The Great Gatsby Corrupts Greatly

I read The Great Gatsby in high school.  I wish I could remember what I thought about it; what I wrote about it.  The only thing I can remember is how the teacher made a point of The Green Light.  There are many books which I read in high school that I have since utterly forgotten.  Two weeks ago, I could not have told you two sentences about The Great Gatsby.  However, I have re-read The Great Gatsby through Ed Nerd eyes.

Between reading Mayflower and, ahem, other matters, I noticed an article about a recently-published research review which says that wide social networks are the key to good health.  The study, done by Brigham Young University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies which looked at primarily quantitative criteria for describing a “wide social network”—i.e. looking at the number of people “in network” instead of the quality of friendship.  The findings showed the difference in mortality rates between groups with poor social connections and good social connections was equal to the difference between smokers and non-smokers.

So, to make a long story short, I joined a book club!  And, as luck would have it, they were reading The Great Gatsby.  I found the text of the book online and plowed through it in three days on my iPhone.  The Great Gatsby is a story told by an unreliable narrator named Nick whose second cousin, once removed—The Green Light—just so happens to be an old love of Nick’s new neighbor, one Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby knew her as Daisy and she knew him as Jay Gatz, but he went off to war, reinvented himself, and then made enough dough to settle across the bay from Daisy, her philandering husband Tom, and a green light at the end of their dock.  Eventually, tragedy strikes. 

But that is not before Gatsby throws lavish parties in the hope that Daisy might appear at one.  When that does not work, he asks around and, lo, his next door neighbor is related.  Lucky!  Anyway, Gatsby and Daisy rekindle their romance.  For Gatsby, it is love.  He pined for Daisy over five years.  He built her up in his mind—an idealized woman.  The Green Light became another symbol for that idealized woman and all Jay Gatsby could see was what he wanted to.  He thought Daisy would leave Tom for him; she loved him.  He was mistaken. 

Here is my glib, three word review:  seductive; vapid; pointless.  That is not to say I did not like the book.  I enjoyed reading it.  However, I could not relate to any of the characters.  I have to imagine I liked Jay Gatsby when I was in high school.  The fact he was a soldier would not have appealed to me, but everything else did—like a rock star.  Now, however, I understand how military service has served—generation after generation—as a way to rise above the reality of a mundane existence.  (Have you seen ‘Mad Men?’  A man strives for an idealized life after switching identities in World War II.) 

The idealized romance, I am sure, had a lot of pull in high school.  I could over-idealize almost any girl.  How could I not?  Movies and television were my guides.  I was supposed to meet a girl and we were supposed to fall madly in love and then get married.  I would have felt weird approaching the girl that caught me picking my nose in fifth grade or, really, any girl that had known me during the awkward phase—i.e. since birth.  So, ideally, this dream girl would move from out-of-town; right next door to me.  But she never showed up.  And I still kick myself for the girls next door—living within blocks—that I never did or will know. 

I once heard someone say that the motto of the cared-for child is “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  The motto of the un-cared-for child is “nothing ventured, nothing lost.”  That has always been me.  Hence, many of my relationships have suffered.  And I analyze myself and I analyze others and I am uncertain.  I am also poor.  I am a professional now, but I do not come from old money and I do not come from new money, either.  My mom was sixteen when I was conceived.  My biological father was a drug dealer.  Neither became a working class hero.  That is the story of my life.  So, why should I care about these characters again?  I do not.

What I mean to say, and what I think Fitzgerald could be saying, is that there is no substitute for good breeding.  Or, put differently, a wolf, raised by sheep, stands little chance amongst the wolves raised by wolves.  Imagine they are sent to school.  The sheep go to the sheep school and the wolves go to the wolf school.  I assume the curriculum is going to be different.  Day one at the wolf school might consist of a lesson on killing sheep.  Day one at the sheep school might be about the importance of humans for sustenance and haircuts.  They are taught very similar lessons again and again, year after year after year after year.  And then they are released into the wild. 

Fitzgerald was a Princeton man from Minnesota.  I imagine that has had something to do with the success of The Great Gatsby—that Fitzgerald was a Princeton man, not that he was from Minnesota.  I also imagine that I could have made it, academically, at an Ivy League school.  However, the social relationships would have been something else entirely. 

Walter Kirn was a Princeton man from Minnesota.  Before he wrote a book of the same name, he published an article entitled ‘Lost in the Meritocracy.’ He begins with a bus trip to take the SAT.  His buddies are opening up a bottle of schnapps.  He refuses.  He knows where his destiny lies.  Flash forward four years and Walter is “waiting to feel the effects of a black capsule that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes scholarship.”  His friend Adam sits nearby, trying to smoke smashed up Percocets with a bong.  Welcome to Princeton!

Kirn says he “lived for prizes, praise, distinctions, and I gave no thought to any goal higher or broader than my next report card.”  I think this description sounds like me in high school.  I just do not think I was as ambitious.  Plus, I did relatively poorly on the standardized tests—not the top 1% that Ivy League schools are looking for.  Thank goodness for Kirn’s account.

Walter had never read “the classics.”  He did not read The New York Times at breakfast.  He did not read “the classics” at Princeton, either.  His professors focused on theory and “we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.”  It was a façade of knowledge—a seductive, vapid, pointless exercise in parroting convention and gaining acceptance.  At least that is how I see it.

Walter found that there was another social stratum that even the meritocracy had trouble infiltrating—young men and women with the last names of Robber Barons; sending for limousines; rubbing elbows with celebrities.  As Kirn says, “[Princeton] can confer success but can’t grant knighthood.”

As I understand it, Princeton began life as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy.  And I think most of the other Colonial Colleges had some religious affiliation as well.  The Plymouth and Massachussetts Bay Colonies were founded by so-called Puritans.  “So-called” because they were protestants within the Church of England.  The Church of England was the crown’s right hand when it came to controlling England.  Considerable power was consolidated under Queen Elizabeth I and her bishops.  “Puritan” was not a common name; considered derogatory, even.  If anything, the congregants might have referred to themselves as “Precisionists,” but I will say Puritan for the sake of convenience. 

Open hostility to the church was tantamount to treason and could lead to persecution.  However, the split with Catholicism left many feeling like too many of the Catholic vestments and ceremonies remained.  Add to that a fixation with martyrdom derived from a book called The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe published five years after Elizabeth I took power.  No good Puritan was without one even though it cost three weeks’ pay.  The point is that Puritans were a feisty bunch and the movement grew to the point where exile made more sense than mass execution.

The Mayflower pilgrims had already been exiled in Holland before making the journey to New England, however still professed a desire to proselytize the locals as in Virginia.  Apparently, the first seal designed for the Massachusetts colony depicted a Native in the New World saying “Come over and help us.”  Natives were also amongst the first graduates of Harvard.  Harvard was established 16 years after the Puritans landed because the colony—a theocracy, by the way—had a law about having educated leadership.

Something else I know about Puritans is that they wore black.  This may seem like a minor point, but black was a reserved color.  Only members of the church or aristocrats could wear black.  Only royalty could wear purple.  People could be arrested for wearing the wrong color in Elizabethan England.  Even so, many Puritans would have been used to some degree of affluence. I have heard them referred to like hippies in the 1960s.  It makes sense to me.  After all, it is hard to protest when you have to put food on the table.

Death, too, was a constant companion.  Plague was rampant.  Half the Mayflower pilgrims died in the first year.  The survivors encountered a desolate New England coast, decimated by plague brought from the east.  Some Native tribes experienced as much as 90% mortality rates.  The pilgrims encountered areas where skulls and bones were visible above ground—the Natives had not even been able to bury all the dead.

I mention this because the doctrine of Determinism ran rampant through the instruction of the Church of England and the Puritans—everything in its right place because that is the way God wants it.  Puritans were God’s chosen people.  They deserved their spoils.  The poor or the Natives, conversely, deserved their lot because that was the way God wanted it.  Determinism works great for a Theocratic Monarchy where a wretched existence is par for the course. It explains a lot. 

But America is not like that—oh, no, not when we have The Great Gatsby. In this piece—titled “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers”—one teacher, who adds a cautionary note, says that students find Jay Gatsby compelling because he’s “out of nowhere in this mansion, having these lavish parties and really and truly fulfilling the American dream.” The cautionary note is that “culture [emphasis added] sells the American dream so hard and so relentlessly,” but the kids should be wary. The Great Gatsby is an honest story that balances “what is otherwise presented as this shining possibility for everyone.”

We are told of immigrant urban adolescents who are inspired by Gastby.  The star of the piece, Jinzhao Wang, says that Harvard is her green light.  And after Harvard, Jinzhao wants to go back to China “where she hopes to use a Harvard education to help the country develop even faster.”  And there is no reason to think she will not accomplish her goals, given the determinism of a Harvard education.  According to the part of her facebook profile she shares with everyone, Jinzhao writes “Harvard ’14.” And with over 600 “friends,” she should be able to enjoy the benefits of Harvard that much longer.

Wait, kids, no! Did the teacher say anything about how Gatsby’s Green Light turned out to be a woman who killed her husband’s mistress and then left the scene of the crime? And then she abandoned him. Did they say that the romance was an illusion, even if Jay Gatsby and his friend Nick believed it? But who am I to disabuse anyone of their dreams of green lights? Nor do I wish to be labeled a heretic. Knowledge is suffering. I wish the kids success.

By the way, the article also states The Great Gatsby “had fallen into near obscurity by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940.”  However, it was revived when Charles Scribner Jr. began publishing a paperback for colleges and high schools in the 1950s and 1960s.  Charles Scribner Jr. was a Princeton man from New York.

***

Tom Buchanan talks about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by “this man Goddard.” The book does not exist, however there is a book called The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard was a Harvard man and he believed, as his Wikipedia page puts it, that “the elimination or absorption of the ‘white’ race by ‘colored’ races would result in the destruction of Western civilization.” As Tom says, “It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” Later, when the man in the library—one of the only people to attend Gatsby’s funeral—goes to fetch a book, he returns with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

The Birth of a Nation: The End of a Marriage

The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown:  The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith may be the most significant book I will ever read. 

The significance goes back fifteen years.  I was young—twenty-one.  At least, that is my story.  I was young and dumb and, well, I met a woman who rocked my world.  She was something else, entirely—all woman.  I had never been with one before.  I was hooked and I held on.

We began living together after a few months.  Conjuring Nic Cage in Raising Arizona, I would say those were the salad days.  A few months after that, we were pregnant and—once again conjuring Raising Arizona—things changed.  The story is so common it is cliché, but I lived it and it felt entirely uncommon to me.  I simply did not know how to handle a marriage; fatherhood; a career.  I never had a good role model.  My parents split before I could even remember.  The last time my mother was my primary care giver was first grade.  The last time my dad took care of me was second grade.  I was married when my daughter was a year old and my thirteenth anniversary will pass with divorce papers on file.

Things were rocky for years.  I was out of the house briefly in 2001.  We talked about ending it in 2003.  We were living separately in 2007, for a time.  We stayed for the kid and that was probably a mistake, but it was one of those things that I could not be told—do not stay for the kid—I had to live it.  I was immature.  I had to grow.  For my part, I tried, but trying was not enough in the end.  As Yoda says, Do or Do Not.

And what the hell does all this have to do with The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown?  Well, the mother of the future ex-Mrs. Ed Nerd has, year after year, been gracious enough to include us in her vacation plans.  This year, it was a family gathering in the historic triangle of Virginia—Williamsburg, specifically.  Thirteen fateful years before, we actually honeymooned at the Williamsburg Inn—a gorgeous 5-star hotel with a performer in period costume playing a glass armonica in the lobby.  The glass armonica, incidentally, was invented by Benjamin Franklin. 

Williamsburg served as the Colonial Capitol of Virginia from 1699—from 1607, the capitol was Jamestown—until 1780.  Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was the Governor when they decided to move to Richmond.  Another historical figure made a little more solid during my trip to Williamsburg was the pirate, Blackbeard.  As a man, Blackbeard may have been called Edward Teach or Thatch.  However, as Blackbeard, he knew how to put on a show.  Apparently, he was fond of rolling lit hemp—that is what the ghost tour guide said, hemp—in his beard before boarding his victims’ ships.  He had a fifty-fifty arrangement with the local Governor at the time, but broke it when he tried to woo the Governor’s daughter by sending her the severed hands of her fiancé. 

Enter Robert Maynard who devised a plan to lure Blackbeard onto a ship and then surprise him with reinforcements hidden in empty wine barrels and crates.  Blackbeard was shot and beheaded.  His men were executed in Williamsburg.  Allegedly, Blackbeard’s corpse floated around the ship three times after being thrown overboard and before sinking.  His skull has since become a point of mystery.  The skull was displayed as a warning to other pirates before decaying and ultimately ending up with Maynard.  Apparently, the skull got so much use as a souvenir that they had part of it encased in silver and used it as a kind of goblet.  Mysteriously, of course, the skull disappeared.  Those who care, theorize the skull may still reside with a fraternity at the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary.  Incidentally, the College of William and Mary was founded under the banner of the Church of England and is the second oldest college in the United States, behind Harvard—founded by reformers within the Church of England, who we know today as Puritans.

Anyway, a trip to Jamestown was in order and we decided to pick a 111-degree day to go.  If only an air-conditioned snack shop existed to greet the first Jamestown settlers in 1607.  Things would have been a lot easier for them.  It made things just a little easier for us.  My daughter picked up a replica flintlock hand gun as a souvenir from the air-conditioned gift shop.  I picked up a book and that book can be no other:  The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown.  It was one of many books in the gift shop.  I had never heard of it before. 

I have to shamefully admit that my strongest perceptions of Jamestown, prior to reading the book, were from Disney’s ‘Pocahontas.’  John Smith, after he had already published his maps and accounts of Jamestown and after he had already published his maps and accounts of what he called New England, wrote about Pocahontas saving his neck only after she arrived in England, a celebrity, as Mrs. John Rolfe.  She took the name Rebecca upon her baptism.  Incidentally, John Rolfe was the first man responsible for loading a ship with tobacco in Virginia and sending it on to England. 

John Smith led Jamestown for its first couple of years.  It was not a land of milk and honey, but they were getting by.  Smith forged a heavy-handed, but stable relationship with the locals.  However, the privately-held, royally chartered Company of Virginia wanted to see Jamestown thrive as soon as possible.  They were not necessarily under delusions that they would turn a profit immediately, but by 1609, they sent a fleet of ships to bolster Jamestown’s fortune-making potential.  The lead ship, the Sea Venture, carried three very important men—Captain Christopher “Newport News” Newport, Admiral “St. George” George Somers, and Governor Thomas Gates—and one scribe.

William Strachey wanted to be in show business.  He knew Ben Johnson and was probably acquainted with Williams Shakespeare.  In 1609, he was on the Sea Venture when the ship ran into a hurricane.  The other ships in the fleet were able to avoid the storm, but the Sea Venture was caught in the middle.  The mast was broken and the ship was taking on water.  The entirety of the ship—all social strata—took turns bailing water until hope seemed lost.  And then, of course, land appeared.  And it was not just any land, but a special land we now know as Bermuda.  It was not unknown at the time.  It was called the Isle of Devils and was not easily approachable because of surrounding coral reefs.  However, it was uninhabited.

Blindly, luckily, the Sea Venture shipwrecked in such a way that all the supplies, tools, and ship hardware could be salvaged.  For ten months, the castaways labored to build two ships from the wreckage and the abundant cedar on the island.  The first ship was started by Gates, but then Somers suggested they build another.  Gates ship was called the Deliverance.  Somers’ ship was called Patience and was made entirely of wood. 

Bermuda truly was the land of milk and honey.  Food and shelter was abundant from the beginning.  The trip was even immediately profitable after the castaways happened on a one-hundred pound chunk of ambergris.  Ambergris is some kind of sperm whale by-product used in perfumes back in England.  By Strachey’s account, the time in Bermuda was downright pleasant for the castaways.  Some became so enamored of the island that they mutinied.  One such mutineer was named Stephen Hopkins.  Hopkins was brought before Gates, pled his case and was granted mercy.  Incidentally, Stephen Hopkins was on the Mayflower and is the only colonist at both Jamestown and Plymouth.  And even though it was all for glory of the brutal British Empire, building those ships was still bad-ass.

Gates might have been influenced by the propaganda of the Virginia Company which, in order to raise money, depicted the area as a paradise.  Converting savages to the glory of Christianity also held a lot of appeal—God and country, for England’s glory.  Gates did not pack a lot of provisions when he set sail for Jamestown, just in time to not save it.

It would have been a lot better for Jamestown if the trailing ships encountered that storm instead of the Sea Venture.  Some men—Gabriel Archer, John Ratcliffe—had already been to Jamestown and did not like John Smith.  After their arrival, things went to hell, literally.  Smith became involved in a power struggle and, coincidentally (per Smith), was injured in a powder explosion.  After his departure, Jamestown experienced the Starving Time. 

The colonists should have been about 500 strong entering the winter of 1609.  Instead, they were only at 320 due to various issues, not least of which were the deadly relations with the Powhatan Indians.  The colonists had not planted.  They had few food stores and they starved.  The Indians contributed to the starving.  They would not trade and they slaughtered a herd of wild boar that was meant as a Jamestown food source.  For me, there is one indelible image of the accounts of the Starving Time.  It is that of a man who cut up his pregnant wife, ate her, and threw the baby in the James River.  He was not granted mercy.

The Deliverance and the Patience arrived in the spring of 1610.  They were greeted by 60 colonists—an 80% mortality rate—and the initial jubilation turned to despair as the new arrivals only had a couple weeks’ worth of provisions.  Gates, after some deliberation, decided to pack everyone up and go back to England.  The survivors must have been ecstatic.  They wanted to bid farewell to the fort at Jamestown by burning it, but Gates stationed guards to keep that from happening.  As the ships were about to make their way to sea, they were greeted by another rescue fleet led by Lord De La Warr.  I can only imagine what the survivors felt at that point.  After arriving back in Jamestown, the settlers attended church twice a day and there was camp fortification—all this, at the end of a musket.

Ultimately, the Company of Virginia dissolved and the crown took over colonial management.  Tobacco thrived and the rest, well, is always open to new interpretations.  Most bad news about the colony—mutinies or cannibalism—was suppressed, but news of the Sea Venture’s survival fueled the idea that colonizing the New World was God’s will and that God was, indeed, English.  William Strachey’s full account of the Sea Venture was probably circulated amongst the literary types of the time.  The authors make a great case that Shakespeare’s The Tempest draws on aspects of the tale of the Sea Venture. However, Strachey’s full account was not printed until 1849.

Apart from all the tension and drama and things I do not care to get into, the vacation was a great history lesson.  However, it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Shortly after our return, Mrs. Ed Nerd said that she had had enough.  She wanted a divorce.  I wanted a divorce.  It was time to move on.  So, that is what I will now do—there is no try.  Elizabethan England, Bermuda, Colonial Virginia and Blackbeard’s Skull dance in my head.   I was so excited about learning some colonial history that I picked up Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick.  I have not yet found it to have the same narrative pace as The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown and, more importantly, neither Mayflower nor any other book will ever be associated with the dissolution of my marriage like the book of Glover and Smith.  I hope to have a review up soon.

Will Google stand up to the American P.R.C.? No

Google has given itself a very important mission:  Do no evil.  I suppose doctors have a “Do no harm” thing, but is there any other organization with “Do no evil” as a stated purpose?  And, yet, in Google’s quest to become all things internet to all people, they have stepped on a lot of toes, particularly in the realm of privacy and security.  However, regardless of the ultimate motivations, they have also stood up to China and their web censorship.

Google has developed a new encrypted search that privacy and security advocates are applauding.  The search parameters and results are essentially scrambled so that upstream content filters do not know what is being passed one way or the other.  It thwarts would-be snoops from totalitarian regimes from monitoring or censoring search results.  However, Google has inadvertently run afoul of the totalitarian regime that I might also call the American People’s Republic of Children. 

The problem is the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).  In the ever-growing web of laws that makes up the legal fiction we know as childhood and adolescence, a very important consideration is the mitigation of liability for the caretaking institutions.  “The Children” must be shielded from questionable material—a lot of which, potential complainants, who care deeply about “The Children,” will know when they see it.  So, it is best to block large swaths of content based on things like “adult language” or anything with “porn” in the title.  Non-compliance means a lack of funding.

Only, Google’s new encrypted search can sidestep filtering software looking for the non-encrypted search terms and results over the network.  The solution is to…block Google from schools and libraries?  Yeah, that is pretty much it.  A popular filtering company is suggesting that search results be filtered through totalitarian-regime-friendly rivals Yahoo or Bing.  And, regrettably, other Google services like Google Docs or Gmail would be blocked as well.

At the very least, this would be a good opportunity for Google to note the irony involved:  Develop an encrypted search that gets around totalitarian regimes in China or Iran, only to run afoul of “The Children.”  Actually, “The Children” have very few freedoms—at least in schools—all those other countries seem to hate us for.  Free speech?  Ha!  Bearing arms?  Are you kidding!?  Illegal search and seizure?  Please!  Assembly?  Only when one is called, right?  Privacy? 

Is it possible for any of that stuff to enter the popular public discourse?  Ha!  Please!  Are you kidding!?

There is nothing wrong with Larry Page and Sergey Brin or a company like Google throwing its weight around when it comes to “The Children.”  It has been happening since…the beginning of American Public Education.  Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the National Education Association (NEA) owe a significant debt to Carnegie and Rockefeller endowments.  And today, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, along with ETS, are influencing Education in the most positive way imaginable—by pushing for two fewer years (as long as students test out, certainly).  

Google, of course, is working on the encryption issue.  I wish they would not.

Best Friends Are Bad, mmmmK?

Here, the New York Times tells us that “some educators and other professionals who work with children” are trying to get kids to eschew best friends for a group of less best friends.  The thinking is that it will help avert the pernicious specter of bullying and cliques.  Of course, these experts have read Going Postal.  They are assessing their schools for bullying factors and they have located a primary culprit:  the best friend.

The critics—some other, different, professionals who work with children—make persuasive points:  Kids are learning that multiple superficial acquaintances are better than a solid, intimate friendship with one person.  Kids need to be able to learn to discern a good friend on their own.  Their romantic relationships could be affected.  Some educators and other professionals who work with children might be a little too meddlesome.

Of course, the new adherents are undeterred.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.  And why not?  They are experts.  I am sure they all go home and have perfect marriages, relationships, and friendships.  Their circle of friends is not too small and not too large—no one too close or too far away, really.  And I am sure there is a lot of research to back up these views.  But the article does not cite any studies.  Segregation works, right?

There is age segregation.  It would seem children are best prepared for life by spending most of their time with people their own age.  This is not really seen in the “real world,” necessarily.  However, experts know what they are talking about and this is what has evolved over the last hundred years.  And then there is the segregation of the “Gifted” and the “Special.”  Again, why remove the “Gifted” and “Special” from the general population?  Many schools do this.  Again, experts know what they are talking about so it is best not to question such practices.  Every population is further segregated by their test scores:  Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic.

It is all very healthy for emotional and intellectual development.  Clearly, experts know what they are doing and the further segregation and isolation of children is warranted.  I hope the sarcasm is coming through.  I cannot always tell.

Why do we so easily acquiesce to “some experts” when there are other experts available to provide a cogent counter-argument?  What criteria does the paper of record use to determine that the “End of the Best Friend” advocates should get the last word?  Is that the end of the debate?  Gee, it makes a lot of sense to have some expert educators tell me how to structure the social lives of my children—again, with the sarcasm.  Is there any science behind this?

Scratch that.  We would need to have studies on whether all that other segregation is warranted.  It is probably not worth the effort to have science verify what some educators and some professionals and the paper of record already know.

Abby Sunderland should be an inspiration

David “Damn the torpedoes” Farragut—the first full admiral of the United States Navy—joined the service in 1810.  He was 9 years old.  In the War of 1812, Farragut was given his first command; captained a British whaling ship.  He was 12.  There might have been some nepotism involved—Farragut’s father was a Navy man.  However, the incidence of young people doing difficult, important things was taken for granted at the time. 

Now, however, 16 year old Abby Sunderland is attempting sail around the world on her own.  Her brother Zac finished his solo sail around the world last year.  He was 17.  Abby encountered the ferocity of nature and her boat was battered and disabled in the Indian Ocean.  But she was competent enough to keep her wits about her, fix what she could, send out distress signals, live to write the blog entry and, some day, go on the Today show.  Some call this “child endangerment.”

Times have changed.  And I do not think it has been for the better.

When you stop to think about, all of this has happened in the blink of an eye.  Let’s call it an iLash.  Modern humans are thought to have appeared from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago; started farming about 12,000 years ago—formed “Civilization” shortly afterwards; sported leather footwear 5,000 years ago; codified the Judeo-Christian Ethic 2,000 years ago; “discovered the new world” 500 years ago; founded the great Republic of the United States of America a little over 200 years ago.

Modern humans had mostly cared for their young in the same way.  There is always a period of helplessness and dependence.  And it was that way for our ancestors, but the child quickly became an important member of the family and tribal unit.  In tribal societies today, you see that boys and girls are initiated into adulthood at the beginning of puberty.  There is instruction.  There is always instruction.  There are things we must learn in order to survive.  However, the things we are meant to learn in order to survive has changed dramatically for modern humans—even in the last 100 years.  The Matrix has us.

Seriously, the way we use machines has changed us in unimaginable, unintended ways—extended infantilization, for example.  Is it all that unintended?  Wilhelm Wundt founded one of the first psychological research laboratories at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and is credited as the “father of experimental psychology.”  To me, experimental psychology can be defined as people with a lot of time and money on their hands thinking of ways to get rats and dogs to do what they want.  Many of their best techniques are behavioral and, amazingly, apply easily to humans.  The wealthiest Industrialists in history supplied the seed money.

In 1904, Ivan Pavlov received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on animal digestion.  However, Pavlov is most famous for his contributions to classical conditioning.  Pavlov’s dogs are possibly not conceivable without the groundwork of Wundt.  That same year, G. Stanley Hall—the first president of the American Psychological Association—published his treatise on “Adolescence.”  Before that, it would have been a nonsense term.  Hall, however, who trained under Wundt, popularized the concept of teen “Storm and Stress” which he borrowed from the German “Sturm und Drang.”  Hall is called the “father of Adolescence” which, I guess, makes Wundt the “grand-father of Adolescence” with Hall as the “brother of experimental psychology,” or something like that.

Hall, as much as anyone, is responsible for the apotheosis of childhood.  He said, “The guardians of the young should…feel profoundly that childhood, as it comes fresh from the hand of God, is not corrupt, but illustrates the survival of the most consummate thing in the world.”  He loved the little buggers and knowing how much they stressed bummed him out too.  “We must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry,” he said.  “There are many who ought not to be educated, and who would be better in mind, body, and morals if they knew no school.” 

That was a death knell for a classical education, at least for the population at large.  What was left was socialization.  The idea of school as a socialization tool was popularized by one of Hall’s disciples, John Dewey.  Dewey and Hall are just two of the many names and faces in education with a strong Industrial Behavioral background.  Another of Wundt’s assistants, James McKeen Cattell, founded The Psychological Review and trained 344 doctoral candidates.  The founders of the psychology labs at Princeton and Wesleyan, the education department at the University of Chicago, and the head of the Columbia Teachers College were all descended from Wundt.

Industrial Behaviorism is what our educational system is founded on and, in my armchair expert opinion, is a pile of shit.  The socialization goal is one of how to act, not how to be.  It has lead to a tyranny of lowered expectations which has crippled generations of children, particularly the poor.  Abby Sunderland is lucky for her relative affluence.  Her experiences will shape and define her entire life.  She will be much less likely to wilt under adversity and cannot be defined by the school she attended or her test scores.

The more that “adolescents” and families make opportunities to do amazing, difficult, important things—even if just for the strengthening and betterment of the individual—the better off they will be.  It is time to throw off the shackles of the expectations of what the schools, so-called experts, and test scores say about kids. 

What are Abby’s test scores?  Does it matter?  Test scores tell us nothing about the fact that Abby braved the ocean blue, met its wrath, and lived to tell the tale.  Scores only tell us where the Industrial Behaviorists—so-called experts—think she should be.  As far as I am aware, none indicate an aptitude for sailing solo around the world. 

Bravo to Abby Sunderland for taking her own test.  She passes.

Going Postal: Not going far enough

In Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond Mark Ames seeks to contextualize workplace and school massacres through a well-researched depiction of slavery and, particularly, slave rebellions and the incredulous reactions to them.  He also provides an important chronicle of the aftermath of Reaganomics:  no raise of the minimum wage, skyrocketing executive compensation, slashed social services; the big sqeeze.  At least, it is important if you care about the poor or the dispossessed.  These are the people, much like rebel slaves, Ames says, who were bullied and belittled past their breaking points.  He says we must look at our institutions and understand today’s rebellions in the same way we understand—what people then called “evil”— slave rebellions from before.  I am with him all the way except I want more.

He says that schools need to be profiled for bullying and that is fine, but I want him to take a much closer look at American public education as a whole.  I do not blame him for taking it for granted.  American public education feels eternal, essential; as if the imagination simply cannot conceive of its non-existence.  However, that was not always the case.  The coincidence of the rise of American public education and the end of slavery is—if you are willing to open your imagination to the possibility—not so coincidental after all.

The first thing to consider is that Horace Mann—called “the father of American public education”—brought the Prussian education system to Massachusetts in 1852.  That fact is unassailable.  It spread relatively quickly thereafter.  Mann spent years attempting to craft an education system.  He eventually visited Prussia and liked what he saw.  I think he considered his work as something of a higher calling and he wanted to ensure it did not go to waste.  Mann once said, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” 

Now, I am willing to bet that Horace Mann was a Good Person.  I think most teachers are Good People.  And I believe teachers are important.  I am not here to disparage teachers.  However, I think it is wrong for teachers to take children as hostages.  I also wish Horace Mann had waited until Maria Montessori came along.  Unfortunately, he died in 1859.  Coincidentally, there was a significant influx of Irish Catholics in the northeast at the time due to potato blight.  Not coincidentally, they were not down for the WASP-y goodness sure to be offered by the public schools which precipitated the rise of the Catholic education system in the United States.

Anyway, the seed of the Prussian system was planted when Napoleon kicked Prussian ass in 1806.  Apparently the Germans did not like French occupation much.  I guess it took some heroic speeches on the part of Johann Gottlieb Fichte to get Prussia motivated again. Fichte said Germans were really great, like the Greeks, because their language was cool.  He also said—and this is what is important, in my mind—Prussia needed to embrace the New Education.  He called for an end to education that catered to individualistic self-seeking. Fichte said the state’s purposes should take precedence to a degree that the citizenry is forged “into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by a common interest.”

Fichte justified the German people’s “primordial” place among cultures because of its dynamic, living language—with only the Greeks comparable. The dead Latinized language of the French was only indicative of their inferiority. Only someone thinking in the German language could have a “true philosophy.” A strict educational adherence to the idea of German superiority would be “exalted to the ideal.” If not, “legislation should consequently maintain a high standard of severity.” 

It is not coincidental that Johann Gottlieb Fichte sounds like a proto-National Socialist.  I can pull out quotes by guys you have never heard of that say so.  And if you wanted to go so far as to say that the Prussian education system helped create a populace that practiced blind acquiescence to the Kingdom of Prussia, allowing it to balloon with military and industrial might and instigate World War I, I would not disagree.  And if you wanted to go so far as to say that the same system helped create a populace that practiced blind acquiescence to Nazi Germany, allowing it to balloon with military and industrial might and instigate World War II, I would not disagree with that either.  Horace Mann did not know any of that.

For an in-depth history and analysis of American public education, I recommend John Taylor Gatto.  Weapons of Mass Instruction or The Underground History of American Education will do the trick.  I think his writing is superb.  Unfortunately, he bears an uncanny resemblance to my uncle who talks to himself on the toilet…in public restrooms.  I love my uncle.  Gatto will bring out examples—first full Admiral of the Navy David Farragut joining the service at the age of 9 in 1809, for example—that show children have the ability to achieve great things given enough support and freedom.  This runs counter to the official orthodoxy which views “childhood” as a sacred right.  Original documents are useful for further analysis in this domain.  Certainly, Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation are out there.  There is another document called Occasional Letter Number One.

The larger social benefits of American public education cannot be ignored.  Without it, we would be uncivilized; not unlike baboons…with guns.  We would not be able to read.  Or color within lines.  We would not know how to organize ourselves in cliques along such shared values as our grades or athletic prowess or material possessions and then develop contempt for those without.  We would not be so good at knowing our Constitutional rights—I mean, not that I think kids in American public education really have any, but that unit in high school civics can be illuminating. We would not be so good at public speaking or speaking up for ourselves given that teachers are so good at telling us when we can speak and, particularly, what to say.  We would not know what science is or what creation science is.  Clearly, it offers so much for everyone’s benefit.

The Oligarchs and Plutocrats of yesteryear understood the wider social implications of the system very well.  Occasional Letter Number One from the General Education Board is an excellent stepping off point for this research.  The ton-of-bricks realization here is that very wealthy, private hands have been guiding American public education since shortly after its inception and still do today

As I understand it, the General Education Board is Rockefeller money taking over for Peabody money in the southern schools reconstruction effort.  Frederick Taylor Gates was the first chair of the board and a right-hand-man of John D. Rockefeller.  Gates directed many of Rockefeller’s philanthropic efforts.  For example, Gates was also instrumental in the establishment of the University of Chicago.  One of the first documents produced by Gates and the Board was Occasional Letter Number One, from 1906.  Here’s an excerpt:

In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education – Ed. Gatto] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

Anyone who has read Howard Zinn knows there was rampant labor unrest and even armed battle in the early twentieth century.  Andrew Carnegie was allegedly so distraught over one of these labor confrontations that he sold off his steel company to J.P. Morgan and started a campaign to give away his money—primarily to fund philanthropic educational organizations.  One such organization, lives on today as Educational Testing Service.  They do the SAT and the GRE.  They supply the State of California with their STAR Tests as well as the California High School Exit Exam. 

ETS is one of just a few companies that steward the testing market in the United States.  There is also the College Board and ACT.  The other monopolistic piece of the puzzle are textbook publishers who have a lot to say about curriculum which naturally feeds into and from standards and testing.  Thankfully, the blatant political transparency of Texas’ Board of Education hearings means that no one has to have any illusions about how “facts” make it into textbooks.

Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Reed Elsevier, and Houghton Mifflin are the four major players in textbook publishing.  They have created a powerful lobby arm—the Association of American Publishers—to secure and extend their interests. Textbooks represent 1/7th of the American market.  However, their interests extend beyond textbooks.   I can only assume all have synergistic views on the importance of ensuring existing markets in American public education and opening new ones.  McGraw-Hill owns Standard & Poor’s and Business Week. Pearson owns Penguin/Putnam, Financial Times, and The Economist. Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman are also imprints. Reed Elsevier owns Harcourt Education and myriad other publications including Publishers Weekly and Variety.

But, you know, the children come first.  Next is the corporate behavioral layer.  If the children do not adhere to acceptable practices of “character building” and “socialization” then it is time to blame the parents.

It does not have to be like this.  There are thousands of ways to learn and grow.  We have become so inured to American public education that we mistake it for real education, learning, skill mastery, and accomplishment.  Early in Going Postal, Mark Ames cites historian Kenneth Stampp’s six key slaveholder tactics for creating a good slave:

  1. Strict discipline to develop “unconditional submission”
  2. Develop a sense of personal inferiority
  3. Development of raw fear
  4. Establish notion that the master’s interests are the same as the slave’s
  5. Make slaves accept master’s standards of conduct as his own
  6. Develop “habit of perfect dependence” 

Ames recognizes these tactics as familiar to the modern workplace.  I recognize these tactics as familiar to American public education through what is known as The Hidden Curriculum.  For John Taylor Gatto, this is the 7-Lesson Schoolteacher:  the un-relating of subjects, knowing class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and a sense that, no matter what, a child cannot hide from any of it.  For me, the Hidden Curriculum is about inculcating children with the idea of what it means to be an ideal industrial-age factory worker:  show up every day, be on time, do what you are told as you are told, and do not question authority.

However, the rhetoric of American public education is different:  How well you perform in school will affect the kind of job you get.  But what if the jobs are not there?  What if all current students in high school went to college?  What if they all received Bachelor’s Degrees?  What if they went on and got advanced degrees too?  Would there be more jobs available?  Would more wealth be generated—for them, at least? 

The rhetoric leads to expectations—essences which the mind clings to; magical thought, even.  Sometimes our experiences match our expectations and we are happy.   However, that is rare.  Mostly, our expectations are thwarted and a perpetual Existential Crisis ensues:  Perception is Reality.  A person has to be strong—an authority in their own lives—to exist in a world where the meritocratic structure of the public education experience is at odds with the real world.  Many are faced with two basic options:  fight or flight.  Most choose the flight strategies of sublimation and medication.  Some, now and again, choose to fight.  Unfortunately, few know what they are really fighting against.

Mark Ames knows what he is fighting against.  I just want him to know more.