- THE EXHAUSTED
- "How Did We Ever Come to
Believe that the State
- Should Tell Our Children What
- Keep in mind as I speak that I
spent 26 years in public school classrooms. My perspective is that
of an insider, not an outsider. You have been warned.
- We live in a time of great
school crisis, and that crisis is linked to a greater social
crisis in the general community. We seem to have lost our
identity. Children and old people are locked away from the
business of the world to a degree without precedent - nobody talks
to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily
life, a commu-nity has no future and no past, only a continuous
- We live in networks, not
communities. Everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some
strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy, just as it is
a major actor in the widening gulf among races and social classes.
Using school as a sorting mechanism, we appear to be on the way to
creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wan-der
through subway trains begging, and sleep upon the
- I've noticed a fascinating
phenomenon in my 27 years of teaching: schools and schooling are
increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No
one believes any more that scientists are made in science classes,
or politicians in civics classes, or poets in English classes. The
truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to
obey orders. This is a great mystery because thousands of humane,
caring people work in schools as teachers and aides, and even as
administrators. But the abstract logic of the institution
overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do
care, and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic - by
which I mean it has no conscience.
- It rings a bell and the young
man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and
move to a different cell where he memorizes that man and monkeys
derive from a common ancestor, or that a man named Columbus
discovered America even though millions of people were already
- The idea that schooling and
education are the same thing was never a convincing one, but in
our lifetimes, yours and mine, it has become an exhausted
- How did we ever come to believe
that the State should tell our children what to think?
- To escape the trap we are in
will require acts of courage and imagination: the first an act of
political resolve - to deconstruct the kind of schooling we have
and return it to real people and real communities from abstract
government hands; the second, to create a vision of what can be
done and how to do it. My own job tonight will be to question the
legitimacy of the school monopoly. In the hours we are together,
you'll hear six separate logics of schooling, as different from
each other as they are from the logic of government factory
schools where I spend my own working life.
- If you had a choice where to
send your own kid you might well choose one of these six ideas,
yet still be grateful you knew about the other five, even if they
were not the right way for you. But the secret strength in this
simple program design is that they do not represent all the
worthwhile kinds of schooling. Many more exist concealed from view
by the government monopoly and its press agents. These are unique,
one-of-a-kind places you'll hear from tonight - their existence
proving there is no "one right way" to grow up.
- How on earth did we ever accept
the idea a government had the right to tell us where to go to
school? How did we ever come to believe the State should tell our
children what to think?
- Our form of compulsion
schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts, 140 years
ago. It was resisted, sometimes with guns, by an estimated 80
percent of the Massachusetts population. A senator's office
contended not too long ago that prior to compulsory government
schooling the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98 percent, but
after it the figure never again reached above 91
- I don't think we'll get rid of
schools anytime soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we're
going to change what has become a disaster we need to recognize
that ignorance is inherent in the design of the thing. It is not
the fault of bad teachers, or of too little money spent.
Structurally, schools fly in the face of how children
- Take reading. People learn to
read naturally and easily somewhere between the ages of 5 and 12,
some earlier, some later. Late readers are indistinguishable from
early readers in a very short time. But the natural course of
things can be violently altered by rewarding early readers - and
by pronouncing later readers "in need of remediation". The lie is
then compounded by supplying the deficient with "special"
treatment, including assignment to a separate junk category called
"special education". You cannot "teach" children to read any more
than you can "teach" them to walk and talk. Under the right
conditions they teach themselves with great facility.
- But you can teach children to
hate reading, to do it poorly, and to hate themselves for not
measuring up to the false premises of institutional reading
practice - premises which provide the foundation for our
multi-billion dollar reading industry. The reading racket, in
particular, has marked the burgeoning home school movement for
legal sanctions because the presence of nearly a million children
who've taught themselves to read, soundly and happily, creates a
clear and present danger to the "whole world" crowd and to the
"phonics" crowd alike. Bad for business.
- Schools as we know them haven't
been around very long. They don't have deep roots. That's one
thing in our favor as we think about uprooting them. Schools as we
have them were designed at the time of the American Civil War to
be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population,
the cheap labor immigration was providing to factory and farm.
Schools are intended to produce through the application of
formulae, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted
- To a very great extent schools
succeed in doing this. But in a nation increasingly disintegrated
and demoralized, in a national order where the only successful
people are independent, self-reliant, confident, and
individualistic, the products of schooling are irrelevant.
Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor
blades, push paper and talk on telephones, make deals or sit
mindlessly be-fore a flickering computer terminal, but they hate
to be alone with themselves. As human beings they are
- I spoke in southern Illinois
last week. During my talk a young man about 25 years old stood up
in the back of the room and said in a tormented voice, "I'm 25
years old and have two college degrees. I don't know how to do
anything. I don't know how to do anything at all. If the fan belt
of my car broke in a snowstorm out in the country I'd freeze to
death reciting the goddam Pythagorean theorem."
- Much daily misery around us is
caused by the fact our schools force children to grow up absurd.
Any reform in schooling must deal with its absurdi-ties: it is
absurd and antilife to be part of a system that compels you to sit
in confinement with people exactly the same age and social class.
That system effectively cuts you off from information you need to
be sane, and cuts you off from your own past and future. It seals
you into a continuous present much the same way television does.
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system compelling you
to listen to a stranger read poetry when you ache to learn to
construct buildings; it is absurd and anti-life to sit with a
stranger discussing the construction of buildings when the rush of
language inside you makes you want to write a poem.
- It is absurd and anti-life to
move from cell to cell at the sound of a buzzer, every day of your
natural youth, in an institution that allows you no private time
or space. What parent would allow such a horror to be inflicted if
their own schooling had left them with the power to understand?
"What about 'basics'?" you say. If you are willing to face the
truth you would see that only talking is basic to the society
we've made. We are a land of talkers now. We pay talkers most and
admire talkers most - and so our children talk constantly,
following public models of television, radio, and schoolteachers.
It is very difficult to get children to take "basics" seriously
these days - especially in the social environment of schools -
because they really aren't basic to the world we've forced on the
children. None of us stays silent long enough to figure out what
the new basics really are.
Two institutions control our
children's lives - television and schooling, probably in that
order. Both reduce the real world to a never-ending, nonstop
abstraction. For most of history until recently, the time of a
child would be occupied in real work, real charity, real
adventures, real apprenticeships, and the realistic search for
mentors who might teach what you really needed to learn. What that
is is, of course, different for each of us.
- A great deal of time was spent
in community pursuits, practicing affection, negotiating, and
studying every level of the society around you first-hand. Also in
learning how to make a home, a living, and dozens of other tasks
necessary to become a whole man or woman. There was a continuity
and a comprehensiveness to life. It was not fragmented into
subjects and specialties to provide work for profes-sionals, nor
was it arranged into sequences that made no sense. The kind of
education history reveals was administered most often by people
you knew - not by total strangers arranged into a priesthood
- In the new world order that was
arranged for us after the Civil War the calculus was changed.
Scientific positivism, as it used to be called, wanted the
calculus changed and Horace Mann and Frederick Taylor were nothing
if they were not religiously Positivist. Today the tabulation of
hours in a young life reads like this: My children watch
televi-sion 55 hours a week according to recent reports, and they
sleep 56. That leaves them 57 hours in which to grow up strong and
competent and whole. But my children attend school 30 hours more,
spend 8 hours preparing for school, and in goings and comings, and
an additional 7 hours a week in something called "home"-work -
although this is really more schoolwork except in "Newspeak".
After the 45 school hours are removed a total of 12 hours re-main
each week from which to fashion a private person - one that can
like, trust, and live with itself. Twelve hours. But my kids must
eat, too, and that takes some time. Not much, because they've lost
the tradition of family dining - how they learn to eat in school
is best called "feeding" - but if we allot just 3 hours a week to
evening feedings, we arrive at a net total of private time for
each child of 9 hours.
- It's not enough. It's not
enough, is it? The richer the kid the less TV he watches, of
course, but the rich kid's time is just as narrowly proscribed by
his inevitable assignments to private lessons from more hired
strangers, seldom in areas of his own actual choice.
- This demented schedule is an
efficient way to create dependent human beings, needy people
unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines of
meaning to give substance and pleasure to their exis-tence. It is
a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, and schooling
and television and busy work - the total Chautauqua package - has
a lot to do with it.
- Think of the things killing us
as a nation: narcotic drugs, brainless competition, dishonesty,
greed, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling,
alcohol, and the worst pornography of all - lives devoted to
buying things, accumulation as a philosophy - all of these are
addictions of dependent personalities. That is what our brand of
schooling must inevitably produce. A large fraction of our total
economy has grown up around providing service and counseling to
inadequate people - and inadequate people are the main product of
government compulsion schools.
- I want to tell you what the
effect is on children of taking the time they need to grow up and
forcing them to spend it on abstractions. No reform that
brainlessly defines our national problem as reading, writing, and
arithmetic will be anything more than a coward's evasion of the
nightmare we've inflicted on our children.
- The children I teach are
indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of
thousands of years. Nobody wants to grow up these days because
assuming responsibility takes practice, but schooltime precludes
- The children I teach have
almost no curiosity. What they do have is transitory, they cannot
even concentrate long on jobs they assign themselves. Can you see
a possible connection between bells ringing again and again to
change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent attention? When
everything you do is interrupted before it's finished, why should
you care about anything?
- The children I teach have a
poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is linked to today. The
exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness.
That was the dream of a l9th century Frenchman named Auguste
Comte, and before he died in the insane asylum at Charenton his
ideas had a profound impact on Horace Mann and the American
schoolroom, and on Frederic Taylor and the American
- The children I teach have no
sense of the past and how it predestinated the present, how it
limits their choices, how it shapes their lives and values. A long
line of Western thinkers, all of them childless men like Comte,
have understood that breaking a child's ties with the past cracks
him away from his own family. And separating parents and children
has been the goal of childless male philosophers since Plato wrote
about its value in The Republic. Without strong family ties, he
said, children are easier subjects for central planning. Augustine
knew that, and Erasmus, and Bacon, and Descartes, and Hobbes, and
Rousseau - and all the other childless men who helped to architect
the government schooling we have today.
- The children I teach are cruel
to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at
weakness, they have contempt for people whose need for help shows
- The children I teach are uneasy
with intimacy, solitude, or unguarded speech. They cannot deal
with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a
secret inner self beneath their public school personalities,
personalities which must remain open at all times, as a
prostitute's body is open to the constant inspection and ranking
of strangers. Our children's public personalities are kept
constantly under surveillance by authorities in an orgy of
voyeurism. The outer persona of the children I teach is fabricated
from artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from
television, or acquired by studying the preferences of
schoolteachers. The real self is too small and vulnerable to bear
longtime exposure, because it has had no privacy in which to
develop strength and integrity. Since exposure is required in
intimate relationships, these must be avoided. My children are not
who they pretend to be. Most of them aren't anybody at all, thanks
to school. It's frightening.
- The children I teach are
strikingly materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who
materialistically "grade" everything, and television mentors who
offer everything in the world for sale.
- The children I teach are
dependent, passive, timid in the presence of new challenges. This
timidity is often masked by surface bravado, by the exuberance of
youth, by anger or aggressiveness, but underneath the bluster is
emptiness, mirroring the great vacuum, the black hole of
government schooling which draws in vast energies, but emits
- I could name other conditions
school reform must tackle, but by now you will have grasped my
thesis. Schools and television cause these pathologies. It's a
simple matter of arithmetic. Between schooling and television all
the time children have to become adults is eaten up. That is what
has destroyed the American family; it is no longer a factor in the
education of its own young, it no longer has access to its own
- Tonight's program is one of
choices, choices for parents, choices for young people, choices
for communities. Where did we ever get the crazy idea that
government had the right to tell us how our own kids should grow
- Where did we ever get the
grotesque idea that the State has a right to educate our kids?
Where did we ever get the notion there is only one right way to
grow up instead of hundreds? How did we lose our way and come to
believe that human value and human quality can be reduced to
numbers derived from paper/pencil tests?
to The Exhausted School, John Gatto's Carnegie Hall