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Pupils are infantilised

`Forced schooling' does more harm than good, a former teacher of the year claims. Henry Hepburn reports

`Forced schooling' does more harm than good, a former teacher of the year claims. Henry Hepburn reports

Schools peddle an elaborate form of social control which "stupefies" children, according to a man once named one of the United States's best teachers. He described teachers as "stooges" for a social elite which infantilised children to maintain its own supremacy, turning pupils into "spoiled fruit".

John Taylor Gatto, who made his radical observations at an international conference organised by the Schoolhouse Home Education Assocation in Arbroath, was named New York State teacher of the year in 1991. In the same year, he wrote a letter announcing his retirement to the Wall Street Journal, stating that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living".

Since then, he has written several books denouncing schools, including Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and the soon-to-be-published Weapons of Mass Instruction.

During a keynote speech lasting two-and-a-half hours, Mr Gatto traced an inglorious history of "forced schooling". Schools, he explained, continued the "elaborate system of social control" espoused by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan, in which the 17th-century philosopher predicted that humans would descend into war unless they ceded rights to a protective sovereign authority.

In the US, compulsory schooling was pioneered by the industrial north after it won the Civil War; it based its education system on the Prussian model in which students were taught "at point of bayonet", with the aim of producing soldiers who did not think for themselves.

In the 20th century, school's usefulness in separating children of different perceived abilities was a tool for proponents of eugenics: "School was to be an instrument of social engineering by the few on the lives of the many."

Mr Gatto described how schools allowed a ruling class to undermine democracy by rendering children docile and obedient, since years of "stupefying, memorising drills weaken even the hardiest intellect".

He referenced historical figures who excelled at an early age: David Farragut took command of a captured British warship aged 12; at the same age, Thomas Edison was publishing a broadsheet, and Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice printer.

An increasingly corporatised world wanted consumers, not producers, and school made children more susceptible to marketing, as "12 years turns you loose on the world with vastly weakened powers to resist any skilful exhortation".

The instinct to think independently and join forces to challenge the status quo was, meanwhile, undermined by the division of children into small groups organised by

Age or test rankings.

People who worked in education were the "stooges" and "flunkies" of the system, overseeing children who were considered well-schooled because they could memorise things, but could not tie their own shoelaces and showed an inclination to "stab each other in the back".

He said the increasing prevalence of compulsory schooling in 20th-century America had coincided with falling literacy levels.

Mr Gatto also spoke about the advantages of home schooling. People should be encouraged to add value to their community, he said, rather than being set on a predefined educational path which took little account of local needs.

Another speaker showed that the requirement for children to go to school was a legal inconsistency. Iain Nisbet, head of education law at Glasgow's Govan Law Centre, said a 12-year-old was considered old enough to make a life-or-death decision about whether to accept medical treatment. In contrast, children could not decide for themselves to opt out of school.

He said the right to school education, like the right to medical treatment, only existed if there was also a right of refusal; otherwise it was an obligation. He also pointed out that, while schools were inspected every six years at most, parents of home-schooled children were inspected annually.

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