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Sunday, January 22, 2017

163. Elasticity: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Elasticity 

Among structural engineers, the terms plastic and elastic describe propensities of 
material; these are concepts which can also be brought to bear on the question whether 
human nature is built out of accidents of experience or whether there is some divine inner 
spark in all of us that makes each person unique and self-determining. As you decide, the 
schools which march forward from your decision are predestined. Immanuel Kant 
thought both conditions possible, a strong, continuous effort of will tipping the balance. 

In structural engineering, implications of the original builder/creator's decision are 
inescapable; constructions like bridges and skyscrapers do have an inner nature given 
them by the materials chosen and the shapes imposed, an integrity long experience has 
allowed us to profile. The structure will defend this integrity, resisting wind stress, for 
example, which threatens to change its shape permanently. 

When stress increases dangerously as it would in a hurricane, the building material 
becomes elastic, surrendering part of its integrity temporarily to protect the rest, 
compromising to save its total character in the long run. When the wind abates the urge to 
resume the original shape becomes dominant and the bridge or building relaxes back to 
normal. A human analogy is that we remember who we are in school even when coerced 
to act like somebody else. In engineering, this integrity of memory is called elastic 
behavior. Actors practice deliberate elasticity and the Chechens or the Hmong express 
remarkable group elasticity. After violent stresses abate, they remember who they are. 



But another road exists. To end unbearable stress, material has a choice of surrendering 
its memory. Under continued stress, material can become plastic, losing its elasticity and 
changing its shape permanently. Watch your own kids as their schooling progresses. Are 
they like Chechens with a fierce personal integrity and an inner resilience? Or under the 
stress of the social laboratory of schooling, have they become plastic over time, kids you 
hardly recognize, kids who've lost their original integrity? 

In the collapse of a bridge or building in high wind, a decisive turning point is reached 
when the structure abandons its nature and becomes plastic. Trained observers can tell 
when elasticity is fading because prior to the moment of collapse, the structure cannot 
regain its original shape. It loses its spirit, taking on new and unexpected shapes in a 
struggle to resist further change. When this happens it is wordlessly crying HELP ME! 
HELP ME! just as so many kids did in all the schools in which I ever taught. 

The most important task I assigned myself as a schoolteacher was helping kids regain 
their integrity, but I lost many, their desperate, last-ditch resistance giving way, their 
integrity shattering before my horrified eyes. Look back in memory at your kids before 
first grade, then fast forward to seventh. Have they disintegrated into warring fragments 
divided against themselves? Don't believe anyone who tells you that's natural human 
development. 

If there are no absolutes, as pragmatists like Dewey assert, then human nature must be 
plastic. Then the spirit can be successfully deformed from its original shape and will have 
no sanctuary in which to resist institutional stamping. The Deweys further assert that 
human nature processed this way is able to perform efficiently what is asked of it later on 
by society. Escaping our original identity will actually improve most of us, they say. This 
is the basic hypothesis ofutopia-building, that the structure ofpersonhood can be broken 
and reformed again and again for the better. 

Plasticity is the base on which scientific psychology must stand if it is to be prescriptive, 
and if not prescriptive, who needs it? Finding an aggressive, instrumental psychology 
associated with schooling is a sure sign empty-child attitudes aren't far away. The notion 
of empty children has origins predating psychology, of course, but the most important 
engine reshaping American schools into socialization laboratories, 1 after Wundt, was the 
widely publicized work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who had been 
a student of Wundt at Leipzig. Pavlov won the Nobel in 1904, credited with discovering 
the conditioned reflex whereby systems of physical function thought to be fixed 
biologically, like the salivation of dogs, could be rewired to irrelevant outside stimuli, 
like bells ringing. 

This had immense influence on the spread of behavioral psychology into government 
agencies and corporate boardrooms, for it seemed to herald the discovery of master 
wiring diagrams which could eventually bring the entire population under control of 
physiological psychology. 



Pavlov became the most prestigious ally of the behavioral enterprise with his Nobel. His 
text The Conditioned Reflexes (1926) provided a sacred document to be waved at 
skeptics, and his Russian nationality aided immeasurably, harmonizing well with the long 
romance American intellectuals had with the Soviet Union. Even today Pavlov is a name 
to conjure with. Russian revolutionary experimentation allowed the testing of what was 
possible to go much further and faster than could have happened in America and western 
Europe. 

Notions of emptiness turn the pedestrian problem of basic skills schooling into the 
complex political question of which outside agencies with particular agendas to impose 
will be allowed to write the curriculum. And there are nuances. For instance, the old- 
fashioned idea of an empty container suggests a hollow to be filled, an approach not 
unfamiliar to people who went to school before 1960. But plastic emptiness is a different 
matter. It might lead to an armory of tricks designed to fix, distract, and motivate the 
subject to cooperate in its own transformation — the new style commonly found in public 
schools after 1960. The newer style has given rise to an intricately elaborated theory of 
incentives capable of assisting managers to work their agenda on the managed. Only a 
few years ago, almost every public-school teacher in the country had to submit a list of 
classroom motivation employed, to be inspected by school managers. 



The whole concept of "socialization" has been the subject of a large library of books and may beconsidered to occupy an honored role as one 
of the most important ongoing studies (and debates) in modern history. In shorthand, what socialization is concerned with from a political 
standpoint is the discovery and application of a system of domination which does not involve physical coercion. Coercion (as Hegel is thought 
to have proven) will inevitably provoke the formation of a formidable counter-force, in time overthrowing the coercive force. The fall of the 
Soviet Union might be taken as an object lesson. 

Before Hegel, for 250 years along with other institutions of that society the state church of England was a diligent student of socialization. The 
British landowning class was a great university of understanding how to proceed adversarially against restive groups without overt signs of 
intimidation, and the learnings of this class were transmitted to America. For example, during the second great enclosure movement which 
ended in 1875, with half of all British agricultural land in the hands of just two thousand people, owners maintained social and political control 
over even the smallest everyday affairs of the countryside and village. Village halls were usually under control of the Church of England whose 
clergy were certifiably safe, its officials doubling as listening posts among the population. All accommodations suitable for meetings were 
under direct or indirect control of the landed interests. It was almost impossible for any sort of activity to take place unless it met with the 
approval of owners. 

Lacking a long tradition of upper-class solidarity, the United States had to distill lessons from England and elsewhere with a science of public 
opinion control whose ultimate base was the new schools. Still, before schooling could be brought efficiently to that purpose, much time had to 
pass during which other initiatives in socialization were tried. One of these, the control of print sources of information, is particularly 
instructive. 

After the Rockefeller disaster in the coal fields of southeastern Colorado in April of 1914, ordinary counter-publicity was insufficient to stem 
the tide of attacks on corporate America coming from mass circulation magazines such as Leslie 's Illustrated Weekly, McClures 's, 
Everybody 's, Success, Hampton 's, Collier 's, The Arena, The Masses, and others. A counterattack was launched to destroy the effectiveness of 
the magazines: West Virginia Pulp and Paper bought McClure 's, Butterick Patterns bought Everybody 's, bankers folded Success by calling in 
its loans and ordered the editors of Collier 's to change its editorial policies, the distributor of Arena informed the publisher that unsold copies 
would no longer be returned, and Max Eastman's Masses was doomed by the passage of legislation enabling the postmaster to remove any 
publication from the mails at his own discretion. Through these and similar measures, the press and magazines of the United States had been 
fairly effectively muzzled by 1915 with not a single printing press broken by labor goons. These midrange steps in the socialization of 
American society can best be seen as exposing the will to homogenize at work in this country once the entire economy had been corporatized. 

Emptiness: The Master Theory 

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