And here follows John Gatto's reply to Ron Miller, which first appeared in the winter issue of Holistic Education Review for 1992 and was reprinted in the summer issue of SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education. Ron's review of John's book, Dumbing Us Down, first appeared in summer issue of Holistic Education Review for 1992 and was reprinted in the Winter, 1993 issue of SKOLE.
Dear Editor:
I thank Ron Miller for the generous words of praise in the review of my book Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and at the same time am sending along some brief comments, in the spirit of the dialectic, about the "fundamental issue" (Ron's characterization) he finds at stake in my perspective.
To begin, some amendments are necessary. Ron says I hold and defend a libertarian social philosophy. While I have an approximate idea what he means by that, I live in horror of any labels (including, to be frank, "holistic") that box people in. My own observation of reality is that classification systems should not be taken seriously - they interfere with clear thought and virtually prevent discovery when they go beyond casual convenience. Having said that, let me classify myself more accurately than Ron did: The social philosophy I hold is a hybrid of Scotch-Irish folkways, Italian Presbyterian iconoclasm, some aristocratic seasoning (we were Lords of the Straits of Messina in the 13th century), a certain amount of classical training, a year spent with the Jesuits, a spell as altar boy for a wonderful priest who drank sacramental wine and played baseball (the Catholic strain through my Irish/German grandmother), and three decades of constant experimentation as a junior high teacher of both the near-rich and the dirt poor. Those are the external influences of substance; internally I've tried to push beyond the conditioned circuitry to discover the perimeter of my own singularity.
[I'm] still finding things out at 57. Calling me a libertarian would eventually mislead you. On the other hand I like most libertarians I know of (Robert Ringer being one exception, Ayn Rand another), but I could say the same of most capital "C" conservatives, too.
In an understandable urge to establish the poles of dialectic, Ron accidentally sets me up as inhabiting a location I don't live in, and misstates some of my positions. I understand the realities of book reviewing and take no offense (in his position I would hardly have done as well) but in a contest of ideas it's crucial that all parties agree what ideas are actually being contested.
In his first assertion, that I argue common social good arises only out of free interaction of individuals and intimate communities he's about 95% accurate but the premise is an exceedingly complicated one requiring years of Jesuitical reflection to come to terms with. I expect argument, of course, but in its nature it isn't a debating point but a tool designed to help people challenge their own assumptions. Challenge, that is, not necessarily discard. In the coda of this assertion Ron makes that I believe individuals and families are the primary human reality - he is only a bit better than half right. The largest omission is the importance of nature and location. I regard the fabric of the natural world, unaltered, as a central part of sanity. Not a minor part, not a dismissable part, not an exchangeable part, not an amenity, but one of the few primary essences. In my codebook people without places are incompletely human; to move frequently is to display derangement. That accounts for the essay, 'The Green Monongahela." It's in my book to demonstrate the role of place as a teacher. I am who I am because of Monongahela. If my place had been Erie I would not be who I am. I won't belabor what must seem to most "well-schooled" Americans an eccentricity, but most of human history including the best part honored this very conservative idea and lived it. The tale of Jews in history is inexplicable unless it is seen in some important part as the story of a people deprived of their place; the tale of America and its strangely Procrustean institutions is another story from the same genre.
However if Ron had said individual and families and rocks/trees/water/air/places are the primary human reality, he'd have been nearly right. If he'd have added our mortality
and relation to the mystery we call God, completely right. But in his leap to a guess [that] I think something he calls "social forces" are a "distressing nuisance," he falls far short of where I really am. It's my turn now to guess, and if I guess correctly what he means by social forces, then "nuisance" doesn't begin to describe the distaste I feel. Substitute "horrifying psychopathology" and we'll be closer to the truth. People who mind other people's business, materially, in any arbitrary way are always bad news. It's the movers and shakers; I mean, the great" names of history. It would be impossible for me, in a short compass, to explain adequately how damaging the Pasteurs, the Copernicuses, the Columbus's, the Newtons, the Horace Manns and all the rest of the Egyptian hierarchy has really been, but the mechanism is not hard to see - each of these men (and of course they are all men, mostly childless men) short circuits the human dialectic, arrogating to themselves a false and morally corrosive authority that creates the dependent human mass it then "illuminates." I would follow Paul Valery's M. le Teste in throwing the mass of prominent men in the ocean. The brilliant, and as yet largely unseen, American homeschooling movement is brilliant precisely because it is leaderless, lacking canonical texts, experts, and laws. At the moment true leadership emerges - which I pray will not happen - it will be co-opted, and the movement regimented, routinized, drained of its life.
I despair in the short time I have with you of explaining adequately these contentions but let me go at least a part of the distance: short of preserving your immediate world the only justification possible, moral justification, that is, for interfering in someone else's life is that you know more than the other fellow does and are "intervening" (that's the "helping profession" jargon, isn't it?) "for his own good."
I reject that view in the overwhelming percentage of cases, believing with cause that the mathematical bell curve in human intelligence is a bald lie, albeit an exceedingly profitable one. What is good or bad is either a religious question or a philosophical one and not easily addressed - never by creating a demonology that relegates any individual into a mass that is managed for its own good. It might shed some light on that last conclusion by confessing I was deeply depressed by Jonathan Kozol's contention that money would improve the schools of the poor. It would not, any more than money has improved the schools of the middle class. What money has done is to dehumanize most of the lives it touches, not least those in the sinecures of academia; nor could it be expected to do better in the hands of any other group than the present government gang. What Kozol accomplished is truly depressing - by transmuting his wonderful rage into a nasty, envious petulance, he has called attention away from his hard-won, and well-deserved, role as a biographer of human justice. All synthetic mobilizations must similarly be exercises in pen and pencil abstraction, or cynical exercises in manipulation, or display a fatal gulf between fecund natural reality and the reductionism inherent in collectivizing it.
This is a subtle thing to consider: on one hand, the best way is hands off anything outside a local reach (the architects of "global community," who date back before Plato, are the single great manifestation of Evil in human affairs), but not minds-off. I think we have an absolute obligation to preach to each other, chide each other, praise and condemn each other, take hold of hands held out for help - in Vonnegut's words, if you are no use you must be useless. I believe that, I taught that, and as a toll for associating with my classes through much of my teaching career I demanded a full day's community service work each week. If kids freely chose to associate with me, the price of our association was community service (which I encouraged kids to self-design). I hope you can see the difference between this kind of compulsion and the kind that social engineers effect.
The immense danger which inevitably comes to pass when you set up social machinery compelling people to be "better" is that that machinery will be inherited by people whose "better" is your own "worse." Jefferson saw that in imploring our original legislators to give us a weak central government. Were it not for the unholy and largely unexamined close relationships between Germany (especially the synthetic state of Prussia) and the colonial and federal leadership classes, we might have followed Jefferson's prescription. Certainly it was the overwhelming choice of the common people here. But the curious company of Deists and Unitarians who pulled (pull?) the national strings were too enchanted with Adam Weishaupt's vision, and too intoxicated with victory and prosperity; too vicariously identified with the lessons of Frederick the Great, Prussian compulsion schools, research universities, and ultimately the deadly world view of Wilhelm Wundt to allow the nascent urges of freedom and democracy to develop. By 1850 both were stone cold dead. We have only a memory of our stillborn democracy.
There is no way to avoid the passage of effective social machinery into dirty hands; that is what history teaches to anyone with eyes. The only way to avoid this, the best defense, is to strike down ambitious organization before it grows (Cassius was right) or once grown, to combat it through relentless sabotage. That is what I did on a daily basis as a government schoolteacher, I broke the machine, I threw sand in the gears, I falsified papers, spread dissension among new recruits so subtly it was undetectable, broke laws regularly, destroyed records, undermined the confidence of the young in the institution and replaced it with confidence in self, in friends, in family, in neighborhood. I taught kids how to cheat their destiny so successfully that they created an astonishing record of successes; it is this latter course of silent warfare that much of our country's population has unconsciously chosen. It explains why few things work very well here, least of all schools. Nothing that John Gardner or Ted Sizer or (so far) Chris Whittle has done will change that need to sabotage the web that is strangling us. They ask the wrong questions and in any case would be unwilling to accept their own large contribution to the persistence of schooling problems. All sane solutions would eliminate them!
The only acceptable way to make people "better," your own children or strangers, is by your own personal living example to make a better way. The only curricular arrangements worth arranging are those that help an individual, not a class: (1) to know himself, (2) to love responsibility, (3) to feel obligation as a joy, (4) to need very little in a material sense, (5) to express love, (6) to love truth, (7) to hate tyranny, (8) to gain useful knowledge, (9) to be involved in loving families at work, (10) to be involved in communities at work, and (11) to be humble in the face of the great mysteries, and to keep them constantly in mind because only from that wellhead does the meaning of life flow.
As a schoolteacher/saboteur I was able to help poor kids come to see such things just as easily as I was able to help prosperous ones; with a modest income I was able to finance all my classroom enterprises without assistance from foundations, universities, the business community, or the school administration - and so could anyone else so disposed.
Now to turn to a charge Ron makes honestly, but which, upon examination, dissolves into smoke:
Gatto throws the baby out with the bathwater by categorically defining "school" as an impersonal network and virtually equating educators and activists with social engineers.
There's a lot of slipperiness here. Does "educator" mean schoolteacher? Do the activists Ron refers to have an agenda to eventually gain control of our compulsion-schools? If both guesses are correct, then he is right, I do believe they are social engineers of the worst stripe. But perhaps he means something different.
How in Heaven's name can "school," in any of the varieties of definition possible for mass employment by a central government, NOT be an impersonal network? Can you school anything "personally?" I know you can fake it, most "good" schools do, but I find the really dangerous places to be the ones that preempt the family role, pretending to be families instead of networks; that's the horrible lesson I try to read in the chapter "We Need Less School, Not More." We're all dying of networks. Networks are not families. Pseudo-family schools confuse the rising gorge of their student prisoners for a long time (although never permanently, the disguise wears through). If you find my "prisoner" to be infamous rhetoric, then you're going to have to explain to me the social logic that allows you to use the police power of the state to command children's presence and respect, to preempt their daylight hours, to prescribe what they will think about, to judge them constantly and rank them.
It makes no sense to me to drain children from a living community and confine them with strangers for all of their natural youth. No sense from a human community perspective, that is. It seems to make great sense, of course, to minds that wallow in dreams of human life as an anthill or a beehive, the great world society crowd.. And of course, too, though we seldom talk about it because the prospect leaves us dumbfounded, it makes great sense to those still free, if mean-spirited, minds who benefit substantially from the docile, confused population that central planning leaves in its wake. That great, timeless families, who follow a different directive than the progressive one, have taken advantage of - indeed are imperfectly in charge of - the movement toward the nightmare of a global society seems to me not only beyond question, but the only conservative explanation of a crescendo of anomalies. For those who read these words who might be intrigued by this admission of madness, a little research into the utterly central role of family foundations in giving us the schools we have - a role curiously overlooked by school histories, or dealt with en passant - will, I guarantee, reward the time spent with numerous marvels.
Back to business. Once you claim for your cause the sweeping power of compelling mass behavior, you have forfeited any claim at all to moral ground in my book. This is the rock on which all holistic ships founder, Rousseau's, Froebel's, Fichte's et al. You are practicing religion, then, and you are engaged in a holy war. I would imagine that nobody in 1992 is so naive as not to recognize that the religion of our schools, since their inception, has been the Unitarian faith - but I am constantly disappointed. I may be misreading the conclusion of Ron's review: if you publicly disavow any right to assume control of the compulsion machinery, Ron, including those exquisite controls Jacques Ellul discusses in his wonderful book, Propaganda, I hope God smiles on your undertakings; but keep compulsion and it's hard for me not to regard cynically any justification which might be offered. Convincing me to accept your religion is legitimate and dialectical, forcing me to do so or tricking me into it is so vile that disdain or violence is the proper response.
There's much more at stake here than a little old-fashioned coercion - one-party systems are always corrupt; that is a fundamental truth of human nature. Eric Hoffer's True Believer was a turning point in my own life, however invested I seem to be here in my screed. In my view the only consensus ever valid is that consensus that arises slowly, painfully, naturally from millennial combats. Such consensus at its heart is a challenge to the premises of rationality, It cannot be hurried, cannot be hastened by Mind or Directives, by the Associations that John Dewey so loved. It contradicts the premises of the academic life as Francis Bacon conceived it, in service to the Central State. Such a belief calls for the destruction of Salomon's House as an unsurpassed agency of harm. Again, if you regard this as airy rhetoric, look about you at the cities and the natural world that Salomon's House, the haunt of the social engineers, has given us. I don't need to recite the dreary catalogue; use your own eyes and ears. What got us into the mess won't get us out, in the immortal words of Nixon's "Checkers" speech.
Such consensus assumes a timeless wisdom that realizes a scale of historical process much vaster than the scale of human life. One of the instrumental advantages of a belief in Family, God and immortality is that it allows such a stepping back from the social arena that spans one's life. It's not hard for me to understand that Ron &endash; or any other activist interested in collective action - wants to see substantial change in the span of his own years. But from my view, all such forced changes are doomed to cause harm, regardless of how beneficently they are conceived.
Such consensus at its heart is sui generis, exclusionary in the early part of the going, relatively local, slow spreading. The revolution that produced the Chinese peasantry or American native cultures is an example of the historical process in action at its finest - the human solutions in both cases are transcendentally brilliant, inspiring, funny, wonderful. Neither was fully worked out when they were destroyed by the demon of Western homelessness which sent European pirates and their slaves intervening in every laboratory of human life on the planet. That thousand-year destructive swath, currently managed by an academic service class, a secular priesthood, and protected by compulsion schooling, is what I write about in Dumbing Us Down, however indirectly. To dispossess the magical human possibilities underlying the appearance of Indians and Chinese, Queeg-Queeg and Dagoo, and replace these infinitely complex processes with a monochrome utopia is the act of a lunatic or a desperate man. All remote assignments of children's time and attention must, as I've said, be grounded in a vision of the good life, by its nature unprovable, by its nature religious at the core.
To the extent Puritan vision was that of a world order, it was diseased and murderous, but genius implicit in the Congregational mechanism, by a wonderful irony (which unfortunately became obvious over time to Unitarians) is so relentlessly local, so unmistakably personal, it sabotaged the global vision of Calvinism right from the beginning. It is a fascinating paradox never examined to my knowledge by academic scholarship and it is the real point I explore in "The Congregational Principle" (first published in Maine Scholar).
It wasn't "something mysterious" inside the structure of Congregationalism in any sense like Adam Smith's "magic hand" to use Ron's phrases in the area where he goes farthest astray, it was one of the great fundamental discoveries of human social genius. What is mysterious is how it ever came into being - and sustained itself until the Unitarians destroyed it right under the noses of the very social engineers who were giving New England its global economic mission. In Marx's felicitous locution, it illustrates strikingly the ignorant perfection of ordinary people, a perfection which is really the guiding inspiration of my teaching, my book, and my life. I learned the lesson from Monongahela, a town of ordinary people who perfected a community and the secret of meaning.
I was not "asserting" that colonists enjoyed nearly unconditional local choice, In point of fact that truth is built right into the structure of Congregationalism which demands that no two communities be alike, that all be rigorously tuned to that single congregation. Mirabile dictu. I grow weak with the joy of merely saying it! You have choice because there are choices to have under a Congregational system - under a Unitarian system there are none. The confusion here arose, I would guess, because Ron misread individual choice where specifically I meant local choice. Choice by local consensus. However, it isn't too long a reach to argue that individual choice had to be there, too, because of the boundless dark woods, the many different states available, (each independent in its culture), and always, too, the frontier. The sarcastic among you will say, "Some choice if I have to move out!" but consider first that even that option isn't available today in theTheocracy of Unitarianism, and consider, too, that moving out is as just a choice as human affairs offers: would that we still had it. If the global people get their way we're not even going to be able to move abroad - every place will be here. Then we will have arrived at the Utopia of social engineering, where everyone has to be "adjusted" to fit the pre-conceived model. Naturally a liberal interpretation will allow a 10% deviation either way from True North to accommodate human error economically.
For a wonderful example of human courage in just such a rigidly moralistic society as Ron characterizes New England to be, and what individual human courage can accomplish, see Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter where the elders plan to take little Pearl from her mother, the letter-bearer, and she - alone and friendless, poor and ignorant - says starkly, "... over my dead body!" So much for that batch of social engineers with the power of the state behind them.
My point is that only by trusting ordinary people thoroughly and only by emphasizing the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the local economy, can we slowly win through to a better life. All synthetic schemes radically distort the only slightly plastic material of humanity; all of them are impious, all rob the future in many ways, none work for very long - see official human history for evidence. All leave the world worse at their dissolution than before they found it. The Progressives are right, there has been a progression through recorded history, but it has been a progression backwards - just as Plato said it had been. We might mark the decline symbolically from the time the invisible labor engine was fabricated to build the Great Pyramid, an event strangely commemorated on the back of our dollar bill, though no one can produce an adequate explanation why. Disraeli knew, I think, but he spoke about it in riddles.
So what to do with the strong human impulse to meddle, to tinker, to dominate, to improve, to not accept destiny? Well, my own answer is to do what you personally can, and suffer what you personally must. Accept the punishment of Prometheus if you want to play the part. And do I think you should play the part? Yes, of course, I've tried to myself all my adult life, but the other side of that dialectic is that I also believe that brilliant and beautiful lives are possible everywhere, under any duress or deprivation, as long as you see clearly what really matters.
Now what scares me a little about Ron's conclusion is that he, toward the end, seems to be calling some sort of invisible army together for mass social engineering projects. He says, "we simply do not have 200 years to wait for some 'invisible hand' to begin addressing these tremendous issues, "to lead" individuals and families and "self-satisfied" little communities, etc. OK, there seem to be two lines leading out from that one, that we act locally with like-minded people and try to convince the rest, and two, that we seize control of the apparatus and do it differently. I'd be with him on number one, and I'd cheer him on on number two if he led a small guerilla band in some boldly suicidal stroke. But change one master for another? Nope. Ron asks how the free market would provide educational opportunity for poor children, and the answer is that that is the wrong question. Of course the "market" can't do anything but act as a field for action; its a necessary pre-condition for solutions but in and of itself it's neutral. But government action is never neutral and cannot be - it must impose one or another religious view of the good life on everybody. And that is a pre-condition for bad things to happen, most often immediately, but also frequently when the second generation of zealots inherit the compulsion machinery and the police force. And even zealots are preferable to bureaucrats, who are the likeliest heirs.
This response has been a quick, spontaneous draft. I wish there were time to spend on creating a careful answer to some of the points Ron raises but there isn't, so this is the best can do. I'd ask him and all your readers to carefully examine one huge unstated assumption that deeply disturbs me, namely that government schools have ever merited the term "public," implying a service to the commonality. This is based on such specious reasoning, and such a peculiar definition of what the public is, that it won't bear scrutiny. These are not public schools we are talking about, they are government schools - as much different from public as flowers are from weeds.
Indeed, that there is a "public" at all except in the bizarre fantasy of utopians and Deweyists and positivists of all stripes is something that merits careful consideration before reflexively accepting its existence. As a western Pennsylvanian I find the term more than mildly insulting. A cartoon of reality. The forces that oppress the public, to borrow some of Ron's language, are the forces that rob it of its right of self-determination - without which people cannot be principals, but only agents (or "educators").
Anyway, the dishes aren't washed, the shirts aren't ironed, a colony of ants has taken up residence in my bedroom, and I've got to fly to Spokane tomorrow morning to tell people why I think a schooling, any flavor, can't be an education. Deconstruct these synthetic institutions, the machinery is a constant temptation to the worst people on the planet to scheme for its control. As I read history they always win in the long run. But ah, if we broke the machinery.
Sign me,
John Taylor Gatto
Holistic Education Review,
Winter 1992

 Click here to read Ken Lebensold's commentary on Ron's and John's exchange of views.