Monday, October 05, 2009

Managing Us Cuckoos

So I've just completed that David Albert book of essays. Here's an excerpt from one of them which discusses homeschooling icon John Taylor Gatto.

The Success Of Public Education

John's first work was a set of Monarch Notes. Some of you may remember these from high school, a way to get by in English class without doing the required reading! At any rate, Gatto's first book was first published in 1975, a Monarch Notes guide to the late Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

John related to me once, after affixing his signature on my copy -- with handwriting only a hair more legible than my own (we must both have had Mr. Lewis in the 6th grade and still not recovered from the experience) that the Monarch Notes guide, still in print after 26 years, has actually sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making it by far his most widely read work. But all John ever got out of it was a Burmese cat. If you ever get the opportunity to attend one of his talks, make sure to ask him about it.

Anyway, this Monarch Notes guide - the only book of Gatto's likely to be read by students undergoing their slow death in what passes for "educational institutions" these days - is an incendiary work. And not only because of its black-and-red cover.

Kesey's magnificent novel, as well as the excellent movie featuring a young Jack Nicholson (not recommended until you've read the book!), is the story of a rebel - one Randall Patrick McMurphy -- who finds himself (or rather finds a way to get himself) inside a state psychiatric institution in the 1960s. Once within, he discovers himself bound by a web of rules, procedures, and protocols - really, kid gloves -- behind which stands an iron fist of violence and repression, all designed of course for "the patient's own good." In scene after scene, McMurphy probes against the boundaries of the forces that stand behind the institution - "the Combine" -- which comes to be symbolized by "The Big Nurse" who controls the ward, and ultimately holds the fate of each of the patients in her hands. Let me not ruin the book for you. I suggest you go out and read it, alongside your teenager if you have one, or, if you've read it once before, read it again, with new eyes.

Kesey's novel takes place against a backdrop of relentless institutional conditioning. While meetings on the ward may seem to be democratically organized -- and while inmates - no, here they are called "patients - are urged toward accountability - one quickly realizes that there is no democracy at work in the asylum, and that accountability is a sham. Inmates are tracked, without their consent, into well-demarcated groups as acutes and chronics - and further subdivided into walkers, wheelers, and vegetables (we all do remember Bluebirds and Robins from first grade, don't we?) The highest value to the Combine is neither democracy nor accountability, but compliance, pure and simple, and its favorite strategem is divide and conquer. And if that doesn't work, there are always drugs. Hmm.

I doubt that a set of Monarch Notes has ever been heaped with literary praise before, but Gatto's are much deserving. His description of the Keseyan institutional world contained in this incendiary set of crib notes, (he even quotes Che Guevara - "Educate your enemy, don't kill him, for he is worth more to you alive than dead"), is as compelling as the novel itself. He describes the Combine that controls this little world as "an all-powerful, earth-girdling, brain-destroying association of technocrats...intent on building a world of precision, efficiency, and tidiness...a place where the schedule is unbreakable." "In such a world," writes John, "there is neither grief nor happiness; nobody dies - they only burn out and are recycled; actually, it is a rather safe place, everything is planned - there are neither risks nor surprises." Gatto continues that within this little world, "Words and meaningless routines insulate people from life itself, blind them to what is happening around them, and deaden the moral faculties." The defense to this charge, ironic of course as John notes, is that the Big Nurse delivers charity baskets to the poor. Pivotal to Kesey's novel, according to Gatto, "is the cataclysmic revelation that the inmates of the asylum are not committed but are there of their own free will." And the way they are controlled, ultimately, is through guilt, shame, fear, and belittlement. Double hmmm.

Wow! I read that book in high school. Yet I had no idea it was such a spot-on critique of the institution/classroom which assigned it. AND, I sincerely doubt my teacher did either.

Now for the exploitation of school *failure*:

And yet the idea that schools are failing didn't make any sense to me. After all, the schools are run by highly paid and educated public servants, hired by local elected school boards - my neighbors, staffed by people prepared in our graduate schools of education where they were, in turn, taught by faculty trained at our elite private universities such as Yale or the University of Chicago. Teachers are honored, school administrators with salaries well in excess of $100,000 receive merit-pay raises, the school boards continue to get elected, the electorate continues to vote to give the schools more money, the graduate schools of education get bigger. If these are failing institutions, they sure have a funny way of showing it!

John provided, and continues to provide the key to understanding this conundrum. Central to this understanding is the fact that schools are not failing. On the contrary, they are spectacularly successful in doing precisely what they are intended to do, and what they have been intended to do since their inception. The system, perfected at places like the University of Chicago, Columbia Teachers College, Carnegie-Mellon, and Harvard, and funded by the captains of industry, was explicitly set up to ensure a docile, malleable workforce to meet the growing, changing demands of corporate capitalism -- "to meet the new demands of the 20th century," they would have said back then. The Combine (whoops, slipped again!) ensures a workforce that will not rebel (the greatest fear at the turn of the 20th century), and that will be physically, intellectually, and emotionally dependent upon corporate institutions for their incomes, self-esteem, and stimulation, and will learn to find social meaning in their lives solely in the production and consumption of material goods. We all grew up in these institutions and we know they work. They haven't changed much since the 1890s because they don't need to - they perform precisely as they are intended.

What do the captains of industry really care about? That public education be public. In other words, that we (and not they) pay for it. Corporate institutions have unloaded their basic training needs on to us, and we voluntarily pay to forge the chains of our own servitude.

So far, so good. But the obvious question that follows from this is, if educational institutions are so demonstrably successful, why are we always hearing about their failures? And here John might have provided the answer, for in his aborted career before becoming a New York City schoolteacher, with Monarch Notes a decade away and this edition of Dumbing Us Down almost four, Gatto was an advertising copyrighter, "a young fellow," (he writes in "The Green Monongahela"), "with a knack for writing thirty-second television commercials." The copywriter knows that to sell a product or service, one must create the perception of need, and the palpable feeling that this need can only be filled exclusively through the purchase of the product or service being sold. The simplistic notion that "our schools are failing" easily translates into a limitless demand for more resources for the institution and its supports -- for books, for teachers, for computers, for real estate (and hence book publishers, graduate schools of education, computer manufacturers, and real estate developers) -- and for more time -- more pre-school, more homework, longer school years, the end of recess, and semi- (and soon fully) compulsory summer schools. And to the copywriter's delight, it is a zero-sum game. Not only is there an endless stream of consumers with little or no institutional memory and absolutely insatiable demand, but the truth is that no matter how much is expended in the educational marketplace, 50% of the schools will remain "below average", with those branded as poor performers changing from year to year, and those above the mid-point fearing, above all, that they will fall into the abyss. And the copywriter has done his job for, it is universally believed, the only response to a fall into sub-mediocrity is to buy one's way out.


Anonymous said...

Church and State have ever sought (and fought) to control the minds of men.

CaptiousNut said...

Yeah I'm not so sure that mostly true generalization holds at the moment.

When the Catholic Church lost power....secular statism took over. Governments, by unwelcome default, took to education, caring for orphans, the infirmed, widows, etc. - all acts of *charity* that were formerly the domain of clergymen. (And would be AGAIN if the socialists were dethroned!)

There is no real organized *church* at the moment, IMO.

Furthermore, statism has become a faith-based, globally pervasive religion unto itself!