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An American Affidavit

Sunday, May 20, 2018

82.Mr. Young's Head Was Pounded To Jelly: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Mr. Young's Head Was Pounded To Jelly 

The most surprising thing about the start-up of mass public education in mid-nineteenth- 
century Massachusetts is how overwhelmingly parents of all classes soon complained 
about it. Reports of school committees around 1850 show the greatest single theme of 
discussion was conflict between the State and the general public on this matter. 
Resistance was led by the old yeoman class — those families accustomed to taking care of 
themselves and providing meaning for their own lives. The little town of Barnstable on 
Cape Cod is exemplary. Its school committee lamented, according to Katz's Irony of 
Early School Reform, that "the great defect of our day is the absence of governing or 
controlling power on the part of parents and the consequent insubordination of children. 
Our schools are rendered inefficient by the apathy of parents." 

Years ago I was in possession of an old newspaper account which related the use of 
militia to march recalcitrant children to school there, but I've been unable to locate it 
again. Nevertheless, even a cursory look for evidence of state violence in bending public 
will to accept compulsion schooling will be rewarded: Bruce Curtis' book Building the 
Education State 1836-1871 documents the intense aversion to schooling which arose 
across North America, in Anglican Canada where leadership was uniform, as well as in 
the United States where leadership was more divided. Many schools were burned to the 
ground and teachers run out of town by angry mobs. When students were kept after 
school, parents often broke into school to free them. 

At Saltfleet Township in 1859 a teacher was locked in the schoolhouse by students who 
"threw mud and mire into his face and over his clothes," according to school records — 
while parents egged them on. At Brantford, Ontario, in 1 863 the teacher William Young 
was assaulted (according to his replacement) to the point that "Mr. Young's head, face 
and body was, if I understand rightly, pounded literally to jelly." Curtis argues that parent 

resistance was motivated by a radical transformation in the intentions of schools — a 
change from teaching basic literacy to molding social identity. 

The first effective American compulsory schooling in the modern era was a reform 
school movement which Know-Nothing legislatures of the 1850s put into the hopper 
along with their radical new adoption law. Objects of reformation were announced as 
follows: Respect for authority; Self-control; Self-discipline. The properly reformed boy 
"acquires a fixed character," one that can be planned for in advance by authority in 
keeping with the efficiency needs of business and industry. Reform meant the total 
transformation of character, behavior modification, a complete makeover. By 1857, a few 
years after stranger-adoption was kicked off as a new policy of the State, Boutwell could 
consider foster parenting (the old designation for adoption) "one of the major strategies 
for the reform of youth."' The first step in the strategy of reform was for the State to 
become de facto parent of the child. That, according to another Massachusetts educator, 
Emory Washburn, "presents the State in her true relation of a parent seeking out her 
erring children." 

The 1850s in Massachusetts marked the beginning of a new epoch in schooling. 
Washburn triumphantly crowed that these years produced the first occasion in history 
"whereby a state in the character of a common parent has undertaken the high and sacred 
duty of rescuing and restoring her lost children. ..by the influence of the school." John 
Philbrick, Boston school superintendent, said of his growing empire in 1863, "Here is 
real home!" (emphasis added) All schooling, including the reform variety, was to be in 
imitation of the best "family system of organization"; this squared with the prevalent 
belief that delinquency was not caused by external conditions — thus letting industrialists 
and slumlords off the hook — but by deficient homes. 

Between 1 840 and 1 860, male schoolteachers were cleansed from the Massachusetts 
system and replaced by women. A variety of methods was used, including the novel one 
of paying women slightly more than men in order to bring shame into play in chasing men 
out of the business. Again, the move was part of a well-conceived strategy: "Experience 
teaches that these boys, many of whom never had a mother's affection... need the 
softening and refining influence which woman alone can give, and we have, wherever 
practicable, substituted female officers and teachers for those of the other sex." 

A state report noted the frequency with which parents coming to retrieve their own 
children from reform school were met by news their children had been given away to 
others, through the state's parens patriae power. "We have felt it to be our duty generally 
to decline giving them up to their parents and have placed as many of them as we could 
with farmers and mechanics," reads a portion of Public Document 20 for the state of 
Massachusetts, written in 1864. (emphasis added) To recreate the feelings of parents on 
hearing this news is beyond my power. 

The reader will recall such a strategy was considered for Hester Prynne's child, Pearl, in Hawthorne's 

Scarlet Letter. That Hawthorne, writing at mid-century, chose this as a hinge for his characterization of the fallen woman Hester is surely no 

William Rainey Harper 

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