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An American Affidavit

Monday, July 30, 2018

130 Principles: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


Five days a week the town turned its children out in the morning to march up the hill to 
Waverly or down to the end of town to high school. There was no school bus. Waverly 
was frozen midway between the one-room schoolhouse tradition of transferring 
responsibility to children — we fought to fill the inkwells, clean the pen nibs, sweep the 
floor, serve in the lunchroom, clean the erasers, help our slower classmates in arithmetic 
and reading — and the specialized procedures and curriculum of the slowly dawning 
corporate age of schooling. While this latter style had been sold as more "socially 
efficient" ever since 1905, the realities of town life were such that nothing passed muster 
at Waverly which didn't first pass muster with parents and the elders of the town. 

School was something you took like medicine. You did it because your mother had done 
it and your grandmother. It was supposed to be good for you. Nobody believed it was 
decisively so. Looking back, I might agree this daily exercise with neighbors suddenly 
transformed into grammarians, historians, and mathematicians might well have been, as 
Mother said, "good for me." One thing is certain, these part-time specialists cared a great 
deal about Mother's opinion of what they were doing, just as she cared about theirs in 
regard to her parenting. 

The schoolteachers I remember are few but bear noting: Peg Hill who spoke to me 
exactly the way she did to the principal and won my heart for treating me as a peer; Miss 
Wible who taught me to sing and memorize song lyrics so ferociously, that my 
vocabulary and dramatic repertoire increased geometrically (even if we did whisper to 
each other that she was reading "love books" at her desk as we copied the day's words); 
old Miss McCullough, who played "American Patrol" every single day for an entire 
school year on a hand-cranked phonograph: "You must be vigilant, you must be diligent, 
American Patrol!" Her expressionless face and brutally stark manner stifled any 
inclination to satire. If we have to have schoolteachers, let some of them be this kind of 

At Waverly I learned about principle when Miss Hill read from Gibbon's Decline and 
Fall of the Roman Empire. She read of the courageous death of Blandina the slave, a 
teenage convert to Christianity who was offered her life to repudiate her faith and a cruel 
death if she refused. She refused. I learned that all the management savvy of the most 
powerful empire in history couldn't overwhelm the principles of a teenage slave. 

Principles were a daily part of every study at Waverly. In latter days, schools replaced 
principles with an advanced form of pragmatism called "situational ethics," where 
principles were shown to be variable according to the demands of the moment. During 
the 1970s, forcing this study on children became an important part of the school religion. 
People with flexible principles reserve the right to betray their covenants. It's that simple. 
The misery of modern life can be graphed in the rising incidence of people who exercise 
the right to betray each other, whether business associates, friends, or even family. 
Pragmatists like to keep their options open. When you live by principles, whatever 
semantic ambiguity they involve you in, there are clear boundaries to what you will 
allow, even when nobody is watching. 

Frances "Bootie" Zimmer 

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