Part 2 of Note from Gatto’s Talk at AERO ’10

So, where we left off with notes from John Taylor Gatto’s AERO keynote  (yesterday’s post), England was noticing India’s system of monitorial schools to train the underclasses. According to Gatto, a half-mad Quaker named Joseph Lancaster misread these monitorial schools as a blessing to the poor and set about to replicate them in London. The royalty and the government worried that Lancaster might actually succeed in perverting the monitorial system.  For a while the Christian philosophy worked to counter a long lineage of anti-commoner philosophies. Then, the Anglican church began to teach that it was a waste of time to read original sources when comic books or encyclopedias had already digested the material for you.

Leaders insisted on teaching the underclass their place. Training them early could be justified by religious sayings that if you teach children early they will not stray from the right path. But suppose the path chosen (1) did not believe all children were created equal; and (2) believed the inferior majority constituted a deadly menace to the best people, who were a minority.

The first step in this early training was to win the cooperation from the children’s parents. So beginning around 1800, schools began to reward some families, punish others and leave the great middle hopeful, but also fearful and divided from one another.

What Gatto calls the Darwin Gang–Charles Darwin and two of his influential cousins, Thomas Malthus and Francis Galton–became the most effective at creating an artificial climate of fear. These cousins threw the prestige of mathematical and scientific thinking decisively on the side of anti-commoner philosophy. They urged protecting the upper-class by dumbing down the children of the poor.

Malthus “proved” mathematically that the poor can never be fed. He argued that working the poor to death was a mercy because it shortened their suffering. (??!) He urged making birth control widely available. He recommended flooding men with pornography so their sexual urges could be satisfied just with fantasy. He encouraged training to keep the poor childish so working to support a family would become intolerable. Gatto also credited Malthus with ideas on forcibly sterilizing men with or without their knowledge and said that for a while, America did have some forced sterilization policies.

In addition to the famous ideas about the survival of the fittest, Darwin’s work Descent of Man also contained  an idea that only a small favored fraction is actually evolving. But evolution is kind of red herring. This argument about some few being better and more evolved than most became license for educational tracking.

Francis Galton, another supremely wealthy and influential Darwin cousin, translated natural selection into institutions. He saw the purpose of schooling as eugenics. He believed labeling, tagging, and humiliating inferiors in schools would make them unmarriageable.

Gatto had asserted that if big-time thinking showed sympathy for ordinary people it was only in the New Testament (Christian Scriptures/Gospels), Gandhi, and Tolstoy. Otherwise he said the history of philosophy was a long list of attacks seeing ordinary people as dangerous; He cited such big thinkers as Plato, Calvin, Spinoza (see Tractatus Politicus or the Tractae) right down to the Prussians/Teutonic Knights. He said you do not have to go to conspiracy theorists; you just have to go to original sources, originally intended just for crowns of Europe or Presidents of the newly formed United States. He says people have learned to speak more circumspectly now, but still the common people are seen as dangerous, although maybe the percentage of those seen as common has changed from say 90% to 80%.

In his remaining time, Gatto began listing mechanisms by which schools train the common people. First of all, schools he said create an environment of constant stress so students can’t notice the concurrent low level of boredom. Gatto says the stress, ranking and labeling sets students against one another. Testing, grades, and ranking create anxiety, fear, insecurity. Having to do more school work at home limits access to family.

More specifically mechanisms Gatto listed included

*replacing raw experience and development of diverse talents with memorizing lists

*avoiding deep analytic projects that demand concentration. He said brilliant people can block out the world and concentrate until the job is done. By ringing a bell every 43 minutes he said schools become laboratories of anti-concentration.

*making only what he termed a confused version of reality available for kids to base decisions on. For example, he said that nothing called a subject has any existence at all on its own. This fills students’ heads with nonsense, half-truths, and Plato’s Big Lie.

*dividing powers to make sure it’s difficult to get anything done.

[So the first two bullets suggest to me that involvement in the wider community, with hands-on real-world projects, will counter a tendency to dumb down.]

But Gatto was well over his keynote’s allotted time at this point. If you want to explore more of his ideas and their sources, check out his books. I suspect at this point in his talk he was working from Weapons of Mass Instruction.

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