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An American Affidavit

Friday, November 27, 2015

8. Author's Note: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Author's Note 

With conspiracy so close to the surface of the American imagination and American 
reality, I can only approach with trepidation the task of discouraging you in advance from 
thinking my book the chronicle of some vast diabolical conspiracy to seize all our 
children for the personal ends of a small, elite minority. 

Don't get me wrong, American schooling has been replete with chicanery from its very 

Indeed, it isn't difficult to find various conspirators boasting in public about what they 
pulled off. But if you take that tack you'll miss the real horror of what I'm trying to 
describe, that what has happened to our schools was inherent in the original design for a 
planned economy and a planned society laid down so proudly at the end of the nineteenth 
century. I think what happened would have happened anyway — without the legions of 
venal, half-mad men and women who schemed so hard to make it as it is. If I'm correct, 
we're in a much worse position than we would be if we were merely victims of an evil 
genius or two. 

If you obsess about conspiracy, what you'll fail to see is that we are held fast by a form of 
highly abstract thinking fully concretized in human institutions which has grown beyond 
the power of the managers of these institutions to control. If there is a way out of the trap 
we're in, it won't be by removing some bad guys and replacing them with good guys. 

Who are the villains, really, but ourselves? People can change, but systems cannot 
without losing their structural integrity. Even Henry Ford, a Jew-baiter of such colossal 
proportions he was lionized by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, made a public apology and 
denied to his death he had ever intended to hurt Jews — a too strict interpretation of 
Darwin made him do it! The great industrialists who gave us modern compulsion 
schooling inevitably found their own principles subordinated to systems-purposes, just as 
happened to the rest of us. 

Take Andrew Carnegie, the bobbin boy, who would certainly have been as appalled as 
the rest of us at the order to fire on strikers at his Homestead plant. But the system he 
helped to create was committed to pushing men until they reacted violently or dropped 
dead. It was called "the Iron Law of Wages." Once his colleagues were interested in the 
principles of the Iron Law, they could only see the courage and defiance of the 
Homestead strikers as an opportunity to provoke a crisis which would allow the steel 
union to be broken with state militia and public funds. Crushing opposition is the 
obligatory scene in the industrial drama, whatever it takes, and no matter how much 
individual industrial leaders like Carnegie might be reluctant to do so. 

My worry was about finding a prominent ally to help me present this idea that inhuman 
anthropology is what we confront in our institutional schools, not conspiracy. The hunt 
paid off with the discovery of an analysis of the Ludlow Massacre by Walter Lippmann 
in the New Republic of January 30, 1915. Following the Rockefeller slaughter of up to 
forty-seven, mostly women and children, in the tent camp of striking miners at Ludlow, 
Colorado, a congressional investigation was held which put John D. Rockefeller Jr. on 
the defensive. Rockefeller agents had employed armored cars, machine guns, and fire 
bombs in his name. As Lippmann tells it, Rockefeller was charged with having the only 
authority to authorize such a massacre, but also with too much indifference to what his 
underlings were up to. "Clearly," said the industrial magnate, "both cannot be true." 

As Lippmann recognized, this paradox is the worm at the core of all colossal power. Both 
indeed could be true. For ten years Rockefeller hadn't even seen this property; what he 
knew of it came in reports from his managers he scarcely could have read along with 
mountains of similar reports coming to his desk each day. He was compelled to rely on 
the word of others. Drawing an analogy between Rockefeller and the czar of Russia, 
Lippmann wrote that nobody believed the czar himself performed the many despotic acts 
he was accused of; everyone knew a bureaucracy did so in his name. But most failed to 
push that knowledge to its inevitable conclusion: If the czar tried to change what was 
customary he would be undermined by his subordinates. He had no defense against this 
happening because it was in the best interests of all the divisions of the bureaucracy, 
including the army, that it — not the czar — continue to be in charge of things. The czar 
was a prisoner of his own subjects. In Lippmann 's words: 

This seemed to be the predicament of Mr. 
Rockefeller. I should not believe he personally hired 
thugs or wanted them hired. It seems far more true to 
say that his impersonal and half-understood power 
has delegated itself into unsocial forms, that it has 
assumed a life of its own which he is almost 
powerless to control.... His intellectual helplessness 
was the amazing part of his testimony. Here was a 
man who represented wealth probably without 
parallel in history, the successor to a father who has, 
with justice, been called the high priest of 
capitalism.... Yet he talked about himself on the 
commonplace moral assumptions of a small 

The Rockefeller Foundation has been instrumental through the century just passed (along 
with a few others) in giving us the schools we have. It imported the German research 
model into college life, elevated service to business and government as the goal of higher 
education, not teaching. And Rockefeller- financed University of Chicago and Columbia 
Teachers College have been among the most energetic actors in the lower school tragedy. 
There is more, too, but none of it means the Rockefeller family "masterminded" the 
school institution, or even that his foundation or his colleges did. All became in time 

submerged in the system they did so much to create, almost helpless to slow its 
momentum even had they so desired. 

Despite its title, Underground History isn't a history proper, but a collection of materials 
toward a history, embedded in a personal essay analyzing why mass compulsion 
schooling is unreformable. The history I have unearthed is important to our 
understanding; it's a good start, I believe, but much remains undone. The burden of an 
essay is to reveal its author so candidly and thoroughly that the reader comes fully awake. 
You are about to spend twenty- five to thirty hours with the mind of a schoolteacher, but 
the relationship we should have isn't one of teacher to pupil but rather that of two people 
in conversation. I'll offer ideas and a theory to explain things and you bring your own 
experience to bear on the matters, supplementing and arguing where necessary. Read 
with this goal before you and I promise your money's worth. It isn't important whether 
we agree on every detail. 

A brief word on sources. I've identified all quotations and paraphrases and given the 
origin of many (not all) individual facts, but for fear the forest be lost in contemplation of 
too many trees, I've avoided extensive footnoting. So much here is my personal take on 
things that it seemed dishonest to grab you by the lapels that way: of minor value to those 
who already resonate on the wavelength of the book, useless, even maddening, to those 
who do not. 

This is a workshop of solutions as well as an attempt to frame the problem clearly, but be 
warned: they are perversely sprinkled around like raisins in a pudding, nowhere grouped 
neatly as if to help you study for a test — except for a short list at the very end. The advice 
there is practical, but strictly limited to the world of compulsion schooling as it currently 
exists, not to the greater goal of understanding how education occurs or is prevented. The 
best advice in this book is scattered throughout and indirect, you'll have to work to 
extract it. It begins with the very first sentence of the book where I remind you that what 
is right for systems is often wrong for human beings. Translated into a recommendation, 
that means that to avoid the revenge of Bianca, we must be prepared to insult systems for 
the convenience of humanity, not the other way around. 


*For instance, for those of you who believe in testing, school superintendents as a class are virtually the stupidest people to pass through a 
graduate college program, ranking fifty-one points below the elementary school teachers they normally "supervice," (on the Graduate Record 
Examination), abd about eighty points below secondary-school teachers, while teachers themselves as an aggregate finish seventeenth of 
twenty occupational groups surveyed. The reader is of course at liberty to believe this happened accidentally, or that the moon is composed of 
blue, not green, cheese as is popularly believed. It's also possible to take this anomaly as conclusive evidence of the irrelevance of standardized 
testing. Your choice. 


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