Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Underground History of American Education, Prologue

Last year I read this book and did a review of it on my homeschool blog.  Cleo @ Cleoclassical said I should post it here, too, but at the time I wanted to keep it with education. However, reviewing it again, this book has a lot to say about reading and books; plus my book blog is about self-education.  It is a deep look at public education in America, and that has connection to most people in some way.  My review is broken up into five parts, which I will post over five weeks, or you can go to the links for the next part if you want to know more before then.

The Review

Everyone should read this book This is an inside look at one teacher's long experience within the American public education system. The teacher, John Taylor Gatto, candidly retells his story, some of which will seem unbelievable, and some that will make you remember your own experience in public school.  Gatto worked as a public school teacher for about thirty years in the New York City area, and was named Teacher of the Year for three consecutive years.

Here is my summary of the Prologue: America was a nation that prided itself on independence, individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and resourcefulness.  Americans, no matter how poor, understood they could become their own master; they would have to in order to feed themselves and their families.

Some time after the Civil War and the start of the Industrial Revolution, some of those wealthy, elite, powerful men who had become their own masters, understood the need for mass production and workers willing to give up their own freedoms for the good of all; and hence, forced mass schooling was born.  One hundred years later, Americans do not think of their individualism like our fore fathers had.  We think about going to school in order to get a job and work for someone else.  Our independent spirit has been snuffed out.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the Prologue:

"...modern schooling...the deterioration it forces in the morality of parenting.  You have no say at all in choosing your [child's] teacher."  (At least you may know how difficult it is to do so. - my opinion.)

"Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history.  It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents."

"How much more evidence is necessary?  Good schools don't need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and run risks.  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."

"Exactly what John Dewey heralded...has indeed happened.  Our one highly individualized nation has evolved into a centrally managed village, an agora made up of huge special interests which regard individual voices as irrelevant.  The masquerade is managed by having collective agencies speak through particular human beings.  Dewey said this would mark a great advance in human affairs, but the net effect is to reduce men and women to the status of functions in whatever subsystem they are placed.  Public opinion is turned on and off in laboratory fashion.  All this in the name of social efficiency, one of the two main goals of forced schooling."

John Taylor Gatto
"School is a religion...Dewey's Pedagogic you a clue to the zeitgeist:"
Every teacher should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.  In this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.
"Universal institutionalized formal forced schooling was the prescription, extending the dependency of the young well into what had traditionally been early adult life.  Individuals would be prevented from taking up important work until a relatively advanced age.  Maturity was to be retarded."

"Ordinary people send their children to school to get smart, but what modern schooling teachers is dumbness."

"What kids dumbed down by schooling can't do is to think for themselves..."

You can read The Underground History of American Education online for free.

For more, see Part I.


Anonymous said...

Hmm...this seems like a pretty interesting book. I've never heard of it before, but all of these quotes intrigue me. Ugh. I agree there is a big problem with National Standards and Testing. They are so annoying and don't often test what one has learned in school.

Cleo said...

Ruth, I'm so glad that you've decided to post your reviews of it here. You did such a wonderful job and I think Gatto's comments, while sometimes quite forceful, are so relevant and necessary. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Poor John Dewey! I do wonder if Gatto is imagining some golden age of education that might not have ever really existed though.

Ruth said...

At one time, Americans were self-educated or had very little outside education, and yet, were self-sufficient, independent, and resourceful. Today, education has become one-size-fits-all, drawn out, destructive of creativity and the independent spirit.

Now, we only go to school to get a job. (Our president said this very thing the other day. All presidents say that is the reason we go to school, but it wasn't always this way.) Gatto demonstrates how that plan evolved to kill the American spirit and get Americans to think about mass production, working for someone else, and training young people to be obedient soldiers.

Gatto champions the ideas of freedom and liberty and how humanity and civilization benefit when we all are free to think as individuals and encouraged to take risks and be our own masters. And later, Gatto will share his ideas about how to make mass education better - which was unexpected b/c I thought he would speak only to home education, but he did not. He focused on fixing our schools and making them better; and I really respected that.

Ruth said...


I do wish it was possible to make changes to education, but like everything else, I am not an optimist. : ( The people in power have a different agenda, and I'm in the severe minority.

Ruth said...

It's a huge book and extremely insightful.

Cleo said...

I also wanted to point out that Dewey condemns himself with his own words. Some of his statements are truly shocking and show that he saw people (or often saw them) as a means to a financial end.

Ruth said...

Cleo, I admit that all I know about Dewey is what he has been quoted, which never is in good context. I get him and Holt mixed up. So my next project would be to read up on these philosophies of education by these two men and others.

Susanna said...

Thanks for the review, I think my entire family would enjoy this book. Education and education reform are two of the main topics that always pop up at my family's dinner table. It is funny, because me and all my siblings were homeschooled our entire lives but now the majority of us plan to go into the education field either as teachers or curriculum creators. We dream of big changes : )

Anonymous said...


Actually, I think Dewey's theory of education is the complete opposite of treating people as a means to a financial end.

Dewey advocates for a child-centered learn-by-doing approach. His emphasis was on "inquiry" rather than knowledge. It views children as interactive learners and the goal of education is to teach them how to think efficiently via practice (learning-by-doing) so they could be self-sufficient learners rather than an approach that is about filling people's heads with knowledge and "what to think."

I'm not saying Dewey is correct, but it's interesting to me that different reformers will take potshots at him for different reasons. E. D. Hirsch Jr. in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know also attacks Dewey, but Hirsch is advocating for a National Curriculum and he is attacking his child-centered anti-Curriculum tendencies.

Ruth said...

Oh, you are welcome. And since you say that you plan to go into the field of education, I highly recommend that you read any works by John Taylor Gatto. This particular book is as big as an encyclopedia, but he has shorter ones, such as: Dumbing Us Down.

Carol Apple said...

Thanks for sharing your review Ruth. I really do appreciate this information. My youngest graduated from home school high school last June, and I know public school never felt like a good fit for either of my two sons. Through the years we did private school, public school, online home school, and self-created curriculum home school. I and my kids likes self-created curriculum the best. I just wish I had known what I know now when they were starting out. I definitely want to read this book! I did a review a while back on "The Theory of Education in the United States" by Albert Jay Nock, published in 1930 or thereabouts. Nock's message is that the idea of equal education for everybody is based on a false premise. His take is bit different from the ideas you describe in Underground History.... .he is quite blunt and politically incorrect. He does talk about the difference between the older ideas of what education is versus the public school approach.

Cleo said...

You know what? I really need to read more about Dewey. What I do know is that, in spite of Gatto's passionate and perhaps sometimes single-minded purpose, I trust his judgement. I also know that what I have read of Dewey (not just from Gatto) gives me the chills. I'm sure he was passionate about his philosophy but it seemed he was advocating for too much control over the individual by "people who know better".

I don't know much about Hirsch but I do have his book. Perhaps I should read it sometime. ;-)

Just so you know, I always appreciate your thoughts and feedback!

Ruth said...

Well, I'm going to add Albert Nock to my list of authors to read regarding education. I've never heard of him, so I'm glad you shared it. After a little research, I see he's got a few works I'd like to read.

P.S. Self-created curriculum is our favorite, too. I love the freedom and liberty to direct what we study and focus on.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like a great book. I've never heard of it before. I'm glad I found your blog.