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An American Affidavit

Thursday, October 27, 2016

84. Death Dies: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archve.org

Death Dies 

In 1932, John Dewey, now elevated to a position as America's most prominent 
educational voice, heralded the end of what he called "the old individualism." Time had 
come, he said, for a new individualism that recognized the radical transformation that had 
come in American society: 

Associations, tightly or loosely organized, more and more define opportunities, choices, 
and actions of individuals. 

Death, a staple topic of children's books for hundreds of years because it poses a central 
puzzle for all children, nearly vanished as theme or event after 1916. Children were 
instructed indirectly that there was no grief; indeed, an examination of hundreds of those 
books from the transitional period between 1900 and 1916 reveals that Evil no longer had 
any reality either. There was no Evil, only bad attitudes, and those were correctable by 
training and adjustment therapies. 

To see how goals of Utopian procedure are realized, consider further the sudden change 
that fell upon the children's book industry between 1890 and 1920. Without explanations 
or warning, timeless subjects disappeared from the texts, to be replaced by what is best 
regarded as a political agenda. The suddenness of this change was signaled by many 
other indications of powerful social forces at work: the phenomenal overnight growth of 
"research" hospitals where professional hospital-ity replaced home-style sick care, was 
one of these, the equally phenomenal sudden enforcement of compulsory schooling 

Through children's books, older generations announce their values, declare their 
aspirations, and make bids to socialize the young. Any sudden change in the content of 
such books must necessarily reflect changes in publisher consciousness, not in the 
general class of book-buyer whose market preferences evolve slowly. What is prized as 
human achievement can usually be measured by examining children's texts; what is 
valued in human relationships can be, too. 

In the thirty- year period from 1890 to 1920, the children's book industry became a 
creator, not a reflector, of values. In any freely competitive situation this could hardly 
have happened because the newly aggressive texts would have risked missing the market. 
The only way such a gamble could be safe was for total change to occur simultaneously 

among publishers. The insularity and collegiality of children's book publishing allowed it 
this luxury. 

One aspect of children's publishing that has remained consistent all the way back to 1721 
is the zone where it is produced; today, as nearly three hundred years ago, the Northeast 
is where children's literature happens — inside the cities of Boston, New York, and 
Philadelphia. No industry shift has ever disturbed this cozy arrangement: over time, 
concentration became even more intense. Philadelphia's role diminished in the twentieth 
century, leaving Boston and New York co-regents at its end. In 1975, 87 percent of all 
titles available came from those two former colonial capitals, while in 1 876 it had been 
"only" 84 percent, a marvelous durability. For the past one hundred years these two cities 
have decided what books American children will read. 

Until 1875, about 75 percent of all children's titles dealt with some aspect of the future — 
usually salvation. Over the next forty years this idea vanished completely. As Comte and 
Saint-Simon had strongly advised, the child was to be relieved of concerning itself with 
the future. The future would be arranged /or children and for householders by a new 
expert class, and the need to do God's will was now considered dangerous superstition by 
men in charge. 

Another dramatic switch in children's books had to do with a character's dependence on 
community to solve problems and to give life meaning. Across the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries, strength, afforded by stable community life, was an important part 
of narrative action, but toward the end of the nineteenth century a totally new note of 
"self was sounded. Now protagonists became more competent, more in control; their 
need for family and communal affirmation disappeared, to be replaced by a new 
imperative — the quest for certification by legitimate authority. Needs now suddenly 
dominant among literary characters were so-called "expressive needs": exploring, 
playing, joy, loving, self-actualizing, intriguing against one's own parents. By the early 
twentieth century, a solid majority of all children's books focus on the individual child 
free from the web of family and community. 

This model had been established by the Horatio Alger books in the second half of the 
nineteenth century; now with some savage modern flourishes (like encouraging active 
indifference to family) it came to totally dominate the children's book business. Children 
were invited to divide their interests from those of their families and to concentrate on 
private concerns. A few alarmed critical voices saw this as a strategy of "divide and 
conquer," a means to separate children from family so they could be more easily molded 
into new social designs. In the words of Mary Lystad, the biographer of children's 
literary history from whom I have drawn heavily in this analysis: 

As the twentieth century continued, book characters were provided more and more 
opportunities to pay attention to themselves. More and more characters were allowed to 
look inward to their own needs and desires. 

This change of emphasis "was managed at the expense of others in the family group," she 

From 1796 to 1855, 18 percent of all children's books were constructed around the idea 
of conformity to some adult norm; but by 1 896 emphasis on conformity had tripled. This 
took place in the thirty years following the Civil War. Did the elimination of the Southern 
pole of our national dialectic have anything to do with that? Yes, everything, I think. 
With tension between Northern and Southern ways of life and politics resolved 
permanently in favor of the North, the way was clear for triumphant American orthodoxy 
to seize the entire field. The huge increase in conformist themes rose even more as we 
entered the twentieth century and has remained at an elevated level through the decades 

What is most deceptive in trying to fix this characteristic conformity is the introduction of 
an apparently libertarian note of free choice into the narrative equation. Modern 
characters are encouraged to self-start and to proceed on what appears to be an 
independent course. But upon closer inspection, that course is always toward a centrally 
prescribed social goal, never toward personal solutions to life's dilemmas. Freedom of 
choice in this formulation arises from the feeling that you have freedom, not from its 
actual possession. Thus social planners get the best of both worlds: a large measure of 
control without any kicking at the traces. In modern business circles, such a style of 
oversight is known as management by objectives. 

Another aspect of this particular brand of regulation is that book characters are shown 
being innovative, but innovative only in the way they arrive at the same destination; their 
emotional needs for self-expression are met harmlessly in this way without any risk to 
social machinery. Much evidence of centralized tinkering within the factory of children's 
literature exists, pointing in the direction of what might be called Unit-Man — people as 
work units partially broken free of human community who can be moved about efficiently 
in various social experiments. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of 
Chicago, thought of such an end as "laboratory research aimed at designing a rational 

To mention just a few other radical changes in children's book content between 1890 and 
1920: school credentials replace experience as the goal book characters work toward, and 
child labor becomes a label of condemnation in spite of its ancient function as the 
quickest, most reliable way to human independence — the way taken in fact by Carnegie, 
Rockefeller, and many others who were now apparently quite anxious to put a stop to it. 

Children are encouraged not to work at all until their late teen years, sometimes not until 
their thirties. A case for the general superiority of youth working instead of idly sitting 
around in school confinement is often made prior to 1900, but never heard again in 
children's books after 1916. The universality of this silence is the notable thing, 
deafening in fact. 

Protagonists' goals in the new literature, while apparently individualistic, are almost 
always found being pursued through social institutions — those ubiquitous "associations" 
of John Dewey — never through family efforts. Families are portrayed as good-natured 
dormitory arrangements or affectionate manager-employee relationships, but emotional 
commitment to family life is noticeably ignored. Significant family undertakings like 
starting a farm or teaching each other how to view life from a multi-age perspective are 
so rare that the few exceptions stand out like monadnocks above a broad, flat plain. 

Three Most Significant Books 

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