Confederacy of Dunces – John Taylor Gatto

So, we move on to this essay and whatever punches he may have pulled are now being thrown fully and with vigour.  The first sentence sets the tone.

Let me speak to you about dumbness because that is what schools teach best.

This premise is based on the history of how and when compulsory schooling was introduced in America, and the intentions of those who drove the changes.  Gatto contends that “Mass dumbness is vital to modern society” because it creates the type of psychology that allows for ideas to be fed directly to the public en masse*.   He calls these the “non-thought-of received ideas”.

It is in this essay that he expands and gives supporting arguments to his conclusions on the nature of compulsory schooling as a tool with which those in control, do the controlling of the masses.  We take an historical ride back to Prussia in the nineteenth century, learning how the style of education created there, which was designed to gain maximum compliance, became the “national obsession among American political leaders, industrialists, clergy and university people.”  Apparently by 1905, Prussian-trained Americans or their protégés were in control of all the institutions of teacher training.

Scientific education came to be a way, primarily, of forcing people to fit.  Gatto lists three premises on which he believes the Prussian system was founded.
The first of these ideas is very confronting, so I will quote the passage in full.

The first of these is that the state is sovereign, the only true parent of children.  Its corollary is that biological parents are the enemies of their offspring.  When Germany’s Froebel invented Kindergarten, it was not a garden for children he had in mind but a garden of children, in which state-appointed teachers were the gardeners of the children.  Kindergarten is meant to protect children from their own mothers.

So, while you digest that little beauty, we’ll move on to the second premise, “that intellectual training is not the purpose of state schooling – obedience and subordination are.”   This, of course, fits in neatly with the will-breaking nature of the Puritan forefathers.

The third, and final premise is that things shall be dumbed down, both in a school setting as well as for the workplace.  Simplified fragments that anyone can remember are the key.  That way “a disobedient work force could be replaced quickly, without damage to production, if the workers required only habit, not mind, to function properly.”

The fact that children are graded on the ability to recall and remember these fragments of information is something that strikes a strong chord with me, and is one of the regrets that I have about my own education.  I feel as though I have been trained to have a great memory (and I do) and that I can learn anything I put my mind to.  What I often feel much less certain of, is my ability to do original thinking.  This thought has been with me for quite some time, even before the Oh Waily children arrived and my mind turned to their upbringing.   Whenever I look at myself I can see Gatto’s arguments taking shape quite clearly in my own life.

Is it possible that we are, even here, denying our children the opportunity to learn the tools of critical thinking?

Another quote to stoke the fires,

It’s very useful for some people that our form of schooling tells children what to think about, how to think about it, and when to think about it.  It’s very useful to some groups that children are trained to be dependent on experts, to react to titles instead of judging the real men and women who hide behind the titles.

And a final quote, simply because I love the picture he draws of the beauty of reading books – real books, not adulterated, truncated, or politically corrected books.

Real books are deeply subversive of collectivization.  They are the best known way to escape herd behaviour, because they are vehicles transporting the reader into deep caverns of absolute solitude where nobody else can visit.

I am finding some of the conclusions Gatto draws difficult to stomach.  Perhaps it is because I have a healthy disregard for conspiracy theories in general; perhaps it is because I have no background or knowledge of the history of how compulsory education came in to being, here or in the US.  Perhaps I am one of the pre-thought-thought generation and therefore do not have the critical thinking faculties to challenge the status quo.  Perhaps I am the ultimate output of schools, as Gatto says, and am the conformist.
But there are so many aspects of what he says that resonate with my own experiences that I find it hard to discount outright.


* no, don’t run off screaming “she believes in conspiracy theories”.  Hold off a bit.  There are direct quotes from the Commissioner of Education at the time schooling was standardised, and it is clearly the intention to subsume the individual natures of children.

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