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An American Affidavit

Thursday, July 26, 2018

128 On Punishment: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

On Punishment 

There was a time when hamburger pretty much described Alpha and Omega in my 
limited food sensibility. My grandparents didn't much care, and in the realm of 
monitored eating, Bootie was a pushover, but not the new girl on Second Street, Bud's 
wife, brought home from Cincinnati after WWII. Well, I remember the evening Helen 
prepared Chinese food, hardly a daring thing anywhere now, but in those long gone days 
around Pittsburgh, radical cuisine. I shut my nine-year-old mouth and flatly refused to eat 

"You will eat it," said Helen, "if you have to sit there all night." She was right. At 
midnight I did eat it. By then it tasted awful. But soon after the indignity, I discovered 
that miraculously I had developed a universal palate. I could eat and enjoy anything. 

When I was ten and eleven years old, I still made occasional assaults on my sister's 
sexual dignity. She was older, bigger, and stronger than me so there was little chance my 
vague tropisms could have caused any harm, but even that slight chance ended one 
afternoon, when on hearing one of these overtures, Pappy grabbed me abruptly behind 
the neck and back of a shoulder and proceeded to kick me like a football, painful step by 
painful step, up the staircase to our apartment. 

On theft: having discovered where the printing office stock of petty cash was kept, I 
acquired a dollar without asking. How Pap knew it was me I never found out, but when 
he burst through the apartment calling my name in an angry bellow, I knew I had been 
nailed and fled to the bathroom, the only door inside the apartment with a lock. Ignoring 
his demands to come out, with the greatest relief I heard his footsteps grow faint and the 
front door slam. But no sooner had I relaxed than he was back, this time with a house- 
wrecking bar. He pried the bathroom door off, hinge by hinge. I still remember the 
ripping sound it made. But nothing else. 

Almost every classroom in my junior high school and my high school had a wooden 
paddle hung prominently over the classroom door, nor were these merely decorative. I 
was personally struck about a dozen times in my school career; it always hurt. But it's 
also fair to say that unlike the assaults on my spirit I endured from time to time for 
bearing an Italian name at Cornell, none of these physical assaults caused any resentment 
to linger — in each instance, I deserved some sort of retribution for one malicious 
barbarism or another. I forgot the blows soon after they were administered. On the other 
hand, I harbor a significant amount of ill feeling for those teachers who humiliated me 
verbally; those I have no difficulty recalling. 

It might seem from examples I've given that I believe some simple relation between pain 
and self-improvement exists. But it isn't simple — with the single exception of a teenage 
boy whose pleasure came from terrifying girls, I never struck a single kid in three 
decades in the classroom. What I'm really trying to call your attention to is that simplistic 
codebook of rules passed down to us from academic psychology and enshrined as sacred 
text. Punishment played an important and positive role in shaping me. It has in the 

shaping of everyone I've known as a friend. Punishment has also ruined its share of 
victims, I know. The difference may reside in whether it arises from legitimate human 
grievances or from the bloodless discipline of a bureaucracy. It's a question nobody 
should regard as closed. 


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