Jazz and Imagination… Not a Mass of Clerks

John Taylor Gatto
There was a reposting of a 2006 John Taylor Gatto blog piece, “The Richest Man in the World Has Some Advice for Us about College”, on “The Link”, a homeschooling blog. It caught the attention of a friend who is an artist and musician and happens to also be my daughter’s piano and art teacher, so this friend has a real stake in encouraging people’s innate creativity. She shared the link with all her friends.

Gatto (one of my alternative education “gurus”), is often outrageous and is always the provocateur. But underneath his shock talk (delivered in his signature measured tone), there are some really profound outside-the-box contrarian ideas that I don’t always agree with but I find ever worth consideration.

One of Gatto’s key underlying themes is that American society, which was founded on ideas of liberty and egalitarianism, has gone off that path in favor of a social engineered hierarchy of haves and have nots, maintained by a huge class of functionaries (the Russians have the great word “apparatchik”) that are the main product (along with research) of our universities and colleges. Sometimes when I hear him expound on this I roll my eyes as he lays it out as a grand conspiracy… I have never been much for those sorts of conspiracy theories. But like many of his other ideas, they continue to lurk in my mind and the anecdotal experiences of my life continue to build pearls around his grains of irritating intellectual sand.

So in this blog piece here is Gatto once again, grinding some of his favorite axes, picking up (or off) new adherents like my artist friend. Again that cantankerous curmudgeon that delights in taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to reconsider some of your core foundational assumptions.

Here is Gatto once again telling the story of his poster-boy Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to go on to become one of the world’s most innovative outside-the-box thinkers and richest people. The same Gates that Gatto accuses of being a major league hypocrite for encouraging every American youth to “do what I say, not what I do” and go to inside-the-box college.

Says Gatto about Gates and some of his fellow information technology innovators…

If Gates’ [universal college education] proposal was such a great idea, then how was it that Gates, like Faulkner, dropped out of college his freshman year? And why didn’t he ever go back? And how was it that from among millions of college-trained techies, Gates decided to hook up with another dropout, Paul Allen, to found Microsoft? That could have been a million-to-one coincidence, of course, except for the fact that Steve Jobs, the brains behind Apple, dropped out of Reed College after one semester. And never went back to college, not for a single day! Was it only an accident that Jobs chose to partner with another dropout, Steve Wozniak, in the founding of Apple? Michael Dell of Dell Computer didn’t bother with college either. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, said he didn’t have the time to waste on college. Is the penny beginning to drop? These multi-billionaires, who’ve changed the face of the global society in technology, were all dropouts. What do you make of that?

Gatto loves to reel off these anecdotes, and there is always a part of my mind that sceptically notes that there is more to the truth than just some high-profile success stories. But then I have my own anecdotes, including my own two kids, who with their parents’ blessing bailed on high school and college. Certainly I could be biased, latching on to Gatto’s tales to justify the unorthodox educational course we let our own kids take.

I also know a disturbingly large number of other young adults (yes just more anecdotes and not statistics here) who have stayed the course and made it through high school and college, only to come out more than a bit dazed and confused, not so sure they want to leverage those degrees to plug themselves into the high-powered “functionary” or “apparatchik” class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, analysts and others and taking their marching orders from their various incarnations of “the Man”.

Gatto quotes English economic historian Arnold Toynbee

In his monumental history of civilizations, Arnold Toynbee said that institutionally forced schooling was always about creating a mass of clerks for the prevailing bureaucracy. Not educated people who can think for themselves, but clerks – parts of a social machine. In your heart, you knew that, with or without Toynbee, didn’t you?

That last line again makes my eyes roll, but is classic Gatto, who made his mark for many years as one of those high school teachers many of us remember having that challenged all of our assumptions and led us down new paths we might never otherwise gone. (For me, that high school teacher happened to be Mr. Peacock, a Trotskyite communist who taught a class called “Modern Russian History”, and opened my mind in particular to a number of anarchist thinkers and their radical ideas about governance.)

So has our education system become fixated on producing a mass of high-powered “clerks” to run a consumer society where we all “shop til we drop” rather than “question authority” and actively partake in a political process originally intended to be egalitarian, but often now seeming to be a spectator contest between rich people? I don’t think its that simple, but it certainly makes me think.

Gatto, as always, puts his provocative framing on American history talking about the “saturation schooling” that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and resulting “corporatism”…

Saturation schooling, kindergarten through college, was a leadership response to the demands of a centralized corporate economy that replaced American/Canadian entrepreneurialism between 1880 and 1920. What corporatism required was two things: A laboring mass – including a professional laboring mass of doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and schoolteachers – who did what they were told without question, and a citizenry in name only, one which defined itself by non-stop consumption, one which believed that choosing between options offered by management was what democracy was all about.

So after all his shock talk, what’s Gatto’s point in this piece? His metaphorical answer is “Jazz, not schooling”…

Jazz writ large has always been the key to North American genius. As David Richardo, the great philosopher of capitalism often said: The road to wealth comes from understanding what it is that you do best, then doing it. It’s time we abandoned the cowardly path of imitating what China and India will do best in the future, realizing that our own security can only be preserved by encouraging imagination… We need to follow the path opened by our unparalleled jazz domination of the planet.

Gatto cites the computer, entertainment, and (to be particularly provocative) the fast food industry (of all things!) He says all three are examples of American genius manifest, initiated by unschooled prodigies.

Each of these businesses is almost exclusively the work of dropouts, from college, high school and elementary school. They are erected from imagination. Our fast food franchises don’t really sell “food” at all, but two intense tastes – salty and sweet – surrounded by clean, well-lighted places and spotless toilets and primary colors. They sell a return to early childhood and its simplicities.

Don’t think that whole fast food thing is something to take pride in… but as always, point taken.

At the end of the piece, Gatto, in typical form, calls for a complete change of the paradigm…

Whatever education is, one thing is certain: It doesn’t take place locked in seats following the commands of total strangers, your obedience measured regularly by short answer tests. And it’s education we need to meet the future, not schooling… Mass college attendance once served America and Canada very well, but that time is gone and good riddance. It dampened down the inventive, entrepreneurial spirit in the interests of habit-training and attitude-adjustment… We have the most efficient management in the world at a very high price: Mutilating the public imagination, vesting it in a handful of corporations. School was the factory producing incomplete human beings who were easy to manage. It worked for a century to produce national riches and a citizenry increasingly poor in spirit.

Okay already… I get your point… not sure I agree, but I get it and I’ll have to think about it for a good long while.

3 replies on “Jazz and Imagination… Not a Mass of Clerks”

  1. Gatto’s a great public school critic. I admire his courage and ideas. However, Cooper, I doubt if you’ll find him in alignment with many of Riane Eisler’s ideas. 🙂

  2. Louise… Eisler and Gatto might not be in agreement, though I think they both resonate to the transition from hierarchy to partnership, from power over to power with.

    But whether or not they are in sync with each other, I think they both have something to add to the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *