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An American Affidavit

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

60.The Great Transformation: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

60.The Great Transformation: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The Great Transformation

    I lived through the great transformation which turned schools from often useful places (if  never the essential ones school publicists claimed) into laboratories of state  experimentation. When I began teaching in 1961, the social environment of Manhattan  schools was a distant cousin of the western
Pennsylvania schools I attended in the 1940s,  as Darwin was a distant cousin of Malthus.     

     Discipline was the daily watchword on school corridors. A network of discipline  referrals, graded into an elaborate catalogue of well-calibrated offenses, was etched into  the classroom heart. At bottom, hard as it is to believe in today's school climate, there  was a common dedication to the intellectual part of the enterprise. I remember screaming  (pompously) at an administrator who marked on my plan book that he would like to see  evidence I was teaching "the whole child," that I didn't teach children at all, I taught the  discipline of the English language! Priggish as that sounds, it reflects an attitude not  uncommon among teachers who grew up in the 1940s and before. Even with much  slippage in practice, Monongahela and Manhattan had a family relationship. About  schooling at least. Then suddenly in 1965 everything changed. 

      Whatever the event is that I'm actually referring to — and its full dimensions are still only  partially clear to me — it was a nationwide phenomenon simultaneously arriving in all big  cities coast to coast, penetrating the hinterlands afterwards. Whatever it was, it arrived all  at once, the way we see national testing and other remote-control school matters like  School-to-Work legislation appear in every state today at the same time. A plan was  being orchestrated, the nature of which is unmasked in the upcoming chapters.  

     Think of this thing for the moment as a course of discipline dictated by coaches outside  the perimeter of the visible school world. It constituted psychological restructuring of the  institution's mission, but traveled under the guise of a public emergency which (the  public was told) dictated increasing the intellectual content of the business! Except for its  nightmare aspect, it could have been a scene from farce, a swipe directly from Orwell's  1984 and its fictional telly announcements that the chocolate ration was being raised  every time it was being lowered. This reorientation did not arise from any democratic  debate, or from any public clamor for such a peculiar initiative; the public was not  consulted or informed. Best of all, those engineering the makeover denied it was  happening.  

     I watched fascinated, as over a period of a hundred days, the entire edifice of public  schooling was turned upside down. I know there was no advance warning to low-level  administrators like principals, either, because I watched my first principal destroy himself  trying to stem the tide. A mysterious new deal was the order of the day.  

     Suddenly children were to be granted "due process" before any sanction, however mild,  could be invoked. A formal schedule of hearings, referees, advocates, and appeals was set  up. What might on paper have seemed only a liberal extension of full humanity to  children was actually the starting gun for a time of mayhem. To understand this better,  reflect a minute on the full array of ad hoc responses to wildness, cruelty, or incipient  chaos teachers usually employ to keep the collective classroom a civil place at all. In a  building with a hundred teachers, the instituting of an adversarial system of justice meant  that within just weeks the building turned into an insane asylum. Bedlam, without a  modicum of civility anywhere.  

     This transformation, ironically enough, made administrative duty easier, because where  once supervisory intercession had constituted, a regular link in the ladder of referral as it     was called, in the new order, administrators were excused from minute-to-minute  discipline and were granted power to assume that incidents were a teacher's fault, to be  duly entered on the Cumulative Record File, the pedagogical equivalent of the Chinese  Dangan.  

     There was a humorous aspect to what transpired over the next few years. I had no  particular trouble keeping a lid on things, but for teachers who counted upon support  from administrative staff it was a different story. Now, if they asked for a hand, often  they were pressured to resign, or formally charged with bad classroom management, or  worst of all, transferred to an even more hideous school in expectation they would  eliminate themselves. 

      Most, under such tension, took the hint and quit. A few had to be pushed. I remember a  magnificent math teacher, an older black woman with honors and accomplishments to her  name, much beloved and respected by her classes, singled out for public persecution  probably because she acted as an intractable moral force, a strong model teacher with  strong principles. Daily investigative teams from the district office watched her classes,  busily took notes in the back of her room, challenged her style of presentation openly  while children listened. This went on for two weeks. Then the administration began to  call her students to the school office to interrogate them, one by one, about the teacher's  behavior. They coached some kids to watch her during her classes, coached them to look  for any telltale signs she was a racist! Parents were called and offered an option of  withdrawing their kids from her classes. Broken by the ordeal, one day she vanished.  

     When my wife was elected to the district school board, one of her first actions was to  gain access to the superintendent's private files without his knowledge. Some of those  records concerned details of official cases of harassment. Dozens of employees had been  similarly purged, and dozens more were "under investigation" in this gulag on West 95th  Street. Contacting these people in private, it became clear to me that, they were far from  the worst teachers around. Indeed some were the best. Their relative prowess had  emboldened them to speak out on policy matters and so marked them for elimination.  

     One principal, whose school was the most successful reading environment in the district,  received similar treatment, ultimately sentenced to an official Siberia in Harlem, given no  duties at all for the two years more he lasted before quitting. His crime: allegedly striking  a girl although there were no witnesses to this but the girl, a student who admitted  breaking into the light-control panel room in the auditorium where the offense is  supposed to have occurred. His real crime was his refusal to abandon phonetic reading  methodology and replace it with a politically mandated whole-word substitute. 

      I escaped the worst effects of the bloodbath. Mostly I minded my business trying to  ignore the daily carnage. In truth I had no affection for the old system being savaged, and  chaos made it easier for me to try out things that worked. On balance, I probably did my  best work during those turbulent years as a direct result of the curious smokescreen they  provided.    

     But accounts are not so simple to balance overall. If I regarded run-of-the-mill school  administrators as scared rabbits or system flunkies, the reformers I saw parading daily  through the building corridors looked like storm troopers and made my skin crawl.  

     On several occasions, energetic efforts were made by these people to recruit my  assistance as an active ally. All such appeals I politely refused. True belief they had, but  for all of it they seemed like savages to me, inordinately proud of their power to cause  fear, as willing to trample on the decencies as the people they were harassing as indecent.  However, it seemed just possible something good might actually emerge from the  shakeup underway. About that, I was dead wrong. As the project advanced, schools  became noticeably worse. Bad to begin with, now they mutated into something horrible. 

      What shape began to emerge was a fascinating echo of the same bureaucratic cancer  which dogged the steps of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Do-nothing  administrators and nonteaching teachers multiplied like locusts. With them came an  entirely new class of school-teacher, one aggressively ignorant, cynical, and often tied to  local political clubs. New categories of job description sprang up like weeds.  

     My own school fell victim to a politically correct black gym teacher imported from New  England to be its principal. Two schoolwide riots followed his installation, mass marches  on city hall transpired in which local politicians instrumental in the man's selection used  schoolchildren as unwitting cadres to lobby their favorite schemes in newsworthy,  children's crusade fashion. 

      A small band of old-fashioned teachers fought rearguard actions against this, but time  retired them one by one until, with only an occasional exception, the classrooms of  Community School District 3, in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods on earth,  became lawless compounds, job projects for the otherwise unemployable. 

      I need to wrap this up so we can get on with things. I have to skip the full story of the  Hell's Angel math teacher who parked his Harley Hog outside the door of his classroom,  and when the principal objected, told him in front of startled witnesses that if the man  didn't shut his mouth, the number-crunching cyclist would come to his home that  evening, pour gasoline under his front door, and set his house on fire. I have to skip the  hair-raising stories of not one but three junior high teachers I knew quite well who  married their students. Each, spotting a likely thirteen-year-old, wooed the respective girl  in class and married her a few years later. They took the more honorable course, hardly  the outcome of most teacher-student romances I was privy to. I have to skip the drug  habits of staff in each of the buildings I worked in and other lurid stuff like that. In the  midst of the unending dullness of institutional schooling, human nature cracks through  the peeling paint as grass through cement. I have to skip all that. Suffice it to say, my life  experience taught me that school isn't a safe place to leave your children.  

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