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An American Affidavit

Saturday, August 4, 2018

133 The College Of Zimmer And Hegel: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The College Of Zimmer And Hegel 

The most important studies I ever engaged in weren't at Cornell or Columbia, but in the 
windowless basement of the Zimmer Printing Company, a block and a half from the 
railroad tracks that ran alongside the Monongahela. Some of my greatest lessons 
unfolded near the mysterious dark green river, with its thick ice sheet near the banks in 
winter, its iridescent dragonflies in summer, and its always breathtaking sternwheelers 
pounding the water up and down, BAM! BAM! BAM! on the way to ports unknown. To 
me, the river was without beginning or end. 

Before he went to Germany to beat up the Nazis, my warrior Uncle Bud worked on a 
riverboat that went down the Mississippi to New Orleans, on what mission I can't say, 
then on other boats that went up and down smaller local rivers. When I was five, he once 

threw an orange to me from a riverboat galley while it passed through a lock. A right 
fielder's strong throwing arm sent that orange two hundred feet out of the watery trench 
into my hands. I didn't even have to move. 

In the basement of the printing office, Bud's father ("the General," as Moss called him 
behind his back) moved strong hands on and off of a printing press. Those presses are 
gone, but my grandfather's hands will never be gone. They remain on my shoulder as I 
write this. I would sit on the steps into his subterranean world, watching closely hour 
after hour as those rough hands fed sheets of paper into the steam-driven clamshell press. 
It went BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) like the riverboats and bit by bit the job 
piled up on the table next to the press. 

It was a classroom without bells or tests. I never got bored, never got out of line. In 
school I was thrown out of class frequently for troublemaking, but Pappy wouldn't stand 
for nonsense. Not a scrap of it. He was all purpose. I never saw a man concentrate as he 
did, as long as it took, whatever was called for. I transferred that model unconsciously to 
my teaching. While my colleagues were ruled by start-up times, bell schedules, lunch 
hour, loudspeaker announcements, and dismissal, I was oblivious to these interruptions. I 
was ruled by the job to be done, kid by kid, until it was over, whatever that meant, kid by 

No baseball or football, no fishing, no shopping, no romantic adventure could have 
possibly matched the fascination I felt watching that tough old man in his tough old town 
work his hand-fed press in a naked-light-bulb lit cellar without any supervisor to tell him 
what to do or how to feel about it. He knew how to design and do layout, set type, buy 
paper, ink presses and repair them, clean up, negotiate with customers, price jobs, and 
keep the whole ensemble running. How did he learn this without school? Harry Taylor 
Zimmer, Senior. I loved him. Still do. 

He worked as naturally as he breathed, a perfect hero to me — I wonder if he understood 
that. On some secret level it was Pappy who held our family together, regardless of his 
position as pariah to his wife and his estranged brothers, regardless of an ambivalent 
relationship of few words with his daughter and son, granddaughter and grandson, and 
with his remaining brother, Will, the one who still spoke to him and worked alongside 
him at the presses. I say "spoke" when the best I can personally attest to is only 
association. They worked side by side but I never actually heard a single conversation 
between them. Will never entered our apartment above the shop. He slept on the press 
table in the basement. Yet Pappy kept the family faith. He knew his duty. When Bud 
brought his elegant wife home from the war, she would sit in Pappy' s room talking to 
him hour after hour, the two snorting and laughing thick as thieves. He had lost the key of 
conversation only with his own bloodline. 

I realize today that if Pappy couldn't count on himself, he was out of business and the rest 
of us in the poorhouse. If he hadn't liked himself, he would have gone crazy, alone with 
those heavy metal rhythms in the eternal gloom of the printing office basement. As I 
watched him he never said a word, didn't throw a glance in my direction. I had to supply 

my own incentive, welcome to stay or go, yet I sensed he appreciated my presence. 
Perhaps he did understand how I loved him. Sometimes when the job was finished he 
would lecture me a little about politics I didn't understand. 

In the craft tradition, printers are independent, even dangerous men. Ben Franklin was a 
printer like my German grandfather, himself preoccupied with things German at times. 
Movable type itself is German. Pappy was a serious student of the Prussian philosopher 
Hegel. I would hear Hegel's name in his conversations with Bud's wife, Helen. Late in 
his own life he began to speak to my father again. And sometimes even to me in my 
middle teens. I remember references to Hegel from those times, too. 

Hegel was philosopher in residence at the University of Berlin during the years when 
Prussia was committing itself to forced schooling. It's not farfetched to regard Hegel as 
the most influential thinker in modern history. Virtually everyone who made political 
footprints in the past two centuries, school people included, was Hegelian, or anti- 
Hegelian. Even today many knowledgeable people have no idea how important Hegel is 
to the deliberations of important men as they debate our common future. 

Hegel was important wherever strict social control was an issue. Ambitious states 
couldn't let a single child escape, said Hegel. Hegel believed nothing happened by 
accident; he thought history was headed somewhere and that its direction could be 
controlled. "Men as gods" was Hegel's theme before it was H.G. Wells'. Hegel believed 
when battle cannon roared, it was God talking to himself, working out his own nature 
dialectically. It's a formidable concept. No wonder it appealed to men who didn't labor, 
like Mr. Morgan or Mr. Rockefeller or Mr. Carnegie yet who still disdained easeful 
luxury. It engaged a printer's attention, and a little boy's, too. 

When I began to teach, I took the lessons of Monongahela and my two families to heart. 
The harder I struggled to understand myself, the better luck I had with other people's 
kids. A person has to know where his dead are buried and what his duty is before you can 
trust him. Whatever I had to teach children is locked up in the words you just read, as is 
the genesis of my critique of forced schooling. 

Chapter Eleven 

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