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An American Affidavit

Monday, October 31, 2016

87. The Irony Of The Safety Lamp: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archve.org

The Irony Of The Safety Lamp 

Have I made too much of this? What on earth is wrong with wanting to help people, even 
in institutionalizing the helping urge so it becomes more reliable? Just this: the helping 
equation is not as simple as Utopians imagined. I remember the shock I felt on many 
occasions when my well-meant intercession into obvious problems a kid was having were 
met with some variation of the angry cry, "Leave me alone!" as if my assistance actually 
would have made things worse. It was baffling how often that happened, and I was a 
well-liked teacher. Is it possible there are hills that nature or God demands we climb 
alone or become forever the less for having been carried over them? 

The plans of true believers for our lives may well be better than our own when judged 
against some abstract official standard, but to deny people their personal struggles is to 
render existence absurd. What are we left with then besides some unspeakable 

Chautauqua, a liar's world which promises that if only the rules are followed, good lives 
will ensue? Inconvenience, discomfort, hurt, defeat, and tragedy are inevitable 
accompaniments of our time on earth; we learn to manage trouble by managing trouble, 
not by turning our burden over to another. Think of the mutilated spirit that victims of 
overprotective parents carry long after they are grown and gone from home. What should 
make you suspicious about School is its relentless compulsion. Why should this rich, 
brawling, utterly successful nation ever have needed to resort to compulsion to push 
people into school classes — unless advocates of forced schooling were driven by peculiar 
philosophical beliefs not commonly shared? 

Another thing should concern you, that the consequences of orthodox mass schooling 
have never been fully thought through. To show you what I mean, consider the example 
of Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the coalmine "safety" lamp after an 1812 explosion in 
which ninety-two boys and men were killed. Davy's assignment to the honor roll of 
saintliness came from his assertion that the sole object of his concern was to "serve the 
cause of humanity" — a declaration made credible by his refusal to patent the device. 

Let nobody deny that the safety lamp decreased the danger of explosion relative to older 
methods of illumination, but the brutal fact is that many more miners died because of 
Davy's invention. It allowed the coal industry to grow rapidly, bringing vastly more men 
into the mines than before, opening deeper tunnels, exposing miners to mortal dangers of 
which fire-damp is only one, dangers for which there is no protection. Davy's "safety" 
lamp brought safety only in the most ironic sense; it was a profit-enhancement lamp most 
of all. Its most prominent effect was to allow the growth of industry, a blessing to some, a 
curse to others, but far from an unambiguous good because it wasted many more lives 
than it saved. 

Serving "the cause of humanity" through forced government schooling may also turn out 
to be a stranger matter than it appears, another Davy lamp in different costume. 

Chapter Seven 

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