‘It took about three years to break most kids’

A local reader writes in:

“I have been reading your series of columns on schools with much interest and I’m in full agreement with you. But I was wondering if you are aware of what goes on in the Clark County school system in regards to the treatment of students, … policies and actions that border on something straight out of a prison.

“Students who are deemed ‘behavior’ problems are expelled from regular school and sent to something called ‘behavior school’. Once there they can expect to be strip searched — strip searched. I still find this hard to comprehend. The system apparently treats children as some sort of enemy, to be controlled, to ensure docile compliance.

“Some schools have instituted dress codes whereby a student can be expelled if their clothes are wrinkled, if they wear a belt deemed ‘inappropriate.’ … One mother expressed to me her feeling that it’s almost as if the district wants students to quit, rather than bother trying to actually educate them in anything.”

Let us now conclude our occasional series on this topic by pointing out, once again, that this all seems far less puzzling and more predictable to those who have dug into “The Underground History of American Education,” 2003, by former New York City (and state) Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto.

By the beginning of the 20th century, those who organized our current government schooling system on the European model were well on their way to perfecting a system in which, in their view, “effective early indoctrination of all children would lead to an orderly scientific society, one controlled by the best people, now freed from the obsolete straitjacket of democratic traditions and historic American libertarian attitudes,” Mr. Gatto reports in his masterwork.

“Forced schooling was the medicine to bring the whole continental population into conformity with these plans so that it might be regarded as a ‘human resource’ and managed as a ‘work force.’ No more Ben Franklins or Tom Edisons could be allowed; they set a bad example. One way to manage this was to see to it that individuals were prevented from taking up their working lives until an advanced age when the ardor of youth and its insufferable self-confidence had cooled. …

“For a considerable time … social managers of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were doing. In a speech he gave before businessmen prior to the First World War, Woodrow Wilson made this unabashed disclosure:

” ‘We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.’

“By 1917, the major administrative jobs in American schooling were under the control of a group referred to in the press of that day as ‘the Education Trust’ … (including) representatives of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the National Education Association. The chief end, wrote Benjamin Kidd, the British evolutionist, in 1918, was to ‘impose on the young the ideal of subordination.’

“Arthur Calhoun’s 1919 ‘Social History of the Family’ … declared that the fondest wish of utopian writers was coming true, the child was passing from its family ‘into the custody of community experts.’ …

“Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. A small business, small farm economy like that of the Amish requires individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation; our own requires a managed mass of leveled, spiritless, anxious, familyless, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between ‘Cheers’ and ‘Seinfeld’ is a subject worth arguing about. …

“School is the first impression children get of organized society; like most first impressions, it is the lasting one. Life according to school is dull and stupid, only consumption promises relief: Coke, Big Macs, fashion jeans, that’s where real meaning is found, that is the classroom’s lesson, however indirectly delivered.

“The decisive dynamics which make forced schooling poisonous to healthy human development aren’t hard to spot. Work in classrooms isn’t significant work; it fails to satisfy real needs pressing on the individual; it doesn’t answer real questions experience raises in the young mind; it doesn’t contribute to solving any problem encountered in actual life. The net effect of making all schoolwork external to individual longings, experiences, questions, and problems is to render the victim listless. …

“As I watched it happen, it took about three years to break most kids, three years confined to environments of emotional neediness with nothing real to do. …

“The strongest meshes of the school net are invisible. Constant bidding for a stranger’s attention creates a chemistry producing the common characteristics of modern schoolchildren: whining, dishonesty, malice, treachery, cruelty. Unceasing competition for official favor in the dramatic fish bowl of a classroom delivers cowardly children, little people sunk in chronic boredom, little people with no apparent purpose for being alive. …

“The most destructive dynamic is identical to that which causes caged rats to develop eccentric or even violent mannerisms when they press a bar for sustenance on an aperiodic reinforcement schedule (one where food is delivered at random, but the rat doesn’t suspect). Much of the weird behavior school kids display is a function of the aperiodic reinforcement schedule. And the endless confinement and inactivity to slowly drive children out of their minds. Trapped children, like trapped rats, need close management. Any rat psychologist will tell you that.”

Thus endeth our reading from the brilliant man — finally awakened to what he was really being asked to do — who is conceivably the greatest government-school teacher of our time.

Vin Suprynowicz (vsuprynowicz@review journal. com) is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of the novel “The Black Arrow.” See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

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