A National Merit Scholar in my own family once wrote that her dream was to be “a small part in a great machine.” It broke my heart. What kids dumbed down by schooling can’t do is to think for themselves or ever be at rest for very long without feeling crazy; stupefied boys and girls reveal dependence in many ways easily exploitable by their knowledgeable elders.
If you believe nothing can be done for the dumb except kindness, because it’s biology (the bell-curve model); if you believe capitalist oppressors have ruined the dumb because they are bad people (the neo-Marxist model); if you believe dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model); or that it’s nature’s way of disqualifying boobies from the reproduction sweepstakes (the Darwinian model); or nature’s way of providing someone to clean your toilet (the pragmatic elitist model); or that it’s evidence of bad karma (the Buddhist model); if you believe any of the various explanations given for the position of the dumb in the social order we have, then you will be forced to concur that a vast bureaucracy is indeed necessary to address the dumb. Otherwise they would murder us in our beds.
The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the careers devoted to tending to them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my proposition: Mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.
Once the dumb are wished into existence, they serve valuable functions: as a danger to themselves and others they have to be watched, classified, disciplined, trained, medicated, sterilized, ghettoized, cajoled, coerced, jailed. To idealists they represent a challenge, reprobates to be made socially useful. Either way you want it, hundreds of millions of perpetual children require paid attention from millions of adult custodians. An ignorant horde to be schooled one way or another.
- John Taylor Gatto
The Underground History of American Education
Had a rousing discussion last evening on the topic of public education, free choice and the nature of coercion. My verbal sparring partner was convinced that, left to its own devices, humanity will author its own annihilation and argued that people must be shepherded to salvation by an enlightened elite. With an extensive background in both European and Japanese history, he was a ferocious and wily opponent; debating him made me realize how much more reading/history/context I needed to keep pace.
Why is idea that we must surrender our liberties to a centralized authority in exchange for security so deeply embedded in our collective psyche? Is it, as Gatto suggests, caused by a dependency-driven education model that conditions us to feel vulnerable the moment we step outside of the shepherding influence of the state?
What are our alternatives?
I still feel that segregating children into Montessori-type systems is a solution riddled with deep imperfections. In my experience, fellow college students who were raised exclusively through a Montessori system were indeed quite bright - but socialized nearly exclusively with white-collar-elites/intellectuals and were downright incapable of relating to blue-collar/working-class individuals.
Yet the idea of marching youngsters into the Golgotha of public schools makes me blanch as well.