Good morning, class.
Welcome to another year of school.
Now shut up and open your September Harper’s to page 49. There, you will find four of the country’s leading educators critiquing our 19th-century system of education and offering their ideas on how to blow it up.
Oops, sorry. That was a Freudian slip. Make that “redesign” – not “blow up.”
“School on the Hill” is a transcript of a roundtable discussion of ways to reinvent the American school. Moderated by Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham, it is the major part of a special education issue that includes essays from ex-teachers and historic quotes on the nature and purposes of education.
We get a collection of good quotes from the likes of Martin Luther, Cotton Mather, Horace Mann, Ivan Illich, John Dewey, Ambrose Bierce and poor George W. Bush, who has the misfortune to be quoted as saying “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
That may or may not be a cheap shot. But what’s more frightening: Bush’s chronic garbled syntax or the creepy ideas about education that Woodrow Wilson espoused in 1909?
Wilson said education should be used to split society into two separate and unequal classes. The elite class would be natural-born eggheads like Wilson (“liberally-educated persons”) and the vast majority of others would be servant dunces trained “to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Harper’s package, the only serious look at American education by a major magazine this school year, is interesting, but it is not as exciting or provocative as it could have been.
Except for moderator Lapham, little good is said about our existing system of public (government-run) education.
Theodore Sizer, a former principal, calls it “mindless” and says it is hopelessly stuck in its original 1890s model. “The only villain,” he says, “is a society unprepared to think hard about what it means to learn.”
The highlight of the whole issue is the inclusion in the roundtable of John Taylor Gatto, America’s No. 1 subverter of our education system.
A former New York City and state Teacher of the Year and native of Western Pennsylvania, Gatto grew up in the Washington County river town of Monongahela and quit teaching in the early 1990s.
He says in Harper’s that our factory school system is doing exactly what it was designed to do when American educators copied it, in toto, from the Prussian model 150 years ago. It is producing a populace of uncritical, barely-educated worker bees, suited mostly to punching buttons, consuming the latest new gadgets and mindlessly watching TV.
Gatto, who thinks there should be as much flexibility, diversity and market choice in schooling as humanly possible, has made nearly 1,000 appearances in the last decade urging parents to home-school their children or start charter schools.
He’s also written several scathing books, including “Dumbing Us Down,” which decries the damage our education system does to children’s brains and psyches and to society.
His magnum opus, “The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling,” has just been published.
It’s a great, radical read. Just don’t look for it any time soon in your high school’s library.
“Underground History of American Education,” an investigation of problems in modern schooling by award-winning teacher, is available in WND’s online store.