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An American Affidavit

Thursday, November 28, 2019

84. Death Dies: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

84. Death Dies: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Death Dies  

     In 1932, John Dewey, now elevated to a position as America's most prominent  educational voice, heralded the end of what he called "the old individualism." Time had  come, he said, for a new individualism that recognized the radical transformation that had  come in American society:  

   Associations, tightly or loosely organized, more and more define opportunities, choices,  and actions of individuals.   

     Death, a staple topic of children's books for hundreds of years because it poses a central  puzzle for all children, nearly vanished as theme or event after 1916. Children were  instructed indirectly that there was no grief; indeed, an examination of hundreds of those  books from the transitional period between 1900 and 1916 reveals that Evil no longer had  any reality either. There was no Evil, only bad attitudes, and those were correctable by  training and adjustment therapies. 
      To see how goals of Utopian procedure are realized, consider further the sudden change  that fell upon the children's book industry between 1890 and 1920. Without explanations  or warning, timeless subjects disappeared from the texts, to be replaced by what is best  regarded as a political agenda. The suddenness of this change was signaled by many  other indications of powerful social forces at work: the phenomenal overnight growth of  "research" hospitals where professional hospital-ity replaced home-style sick care, was  one of these, the equally phenomenal sudden enforcement of compulsory schooling  another. 
      Through children's books, older generations announce their values, declare their  aspirations, and make bids to socialize the young. Any sudden change in the content of  such books must necessarily reflect changes in publisher consciousness, not in the  general class of book-buyer whose market preferences evolve slowly. What is prized as  human achievement can usually be measured by examining children's texts; what is  valued in human relationships can be, too.  
     In the thirty- year period from 1890 to 1920, the children's book industry became a  creator, not a reflector, of values. In any freely competitive situation this could hardly  have happened because the newly aggressive texts would have risked missing the market.  The only way such a gamble could be safe was for total change to occur simultaneously     among publishers. The insularity and collegiality of children's book publishing allowed it  this luxury. 
      One aspect of children's publishing that has remained consistent all the way back to 1721  is the zone where it is produced; today, as nearly three hundred years ago, the Northeast  is where children's literature happens — inside the cities of Boston, New York, and  Philadelphia. No industry shift has ever disturbed this cozy arrangement: over time,  concentration became even more intense. Philadelphia's role diminished in the twentieth  century, leaving Boston and New York co-regents at its end. In 1975, 87 percent of all  titles available came from those two former colonial capitals, while in 1 876 it had been  "only" 84 percent, a marvelous durability. For the past one hundred years these two cities  have decided what books American children will read.  
     Until 1875, about 75 percent of all children's titles dealt with some aspect of the future —  usually salvation. Over the next forty years this idea vanished completely. As Comte and  Saint-Simon had strongly advised, the child was to be relieved of concerning itself with  the future. The future would be arranged /or children and for householders by a new  expert class, and the need to do God's will was now considered dangerous superstition by  men in charge.  
      Another dramatic switch in children's books had to do with a character's dependence on  community to solve problems and to give life meaning. Across the eighteenth and  nineteenth centuries, strength, afforded by stable community life, was an important part  of narrative action, but toward the end of the nineteenth century a totally new note of  "self was sounded. Now protagonists became more competent, more in control; their  need for family and communal affirmation disappeared, to be replaced by a new  imperative — the quest for certification by legitimate authority. Needs now suddenly  dominant among literary characters were so-called "expressive needs": exploring,  playing, joy, loving, self-actualizing, intriguing against one's own parents. By the early  twentieth century, a solid majority of all children's books focus on the individual child  free from the web of family and community. 
      This model had been established by the Horatio Alger books in the second half of the  nineteenth century; now with some savage modern flourishes (like encouraging active  indifference to family) it came to totally dominate the children's book business. Children  were invited to divide their interests from those of their families and to concentrate on  private concerns. A few alarmed critical voices saw this as a strategy of "divide and  conquer," a means to separate children from family so they could be more easily molded  into new social designs. In the words of Mary Lystad, the biographer of children's  literary history from whom I have drawn heavily in this analysis:  

     As the twentieth century continued, book characters were provided more and more  opportunities to pay attention to themselves. More and more characters were allowed to  look inward to their own needs and desires.    

     This change of emphasis "was managed at the expense of others in the family group," she  adds. 
      From 1796 to 1855, 18 percent of all children's books were constructed around the idea  of conformity to some adult norm; but by 1 896 emphasis on conformity had tripled. This  took place in the thirty years following the Civil War. Did the elimination of the Southern  pole of our national dialectic have anything to do with that? Yes, everything, I think.  With tension between Northern and Southern ways of life and politics resolved  permanently in favor of the North, the way was clear for triumphant American orthodoxy  to seize the entire field. The huge increase in conformist themes rose even more as we  entered the twentieth century and has remained at an elevated level through the decades  since. 
      What is most deceptive in trying to fix this characteristic conformity is the introduction of  an apparently libertarian note of free choice into the narrative equation. Modern  characters are encouraged to self-start and to proceed on what appears to be an  independent course. But upon closer inspection, that course is always toward a centrally  prescribed social goal, never toward personal solutions to life's dilemmas. Freedom of  choice in this formulation arises from the feeling that you have freedom, not from its  actual possession. Thus social planners get the best of both worlds: a large measure of  control without any kicking at the traces. In modern business circles, such a style of  oversight is known as management by objectives. 
      Another aspect of this particular brand of regulation is that book characters are shown  being innovative, but innovative only in the way they arrive at the same destination; their  emotional needs for self-expression are met harmlessly in this way without any risk to  social machinery. Much evidence of centralized tinkering within the factory of children's  literature exists, pointing in the direction of what might be called Unit-Man — people as  work units partially broken free of human community who can be moved about efficiently  in various social experiments. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of  Chicago, thought of such an end as "laboratory research aimed at designing a rational  Utopia." 
      To mention just a few other radical changes in children's book content between 1890 and  1920: school credentials replace experience as the goal book characters work toward, and  child labor becomes a label of condemnation in spite of its ancient function as the  quickest, most reliable way to human independence — the way taken in fact by Carnegie,  Rockefeller, and many others who were now apparently quite anxious to put a stop to it. 
      Children are encouraged not to work at all until their late teen years, sometimes not until  their thirties. A case for the general superiority of youth working instead of idly sitting  around in school confinement is often made prior to 1900, but never heard again in  children's books after 1916. The universality of this silence is the notable thing,  deafening in fact.   
      Protagonists' goals in the new literature, while apparently individualistic, are almost  always found being pursued through social institutions — those ubiquitous "associations"  of John Dewey — never through family efforts. Families are portrayed as good-natured  dormitory arrangements or affectionate manager-employee relationships, but emotional  commitment to family life is noticeably ignored. Significant family undertakings like  starting a farm or teaching each other how to view life from a multi-age perspective are  so rare that the few exceptions stand out like monadnocks above a broad, flat plain.  

Three Most Significant Books 

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