Anna Brix Thomsen
In his book, Underground History of American Education, one of the most progressive yet unappreciated voices of pedagogy today, John Taylor Gatto, exposes the undercurrents that steer the direction of the education system. One of the most prominent examples is Gatto’s critical analysis of assistant professor at Harvard University, Alexander Inglis’s (1879 – 1924) bookPrinciples of Secondary Education. In the book from 1918, Inglis lists the 6 primary functions of education. Gatto then takes these as his critical point of departure to show how these functions are as alive and kicking today as they were one hundred years ago. Gatto writes :
Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.”
As can be seen from Gatto’s deduction of Ingles list of primary functions of education, the base premise of education is to maintain and manage the status quo of the market-oriented society and within that, the segregation of citizens into manageable consumer groups. As someone who teaches children on a daily basis and spends my days observing what happens behind the walls of the school system, I cannot but confirm the accuracy of this list and its practical implications.
Yet you will not find these six purposes in any school policy. Instead these policies are elegantly written with goals and principles that honor virtues such as ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘democracy’ and ‘life-long learning’. These key words are used in schools all over the industrialized world to innocuously present the education system as a benevolent place. But like the U.N’s declaration of human rights, it is nothing but a red herring.
Students know they must go to school to learn for the sake of learning but are taught from an early age to not ask questions. They learn through ethnocentric course material that their culture is superior to other cultures and that a word like ‘terrorist’ is a synonym for Arabic sounding names. In fact, the stark inversion between the apparent principles that schools are supposed to teach and the actuality of life for children in schools resembles George Orwell’s double-speak, where words were reversed and twisted to coax the population into placated obedience. (When an entire society is built on living a lie, it has to be assiduous in its efforts to maintain the illusion that the lie is truth.) Most importantly: students are taught that there are no viable alternatives to the current societal structure and that any alternatives they may encounter are at best laughable and at worst disruptive and dangerous for the status quo.
For young students who were born with brains and bodies not yet washed with that sweet but toxic detergent that is the current education system, it is not as easy as simply drinking the cool-aid and getting on with their business. They are prompted to learn about the importance of ‘democracy’ in a system that is anything but democratic. They are told to accept and include each other on the playground while being bombarded with images and music that tell them they must compete and stand out to be good enough. Buying the newest toy, gadget or clothing item becomes a matter of social life or death for them. It is no walk in the park to exist in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.
The current system, where citizens become consumers whose lives are indebted to corporations, is ‘perfect’ from the perspective that a full measure of control is maintained while everyone is blissfully unaware of it as they are caught up in the ‘neon lights’ of entertainment or existing in a perpetual state of petrification, leaving no room to do anything but struggle to survive. It is an effective system because people are so disoriented by the sheer amount of cognitive disinformation fed to them on a daily basis. This begins by brutally breaking children down before they have even developed themselves, like breaking the wings of a baby bird only to have it gratefully accept a place in the cage because it would otherwise not have survived.
The fact that politicians, market economists, financial tycoons and policy-makers are operating with two different agendas when it comes to education is remarkably obvious. Imagine for a moment a society where everyone knew the actual purposes of schooling: We would not be able to claim to live in a democratic society. In fact, we would live in an openly fascistic and totalitarian society, not unlike Orwell’s nightmare vision of 1984. What happens in such societies is that the citizens eventually revolt. We saw it in the French revolution, the Russian revolution, in Chile, in Venezuela and in many other countries around the world, obviously never with an outcome that actually changed anything for the better – because we never changed the foundation of our education systems and thus ourselves as humanity in the process.
So what are the solutions?
In The Purpose of Schooling, John Taylor Gatto condenses the functions of education into the following five dogmas:
1. Truth comes from Authority
2. Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat
3. Accurate memory and repetition are rewarded
4. Non-compliance is punished
5. Conform: intellectually and socially
As a solution to subverting the dumbing-down of our children and the subsequent destruction of our planet, let’s have a look at reversing these dogmas into practical living principles that will teach children on a real and fundamental level to become adults who will take on the guardianship of this earth with humbleness and compassion.
1. In our search for truth in this world, all we seem to find is more lies. As such what is required is stop focusing on truth and within that teach children to live on a lie and to instead teach children the necessary deductive skills to asses information critically, equally and within common sense. To do that they obviously need to be able to read and write, eventually at such an advanced level that no literature or document is beyond their comprehension. Segregating people through language proficiency levels and the extent of vocabulary is one of the most effective ways to ensure the acceptance of inequality. Through this principle of teaching all children to asses information at an equal level, they will be encouraged to be sovereign and thus empowered in such a way that they can make decisions that are not only best for them, but for all living beings. But more importantly; they will be equal in their understanding of the world, which means that socially engineered disinformation will be prevented from being disseminated as truth.
2. Intelligence must be measured based on the degree to which it contributes with ensuring a world that is best for all. It is really as simple as that. There is nothing ‘intelligent’ about inventing technologies that has no other purpose than to destroy our habitat or to regurgitate theories for no other reason than infatuation with intellect.
3. Education ought to be self-rewarding in the sense that we as individuals should be able to evaluate ourselves and accordingly measure our development within a particular learning process, so as to see where improvement is possible. In the current system rewards and punishment are used interchangeably to create compliant and fearful people that spite and ridicule each other. Again, if we measure intelligence according to which it contributes to a world that is best for all, this will then also be the reward of each individual’s efforts: to contribute to the creation of a world that is best for all and so for oneself. That is real value.
4. The problem with compliance is that it relies on followers that are complying out of fear. They are never making self-willed decisions and as such they will not take responsibility as co-creators of a business or a society. Instead they are merely following the scripts that are placed before them, while making no independent effort to optimize production processes or working conditions. The result of this is a faulty system where truck drivers fall asleep at the wheel and where doctors accidently kill patients and where no one really puts any effort into anything they do, because after all: “I just work here.” Furthermore, having people comply out of fear always proposes the risk that they will eventually revolt in some way or another or at least carry a deep-seated blame causing them to never fully commit or give the system their all. For this world to thrive it is imperative that we as human beings become responsible, not only for our own lives, but for the world as a whole. This is our home and if we do not take responsibility for it, no one will. When each stand responsible for themselves and for the whole, they will have an ownership in what they do and thus an interest in the success of all involved. The work of each individual will therefore become valuable in a completely new way where it will not be necessary to use fear to motivate people because each will understand their value and as such be self-motivated.
5. Forcing people to conform to a system that was built to be broken, as Richard Grove from Tragedy and Hope  puts it; simply creates nothing but broken people. Broken people makes broken world, which eventually will lead to the demise of all of us – with animals and nature standing on the frontlines as the cannon fodder. So instead of wanting children to conform, we must assist them to transform, so that when they grow up, they do not make the same mistakes we did. To do that we have to transform ourselves, because we obviously cannot teach children anything that we ourselves have not yet learned.
While John Taylor Gatto spent decades teaching children in remarkable and provocative ways, his books and articles and interviews are equally rich sources of informative education, that we as adults can utilize to transform ourselves and reverse the conformity that has already been long stuffed down our throats, stifling any and all authentic expression. There are many other authors and trail-blazers through which we can initiate the re-education process of ourselves to become sovereign human beings that can stand as solid examples for the children entering this world. But the responsibility is, and can only be, our own. What is so fortunate about this day and age is that all information is virtually accessible through the Internet. All that is then required are the development of critical skills of discernment to circumvent the cognitive disinformation – and actually get to the real information about what is happening in this world. We do that through expanding our vocabulary, through cross-referencing what we find with others and through relentlessly unveiling ourselves from seeing what is really going on.
In a way it is quite simple; we have to stop living the lie. But as someone once said, self-honesty is the most difficult thing in the world because it forces us to take responsibility for who we have become and within that we have to let go of the wonderful world of illusion that we’ve created through the lie. Whether we like it or not, we’re together on this sinking ship we call an earth. More wanted more and we were willing to pay any price to get it, even risking the future of all mankind and the earth in the process. This is what, up until now, has been the ‘evolution’ of humanity. The question is: can we afford to keep lying to ourselves when the world is falling apart around us, and at what price?