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An American Affidavit

Saturday, May 30, 2015

60. The Great Transformation: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The Great Transformation 

I lived through the great transformation which turned schools from often useful places (if 
never the essential ones school publicists claimed) into laboratories of state 
experimentation. When I began teaching in 1961, the social environment of Manhattan 
schools was a distant cousin of the western Pennsylvania schools I attended in the 1940s, 
as Darwin was a distant cousin of Malthus. 

Discipline was the daily watchword on school corridors. A network of discipline 
referrals, graded into an elaborate catalogue of well-calibrated offenses, was etched into 
the classroom heart. At bottom, hard as it is to believe in today's school climate, there 
was a common dedication to the intellectual part of the enterprise. I remember screaming 
(pompously) at an administrator who marked on my plan book that he would like to see 
evidence I was teaching "the whole child," that I didn't teach children at all, I taught the 
discipline of the English language! Priggish as that sounds, it reflects an attitude not 
uncommon among teachers who grew up in the 1940s and before. Even with much 
slippage in practice, Monongahela and Manhattan had a family relationship. About 
schooling at least. Then suddenly in 1965 everything changed. 

Whatever the event is that I'm actually referring to — and its full dimensions are still only 
partially clear to me — it was a nationwide phenomenon simultaneously arriving in all big 
cities coast to coast, penetrating the hinterlands afterwards. Whatever it was, it arrived all 
at once, the way we see national testing and other remote-control school matters like 
School-to-Work legislation appear in every state today at the same time. A plan was 
being orchestrated, the nature of which is unmasked in the upcoming chapters. 

Think of this thing for the moment as a course of discipline dictated by coaches outside 
the perimeter of the visible school world. It constituted psychological restructuring of the 
institution's mission, but traveled under the guise of a public emergency which (the 
public was told) dictated increasing the intellectual content of the business! Except for its 
nightmare aspect, it could have been a scene from farce, a swipe directly from Orwell's 
1984 and its fictional telly announcements that the chocolate ration was being raised 
every time it was being lowered. This reorientation did not arise from any democratic 
debate, or from any public clamor for such a peculiar initiative; the public was not 
consulted or informed. Best of all, those engineering the makeover denied it was 

I watched fascinated, as over a period of a hundred days, the entire edifice of public 
schooling was turned upside down. I know there was no advance warning to low-level 
administrators like principals, either, because I watched my first principal destroy himself 
trying to stem the tide. A mysterious new deal was the order of the day. 

Suddenly children were to be granted "due process" before any sanction, however mild, 
could be invoked. A formal schedule of hearings, referees, advocates, and appeals was set 
up. What might on paper have seemed only a liberal extension of full humanity to 
children was actually the starting gun for a time of mayhem. To understand this better, 
reflect a minute on the full array of ad hoc responses to wildness, cruelty, or incipient 
chaos teachers usually employ to keep the collective classroom a civil place at all. In a 
building with a hundred teachers, the instituting of an adversarial system of justice meant 
that within just weeks the building turned into an insane asylum. Bedlam, without a 
modicum of civility anywhere. 

This transformation, ironically enough, made administrative duty easier, because where 
once supervisory intercession had constituted, a regular link in the ladder of referral as it 

was called, in the new order, administrators were excused from minute-to-minute 
discipline and were granted power to assume that incidents were a teacher's fault, to be 
duly entered on the Cumulative Record File, the pedagogical equivalent of the Chinese 

There was a humorous aspect to what transpired over the next few years. I had no 
particular trouble keeping a lid on things, but for teachers who counted upon support 
from administrative staff it was a different story. Now, if they asked for a hand, often 
they were pressured to resign, or formally charged with bad classroom management, or 
worst of all, transferred to an even more hideous school in expectation they would 
eliminate themselves. 

Most, under such tension, took the hint and quit. A few had to be pushed. I remember a 
magnificent math teacher, an older black woman with honors and accomplishments to her 
name, much beloved and respected by her classes, singled out for public persecution 
probably because she acted as an intractable moral force, a strong model teacher with 
strong principles. Daily investigative teams from the district office watched her classes, 
busily took notes in the back of her room, challenged her style of presentation openly 
while children listened. This went on for two weeks. Then the administration began to 
call her students to the school office to interrogate them, one by one, about the teacher's 
behavior. They coached some kids to watch her during her classes, coached them to look 
for any telltale signs she was a racist! Parents were called and offered an option of 
withdrawing their kids from her classes. Broken by the ordeal, one day she vanished. 

When my wife was elected to the district school board, one of her first actions was to 
gain access to the superintendent's private files without his knowledge. Some of those 
records concerned details of official cases of harassment. Dozens of employees had been 
similarly purged, and dozens more were "under investigation" in this gulag on West 95th 
Street. Contacting these people in private, it became clear to me that, they were far from 
the worst teachers around. Indeed some were the best. Their relative prowess had 
emboldened them to speak out on policy matters and so marked them for elimination. 

One principal, whose school was the most successful reading environment in the district, 
received similar treatment, ultimately sentenced to an official Siberia in Harlem, given no 
duties at all for the two years more he lasted before quitting. His crime: allegedly striking 
a girl although there were no witnesses to this but the girl, a student who admitted 
breaking into the light-control panel room in the auditorium where the offense is 
supposed to have occurred. His real crime was his refusal to abandon phonetic reading 
methodology and replace it with a politically mandated whole-word substitute. 

I escaped the worst effects of the bloodbath. Mostly I minded my business trying to 
ignore the daily carnage. In truth I had no affection for the old system being savaged, and 
chaos made it easier for me to try out things that worked. On balance, I probably did my 
best work during those turbulent years as a direct result of the curious smokescreen they 

But accounts are not so simple to balance overall. If I regarded run-of-the-mill school 
administrators as scared rabbits or system flunkies, the reformers I saw parading daily 
through the building corridors looked like storm troopers and made my skin crawl. 

On several occasions, energetic efforts were made by these people to recruit my 
assistance as an active ally. All such appeals I politely refused. True belief they had, but 
for all of it they seemed like savages to me, inordinately proud of their power to cause 
fear, as willing to trample on the decencies as the people they were harassing as indecent. 
However, it seemed just possible something good might actually emerge from the 
shakeup underway. About that, I was dead wrong. As the project advanced, schools 
became noticeably worse. Bad to begin with, now they mutated into something horrible. 

What shape began to emerge was a fascinating echo of the same bureaucratic cancer 
which dogged the steps of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Do-nothing 
administrators and nonteaching teachers multiplied like locusts. With them came an 
entirely new class of school-teacher, one aggressively ignorant, cynical, and often tied to 
local political clubs. New categories of job description sprang up like weeds. 

My own school fell victim to a politically correct black gym teacher imported from New 
England to be its principal. Two schoolwide riots followed his installation, mass marches 
on city hall transpired in which local politicians instrumental in the man's selection used 
schoolchildren as unwitting cadres to lobby their favorite schemes in newsworthy, 
children's crusade fashion. 

A small band of old-fashioned teachers fought rearguard actions against this, but time 
retired them one by one until, with only an occasional exception, the classrooms of 
Community School District 3, in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods on earth, 
became lawless compounds, job projects for the otherwise unemployable. 

I need to wrap this up so we can get on with things. I have to skip the full story of the 
Hell's Angel math teacher who parked his Harley Hog outside the door of his classroom, 
and when the principal objected, told him in front of startled witnesses that if the man 
didn't shut his mouth, the number-crunching cyclist would come to his home that 
evening, pour gasoline under his front door, and set his house on fire. I have to skip the 
hair-raising stories of not one but three junior high teachers I knew quite well who 
married their students. Each, spotting a likely thirteen-year-old, wooed the respective girl 
in class and married her a few years later. They took the more honorable course, hardly 
the outcome of most teacher-student romances I was privy to. I have to skip the drug 
habits of staff in each of the buildings I worked in and other lurid stuff like that. In the 
midst of the unending dullness of institutional schooling, human nature cracks through 
the peeling paint as grass through cement. I have to skip all that. Suffice it to say, my life 
experience taught me that school isn't a safe place to leave your children. 

Education As A Helix Sport 

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