It’s no secret that the US educational system doesn’t do a very good job. Like clockwork, studies show that America’s schoolkids lag behind their peers in pretty much every industrialized nation. We hear shocking statistics about the percentage of high-school seniors who can’t find the US on an unmarked map of the world or who don’t know who Abraham Lincoln was.
Fingers are pointed at various aspects of the schooling system — overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, teachers who can’t pass competency exams in their fields, etc. But these are just secondary problems. Even if they were cleared up, schools would still suck. Why? Because they were designed to.
How can I make such a bold statement? How do I know why America’s public school system was designed the way it was (age-segregated, six to eight 50-minute classes in a row announced by Pavlovian bells, emphasis on rote memorization, lorded over by unquestionable authority figures, etc.)? Because the men who designed, funded, and implemented America’s formal educational system in the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about what they were doing.
Almost all of these books, articles, and reports are out of print and hard to obtain. Luckily for us, John Taylor Gatto tracked them down. Gatto was voted the New York City Teacher of the Year three times and the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. But he became disillusioned with schools — the way they enforce conformity, the way they kill the natural creativity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning that every little child has at the beginning. So he began to dig into terra incognita, the roots of America’s educational system.
In 1888, the Senate Committee on Education was getting jittery about the localized, non-standardized, non-mandatory form of education that was actually teaching children to read at advanced levels, to comprehend history, and, egads, to think for themselves. The committee’s report stated, “We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.”