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Saturday, March 4, 2017

204. Three Holes In My Floor: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Chapter Seventeen 



The Politics of Schooling 

Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent 

— Ellwood P. Cubberley, Conceptions of Education (1909) 

It was natural businessmen should devote themselves to something besides business; that 
they should seek to influence the enactment and administration of laws, national and 
international, and that they should try to control education. 

— Max Otto, Science and the Moral Life (1949) 

Most people don 't know who controls American education because little attention has 
been given the question by either educators or the public. Also because the question is 
not easily or neatly answered 

— James D. Koerner, Who Controls American Education (1968) 

Three Holes In My Floor 

In October 1990, three round holes the size of silver dollars appeared in the floor of my 
classroom at Booker T. Washington Junior High between West 107th and 108th streets in 
Spanish Harlem, about twelve blocks from Columbia Teachers College. My room was on 
the third floor and the holes went through to the second floor room beneath. In unguarded 
moments, those holes proved an irresistible lure to my students, who dropped spitballs, 
food, and ball bearings down on the heads of helpless children below without warning. 
The screams of outrage were appalling. So pragmatically, without thinking much about it, 
I closed off the holes with a large flat of plywood and dutifully sent a note to the school 
custodian asking for professional assistance. 

The next day when I reported to work my makeshift closure was gone, the holes were 
open, and I found a warning against "unauthorized repairs" in my mailbox. That day three 
different teachers used the room with the holes. During each occupancy various objects 
plummeted through the floor to the consternation of occupants in the space below. In one 
particularly offensive assault, human waste was retrieved from the toilet, fashioned into a 
missile, and dropped on a shrieking victim. All the while, the attacking classroom 
exploded in cackles of laughter, I was later told. 

On the third day of these aerial assaults, the building principal appeared at my door 
demanding the bombardment cease at once. I pointed out that I had been forbidden to 
close off the holes, that many other teachers used the room in my absence, that the school 
provided no sanctions for student aggressors, and that it was impossible to teach a class 
of thirty- five kids and still keep close watch on three well-dispersed holes in the floor. I 
offered to repair the holes again at my own expense, pointing out in a reasonable tone 
that this easy solution was still available and that, in my opinion, there were traces of 



insanity in allowing any protocol, however well meant, to delay solving the problem at 
once before another fecal bombardment was unleashed. 

At that moment I had no idea that I was challenging an invisible legion of salarymen it 
had taken a century to evolve. I only wanted to spare myself those cries from below. My 
request was denied and I was reminded again not to take matters into my own hands. Five 
months later a repair was effected by a team of technicians. In the meantime, however, 
my classroom door lock had been broken and three panes of window glass facing 
Columbus Avenue shattered by vandals. The repair crew turned a deaf ear to what I felt 
was a pretty sensible request to do all the work at once, none of it complicated. The 
technicians were on a particular mission I was told. Only it had been duly authorized. 

Commenting on the whole genus of such school turf wars, the New York Observer's 
Terry Golway said, "Critical decisions are made in a bureaucrat's office far from the site 
requiring repairs. One official's decision can be countermanded by another's, and layer 
upon layer of officialdom prolongs the process. A physical task that requires a couple of 
minutes work can take weeks, if not months, to snake through the bureaucracy. In the 
meantime the condition may worsen, causing inconvenience to children and teachers. In 
the end, no one is accountable." Thanks to Mr. Golway, I found out why the missile 
attack had been allowed to continue. 

In my case, the problem lay in the journey of my original note to the custodian, where it 
was translated into form P.O. 18. P.O. 18 set out on a road which would terminate in an 
eventual repair but not before eight other stops were made along the way and 150 days 
had passed. A study of these eight stops will provide a scalpel to expose some of the 
gangrenous tissue of institutional schooling. Although this is New York City, something 
similar is found everywhere else the government school flag waves. I think we must 
finally grow up enough to realize that what follows is unavoidable, endemic to large 
systems. 

Stop One: P.O. 18 was signed by the principal, who gave a copy to his secretary to file, 
returning the original to the custodian. This typically takes several days. 

Stop Two: The custodian gave a copy of the form to his secretary to file, then sent the 
request on to a District Plant Manager (DPM), one of thirty-one in New York City. 

Stop Three: In an office far removed from my perforated floor, the DPM assigned the 
repair a Priority Code. Three or four weeks had now passed from the minute a ball 
bearing bounced off Paul Colon's head and a turd splattered in gooey fragments on Rosie 
Santiago's desk.' A copy of P.O. 18 was given to the DPM's secretary to file, and the 
form went to the Resource Planning Manager (RPM), based in Long Island City. 

Stop Four: The RPM collects ALL the work orders in the city, sorting them according to 
priority codes and available resources, and selects a Resource Planning Team (RPT). 
This team then enters the P.O. 18 in its own computer. A repair sequence is arrested at 
Stop Four for a period of weeks. 



Stop Five: The P.O. 18 is relayed to the Integrated Purchasing and Inventory System 
(IPIS), which spits out a Work Order and sends it to the Supervising Supervisor. Three 
months have passed, and used toilet paper is raining down into the airless cell beneath 
John Gatto's English class. 

Stop Six: The Supervising Supervisor has one responsibility, to supervise the Trade 
Supervisors and decide which one will at some time not fix but supervise the fixing of my 
floor. Such a decision requires DUE TIME before an order is issued. 

Stop Seven: The Trade Supervisor has responsibility for selecting service people of flesh 
and blood to actually do the work. Eventually the Trade Supervisor does this, dispatching 
a Work Crew to perform the repair. Time elapsed (in this case): five months. Some 
repairs take ten years. Some forever. I was lucky. 

Stop Eight: Armed with bags and utility belts, tradespeople enter the school to examine 
the problem. If it can be repaired with the tools they carry, fine; if not they must fill out a 
P.O. 17 to requisition the needed materials and a new and different sequence begins. It's 
all very logical. Each step is justified. If you think this can be reformed you are indeed 
ignorant. Fire all these people and unless you are willing to kill them, they will just have 
to be employed in some other fashion equally useless. 

At the heart of the durability of mass schooling is a brilliantly designed power 
fragmentation system which distributes decision-making so widely among so many 
different warring interests that large-scale change is impossible to those without a 
codebook. Even when a favorable chance alteration occurs, it has a short life span, 
usually exactly as long as the originator of the happy change has political protection. 
When the first boom of enthusiasm wanes or protection erodes, the innovation follows 
soon after. 

No visible level of the system, top, middle, or bottom, is allowed to institute any 
significant change without permission from many other layers. To secure this coalition of 
forces puts the supplicant in such a compromised position (and takes so long) that any 
possibility of very extensive alteration is foreclosed. 

Structurally, control is divided among three categories of interdependent power: 1) 
government agencies, 2) the self-proclaimed knowledge industry, 3) various special 
interests, some permanent, some topical. Nominally children, teachers, and parents are 
included in this third group, but since all are kept virtually powerless, with rare 
exceptions they are looked upon only as nuisances to be gotten around. Parents are 
considered the enemy everywhere in the school establishment. An illustration of this 
awesome reality comes out of the catastrophe of New Math imposed on public schools 
during the 1960s and 1970s. In the training sessions, paid for by federal funds, school 
staff received explicit instructions to keep parents away. 

In schoolteacher training classes for the New Math, prospective pedagogues were 
instructed to keep their hands off classroom instruction as much as possible. Student peer 



groups were to be considered by the teachers more important than parents in establishing 
motivation — more important than teachers, too. Kids were to learn "peer group control" 
of the operation by trial and error. 

Nobody who understood the culture of kids in classrooms could have prescribed a more 
fatal medicine to law and order. But the experiment plunged recklessly ahead, this time 
on a national basis in the Vietnam-era United States. In the arithmetic of powerlessness 
that forced collectivism of this sort imposes, students, parents, and teachers are at the 
very bottom of the pecking order, but school administrators and local school boards are 
reduced by such politics to inconsequential mechanical functions, too. 



The actual names have been changed. 

Power -=- 22 

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