Reflections on School and PrisonBy John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991
Apr. 05, 2007
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My wife doesn't allow a television in our home, so when I'm traveling alone, as I often must, temptation sometimes overwhelms me and I find myself indiscriminately channel-surfing for hours, searching for what -- I don't know, perhaps a football game even in March or April, May, June, July, August.
It was on such a fruitless mission in April that I paused on the A&E channel long enough to hear that a documentary about cults was in the offing. If I watched the thing, I was promised I would learn the six secret principles of cults, how to enslave the human mind beyond its power to escape, how to imprison the spirit, bending it to the discipline of the cult. Hey, my wife wasn't around, sounded "educational" to me.
In a dreamlike state in the Howard Johnson's motel in Norwich, New York I heard that the first way to recognize a cult was that it "keeps its victims unaware." 'Why, that's just what institutional schools do,' I said to myself; I've spent the last 10 years of my life traveling a million and a half miles to bear witness to that universal crime of forced schooling I had been a party to over a 30-year public school teaching career.
And, the television intoned in order, a cult controls its victims' time and environment (by this time I was sitting up with pen and pad taking notes), creates fear and dependency, suppresses old customs, instills new beliefs, and allows no criticism. "But, but," I heard my conscience sputtering, "that's the perfect formula for a government school." School was structured to be an expression of cult discipline! School was a cult, not unlike the murder cult Princess Grace ended her days on earth a member of, or the legendary Thuggee in British India which worshipped Kali, the Destroyer!
Prison, as we have evolved it following British and Hindu models, seeks to impose the same discipline on its serious recruits, breaking them to an understanding of their own profound worthlessness. It should be no secret to anyone reading this that in America, the land of the free, more people are imprisoned, by far, than in any nation past or present, including Communist China or Stalin's Soviet Union. Prison in America is a booming business, incarcerating about five times the percentage of our population who were jailed in the middle of the Great Depression. Some fiendish spirit is loose in our land whose bleak heart can only be plumbed by seeing the correspondences among cults, prisons, and schools.
The most obvious relationship between government schooling and our penal system is that they both involve prisons of measured time: Movements, thoughts, associations in both are controlled by total strangers whose biographies remain a sealed book to inmates and their families. Any attempt to uncover those biographies in order to consider the fitness of employees would be met by howls of outrage and refusal, or punished severely if the research were pressed.
The structures in which students are confined along with their certified handlers long ago exceeded any human scale, they are megalithic constructions designed to emphasize the insignificance of the indwelling population, and the stark power of their invisible masters. Yet both the anonymity of the operatives and the inhumanity of the architecture have a subtler side, too, a side which can only be appreciated when you realize that its purpose is to make us childish.
Almost all Americans have had an intense school experience which occupied their entire youth, an experience during which they were drilled thoroughly in the culture and economy of the well-schooled greater society, in which individuals have been rendered helpless to do much of anything except watch television or punch buttons on a keypad.
Before you begin to blame the childish for being that way and join the chorus of those defending the general imprisonment of adults and the schooling by force of children because there isn't any other way to handle the mob, you want to at least consider the possibility that we've been trained in childishness and helplessness for a reason. And that reason is that helpless people are easy to manage. Helpless people can be counted upon to act as their own jailers because they are so inadequate to complex reality they are afraid of new experience. They're like animals whose spirits have been broken. Helpless people take orders well, they don't have minds of their own, they are predictable, they won't surprise corporations or governments with resistance to the newest product craze, the newest genetic patent -- or by armed revolution. Helpless people can be counted on to despise independent citizens and hence they act as a fifth column in opposition to social change in the direction of personal sovereignty.
From a managerial standpoint, people addicted to defining their lives by the stuff they buy, or by pats on the head, comprise a managerial utopia. In prison, or school, the way to this condition, this safe condition, is prepared by a drill in the extension of small privileges and honors, or the withholding of same, by punishments and rewards externally imposed until the inner ability of the human spirit to punish or reward itself --and hence by free of tutelage -- is destroyed or suppressed. The animal trainers in service to the rich and powerful through history-not B.F. Skinner or the behaviorists-created this form of training.
Some kids become too wordlessly angry at this deal to conform to the patterns laid down in 12 years of forced training; for these a graduate school or schools are created; for most it is the school of poverty and marginalization; for some, the school called jail. Jail is a place where the bare bones of forced schooling become exposed and highlighted:
In prison you stay in your classroom 24 hours a day.
In prison the teachers wear guns and carry clubs.
In prison all associations are strictly controlled.
Both school and prison are high security institutions, cut off from the general society. The possibilities of learning in either place are so strictly limited that only a few survive this training intact. Both make us helpless to direct our own lives. Prison is only a more stringent refresher course for angry and confused souls who retain some notion of personal independence, however warped or grotesque the natural impulse has become.
About 6.3 million Americans have the experience of prison added to the experience of forced schooling, but such a number is only the tip of an iceberg. Thanks to lurid newspaper stories, endless television, movies, books, songs, and other public utterances under the control of corporate managers, all of us are steeped in a vision where prison seems the only protection of physical safety in a dangerous world. We are taught our fellow beings are violently untrustworthy; that only through the protection of authorities can we be safe. Both school and prison destroy trust, the glue of real community. It's a divide-and-conquer strategy, and it works.
Corporate culture has become a resonator of low-level fearfulness to such an extent that we gladly throw huge numbers of our fellow human beings in jail, just as we abandon our children to penal institutionalization in schools; the constant presentation of prison as our salvation, or school as the essential trainer of children, makes us all prisoners. It corrupts our inner life, it divides us from one another so that relationships lifelong are thin and shallow. School teaches us to divorce one another, to put aside loyalty for advantage, to quell our inner voices, subordinating them to management.
School and prison do the work that Rome's first emperor, Julius Cesear, said was necessary to manage a conquered population. In order to keep the conquered conquered, you have to keep them divided. School classrooms do that job more gently than prison cells, but they do it more effectively.
The people who inflict these things on the rest of us are insane, however normal their words and countenances appear. Hard as that is to believe, you must remember that this nation became rich, powerful, and the free-est place in civilized human history without any forced schooling-or prisons-to speak of. In spite of their neat suits, white shirts, and calm ways of speaking, the folks who build and maintain forced institutional schooling-as well as professionalized institutional mass incorporation-are insane, sick people cut off from human understanding, cut off from the hopes and dreams of ordinary humanity.
You may prefer, however, to see them as crazy as foxes. Both school and prison -- by cutting us off from raw experience with people, projects, and ideas -- have trained us to stay in harmony with a mass-production economy whose principle product is junk which must be consumed if it is to survive. The survival of this economy depends upon people becoming addicted to consumption, addicted to owning (and discarding) stuff. As my own addiction to mindlessness re-emerges when I travel alone, and is testified to by aimless channel-surfing on television, hour upon hour, so too, for almost all, in one fashion or another; what begins as a nearly universal human weakness -- but only a minor part of healthy life, well within control - becomes, through forced training from birth in our culture, mightily enhanced by schooling and television, the common destiny of the commons.
School also trains us to accept a gigantic government with multiple police forces whose need is to control all significant decisions, even in private lives. The monstrous government with its comprehensive surveillance, its theft of your money, its ability to confine those who resist indoctrination, is the perfect mirror imitation of a command economy where "work" is mostly defined in corporate boardrooms, where the wishes and plans of a few CEOs and their families are imposed on the lives of all. These are the new nobility, bidding fair over the past several decades to extend their rule over the entire planet. Welcome to the American empire which has replaced both Republican and Democratic forbears.
School is the processing center for its mercenaries, who, of necessity must needs be made incomplete. This could not have happened without first rendering our people frightened of personal sovereignty, by making them childish and dependent. But is it now too strong to be overthrown?
I don't think so, but the road away from it will be long and difficult. There is no mechanism in existence through which its antithesis can be mobilized except the individual family, the particular family, the unique family. Associations of families which waste their time in wholesale opposition to the thing are doomed, I believe, to disappointment. We will not see this power rolled back in our lifetimes.
Yet saying this is a far cry from throwing up one's hands in despair. Rust doesn't organize to bring down a powerful building nor do termites organize to collapse a house. Each set of molecules, less of any contradiction to the integrity of the larger structure.
The miracle we're after at large is available to each on of us in small right now. First you have to break the invisible chains that schooling has laid on your own mind; you need to stop defining yourself by what you buy or who approves of you. Stop being fearful of new experiences or at least press on regardless of your fear.
By all means homeschool your kids for a while and if you can't do that, teach them to be quiet little saboteurs of the school order. Teach them that very little of value will happen to them as a gift inside school walls, but that if they "want" an education they will have to take it, nobody is ever given an education. Teach them that.
Teach them to challenge the world around them, to take risks. Teach them the junk they put in their minds through television, indeed through all forms of commercial entertainment, is propaganda of one sort of another.
You might even unplug your television today. Or go to see an old friend you haven't seen in a while. In the next election, vote for a third-party candidate; whatever he or she stands for is irrelevant. Once you begin breaking out of the jail your schooling built around you you'll think of many things to do for yourself and your kids. You don't need any gurus, not even me. And when you finally break out of your private jail you'll discover how wonderful and necessary a gift of God that liberty really is. Hey, get started!