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An American Affidavit

Saturday, February 24, 2018

15.The Fresco At Herculaneum: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The Fresco At Herculaneum 

    Sparta, Athens' neighbor, was a horse of a different color. Society in Sparta was  organized around the concept of cradle-to-grave formal training. The whole state was a  universal schoolhouse, official prescriptions for the population filled every waking  minute and the family was employed as a convenience for the
state. Sparta's public  political arrangements were an elaborate sham, organized nominally around an executive  branch with two legislative bodies, but ultimate decision-making was in the hands of  ephors, a small elite who conducted state policy among themselves. The practical aspect  of imitation democracy figures strongly in the thought of later social thinkers such as  Machiavelli (1532) and Hobbes (1651), as well as in minds nearer our own time who had  influence on the shape of American forced schooling.  

     Spartan ideas of management came to American consciousness through classical studies  in early schooling, through churches, and also through interest in the German military  state of Prussia, which consciously modeled itself after Sparta. As the nineteenth century  entered its final decades American university training came to follow the  Prussian/Spartan model. Service to business and the political state became the most  important reason for college and university existence after 1910. No longer was college  primarily about developing mind and character in the young. Instead, it was about  molding those things as instruments for use by others. Here is an important clue to the  philosophical split which informed the foundation of modern schooling and to an  important extent still does: small farmers, crafts folk, trades people, little town and city  professionals, little industrialists, and older manorial interests took a part of their dream  of America from democratic Athens or from republican Rome (not the Rome of the  emperors); this comprised a significant proportion of ordinary America. But new urban  managerial elites pointed to a future based on Spartan outlook.  

     When the instructional system of Athens transferred to Imperial Rome, a few schools we  would recognize began to appear. The familiar punishment practices of colonial America  can be found anticipated vividly in the famous fresco at Herculaneum, showing a Roman  schoolboy being held by two of his classmates while the master advances, carrying a long  whip. Roman schools must have started discipline early in the morning for we find the  poet Martial cursing a school for waking him up at cock's crow with shouts and beatings;  Horace immortalizes pedagogue Orbilius for whipping a love of old poets into him. But  we shouldn't be misled by these school references. What few schools there were in Rome  were for boys of prosperous classes, and even most of these relied upon tutors, tradition,  and emulation, not school.  

     The word pedagogue is Latin for a specialized class of slave assigned to walk a student to  the schoolmaster; over time the slave was given additional duties, his role was enlarged  to that of drill master, a procedure memorialized in Varro's instituit pedagogus, docet  magister. in my rusty altar-boy Latin, The master creates instruction, the slave pounds it  in. A key to modern schooling is this: free men were never pedagogues. And yet we often  refer to the science of modern schooling as pedagogy. The unenlightened parent who  innocently brings matters of concern to the pedagogue, whether that poor soul is called     schoolteacher, principal, or superintendent, is usually beginning a game of frustration  which will end in no fundamental change. A case of barking up the wrong tree in a dark  wood where the right tree is far away and obscure. 

      Pedagogy is social technology for winning attention and cooperation (or obedience)  while strings are attached to the mind and placed in the hands of an unseen master. This  may be done holistically, with smiles, music, and light-duty simulations of intellection, or  it can be done harshly with rigorous drills and competitive tests. The quality of self-doubt  aimed for in either case is similar.  

     Pedagogy is a useful concept to help us unthread some of the mysteries of modern  schooling. That it is increasingly vital to the social order is evinced by the quiet teacher-  pay revolution that has occurred since the 1960s. As with police work (to which  pedagogy bears important similarities), school pay has become relatively good, its hours  of labor short, its job security first rate. Contrast this with the golden years of one-room  schooling where pay was subsistence only and teachers were compelled to board around  to keep body and soul together. Yet there was no shortage then of applicants and many  sons of prominent Americans began their adult lives as schoolteachers.  

     With the relative opulence of today, it would be simple to fill teaching slots with  accomplished men and women if that were a goal. A little adjustment in what are  rationally indefensible licensing requirements would make talented people, many  performance-tested adults in their fifties and sixties, available to teach. That there is not  such fluid access is a good sign the purpose of schooling is more than it appears. The  year- in, year-out consistency of mediocre teacher candidates demonstrates clearly that the  school institution actively seeks, nurtures, hires, and promotes the caliber of personnel it  needs.  

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