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An American Affidavit

Monday, September 28, 2015

189. An Arena Of Dishonesty: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Chapter Fifteen 

The Psychopathology of Everyday Schooling 

In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in 20 
factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible conditions of the 
factories than return to school. 

— Helen Todd, "Why Children Work," McClure's Magazine (April 1913) 

In one experiment in Milwaukee, for example, 8,000 youth... were asked if they would 
return full-time to school if they were paid about the same wages as they earned at work; 
only 16 said they would. 

— David Tyack, Managers of Virtue (1982) 

An Arena Of Dishonesty 

I remember clearly the last school where I worked, on the wealthy Upper West Side of 
Manhattan. An attractive atmosphere of good-natured dishonesty was the lingua franca of 
corridor and classroom, a grace caused oddly enough by the school's unwritten policy of 
cutting unruly children all the slack they could use. 

Student terrorists, muggers, sexual predators, and thieves, including two of my own 
pupils who had just robbed a neighborhood grocery of $300 and had been apprehended 
coming back to class, were regularly returned to their lessons after a brief lecture from 
the principal. All received the same mercy. There was no such thing as being held to 
account at my school. This behavioral strategy — leveling good, bad, ugly into one 
undifferentiated lumpenproletariat 1 — may seem odd or morally repugnant in conventional 
terms, but it constituted masterful psychological management from the perspective of 
enlightened pedagogy. What this policy served and served well was to prioritize order 
and harmony above justice or academic development. 

Once you know the code, the procedure is an old one. It can hardly be called radical 
politics except by the terminally innocent. If you spend a few hours with Erving 
Goffman's work on the management of institutions, you discover that the strongest 
inmates in an asylum and the asylum's management have a bond; they need each other. 
This isn't cynical. It's a price that must be paid for the benefits of mega-institutions. The 
vast Civil War prison camp of Andersonville couldn't have operated without active 
cooperation from its more dangerous inmates; so too, Dachau; so it is in school. Erving 
Goffman taught us all we need to know about the real grease which makes institutional 
wheels turn. 

A tacit hands-off policy pays impressive dividends. In the case of my school, those 
dividends were reflected in the neighborhood newspaper's customary reference to the 
place as "The West Side's Best-Kept Secret." This was supposed to mean that private 

school conditions obtained inside the building, civility was honored, the battlefield aspect 
of other schools with large minority populations was missing. And it was true. The tone 
of the place was as good as could be found in Community School District 3. It was as if 
by withdrawing every expectation from the rowdy, their affability rose in inverse 

Not long after my transfer into this school I came into home room one morning to 
discover Jack, a handsome young fellow of thirteen, running a crap game in the back of 
the room, a funny looking cigarette in his mouth. "Hey, Jack, knock it off," I snapped, 
and like the surprisingly courteous boy he was, he did. But a little while later there was 
Jack undressing a girl fairly conspicuously in the same corner, and this time when I 
intervened harshly he was slow to comply. A second order got no better results. "If I have 
to waste time on this junk again, Jack, you can cool your heels in the principal's office," I 

Jack looked disappointed in me. He spoke frankly as if we were both men of the same 
world, "Look, Gatto," he told me in a low, pleasant voice so as not to embarrass me, "it 
won't do any good. Save yourself the trouble. That lady will wink at me, hold me there 
for eight minutes — I've timed her before — and dump me back here. Why make trouble 
for yourself?" He was right. Eight minutes. 

How could such a policy produce hallway decorum and relative quiet in classrooms, you 
may ask? Well, look at it this way: it's tailor-made to be nonconfrontational with 
dangerous kids. True, it spreads terror and bewilderment among their victims, but, happy 
or unhappy, the weak are no problem for school managers; long experience with natural 
selection at my school had caused unfortunates to adapt, in Darwinian fashion, to their 
role as prey. Like edible animals they continued to the water hole in spite of every 
indignity awaiting. That hands-off modus vivendi extended to every operation. Only once 
in four years did I hear any teacher make an indirect reference to what was happening. 
One day I heard a lady remark offhandedly to a friend, "It's like we signed the last Indian 
treaty here: you leave us alone; we leave you alone." 

It's not hard to see that, besides its beneficial immediate effect, this pragmatic policy has 
a powerful training function, too. Through it an army of young witnesses to officially 
sanctioned bad conduct learn how little value good conduct has. They learn pragmatism. 
Part of its silent testimony is that the strong will always successfully suppress the weak, 
so the weak learn to endure. They learn that appeals to authority are full of risk, so they 
don't make them often. They learn what they need in order to be foot soldiers in a mass 

Psychopathic. An overheated word to characterize successful, pragmatic solutions to the 
control of institutional chaos. Isn't this process a cheap and effective way to keep student 
entropy in check at the cost of no more than a little grief on the part of some dumb 
animals? Is it really psychopathic or only strategic sophistication? My principal, let's call 
her Lulu to protect the guilty, once explained at a public meeting there was little she 
could do about the unfortunate past and present of these kids, and she acknowledged they 

probably didn't have bright prospects for the future — but while they were here they 
would know she cared about them, no one would be unduly hassled. Nobody in the 
audience took what she said to be insincere, nor do I think it was. She believed what she 

Psychopathic. The word summons up flashing eyes and floating hair, men hiding gasoline 
bombs under their coats in crowded subway cars on the way to Merrill Lynch for 
revenge. But set aside any lurid pictures you may associate with the term. I'm using it as 
a label to describe people without consciences, nothing more. Psychopaths and 
sociopaths are often our charming and intelligent roommates in corporations and 
institutions. They mimic perfectly the necessary protective coloration of compassion and 
concern, they mimic human discourse. Yet underneath that surface disguise they are 
circuit boards of scientific rationality, pure expressions of pragmatism. 

All large bureaucracies, public or private, are psychopathic to the degree they are well- 
managed. It's a genuine paradox, but time to face the truth of it. Corporate policies like 
downsizing and environmental degradation, which reduce the quality of life for enormous 
numbers of people, make perfectly rational sense as devices to reach profitability. Even 
could it be proven that the theory of homo economicus has a long-range moral component 
in which, as is sometimes argued in policy circles, the pain of the moment leads 
inevitably to a better tomorrow for those who survive — the thing would still be 
psychopathic. An older America would have had little hesitation labeling it as Evil. I've 
reached for the term psychopathic in place of Evil in deference to modern antipathies. 
The whole matter is in harmony with classic evolutionary theory and theological notions 
of limited salvation. I find that congruence interesting. 

The sensationalistic charge that all large corporations, including school corporations, are 
psychopathic becomes less inflammatory if you admit the obvious first, that all such 
entities are nonhuman. Forget the human beings who populate corporate structures. Sure, 
some of them sabotage corporate integrity from time to time and behave like human 
beings, but never consistently, and never for long, for if that were the story, corporate 
coherence would be impossible, as it often is in Third World countries. Now at least you 
see where I'm coming from in categorizing the institutional corporation of school as 
psychopathic. Moral codes don't drive school decision-making. That means School 
sometimes decides to ignore your wimpy kid being beaten up for his lunch money in 
order to oil some greater wheels. School has no tear ducts with which to weep. 

Except for a small fraction of Gifted and Talented Honors kids sequestered in a remote corner of the third floor, who followed different 
protocols, although a good deal less different than they knew. 

The Game Is Crooked 

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