Committee Report is that education had to be restructured in a way that would make the laboring classes socially compliant. The manufacturing sector, for which this system was fashioned, has shown a steady decline over the last 30 years or so. I wonder what social model will be considered when social engineers and educators come around to re-designing the system.

We clearly cannot do without an emphasis on the sciences. But there is also a need to commit sufficient resources to liberal arts education. The danger is that the teaching of history, for instance, will become more politically sanitized and superficial than it already is. Accountability and civic responsibilty depend on critcal thinking skills. The role that our country assumes in the future rests on this society's knowledge of the outside world. The American Dream, I like to think, is about more than material acquisition; it is about meaningful work. What kind of society trains its children for mean and meaningless work?

Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 03:11 PM:


Although I know nothing of your economic situation, I would ask you to reconsider carefully the question of whether homeschooling is in fact too expensive an option. There are homeschooling families that spend less than their neighbors spend on public schooling (materials for make-work projects, buying the stupid coupon books some school groups sell to raise money, assorted fees, etc.).

Also, depending on the age and maturity level of the children involved, homeschooling need not imply the loss of one income from a two-income household. The traditional image of homeschooling - that it looks exactly like school, complete with desk and workbook - is not the only viable homeschooling model. (Reference here the book "The Teenage Liberation Handbook" and other resources on the practice of unschooling) (Though I should note that some states might require full-time adult supervision for all ages; this is a state-by-state issue)

Homeschooling certainly isn't free, I'll grant you - there's a substantial investment involved in remaking your assumptions about public school (for example, that what happens when you shove a bunch of 13 year olds together with little to do is worthy of the name "socialization"), and depending on your experiences, remaking your assumptions about homeschooling (homeschoolers aren't all from the Christian Right, nor was homeschooling a movement with a particularly Christian Right flavor until the late 80s). And certainly, there will be some materials (read: books) to buy, depending on your children. Also, depending on the state, there's a serious investment in time puzzling out the necessary bureaucracy and paperwork to homeschool. (NJ is easy, but my parents - who just started homeschooling my sister in PA - have had a hellish time with the paperwork)

So, it's not necessarily an easy answer, but in terms of straight economic (dollars) cost, homeschooling is almost certainly much cheaper than you think.

Anne ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 03:49 PM:

Laura: Will your girls get in trouble for sitting quietly at their desks and reading non-school books after they finish their work? That's what I did. I had one teacher who objected, but my parents went and tied her in rhetorical knots, and after that they all pretty much left me alone.

(an ex-Cepheid who met you once or twice)

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 03:58 PM:

"I wonder what social model will be considered when social engineers and educators come around to re-designing the system."

In a review in _The Last Whole Earth Catalog,_ Stewart Brand whips out a lovely quote:

"We're pretty much down on utopian thinking here, preferring a more fiasco-by-fiasco approach to perfection."

Our educational system is being redesigned on a fiasco-by-fiasco approach, and I'm all for that. I distrust grand makeovers; they smack of Year Zero and Collectivization.

Roger Bigod ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 04:10 PM:

But I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I
hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has
brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world,
and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.

--William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, 1671

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 04:20 PM:

The school where I did my teacher training (SF State University) had us read lots of documents written by Horace Mann, et. al, to the effect that one purpose of public education was to free the children of industrial laborers and farm workers from a future with nothing in it but mean and meaningless work.

The other guiding purpose (we were taught) was a socialization process to fill the need for administrative and management personnel created by the Industrial Revolution. Lydia is right in stating that that particular agenda isn't hidden.

I was lucky enough, as a child and teenager, to attend a great public school system in Great Neck, NY. Teachers in English, History, Math, and Science worked with students, established after-school clubs, and provided all the tools necessary to enter the university system.

That is, while I was being encouraged to read and become a knowledge-geek who could pass any state-sponsored written achievement test, school clubs helped me to design Civil War combat games, experiment with alternatives to litmus paper as pH indicators, present papers at State Math Conferences, do book reports on my favorite sports authors (Duane Decker, Joe Archibald, J.R. Tunis), etc.

I was pretty surprised, twenty years later, when I entered the inner-city schools of San Francisco as an apprentice teacher. The eighth and ninth grade classes English and History classes appeared to be functioning on what I would have called a fourth or fifth grade level. The traditional math and science classes weren't as far behind, if you judged by the official curricula. But many students who were supposed to be doing algebra and geometry couldn't manage mixed fractions and percents.

School libraries weren't open before and after school to check out books, and librarians were available only one to two days a week.

I expressed my naive horror at all this to my SFSU education instructors. Their response was generally along the lines of

"Well, what are you going to do about it?

1. The population served by American schools has been exploding over the last 50 years, with a changing demographic where middle-class kids (with books in the house and a parent who stays home with the kids all day) aren't the principal clients.

2. 50% of the American workforce (the female half) is no longer a captive pool for teacher recruitment.

3. These two facts, coupled with an education system that hasn't adapted to them, explain most of the deterioration people perceive in American schools over the last 50 years."

This is the official line, given to me, in my own teacher training.

I think there's some essential truth in this line. What we see in the public education system represents the sluggishness with which an entrenched bureaucracy responds to significant changes in the environment.

I don't have any magic solutions, either. But the things that seem to make sense to me are:

a) talented and creative teachers need to be encouraged and recruited by increased financial incentives and other benefits. The money we put into the system as taxpayers needs to flow down to principals *to spend on student resources.*

b) our entire work system needs to be readjusted to, once again, allow parents to spend quality time with children in pre-school years. Flex-time and telecommute. (Right, this is the easy one.)


c) we accept fundamental changes in American family life that take parents away from their children and resign ourselves to incremental fixes until some geniuses change everything so that it works better.
(I still point to Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net" as an attempt to envision benevolent corporations that recognize the needs of their employees.)

We need people like John Gatto to complain about the flaws in the education system as it is. But, in the meantime, we need patches for competent rank-and-file teachers, until we find some competent visionaries to work with federal and state bureaucracies.

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 04:31 PM:

My personal thought is that what the US educational system was designed to do, and what it ended up doing, are two different things.

From what I've seen of public schools, both having gone to them and having taught in them, people who want an education can get an education, even a classical one. While I know we studied less Greek myths than children in previous ages might have done, the books with the rest of them were right there in the library. Ditto poetry, philosophy and so on.

Bore the hell out a bunch of kids and lock them in a building with a library, and while you can pretty much guarantee many of the public school idiocies, you'll also be sure to get some readers.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 09:18 PM:

To clarify what I posted above: I take the Gatto pull-quotes (which suggest that American schooling has always been a consciously-organized conspiracy to dull minds in order to keep people from quitting their jobs) with a grain of salt. It may seem like that, sometimes, from the viewpoint of students (and even teachers). But Woodrow Wilson, known for his peculiar mixture of idealism and mean-spiritedness, isn't necessarily the true spiritual descendent of Horace Mann. Mann was known to admire the Prussian school system, but it may have been just as much for the early Prussian use of phonics in teaching reading as for the notion that social control is the prime purpose of education.

If we now have too many schools that appear to support Gatto's suggestions, I'm inclined to think this circumstance is due to an inability to adapt to changes in American life -- not a top-down conspiracy to keep the working class in ignorance.

Setting aside the confusion of bad (and sometimes selfish) management with "conspiracy to maintain ignorance," there's another issue that's always been present in American public schools: the privileging of academic learning over the teaching and learning of crafts. The educational philosophers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries considered this essential, because they believed the greatest need of American society was for more managers and executives.

This may no longer be the case (assuming that you grant it was the case in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Maybe we'd be better off if English, for instance, was taught more as a craft,(journal writing, editing, copy editing), than as a cognitive discipline. ("Who was a nicer guy, Chillingworth or Dimmsdale? And why was that rose growing in front of the prison?")

I'm currently teaching post-secondary classes in computer hardware support and working through this issue on a less lofty plane. The job market demands that IT technicians pass certification tests that require lots of rote memorization of terminology. But those tests may not really measure ability to look at a broken machine and figure out what to do to get it working again.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2003, 10:38 PM:

Daniel, it isn't the monetary cost of homeschooling that holds us back; it's the time. Steve and I are both professional writers. To keep bread on the table, we also have to do part- to fulltime day jobs. There's no room in our lives for us to do justice to homeschooling, unfortunately.

Anne, hi! An excellent suggestion. Both girls are avid readers. I'll suggest this.


anon ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2003, 09:20 PM:

This is fascinating, but I suspect that the policies were practiced largely in the breach.

Just as the child prisoners in Guantanamo may be treated with reasonable decency by some of the guards, there is reason to expect that the students of yesteryear would be treated with decency by many of their teachers.

Remember, it is unlikely that you would find a teacher who would go for the job description

"Come get low pay in order to turn bright young children into mindless drones."

At the level of the individual, this policy is extremely hard to enforce.

At the same time, I have seen many very good teachers leave education due to complaints about the administration, and for some reason the willingness to coddle the union on tenure even for the deadest of wood persists.

So, perhaps there's some truth to it. It depends hugely on the behavior of the parents in their relationship with the local school board.

andrew ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2003, 01:25 AM:

It seems that the structure of funding for education (from property taxes in a very localized area) would be the easiest way of ensuring the status quo: society has the most to gain from limiting the horizons of its least fortunate members. The poorest have the most to gain from education, but social order is undermined. The more a family has invested in the maintenance of the status quo, the more that a child of such a family could be trusted with enlarged perspectives and knowledge.

The opportunities for learning should therefore be directly correlated with the socioeconomic status of the family - poor=little, middle class=more, rich=everything. And the best way to achieve this correlation is through local financing of schools through property tax.

Not that this was necessarily deliberate, but it is the best way to perpetuate the system now; and conversely, nationalising the funding and standards might be the best way to introduce class fluidity.

Greg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2003, 09:21 PM:

I've found this debate interesting, because I know that in turn-of-the-century Ireland similar views were expressed about our education system.

Our system was a British offshoot, and some, notably Patrick Pearse, felt that its sole purpose was to crush independence of spirit and to produce drones, the best of whom would be equipped only to work for the British Civil Service, while the less fortunate ones would be stuck with lives of agricultural drudgery or forced to emigrate.

(Whether such effects were intended or not is a different matter.)

Pearse, who became something of a plaster saint in newly Independent Ireland but is now regarded in a rather more jaundiced way, wrote a book called "The Murder Machine" about this very point and founded his own bilingual school to attempt to change this.

It was his failure to change the system peacefully that drove him to become such a prominent figure in our independence struggle.

Pearse may have been narcissistic and obsessed with a notion of blood-sacrifice, but I still find it interesting to think that somebody would have been willing to lead a rebellion with the primary aim of reforming the education system.

Greg ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2003, 09:22 PM:

Sorry. I should have added that his ideas weren't adopted by the state once independence was achieved. Even now we still have much the same exam-orientated soul-destroying system we inherited from the British.