Subverting Public Education and Liberating the Young From Institutional Schooling

Column by Neil M. Tokar.

Exclusive to STR

Today is February 20, 2013, and as I write this column under a rather morose sky, my spirits are lifted by the fact that today is Kurt Cobain’s birthday! Yes, on February 20, 1967, Nirvana’s lead singer was born. Later in life, Kurt went on to say what is going to be my central point: “The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” 

In this column, I am going to discuss how the young can go about liberating themselves from the tyranny of the public education system. I am borrowing these subversive ideas from John Taylor Gatto, a man who will someday—if there is any justice in this world—have his statue erected next to Thomas Jefferson’s and Ron Paul’s in the pantheon of libertarian heroes. I say subversive not for literary effect; I am dead serious. Gatto’s proposal will quite literally strike at the root of the public education system by compromising it at its weakest point. I then add my humble extension to Gatto’s plan based upon my experience teaching undergraduates at a university in Ontario, Canada. To summarize the plan tersely and to put it in its most abstract form, this plan boils down to a direct assault on the information and communication systems within the academy; this will then paralyze the decision-making function of the administration. This plan is totally peaceful. Nevertheless, it is, unquestionably, an extremely revolutionary solution to the problem.

I could have never written this column if it were not for the young education reform activist named Robert Wanek. This young man from Minnesota is, indubitably, one of my inspirations and heroes for what he did at his high school. He fearlessly took on the Establishment, the powers that be, at his high school. I dedicate this paper to him as well as John Taylor Gatto.

In his book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto tells us from where our problem came. It came from a social engineering attempt to create a pyramid—or hierarchical—society. Just as the revisionist historian Gabriel Kolko censures the rise of a protected and locked in ruling alliance of business and government commencing during the Progressive Era—the so called “triumph of conservatism”—so too does Gatto condemn the use of the educational system to create a class structure in America:

School, as it was built, is an essential support system for a model of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control. School is an artifice that makes such a pyramidical social order seem inevitable…We turned our backs on this promise [i.e., the promise of the American Revolution] by bringing to life the ancient pharaonic dream of Egypt: compulsory subordination for all. (13-14, emphasis mine)

Gatto warns that this pyramid-structure of public schooling is meant to lock children into their “place” in life. If we were to read Ludwig von Mises’s Theory and History, we would call this the “caste” problem or the “status society” problem (76). “The lesson I teach,” Gatto writes, “is class position.” “Everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Failing that, you must stay where you are put” (3-4).

What then should we call a system that says to a young man or woman, you have no choice; you have no free will. We, your superiors, your administrators, your social engineers—whatever you want to call us—have decided for you what you will be. Isn’t this just the definition of a prison? I think so, and so does Epictetus, who wrote:

What prison? Where he is already: for he is there against his will; and wherever a man is against his will, that to him is a prison. (emphasis mine)

The fact that one can easily find literature on the student “disengagement” problem illustrates forcefully that the students just do not want to be there in the first place. They want to run away from this prison sentence of mandatory schooling. For example, Paul A Trout writes in his article Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards that:

...according to William Damon, student disengagement at the primary and secondary levels is caused by low expectations and standards. Classrooms have been so mindlessly stripped of “challenging intellectual material and rigorous standards” that students become bored, give up on school and find more engaging things to do. (48)

The question then becomes, as I see it: How do we help these students execute a prison break? What is the strategy, the game plan, to set these young people free? John Taylor Gatto’s blueprint for a massive, uncoordinated prison break is what he calls the Bartleby Project. This project breaks the prison—the entire school system—by going after its weakest link: the standardized testing system.

To paraphrase Polonius’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is a method to my madness in quote selection above! The quotes that I picked above were deliberately chosen in order to lead me to the Bartleby Project. The students are disengaged, and their school system has the nature of a prison sentence. This all stems from two major sources:

  • The hierarchical structure
  • The suppression of free will

The Bartleby Project is designed to address these two issues—hierarchy and free will—directly. In probably one of the most epic statements I have ever read (and I read a lot), Gatto says that:

...the simple exercise of free will, without any hysterics, denunciations, or bombast, throws consternation into social machinery—free will contradicts the management principle. Refusing to allow yourself to be regarded as a “human resource” is more revolutionary than any revolution on record. (emphasis mine)

Who should exercise free will? Who should refuse to be regarded as merely a “human resource”? THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES. The Bartleby Project is fundamentally an unorganized—leaderless—student movement to bring down their school system from the inside by a simple, but profound, act of peaceful, passive resistance. Let me just quote Gatto directly because it is his plan and I don’t think I could possibly put it more eloquently than he does. First, strike at the root by striking at the standardized testing system:

It took a half-century for me to understand the awesome instrument each of us has through free will to defeat Germanic schooling, and to destroy the adhesive which holds it together—standardized testing. (emphasis mine)

Next, Gatto argues that the act of passive resistance—done completely by the students themselves in a totally non-hierarchical fashion, i.e., without leaders and without any central organization directing this act of mass civil disobedience—is to:

...let a group of young men and women, one fully aware that these tests add no value to individual lives or the social life of the majority, use the power of the internet to recruit other young people to refuse, quietly, to take these tests. No demonstrations, no mud-slinging, no adversarial politics—TO SIMPLY WRITE ACROSS THE FACE OF THE TESTS PLACED IN FRONT OF THEM, “I WOULD PREFER NOT TO TAKE THIS TEST.” (emphasis mine)

I would prefer NOT to take this test”—that IS the revolution right there.

In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto says, so tersely yet so profoundly, that “children learn what they live” (68). The Bartleby Project then becomes a massive form of learning: children, young adults are learning by living what amounts to social revolution. This is because, assuming that Gatto’s causal model is correct—and I have no doubt in my mind that he is correct—this mass refusal to participate in the standardized testing process will take down the entire state-run public education system. Then, I suspect, that a snowballing effect can and will kick in. If we can take down the school system, then why can’t we then take down the banking system with their fraudulent central banking system pumping out Federal Reserve Notes? Why stop at just taking out the school system?

The system is so very dependent on this “manage by numbers” nonsense that without the numbers, what will it do? It will grind to a halt. The administrators will be totally lost; they will not know what to do. Above, Gatto masterfully said that “refusing to allow yourself to be regarded as a ‘human resource’ is more revolutionary than any revolution on record.” That term “human resource” got me thinking. Most universities are cash-strapped and dependent on cheap “slave labor” in the form of part-time and adjunct teaching faculty. I know, because I used to be one. The administrators bring you in, treat you as though you were a second-class citizen, pay you very little, and then, they control you by using student evaluation numbers. Effectively, they hand out Wendy’s style hamburger satisfaction rating cards and get the students to evaluate their teachers. Now it is a fairly well known fact that these “evaluations” have nothing to do with “education” and everything to do with administrator control. For example, Henry H. Bauer writes in his The New Generations: Students Who Don’t Study:

Many administrators and theorists of education ignore the fallibilities and misleading aspects of teaching evaluations, to the extent of pandering to student requests that evaluations of teachers be made public. Those of us who were present when these evaluations first came into general use in the late 1960s and early 1970s recall, of course, that it was far from being envisaged that they would be publicly accessible; they were sold to us then as private information for instructors to improve their teaching and we were assured that they would not be used in considerations of promotion, tenure, or salary.

The reality is that they are pretty much only used for considerations of promotion, tenure, or salary. I can assure you that they were used only in that way when it came to evaluating my teaching performance. They were not used as “private information” to help me “improve my teaching.” In fact, they were used in a completely opposition fashion; they were used as a bully control tool by the small army of administrative overseers to get me to dumb my courses down to an acceptable level. I felt as though I could induce a very high university skip rate by simply exposing these unprepared students to the rigors of 9th grade math. When y = mx + b is a “scary” and “stress-inducing” topic, then you know that there are serious problems in preparation levels.

The parallels should be obvious. Both standardized testing of students and student evaluations of serf-like adjunct teaching faculty reduce human beings to a supposedly “objective” number. My “goodness” or “worth” can be measured to four decimal places! Both are used to “rank order” people. Both are used as an administrator information source. When I was teaching, nobody ever showed up to one of my classes to see what I was doing. I could be showing porno videos for all they would know! Their system is based on the idea of efficiency for an administrator. This way, the administrator can “look at a number” and use that to make decisions. Get rid of all of the numbers by using this peaceful, passive resistance technique and one has paralyzed their entire system. Instead of using the extremely cheap system of letting 18 year olds fill out a few bubbles on a Scantron form and calling that a “teacher evaluation,” now you just raised the monitoring costs of the administration. Now what do they have to do? Send highly paid administrators to sit in on classrooms all the time? Fire all of the adjuncts and go recruit new ones? What happens if the new batch of adjuncts rebels as well? Redo it again? All the adjuncts have to do is say, “I would prefer not to hand in my grades.” That would cause chaos. If most administrators are like the ones I had, they would panic. Sort of like those TPS reports in the movie Office Space, administrators at universities spend most of their time obsessing over grade distributions, grade distributions across sections of the same course, and grade distributions across time.

Effectively, what we have here is a textbook political/bureaucratic ruling class scenario, which can be compromised by undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of outsiders. On top of the pyramid, there is a small and highly privileged group. These are the people in charge; these are the people with unparalleled job security and relatively decent pay. Below them is a small army of poorly paid adjunct teaching faculty. Below them is basically a bunch of future debt slaves, i.e., students. Let’s face it; future debt slave is synonymous these days with high school senior.

I think that the two bottom rungs of this pyramid—the poorly paid adjunct teaching faculty and the students—could function in some sort of mutually beneficial alliance against their overlords on the top of the pyramid. The students say, “I would prefer not to take this test.” The adjuncts say, “I would prefer not to hand in my grades or I would prefer not to administer these student evaluation forms at the end of the semester.”

My hope is that such an alliance will do what John Taylor Gatto thinks it will do, namely, take down the public education system. Actually, he would probably say that he wants to destroy the “schooling” system. We don’t really have an “education” system today; all we have is a “schooling” system. But why stop there?

Maybe all of this can snowball into a truly viable revolution through peaceful, passive resistance. As Gatto said, “Children learn what they live.” Well, let us assume that the students in high schools, elementary schools, and universities have initiated a leaderless and totally non-hierarchical Bartleby Project. They have done what Gatto said to do; they have refused to participate in the standardized testing system. They have courageously written on their tests, “I would prefer not to take this test.” Maybe the adjunct teaching faculty has revolted as well and executed its version of “I would prefer not to.” The school administrators are on the run. Maybe other people have launched supportive attacks such as stressing some of the ideas offered by Gary North. North writes about how the cost of education can fall dramatically with the use of technology. If North is correct, higher education can be affordable and accessible. Isn’t this just a huge example of living social revolution? It sure is! And this means that the young are truly learning something. Why couldn’t one of them say to another on Facebook in a chat something like this: “I would prefer not to take Federal Reserve Notes at the shopping mall”? And the other teenager might reply by saying, “Yeah, we just successfully broke out of our school prison by doing this, why not also break out of that Federal Reserve prison that Ron Paul keeps talking about?” That then is the planting of the seeds for another round of passive resistance, but this time against the monetary system. The students will probably be bolder this second time around because they will have the precedent of their first win to motivate them in round two. Get the teens to all go to the shopping malls and say, “I would prefer not to take Federal Reserve Notes in change for my clothes or hamburgers or whatever.” Force the retailers to take alternative currencies. This will, in turn, force competition in currency. By creating more demand for alternatives, the teenagers will effectively be undermining the monetary monopoly that currently exists. Maybe the adults will learn from the kids!

How do we start all of this? Maybe Ron Paul could go on Fox News one time and say that he is a champion of the Bartleby Project. He is not the leader since this is a leaderless movement. Gatto stresses the fact that there must be no central leadership or any form of formal organization. Then let teenagers and kids spread it virally on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Let them self-organize at their different schools. As some students execute the Bartleby Project, they might post their stories on YouTube and then other students will see what is happening. That is what happened to me; I watched Robert Wanek’s videos on YouTube and that made me much more interested in this school-related activism. In other words, the students can educate other students—they can educate themselves. Maybe there are flaws in the plan. Students at school X try out the initial plan and find flaw Y. Then they can post that on YouTube. Now students at school Z can try out the modified plan, the Y-corrected plan. We can all learn and modify the plan as it is being executed.

In conclusion, the young will get their freedom; they will get their prison break. They can do so by self-organizing themselves into a movement that simply says to power, “I would prefer not to take this test.” The whole system, based as it is on measuring everything, will be brought to its knees. I hope that such a movement will be successful so that further movements based on the same idea of “I would prefer not to…” can be used to subvert other components of the ruling class’s tool kit of domination. In some ways, this is the ultimate irony. When I was 17 years old, I read a book called The War Against the Family. When I go back to this book from my teenage years, I open it up to page 222 and I see that I highlighted this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” But if we implement the Bartleby Project today in the schools, then the philosophy of government in the next generation is going to be the philosophy of no government. We have, in effect, taken the tool of the ruling class—the school system, i.e., the tool of conformity—and used it against itself by getting the students to work together inside their schools in such a way that they destroy their conformity factories from within. And when that day comes, the students will say without the slightest equivocation that they have truly believed what Epictetus wanted us all to believe, namely, that:

We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free. 

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Neilio55's picture
Columns on STR: 1

I received my BBA degree from York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto, Ontario. On the personality tests, I am an INTP. My interest in political economy goes back to my elementary school days. It was during the recession of the 1990s, and I wanted to figure out how to help people get back to work. I was very scared at the time because neither of my parents had a job because of that economic recession. I like photography especially of pictures of cityscapes and of Niagara Falls.


Thunderbolt's picture

What a magnificent essay! I am dizzy with excitement. Talk about subversive tactics! Kahn Academy unschooling, The Online Freedom Academy, Bitcoins. Like herding cats.

Samarami's picture

Excellent root striker, Neil. The Bartleby Project philosophy can augment what is already taking place around the country among the young -- refusal to merely be a number.

We're living in exciting times. People like you -- who've been on the front lines -- are writing. Kids are seeing the matrix and opting out.

There will be some danger -- but even that is waning. The white man (thanks, Russel Means) fears the truth. His only gambit in the past has been to lock the truth up whenever it surfaces. But psychopaths grouped into that phenomenon referred to as "The U.S." already have established the most egregious police state in the world -- and in the history of the world -- and is reaching saturation.

"I prefer not to take this test" is catching on. Irwin Schiff pioneered this idea in the area of parasitical robbery through "voluntary compliance". He is spending the last days of his life locked away by the white man -- but his example lives and grows and will be a factor in bringing down the insanity of central political authority.


Keep up the good work!


Glock27's picture

Nice piece. I just do not see how it can be put into practice. At least it is a solution though!!!!!!!!