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An American Affidavit

Monday, August 31, 2015

162. Plasticity: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


The worm lives in our initial conception of human nature. Are human beings to be 
trusted? With what reservations? To what degree? The official answer has lately been 
"not much," at least since the end of WWII. Christopher Lasch was able to locate some 
form of surveillance, apprehension, confinement, or other security procedure at the 
bottom of more than a fifth of the jobs in the United States. Presumably that's because we 
don't trust each other. Where could that mistrust have been learned? 

As we measure each other, we select a course to follow. A curriculum is a racecourse. 
How we lay it out is contingent on assumptions we make about the horses and spectators. 
So it is with school. Are children empty vessels? What do you think? I suspect not many 
parents look at their offspring as empty vessels because contradictory evidence 
accumulates from birth, but the whole weight of our economy and its job prospects is 
built on the outlook that people are empty, or so plastic it's the same thing. 

The commodification of childhood — making it a product which can be sold — demands a 
psychological frame in which kids can be molded. A handful of philosophers dominates 
modern thinking because they argue this idea, and in arguing it they open up possibilities 
to guide history to a conclusion in some perfected society. Are children empty? John 
Locke said they were in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: 

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any 
ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store...? To this I 
answer in one word, from Experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that 
it ultimately derives itself. 

Are there no innate ideas? Does the mind lack capacities and powers of its own, being 
etched exclusively by sensory inputs? Locke apparently thought so, with only a few 
disclaimers so wispy they were abandoned by his standard bearers almost at once. Are 
minds blank like white paper, capable of accepting writing from whoever possesses the 
ink? Empty like a gas tank or a sugar bowl to be filled by anyone who can locate the 
filler-hole? Was John Watson right when he said in 1930: 

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them 
up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of 
specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar- 
man and thief, regardless of his talents, his penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and 
race of his ancestors. 

Do you find something attractive in that presumption of plasticity in human nature? So 
did Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao, two of the century's foremost applied behaviorists 
on the grand scale. Taylorism sought to manage by the control of physical movements 
and environments, but the behaviorists wanted more certainty than that, they wanted 
control of the inner life, too. A great many reflective analyses have placed our own two 
Roosevelt presidencies in the same broad category. 

The trouble in school arises from disagreement about what life is for. If we believe 
human beings have no unique personal essence, this question is meaningless, but even 
then you can't get rid of the idea easily. Life commands your answer. You cannot refuse 
because your actions write your answer large for everyone to see, even if you don't see it 
yourself. As you regard human nature, you will teach. Or as someone else regards it, you 
will teach. There aren't any third ways. 

Is human nature empty? If it is, who claims a right to fill it? In such circumstances, what 
can "school" mean? 

If ever a situation was capable of revealing the exquisite power of metaphor to control 
our lives, this must be it. Are children empty? As helpless infants and dependent youth 
we lay exposed to the metaphors of our guardians; they colonize our spirit. 


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