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An American Affidavit

Friday, January 27, 2017

168. Programming The Empty Child: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Programming The Empty Child 

To get an act of faith this unlikely off the ground there had to be some more potent vision 
than Skinner could provide, some evidence more compelling than reinforcement schedule 
data to inspire men of affairs to back the project. There had to be foundational visions for 
the scientific quest. One will have to stand for all, and the one I've selected for 
examination is among the most horrifyingly influential books ever to issue from a human 
pen, a rival in every way to Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management. The author was 
Jean Jacques Rousseau. The book, Emile, published in 1762. Whether Rousseau had 
given his own five children away to the foundling home before or after he wrote it, I can't 
say for sure. Before, I'm told. 

Emile is a detailed account of the total transformation of a boy of ten under the precisely 
calculated behavioral ministrations of a psychological schoolmaster. Rousseau showed 
the world how to write on the empty child Locke had fathered; he supplied means by 
which Locke's potent image could be converted to methodology. It took only a quarter 
century for Germans to catch on to the pick-and-shovel utility of dreamy Rousseau, only 
a little longer for Americans and English to do the same. Once Rousseau was fully 
digested, the temptation to see society's children as human resources proved irresistible 
to those nations which had gone furthest in developing the mineral resource, coal, and its 
useful spirits, heat and steam. 

Rousseau's influence over pedagogy began when empty child explanations of human 
nature came to dominate. With emotional religion, village life, local elites, and American 
tradition reeling from hammer blows of mass immigration, the nation was broadly 
transformed at the beginning of the twentieth century without much conscious public 
awareness of what was happening. 

One blueprint for the great transformation was Emile, an attempt to reestablish Eden 
using a procedure Rousseau called "negative education." Before the book gets to 
protagonist Emile, we are treated to this instructive vignette of an anonymous student: 

The poor child lets himself be taken away, he turned to look backward with regret, fell 
silent, and departed, his eyes swollen with tears he dared not shed and his heavy heart 
with the sigh he dared not exhale. 

Thus is the student victim led to the schoolmaster. What happens next is reassurance that 
such a scene will never claim Emile: 

Oh you [spoken to Emile] who have nothing similar to fear; you, for whom no time of 
life is a time of constraint or boredom; you, who look forward to the day without disquiet 
and to the night without impatience — come, my happy and good natured pupil, come and 
console us." 

Look at Rousseau's scene closely. Overlook its sexual innuendo and you notice the 
effusion is couched entirely in negatives. The teacher has no positive expectations at all; 
he promises an absence of pain, boredom, and ill-temper, just what Prozac delivers. 
Emile 's instructor says the boy likes him because he knows "he will never be a long time 
without distraction" and because "we never depend on each other." 

This idea of negation is striking. Nobody owes anybody anything; obligation and duty are 
illusions. Emile isn't happy; he's "the opposite of the unhappy child." Emile will learn "to 
commit himself to the habit of not contracting any habits." He will have no passionately 
held commitments, no outside interests, no enthusiasms, and no significant relationships 
other than with the tutor. He must void his memory of everything but the immediate 
moment, as children raised in adoption and foster care are prone to do. He is to feel, not 
think. He is to be emptied in preparation for his initiation as a mindless article of nature. 

The similarity of all this to a drugged state dawns on the critical reader. Emile is to find 
negative freedom — freedom from attachment, freedom from danger, freedom from duty 
and responsibility, etc. But Rousseau scrupulously avoids a question anybody might ask: 
What is this freedom for? What is its point? 

The creepy tone of this authorial voice reminded me of a similar modern voice used by a district school psychologist for the Londonderry, 
New Hampshire, public schools writing in an Education Week article, "Teacher as Therapist" (October 1995): 

"Welcome. ...We get a good feeling on entering this classroom.... M&M's for every correct math problem [aren't necessary]. A smile, on the 
other hand, a "Good Job!" or a pat on the back may be effective and all that is necessary. Smiling faces on papers (even at the high-level) with 
special recognition at the end of the week for the students with the most faces. ..can be powerful.... By setting appropriate expectations within a 
system of positive recognition and negative consequences, teachers become therapists." 

Dr. Watson Presumes 

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