On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies

Battleships and Schools


We're all familiar with Murphy, the famous author of Murphy's Laws, but not all of us know that he has a distinguished though distant cousin in England called Parkinson. Unlike Murphy, Parkinson was a real person - but he, too, wrote a series of penetrating Laws reflecting his observations of human society.

His best-known book is entitled "Parkinson's Law", published 1958, and it's hilarious. The "Financial Times" reveiwer commented that it was "a devilish book. No businessman should let it fall into the hands of his staff."

C. Northcote Parkinson began his career in the British Admiralty - rather like a clerk in the Department of the Navy. So he saw at first hand what life is like in a bureaucracy, and that led him carefully to formulate Parkinson's First Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Anyone who has ever worked in any office anywhere can relate to that one!

While presenting evidence in support of this First Law, Parkinson reveals a comparison he had made of Admiralty statistics between 1914 and 1928, and we can recall that there was peace for the last decade of that period. I quote:

"What we have to note is that the 2,000 officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two thirds in ships. Nor, from 1920 onwards, was its strength even expected to increase; for its total of ships (unlike its total of officials) was limited by the Washington Navy Agreement of that year."

That 78% increase in the number of bureaucrats, during a time of steep decline in the amount of necessary work for them to do, sounds familiar, right? - and that brings me to the subject of schools; whose costs routinely increase regardless of the number of students, if any.

Like battleships, they are grey, threatening, expensive and VERY hard to sink.


Just occasionally, we are brought up short by the discovery of a truth that explains a whole lot of things that had, in the back of the mind, been vaguely puzzling. Such revelations are a bit like a broadside. Suddenly, a whole slew of things become clear. This happened to me in November, while attending the annual convention of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire.

The Banquet Speaker was John Taylor Gatto, a 30-year veteran of the New York City school system, two-time recipient of that State's "Teacher of the Year" Award and a distinguished, articulate critic of government schools everywhere.

I've commented here before that that monopoly is graduating 40% illiterates. But what Mr Gatto added, in his brilliant presentation in Nashua, was that not only is such distortion of true education inevitable, it's deliberate. . Now, I'm a radical in such matters, but that was a bit much, even for me. So I listened hard while he explained how and why, and bought a copy of his book, entitled "Dumbing Us Down". And I think he's right.

Gatto has a truly revolutionary view of education, but only because what passes for education today has strayed so very far from what it ought to be; his ideal is not so much new, as a return to the norm that has been around for thousands of years. He draws a very sharp contrast between education and schooling, and says that today, we have a massive amount of the latter and almost none of the former. His criticism of "factory schooling" is especially acid.

"Education" is the process of assisting a student to learn, that is, to teach him- or herself. It happens when, and only when, the student has a motive to learn some particular subject. And the probability that 20 or 30 students will WANT to learn the same collection of factoids in the same fixed-length period of time is, to put it mildly, slim to none.

And yet that is exactly what is forced on them, in every government school; for that reason and a whole lot more, Gatto is convinced the school system destroys true learning and deadens the spririt of critical inquiry, rather than providing it with stimulation. Hence his use of the phrase, "dumbing us down."

He insists that the "basic skills" of reading, writing and arithmetic can be taught to a well-motivated student in about 100 hours, total. And he believes that every child, from any background, has the capability of genius in at least one area. And he notes that on average, home-schooled children are several years ahead, academically, of their classroom-taught contemporaries.

But is the "dumbing-down" deliberate? - yes! The hierarchical system of mass schooling we have had for 150 years was deliberately modelled on a Prussian design, whose express purpose was to create an obedient population; not one whose members would think for themselves and question authority, but a docile one that would obey authority and comprise "good citizens". Sound familiar?

Those designers thought, perhaps sincerely, that the result would be a more harmonious, prosperous society. In fact, the result is a nation of machines and drones, to the extent that their design succeeds; a "beehive society".

But is that the deliberate purpose of schooling here and now? - no, today it has no conscious social engineering (or educative) purpose at all. In Gatto's view, government schools are now a make-work program, period. Nothing else. The battleship has been launched - and now careers, rudderless, on its unknown way.

It may seem impossible to sink, but if you and I don't want to be bled white to pay for it, and if we don't want the next generation of student-victims to be dumbed-down more than the last, we'd better dust off the scuba gear, assemble some limpet mines and get to work.

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