Life Under Compulsion: Human-Scale Tools and the Slavish Education State


Front Porch Republic

This is Part V of a series of essays titled “Life Under Compulsion.” See Part IV here.  

When he was governor of Maine, Angus King made sure that there was a computer on the desk of every middle-school child in the state.  As I write these words, Mr. King is boasting of that accomplishment as he runs for the United States Senate as an independent dallasinistra. I am, of course, writing this essay on a computer.  I’m not entirely happy about that.  But it’s a machine, I use it, I put it away – or try to put it away.  Sometimes I have to make a vow to put it away, because the quick gratification that the on-line computer provides – click! – is addictive.  We all know this.  No pretending that it isn’t.

That’s a subject for another day.  What I want to look at now is the computer as a symbol of what modern education has become, and as a diagnostic sign of our severely depleted souls.  For the modern educator – and many people who consider themselves conservative will agree with this – education is essentially a problem of techne: it is technological, in the broadest sense of the word.  I don’t mean that it employs tools.  I mean that it submits to them.  The child is viewed as a problem that needs to be solved, a variable that needs to be settled, a vessel that needs to be filled, a connection that needs to be forged.  How do we give children the information they need?  Or, what methods can we use to ensure “student learning objectives” or whatever the techno-lingo is?  What skills – notice the word imported from manual labor – must we build up in them so that they may succeed in the world?  Notice, succeed: a plank succeeds if it holds up the porch, a winch succeeds if it lifts the stone, a commercial succeeds if it brings in a certain profit.

But human beings are not riverbeds for pile-drivers to sink concrete piers into.  Data are not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.  What is the difference between the computer and a good book?  A good book for boys, say: Kipling’s Captains Courageous.  One could, I suppose, read Captains Courageous from a computer screen.  I doubt it.  One might zip through the pages.  But the book, also a tool, no doubt, is the most sophisticated and human tool we have ever produced.  I hold it in my hand.  I turn its pages.  I see its drama portrayed in ink illustrations here and there.  I have memories of words, memories that are visual, auditory, and tactile.  I can set it down for a moment and think.  I can pick it up again later.  I can read the last chapter over again.  I can read the whole book over again.  In its words the mind of a man, his personality, his thoughts, his manner of expression, his view of the world, enter my own mind; not as a commercial battering against my ears, but as a friend, with an arm round my shoulder.

I take Captains Courageous with me.  The book does not have to be plugged in; only opened.  Or closed; I take it with me that way too.  I walk down to the big swampy pond a few blocks away, and look at the fish darting about, and I think of Disko Troop and his jocular son and the once-spoilt castaway Harvey, with the seawater sloshing over the gunwales, while nets full of cod are emptied aboard and the fish packed in the hold, hours and hours through the cold night.  The book is a companion.  Robert Louis Stevenson, dead long ago, is not dead, but speaks to me, even when I am but walking down the path.  The words, the tale, artfully constructed, read in blessed solitude, enter my thoughts like the undertone of a song.  I say, “I wish I had been that lad, fishing off the Grand Banks, working like a horse and sleeping like a dead man.”  No movie can do the same, especially not when “special effects” ruin our slender opportunities to attend to a face, a gesture, or a word.

Think of that encounter with another human mind.  Think of a small boy sitting on the knee of his grandfather, looking into his face and listening to how he once went barnstorming through Italy, earning his bread and oil and a dry bed by playing baseball for Italians who had never seen the game.  Who is such a fool as to suggest that the child would do better to skitter through the internet, with the keyword “Italy”?  The real complexity of that encounter makes the screen on the desk, for all its technological intricacy, look like a stone knife or a pointed stick.  But its worth abounds far above the complexity.  It stirs in the heart.  It is mingled with love and admiration.  It declares, “This was a good thing to do!”

Even a dog cannot be well trained without affection.  Dogs, we know, cannot just be inserted into the gaps of a contentment-machine for wealthy professionals.  Dogs need fresh air, exercise, play, the adventure of the Pack.  They should not be kenneled up nine months of the year.  They should not be institutionalized ten hours a day.  I would not do to a child what some people do to their dogs.

Yet we persist in believing that children, because they are intelligent, are more malleable than dogs – notice the word taken from metallurgy.  We will not see that it is just because they are intelligent, that their teaching can never be training, and can never subordinate the personal to the mechanical.  They need the adventure of love.  They need the fresh air of contemplation.  Try to find those in a blockish institution of a thousand people, noisy, stale, and impersonal – with a computer on every desk.

May I venture an analogy?  Japanese children not so long ago learned arithmetic by means of a simple and human-scale tool, the abacus.  For all I know, they still do.  The abacus gave them the feel of numbers: they could see and feel, in thinking that was arithmetical and kinetic at once, what eighty had to do with a hundred, or why we “borrow” from the tens to take eight from three in the ones.  Then too there were the human-scale tools of pencil and paper.  When you multiply 734 x 48, you “see” the partial products develop; you learn a sense of what’s right and what’s probably wrong.  Nothing of that comes across when you enter numbers on a calculator, absolutely nothing.  You can as soon by such means to be comfortable with numbers, as you can learn to be comfortable with members of the opposite sex by looking at pictures of them.  You might as well call yourself a carpenter because you’ve hammered virtual nails into virtual boards.  A child who types numbers into a calculator has learned nothing.  He is in fact being treated as a machine.  The calculator doesn’t know what the numbers on the screen mean; it’s a “good” calculator if the numbers happen to be correct.  The child doesn’t know what they mean, either.

If the machine fails even at this, at arithmetic, how much more colossal must the failure be as soon as we enter upon the human disciplines: history, literature, and art.  Unless perhaps that failure is “success.”  A boy at a pond with a fishing pole, thinking about this and that, is free.  If he has a song to whistle, or a poem to mull over, or if he is thinking of Horatio at the bridge, he has begun to reap the fruit of a truly liberal education.  But we don’t want that freedom for him.  We want him instead to be tied to that infernal thing on the desk – and we call it progress.


Way back in the late 1800’s, the then 1% (Rockefeller, Morgan, Guggenheim, Mellon) needed obedient factory workers to implement the coming Industrial Revolution. They went to the German/Prussian system of work labor education and successfully and systematically introduced that federal education system into the United States, which is still in place today.

John Taylor Gatto was a 4 time NY Teacher of the Year after 27 years of teaching until he quit formal public teaching because, as he famously announced in a Op-Ed to the Wall Street Journal in 1999:

“In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.

That’s the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints. We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen—that probably guarantees it won’t.

We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it. I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know. Come fall I’ll be looking for work.”

Since then, he has tirelessly worked to inform and educate the masses why our education system is the way it is. (because that is how the 1% still implement it)

The Underground History of U.S. Education by John Taylor Gatto

“The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn and it isn’t supposed to. It took seven years of reading and reflection to finally figure out that mass schooling of the young by force was a creation of the four great coal powers of the nineteenth century. Nearly one hundred years later, on April 11, 1933, Max Mason, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, announced to insiders that a comprehensive national program was underway to allow, in Mason’s words, “the control of human behavior.”

From Charlotte Iserbyt’s “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America”
(Ms. Iserbyt was Senior Policy Advisor of Education in the Reagan Administration).

“The narrowing (dumbing down) of intellectual freedom had begun. Lifeboat exercises
epitomize the shift in education from academic education (1880–1960) to values education
(1960–1980). In the Deliberate Dumbing Down of America writer Charlotte Iserbyt chronicles this shift and the later shift to workforce training “education” (1980–2000). The case is made that the values education period was critical to the transformation of education. It succeeded in persuading (brainwashing? duping?) Americans into accepting the belief that values were transient, flexible and situational—subject to the evolution of human society.

Brave new values were integrated into curricula and instruction. The mind of the average American became “trained” (conditioned) to accept the idea that education exists solely for the purpose of getting a good paying job in the global workforce economy.”


…more nuggets from Mr. Gatto’s book:

” From the beginning, foundations aimed squarely at educational policy formation. Rockefeller’s General Education Board obtained an incorporating act from Congress in 1903 and immediately began to organize schooling in the South, joining the older Slater cotton/woolen manufacturing interests and Peabody banking interests in a coalition in which Rockefeller picked up many of the bills.

From the start, the GEB had a mission. A letter from John D. Rockefeller Sr. specified that his gifts were to be used “to promote a comprehensive system.” You might well ask what interests the system was designed to promote, but you would be asking the wrong question. Frederick Gates, the Baptist minister hired to disburse Rockefeller largesse, gave a terse explanation when he said, “The key word is system.” American life was too unsystematic to suit corporate genius. Rockefeller’s foundation was about systematizing us.
In 1913, the Sixty-Second Congress created a commission to investigate the role of these new foundations of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and of other corporate families. After a year of testimony it concluded:

The domination of men in whose hands the final control of a large part of American industry rests is not limited to their employees, but is being rapidly extended to control the education and social services of the nation.

Foundation grants directly enhance the interests of the corporations sponsoring them, it found. The conclusion of this congressional commission:

The giant foundation exercises enormous power through direct use of its funds, free of any statutory entanglements so they can be directed precisely to the levers of a situation; this power, however, is substantially increased by building collateral alliances which insulate it from criticism and scrutiny.

Foundations automatically make friends among banks which hold their large deposits, in investment houses which multiply their monies, in law firms which act as their counsels, and with the many firms, institutions, and individuals with which they deal and whom they benefit. By careful selection of trustees from the ranks of high editorial personnel and other media executives and proprietors, they can assure themselves press support, and by engaging public relations counselors can further create good publicity. As René Wormser, chief counsel for the second congressional inquiry into foundation life (1958), put it:

All its connections and associations, plus the often sycophantic adulation of the many institutions and individuals who receive largesse from the foundation, give it an enormous aggregate of power and influence. This power extends beyond its immediate circle of associations, to those who hope to benefit from its bounty.

In 1919, using Rockefeller money, John Dewey, by now a professor at Columbia Teachers College, an institution heavily endowed by Rockefeller, founded the Progressive Education Association. Through its existence it spread the philosophy which undergirds welfare capitalism— that the bulk of the population is biologically childlike, requiring lifelong care.”