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John Taylor Gatto, author Dumbing Us Down; Interview Transcript, Part 1

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storycon.org H2'ed 12/22/15
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It had been committed, as rule developed in this interview later I'm sure, the institution had been created in order to build a harmonious customer base for the new corporate society and what that did not include were people with sharp critical minds who didn't want their time wasted. So I began to be harassed -- the reason I got all these teaching titles isn't because I particularly have any regard for public honors...they're usually all phony, but I realized that I had to have some way to defend myself or I would be driven out of the business. So you have a bit of a background.

Rob: Okay let me read...what I'd like to do is read a couple quotes from you from some of your books just to give a flavor of your ideas, okay?

JTG: Sure.

Rob: "I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us."

Then you say, "I began to explore the idea that teaching is nothing like the art of painting whereby the addition of materials to a surface and images synthetically produced, but more like the art of sculpture whereby the subtraction of material, an image already locked in the stone is enabled to emerge -- it is a crucial distinction. In other words I dropped the idea that I was an expert whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise and began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself.

"What I do that is right, it's simple to understand. I get out of kids' way, I give them space and time and respect. What I do that is wrong, however, is strange, complex and frightening," and then you go on to describe the rules of the game for schooling, which you differentiate from education big time.

JTG: I think that's a must. For people to think clearly, they have to put up a rigid barrier between being schooled like a fish to act in predictable ways, and education, which produces wild cards -- people who are not predictable, people who write their own scripts.

Let me take the first...'genius is a common quality.' In order to give that some credibility...you identified your listeners as somewhat left of center at the beginning of this show if I'm not mistaken there. Let me tell you that I was one of the founding members of the New York State Conservative Party. And I'm saying that not to boast or to particularly put forward the conservative cause -- most of the people that call themselves conservative are anything but -- they're wild-eyed radicals and social engineers. But because what my practices were...were, in common parlance, extremely liberal and child-oriented even though my background was politically conservative -- again, not in a modern sense...in the sense Edmund Burke would be a conservative, if that means anything...

Rob: Yes.

JTG: So 'genius a common quality' is not only my opinion because the schools of the little working class community in the 1940s where I went to elementary school broadcast that message -- they were far from being recognizably liberal in any sense of the world. They believed 'spare the rod, spoil the child,' they believed that no teacher should be freed from the obligation to visit the homes of every single student they taught so there'd be a personal relationship between the family and the teacher. So I learned in a seed, so to speak, that genius is a common quality, and by intensely studying early American history, I saw over and over again the realization of that as the truth. Anybody can do anything. The bell curve is an immense fraud --it's an artifact of the way we do business and it permanently freezes lots of people in the dead middle and it permanently disaffects the bottom third from ever learning anything -- and it's meant to be a stabilizer of the social order. Now that sounds Marxist and I'm the farthest thing from Marxist -- I've spent many years, probably approaching 20 now, intensely researching where this business came from, why it took the shape it took, how it manages to continue to grow larger and more intrusive in spite of masses of withering criticism -- that by the way aren't recent; they began to emerge into public light right after the institution was formed; there never was a golden age of public schooling -- it was always widely condemned. Perhaps not quite as well informed and understanding as we have today.

Rob: You know I'd like to read an excerpt from the article you wrote for Harper's Magazine titled Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids and Why. And here goes: "But what shocks is that we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture, an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects to hamstring the inner life to deny students appreciable leadership skills and to ensure docile and incomplete systems in order to render them manageable. It was from James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard for 20 years, World War I poison gas specialist, World War II executive on the atom bomb project, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after World War II, and truly one of the most influential figures in the 20th century that I first got wind of the real purposes of American schooling. Without Conant we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at a time like the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant's 1959 book length essay, 'The Child, the Parent and the State,' and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of revolution engineered between 1905 and 1930 -- a revolution? He declined to elaborate but he does direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis' 1918 book, 'Principles of Secondary Education' in which one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary. In this for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been in Prussia in the 1820s -- a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern industrialized compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses -- divide children by subject, by age grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous hold. Inglis breaks down the purpose -- the actual purpose -- of modern schooling into 6 basic functions -- any one of which is enough to curl the hair of these innocent enough to believe the traditional goals listed earlier."

You're going on to list those -- and you've given me permission to reprint it, which I will -- and I'll just excerpt a little bit from it. But you talk about one function -- control the population; "deliberately dumb down and declaw in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor." And you go on describing, "The Prussian system was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force, but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers." Then you go on to say, "now you don't have to have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to -- addicts and children. School has done a very good job of turning our children into addicts, but has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children." And you go on to say, "maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives." And you say, "Mandatory education serves children only incidentally -- its real purpose is to turn them into servants."

You've got a big, strong message there, that basically our current system is really bad for kids and not an educational system...

JTG: It isn't remotely an educational system and you do not have to resort to the various name calling groups through history -- these people indict themselves with their own words. Oddly enough, when you started excerpting here, you quoted my line that Conant was a poison gas specialist -- I'm just working right now on the next book and Winston Churchill, it turns out, was the model poison gas specialist -- he's the first man to order the poison gassing of a civilian population from the air; that's during World War I and it's the Kurds, in what they tell me is modern Iraq although I don't think that nation actually exists -- Churchill, when criticized for gassing the Kurds, said that he reserved the right to gas any uncivilized peoples that was convenient for Britain to gas. Fascinating, huh?

Rob: Wow.

JTG: So we that Conant, who's a contemporary of Churchill obviously, and both of them grow out of the new pragmatic philosophy that we could probably ground in William James at Harvard. James is the man who introduced psychology -- throughout human history, a minor division of philosophy -- as a scientific subject. And in the book Psychology -- I think it was about 1907 by William James -- James says that the only way that the ignorant and the unwashed (that's not his actual term; I think he said the poor) are kept from murdering the rich is by training their habits and their attitudes in early childhood and they can never escape the trap that has been built into them that way. And of course he says that's the only way civilization progresses.

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