The Real Curriculum of “Public” Education

An article at the privacy rights website Pogo Was Right (“U.S. Schools:  Grooming Students for a Surveillance State,” August 28) argues that schools are “grooming youth to passively accept a surveillance state where they have no expectation of privacy anywhere.”  Privacy violations include “surveilling students in their bedrooms via webcam … random drug or locker searches, strip-searching … lowering the standard for searching students to ‘reasonable suspicion’ from ‘probable cause,’ [and] disciplining students for conduct outside of school hours …”

“No expectation of privacy anywhere” is becoming literally true. The schools are grooming kids not only for the public surveillance state, but also for the private surveillance states of their employers.  By the time the human resources graduate from twelve years of factory processing, they will accept it as normal to be kept under constant surveillance — “for your own safety,” of course — by authority figures. But they won’t just accept it from Homeland Security (“if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear”).  They’ll also accept as “normal” a work situation in which an employer can make them pee in cups at any time, without notice, or track their online behavior even when they’re away from work.

This is just part of what rogue educator John Taylor Gatto calls the “real curriculum” of public education (“The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher,” 1992).  The real curriculum includes the lesson that the way to advancement, in any area of life, is to find out what will please the authority figure behind the desk, then do it.  It includes the lesson that the important tasks in life are those assigned to us by authority figures — the schoolteacher, the college instructor, the boss — and that self-assigned tasks in pursuit of our own goals are to be trivialized as “hobbies” or “recreation.”

“Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. … Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.”

Or as Ivan Illich put it in “Deschooling Society,” learning is a commodity properly dispensed by qualified professionals in bureaucratic institutions called “schools.”

The real curriculum includes the lesson that everything we say or do will go on a “permanent record,” which — if we display insufficient deference to authority today — will follow us like the mark of Cain for the rest of our lives and cause us to be blacklisted from opportunities for advancement by the authority figures we encounter in the future.

The public schools teach the lesson that tasks do not carry their own internal logic or rhythm. People are not more productive when they can organize their own time around the tasks they’re performing, and pursue the task without interruption until they reach a natural stopping place. Rather, the work day is most efficiently broken up into time blocks of an hour or so, punctuated by meetings and interruptions. This carries with it the lesson of indifference:

“I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. …  I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons. … But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. … Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?  Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do.”

In short, the public schools are charged with the task of producing human resources who are docile, obedient and compliant, ready to be used as inputs by the dominant institutions in our society.  Their purpose is to condition human beings to the kinds of behavior that the major centers of power in our society require to function.

The good news is, they’re not very good at it. The quality control department wasn’t working too well in my case, obviously. The people tasked with churning out uncritical and obedient human resources, in most cases, are about as competent as the people running all the other large bureaucratic hierarchies — i.e., not very. The contradiction between what they tell us and what our own lying eyes tell us, between what they tell us this week and next week, is enough to produce endless glitches in the Matrix.

A system built on lies is self-contradictory.

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