One of the more interesting people I encountered back in my New Age days was D. She
was crazy. I don't mean "believes in crystal magic" crazy, I mean fire-in-the-brain
full-blown-psychosis crazy. D.'s condition did not respond to medication and it
manifested in vivid, lifelike visions. She was older than me and had had reached
an interesting detente with her condition; she was smart as a whip and knew full
well what her visions were, but she had decided it was easier and more fulfilling
to accept them rather than denying them. As a result she probably had a richer life
than most normal people do.
One day D. greeted me darkly. "I had a vision of Leviathan," she said. Her vision
of Leviathan still gives me chills today; it was a great lurking beast beneath
the surface of the real world, more machine than animal, with its tentacles
everywhere. You could not escape it. At the moment of your birth it would put its
claws into you and it never let you go. It would destroy you eventually for you are
its food and its spirit; but it would destroy you sooner and more painfully and cast
you aside for the worthless dross you were to it if you balked it. I really can't
do justice to D.'s description; she made it seem like a real thing that I might see
myself. D. described a soulless corporate steamroller that moulds those of us it
can into those unnatural shapes it finds useful, and discards the rest of us like the
shavings on a workshop floor; and she made it feel real.
This brings me to John Taylor Gatto.
I wish I could say I was outraged by The Underground History of American Education.
Outrage would be comfortable. Outrage would provide energy and suggest courses of action.
But outrage will not come; instead what I feel is horror. Because what Gatto has done
is to reveal D.'s Leviathan in all its ghastly splendor.
This book represents a superhuman effort of scholarship; it took Gatto nine years to
write after the epiphany that destroyed his career. But it's no small monster he has uncovered.
The Leviathan revealed by Gatto is made up of humans and human ideas and human dreams
and a generous dollop of human evil, but the true horror is that it is not human. Just
as we are something other than the cells which make up our bodies, Leviathan is bigger
than any of the people or dogmas that make it up.
Gatto traces every tentacle back to the stem cell from which it emerged -- the dreamers,
crackpots, tyrants, fascists, and Utopian do-gooders whose efforts and ideas swirled
around in human society until they metastazed into something nobody could have imagined.
Gatto begins at the beginning -- before Leviathan, before universal schooling, he shows
us how we learned by example. Over and over Gatto demonstrates that when you give a human
a compelling reason to learn, he will absorb knowledge at an unbelievable rate. Gatto
Abundant data exist to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the
United States was between 93 and 100 percent, wherever such a thing mattered.
Yet compulsory schooling existed nowhere.
Gatto makes a good case that learning is a natural process that people excel at unless
you interfere with it. And what schooling does is interfere with that process.
Tragically, for the last fifty years in particular, whenever someone notices that
the schools aren't doing their job the answer is always to hire more people
given more training to interfere more.
In Part One:
Gatto shows us how the founders of the US and the great Classical philosophers educated
themselves by picking their own topics of interest, and how in a nation with few
schools most people taught themselves to read -- often in a matter of weeks -- by the
now-controversial but bone-obvious method of sounding out the letters. Gatto later spends
some time on the fate of Phonics in the classroom, and the unnaturally pigheaded
manner in which it was forced out in favor of the "whole word" method which demonstrably
In Part Two:
Gatto then shows us how systems developed explicitly to keep the masses stupid for
social control in India and Prussia were eagerly imported by the new capitalists
hoping to cement their oligarchy. But as soon as we are wanting to blame these
greedy bastards for the present mess, Gatto reminds us that Utopianists are as much
to blame for their own contributions:
Utopian schooling is never about learning in the traditional sense; it's about the
transformation of human nature.
The catalyst that allowed these two groups to foist their unholy vision on an unsuspecting
populace was coal. Cheap manufacturing and far-flung empire created a management class
whose very existence depended on skilled but compliant functionaries. Schools were
created to certify these new "professionals." Ordinary people were drawn to these
unnatural training institutions because they wanted the jobs and prestige that came with
being in management. It quickly became "obvious" that it was in society's interest to
ensure a steady supply of such compliant skilled functionaries for the factories and
offices which were the heart and lungs of this new beast, and so the argument was swallowed
that schooling should be compulsory.
Once the system was established of manufacturing, jobs, and schooling, the efficiency
experts and "scientfic managers" moved in to fine-tune things. These people wanted
to quantify the skills they were imparting to the new working and management classes,
and they ruthlessly expanded upon the idea of people as interchangeable parts, tested
and programmed to do exactly and only what they were required and expected to do.
And the amazing thing is that, even though the whole idea is contrary to every shred
of common sense and experience, it was lapped up and propped up and remains central
dogma to this day even though, just like the whole-word method for reading, abundant
evidence shows that it's wrong and stupid.
In Part Three:
Having laid out the origins of today's dysfunctional school system, Gatto takes off
on a one-chapter personal tangent.
The great destructive myth of the twentieth century was the aggressive contention
that a child could not grow up correctly in the unique circumstances of his own family.
Gatto recounts some incidents from his own childhood which would raise the hackles of
any family court lawyer today, and reveals how the risks and dangers and "bad
influences" he was subjected to were actually critical in forming his personality.
Before I went to first grade I could add, subtract, and multiply in my head. I knew
my times tables not as work but as games Dad played on drives around Pittsburgh.
Learning anything was easy when you felt like it. My father taught me that, not any school.
The other thing Gatto makes it clear he learned from his childhood village is his
sense of ethics. Mistakes are made and punishment and shame forged a sense of honor
and reputation. These things can't be formally taught; they emerge differently for
everyone because we make different mistakes and have different epiphanies. But the aim
of modern schooling (and family law) is to remove all opportunity for mistakes and to
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.
In Part Four:
The experience of global war gave official school reform a grand taste
for what was possible.
In the postwar years the school system, already highly advanced in the cause of moulding
good little corporate drones, was put into overdrive and aggressively forced into every
last backwater of resistance. The Fascists, the eugenecists, the Utopianists, and
the keepers of the new industrial caste system all saw the schools as the best vehicle
for perfecting their vision of society. Although schools are always sold to the
public as a means of teaching the "three R's," Gatto shows that mere learning came
to be the least of the public school's function (which is one reason they've become
so bad at teaching those unimportant little details).
The new behaviorist theories that treat children more like lab rats than unique
individuals came to be applied with a vigor that resulted in a litany of horrific and
insane policies. In Part Four Gatto delves into exactly what the school system has
become and how it affects the very real people who are consigned to it. And the
picture isn't pretty.
Internally, away from the critical eyes of parents, the schools abandoned all pretense
of being about traditional education. School became a total institution, a warren of
crushing boredom and ridiculous, often contradictory rules; and success wasn't judged
by the ability to impart or receive knowledge nearly as much as on how those rules were
In Part Five:
In the final section of the book Gatto goes into the politics of schools, the exact
mechanisms by which the best teachers and administrators are hounded out (because
anyone who is more interested in human beings than in the rules is a threat to the
system). In another chapter are the mechanisms by which "modern" school systems
are foisted on communities which don't need or want them, by the cunning manipulation
of building codes and other legal tricks. Leviathan will not stand for any corner
of the world to be out of its grasp, or any individual to slip away.
In the final chapter of the book Gatto attempts to provide some hope by citing
various people who did slip out of Leviathan's grasp, and providing some small
Your four-year-old wants to play? Let him help you cook dinner for real, fix the toilet,
clean the house, build a wall, sing "Eine Feste Burg." Give her a map, a mirror, and a
wristwatch, let her chart the world in which she really lives. You will be able to tell
from the joy she displays that becoming strong and useful is the best play of all. Pure
games are okay, too, but not day in, day out. Not a prison of games. There isn't a single
formula for breaking out of the trap, only a general one you tailor to your own
Which is all well and good, but it presupposes that Leviathan is going to let you get away
with this. Already it is rousing a few tentacles against the incipient threat of home
schooling. And every once in awhile the threat is re-raised to eliminate summer vacation
and make the total institution a yearlong affair. Combine that with the insane dictum
that my own schools abided by recommending an hour of homework for each daily class,
and you see that Leviathan has no intention of allowing your kid to be a kid. And
for the last few decades, if you get too uppity Leviathan has been perfectly willing
to step in and take your children from you for your failure to raise them by its standards.
Although Gatto only goes into it to the extent necessary to explain how schools got the
way they are, he makes it clear that the schools themselves are just one tentacle of
an even larger, still largely unseen monster. The schools are the way they are in large
measure because the economy needs them that way. Gatto briefly mentions but doesn't really
explore the wider ramifications of this; the way Leviathan makes our very existence, our
ability to have a place to stay and a meal to eat, contingent on our willingness to abide
by its standards and participate in its body. Unless you come up with a really clever
alternative you must work to support your life, and all work leads back to Leviathan because
Leviathan has control of the air supply. You can cooperate, or you can live in a cardboard
box and starve; other alternatives have been suppressed as has our memory that they ever
existed at all.
This, to me, is the ultimate horror of Gatto's book; he spent nine years documenting the
school system, a system with which he had a thirty-year intimate familiarity. Yet the
thing he reveals is clearly even larger than that. If you manage to follow his advice
and save your child from being a flunky, where will he live and how will he eat? Gatto
doesn't go there in The Underground History, but it's clearly the next question
a reader needs to ask.
Gatto ends his book with the obligatory rousing call...
Time to take our schools back. If they mean to have a war, let it begin now.
Well that's a nice sentiment, John, but let's get real. Your own book has just meticulously
documented how teachers, administrators, and even principals who insist on even minor
deviations like sticking to phonics for reading are ruthlessly hounded out of the system.
You've shown us how communities have new school systems foisted on them despite democratically
refusing twelve times in a row. And have you by any chance been watching how the Iraq war
protesters are treated, and how seriously they're taken by the Administration?
Leviathan doesn't care. You cannot beat a thing like that unless you're willing to tear
out its heart -- and that means destroying our entire civilization.
Even after reading The Underground History I'm not sure I want that. I'm not sure I
see any other way out but I'm not sure I want to see it all blow up. As you yourself say,
Spare yourself the anxiety of thinking of this school thing as a conspiracy, even
though the project is indeed riddled with petty conspirators. It was and is a fully rational
transaction in which all of us play a part. We trade the liberty of our kids and our free will
for a secure social order and a very prosperous economy. It's a bargain in which most of us
agree to become as children ourselves, under the same tutelage which holds the young, in
exchange for food, entertainment, and safety. The difficulty is that the contract fixes the
goal of human life so low that students go mad trying to escape it.
Well yes, that's about it, isn't it? We agree to be the cells of Leviathan's body because
Leviathan is mighty and it raises us up, even if it is prone to destroy us at whim.
Just as a brain cell can't function in the wild without a body to support it, most of
us have forgotten how to exist without the many functions Leviathan provides for us.
And that's why we do what it wants, even though it drives us insane.
The problem with fighting Leviathan is that ultimately, Leviathan is made up of us.
It has turned us into specialized organisms that can't survive without it. If you can
figure out how to fight the body you're part of, you're a smarter brain cell than I am,
John Taylor Gatto.
D. saw Leviathan for what it was, plain and whole and it didn't take her nine years of
research to work it out. But then, D. is crazy which means by definition Leviathan
has no use for her, so it's probably an advantage. When it takes a crazy person to see
the situation for what it is, it's not a good sign.
So, one might ask what can be done. Not being entirely normal myself I formed my
own response to Leviathan's power
when I was still a small child, just becoming aware of its power and callousness. Being
by some estimates one of Leviathan's brain cells, it's even metaphorically appropriate.
At the age of seven or so I vowed that I would never have kids. At the time I didn't even
know exactly how kids came about, but I kept that vow even when I was
old enough to learn how the whole having-kids thing works.
I find it interesting that in his list of responses to the situation John Taylor Gatto
didn't think of that; I suppose we all have our blind spots.