Longtime Sun readers are probably well acquainted with John Taylor Gatto’s criticisms of the public-school system, in which he taught for twenty-six years. He was named New York State Teacher of the Year before retiring to become one of compulsory schooling’s most vocal opponents. The following essay, however, represents a departure of sorts. Its focus is not what’s wrong inside the schools, but what’s been kept out of them — namely, spirituality.
This is no reactionary call for prayer in school, however. While the religious Right and the liberal Left argue over who should hold the highest authority in the classroom — God or government — Gatto argues against any central authority, and proposes that small groups of people are capable of deciding for themselves what works best. He also believes that government, though besieged, is winning the war, and that its educational recipe of pure science and rationality has caused irreparable damage to our young people. Finally, he offers original sin — a Christian doctrine that to many seems hopelessly outdated — as one possible way out of the mess.
Although Gatto begins his essay with the example of America’s early Protestant settlers, his ideas seem just as relevant to our ethnically diverse country at the end of the twentieth century.
— Andrew Snee
I was recently invited to speak at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, as part of a conference on spirituality in education. On a warm evening in June, I found myself sitting on a camp chair under a big white tent directly in front of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. He was on a stage about a dozen feet away, and there was nobody between us. As he spoke, our eyes met now and then, and I listened with growing delight as he talked about the Buddhist views on wisdom and the world. Most of what he said was familiar to me: that love and compassion are human necessities; that forgiveness is essential; that Western education lacks a dimension of heart; that Americans need to rely more on inner resources. But some of his presentation was surprising. At one point, he told this audience of Americans — many of them there to increase their understanding of Buddhism — that it is better to stick with the wisdom traditions of one’s own land than to run from them, pursuing in exotic locales what was under your nose all the time.
It doesn’t take a wise person to see that Americans have been substantially separated from their own wisdom tradition by forces opposed to its continuance. No mechanism has been more effective in accomplishing this than the public school system. The amazing insights of American Christian spirituality — and Protestant dissent in particular — have been relentlessly suppressed over the past century by a new global orthodoxy using compulsory schooling as its laboratory and training ground. And no, I am not a Protestant. You don’t have to be a Protestant to recognize that the abandonment of our home-grown wisdom tradition by policy-making elites has left our educational system spiritually bereft.
Although the American Christian tradition draws on European and Near Eastern roots, and has been fertilized by a variety of faiths throughout its course, the particular genius of American Christianity is primarily derived from the Protestant Reformation in Britain — a movement not only opposed to the official, systematic state church but, in a fundamental sense, a protest against system itself. This independent and dissenting religious tradition shifted responsibility for salvation from the political system to the individual.
The American genius was to locate wisdom in ordinary people, whereas every other government on earth located it in an aristocracy, theocracy, military class, merchant class, or counterfeit meritocracy.
In early America, Protestant dissent came in many different forms: Congregational, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Quaker, and so on. From these independent interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the stories of a long-dead Jewish carpenter came the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, documents virtually without precedent in history. The Bill of Rights alone conferred powers on ordinary citizens — such as the right of free assembly, the right to free speech, the right to own weapons, and the right to deny the state access to one’s home — that were (and are) unique on the planet. Out of these rights, derived both by accident and by design from the American Christian tradition of dissent, came the curriculum of early schooling in this country up until the Civil War. Whatever its surface variations, this curriculum was intended to preserve the hard-won rights thought necessary to the life of an independent, dissenting Christian. It produced, for example, the American tradition of common argument — not the kind that leads to a dueling scar among the elites of Brandenberg, but the kind that leads to a broken nose in a beer hall in Pittsburgh, or to a magnificent statesman like William Jennings Bryan throwing away his political career in defense of small farmers. The American tradition of argument — our God-given right to damn the king, whoever that king may be — is a precious legacy handed down to us by British Protestants, not the Church of England, nor any secular tradition, either.
When English Puritans reached Salem in 1629, there were no Anglican officials present to certify their choice of leaders, so they took that responsibility — illegally — into their own hands. That simple, yet revolutionary, act transferred enormous political power to ordinary churchgoers, whose sole qualification to wield such power was that they had joined a congregation that took religion seriously. Historians dubbed this quiet insurrection the Salem Procedure, and for the next 231 years this shedding of traditional authority — an act of monumental localism — challenged the right of arrogant rulers to disseminate their version of the truth without its facing review by the American people. This became the only nation in history where ordinary citizens could take issue with authority without being beaten, jailed, or killed.
Congregations were never universal in focus, but always intensely local. Members knew their fellow congregants by name and family history. These were not mere networks of people who met in church on Sunday if it was convenient. The congregants cared about each other in particular more than about humanity in general. And if a congregation had a problem, it would not accept outside intervention unless all other possibilities had been exhausted. These groups insisted upon doing things their own way and making their own mistakes.
Were some of these congregations bad? Sure, some of them were horrible. But at least the damage stopped at the boundaries of a single church and community. That’s the difference between a congregational model and a state-church system, or indeed any systematic form of universal governance: a system won’t let you walk away, whereas a congregation will say, “Goodbye and good riddance.”
We are far from a time when we trusted ourselves to run our own lives without surveillance. Since the Civil War, nearly a century and a half of increasingly suffocating “expert” intervention in our schools and elsewhere has left us thinking that, to decide anything important, we have to call in Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, or the Carnegie Corporation — all honorable institutions, but also outsiders, strangers. As a consequence, our children have no goal to aim for apart from the approval of these official strangers. I suspect such expert interventions are one reason why families are falling apart: how can children respect their parents when those sad souls are regularly contradicted by various agents of the state? Parents have been made childlike by this “Expert Procedure,” just as the Puritans were given full adulthood by the Salem Procedure.
The Salem Procedure is completely antagonistic to the current model because it consists in lay people picking their own experts and keeping them on a very short tether. It also draws from the well of common-sense wisdom found among people who actually work, rather than talk, for a living: small farmers, craftspeople, teamsters, artists, fishermen, loggers, small entrepreneurs, laborers, housemaids, and so on. I say wisdom because, of course, experts are expected to have superior knowledge. But to conflate the two, as our century has done, is madness. Going to college can help you become knowledgeable — an “expert,” even — but it cannot make you wise, not even a little bit. Wisdom cannot be so easily purchased. The American genius was to locate wisdom in ordinary people, whereas every other government on earth located it in an aristocracy, theocracy, military class, merchant class, or counterfeit meritocracy.
The congregational principle is a spiritual force that encourages the greatest number of people to reach their full potential by vesting everyone with responsibility, identity, and a voice — and this is accomplished in voluntary associations of members who are in harmony with one another. That’s the way the Council on Foreign Relations works, and the Advertising Council, and the Business Roundtable. It’s the way Sidwell Friends School works, and St. Paul’s, and Groton. And it’s the way public schools would work best, too. (Think about this obvious discrepancy for a while, and you’ll begin to wonder what purpose is served by structuring government schools any other way.) The congregationalists knew that good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone to make its own curriculum. The descendants of some of those congregationalists now run the country, and have remembered this lesson for their own children. But they have failed to remember that the American experiment demands equality for all.
Significantly, no two congregational churches ever got together, even to compare notes. Neither did they inquire after each other’s doctrinal purity. They maintained no centralized management, and often discharged ministers who got too big for their britches. Some were good, some horrible, but each was sovereign.
No doctrine of Christianity has been more controversial, or more central to Christian vocation, than the doctrine of original sin. At its starkest, original sin is the frightening moral principle that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. In the intense three-way religious debates that marked life in early America, settlers from the core of the Protestant Reformation tradition upheld the doctrine of original sin, defending it against attacks by liberal Christian groups like the Unitarians and Universalists, who vehemently rejected the notion that a grave, inescapable verdict had been handed down on all of us, and attacks by the newly minted corporate mind, obsessed with order, regulation, and profit, rather than salvation. The extermination of the doctrine of original sin sat at the top of both the liberal and the corporate agendas. The former group found it an intolerable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness, and the latter, to the pursuit of profit.
Thus, when a legislative mandate made school attendance compulsory, an unwritten mandate was also passed on to schoolteachers to rid the modern world of the doctrine of original sin, which had occupied such a central position in the organization of American life. It was nearly a century before that policy was put in writing, when the 1947 Supreme Court decision in the Everson case established that the state would have no truck with religion. Schooling was to be about the creation of loyalty to a principle of abstract central authority, and no serious rival — whether parents, tribe, tradition, self, or God — would be welcome in school. Corporate economics and the developing modern culture eliminated the other rivals, but it took the highest court in the land to bar God. It’s obvious from this decision that the state considers American religious tradition to be dangerous. And of course it is.
Before Everson, 150 years had passed without any court finding this fantastic hidden meaning in the Constitution, but we can forgo examining the motives of the Everson court, and even concede that the ruling is a sincere expression of the rationale behind modern leadership, without waiving our right to challenge the law’s legitimacy on the grounds of the grotesque record of the past fifty years. Spiritless schooling has been thoroughly tested and found wanting — in my opinion because it denies metaphysical realities recognized by men and women worldwide, in every age.
As valuable a tool as rational thought is, it doesn’t speak to the depths of human nature: our feelings of loneliness and incompletion, our sense of sin, our need to love, and our longing for immortality. To illustrate how rational thinking alone makes a wretched mess of human affairs, I will mount an attack on the scientific model of the universe.
As Galileo famously showed, the sun — not the earth — is at the center of the solar system. And we all know that the solar system itself is only a puny thing lost in endless space. And yet to date it looks as if only Earth can support human life. I know Carl Sagan said we’ll find millions of populated planets eventually, but right now there’s hard evidence of only one. We can’t live anyplace but Earth for long. So, as of today, Earth is, for all intents and purposes, the center of the human universe.
To push this line of reasoning a little further, where your life is concerned, Earth is most certainly not the center, but merely a background that floats in and out of conscious thought. You are the center of your universe, because if you don’t show up, it doesn’t exist. This may sound self-absorbed, but the minute you deny your own centrality, you betray the rest of us. You are then fleeing your responsibility — as the most important person in the universe — to make things better. When you deny your centrality, you lose trust in yourself. (And school is there to drill you in distrusting yourself.) As that trust wanes, you lose self-respect, without which you can’t like yourself very much; how can you like someone you don’t respect or trust?
And it gets worse, for when you don’t like yourself very much you lose the ability to sustain loving relationships with others. Think of it this way: You must first be convinced of your own worth before you ask for someone else’s love, or else the bargain will be unsound. You’ll be passing off low-grade merchandise — yourself — as the real McCoy.
The best lives seem to be full of . . . private, personal attempts to engage the riddles of existence, from the cosmic mystery of death to the smaller mystery of exchanging secrets with a cat.
The trouble with science is that its truths are only partial. Galileo had the facts right about the dead matter of the solar system, but said nothing about the cosmology of the human spirit. Yet schools can teach only Galileo’s victory over the Church, not his spiritual error. Galileo’s observations are only a microscopic part of a real education; his blindness is much more to the point. The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives. In that quest, Galileo is no help at all.
The neglected genius of American spirituality is that it grants dignity and responsibility to ordinary individuals, not to elites. This tradition, grounded in the doctrine of original sin, paradoxically identifies the core problems of living as the fundamental bases for inner peace and happiness. Rather than suggesting strategies to combat or flee these problems, American Christianity demanded they be accepted willingly as conditions of human life in a fallen world. (No wonder its critics called Christianity a slave religion.)
Whether or not we accept the biblical story of Adam and Eve at face value, we are all stuck with the burdens that Christianity ascribes to original sin. Nobody can escape, regardless of wealth, intellect, charm, powerful connections, or scientific miracles. Whether we are good or bad cuts no mustard — everyone is in for it.
The Christian reading of Genesis identified four specific penalties that attended expulsion from Eden. First, there was the penalty of work: there had been no work in Eden, but now we would have to provide for ourselves. Second, there was the penalty of pain: there had been no pain in Eden, but now we would be subject to tremendous suffering, even from such natural acts as childbirth. Third, there was the penalty of free will: in Eden there had been exactly one wrong thing to do, but now we would have to be morally wary, because every decision would be good or evil or a million shades in between. And last was the penalty of death: in Eden we might have lived forever, but now the term of human life would be strictly limited, and the more wealth, health, beauty, family, community, and friends we had, the more we would be tempted at the end of life to curse God as we witnessed ourselves losing it all, day by day.
That’s some doom, I’m sure you’ll agree. The question is what to do about it. Historically, two different answers emerged. Some folks cast in their lot with shrewdness, calculation, and science to find a way out, and that group has commanded our schools, our economy, our technology, and our public life for over a century. Here is its response to the penalties of original sin:
On work: Work is a necessary evil for the masses, but an avoidable inconvenience for the smart ones. Machines and electronic devices are making most work obsolete. Only stupid people work; the enlightened can make a living exploiting and regulating others, paying them to mine the rock and harvest the earth.
On pain: Science provides ways to avoid pain and enhance pleasure. Chemicals and modern medicine will eventually render pain unnecessary. Feeling good is what life’s all about; there isn’t anything else.
On good and evil: There is no absolute good or evil. Every principle is negotiable, all ethics are situational, and right and wrong are relative. Don’t worry about God’s punishment. With enough knowledge, we can duplicate the power of the mythical God. So God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire; we turned the night sky over the desert to flame and incinerated a hundred thousand retreating Iraqis in a matter of seconds. We are God.
On aging and death: Science can stave off sickness and extend life. Aging must be concealed as long as possible through surgery, dress, personal-training regimens, and attitude make-overs. Survival is the highest goal, so it follows that the health industry wields the ultimate power. Every day, science gets closer and closer to making life eternal.
You see how easy it is to repudiate the penalties of original sin? From the start, this has been one of the main missions of forced schooling: to direct people’s loyalty away from the organizing principles of a religious life and reattach it to the values of corporate industry, government, and professionals. Only the secular establishment would grant absolution.
What American spirituality taught was much different. It advised us to embrace punishment rather than avoid it, and taught the marvelous paradox that willing acceptance of our human burdens is the only way to a good, full life. If you bend your head in obedience, it will be raised up strong, brave, indomitable, and wise. Look at the difference, step by step:
On work: Work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and character. Without real work we will inevitably find despair, no matter how much money or power we have. Work has value far beyond a paycheck, praise, or accomplishment, and produces spiritual rewards unrelated to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists, but only if we tackle it gladly, without resentment.
By teaching the secular aversion to work, schools have created a horrifying problem that has so far proven incurable — the spiritual anxiety that arises when we have no useful work. Phony work, no matter how well paid or highly praised, results in great emotional disturbance. Major efforts have gone into solving this problem, but there’s no hint of an answer in sight. In our economy, the real dilemma now is keeping people occupied. Jobs have to be invented by government agencies and corporations, both of which employ millions of people for whom they have no real use. Young men and women at their brightest, orneriest, and most energetic are kept from working because they would either work too eagerly or invent their own jobs, which could cause a cataclysm in the economy. We cannot afford to let children learn to work for fear they will discover one of the great secrets of history: work is not a curse but a salvation.
On pain: Pain is a friend, because it forces our attention away from the world and refocuses it squarely back on ourselves. Pain of all sorts is the way we learn insight, balance, and self-control. The siren call of “Feel good!” lures us to court desirable sensations and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Pain, however, is the road to self-knowledge.
On good and evil: In a spiritual life everything is morally charged; nothing is neutral. Choosing between good and evil is a daily effort, but taking responsibility for your choices makes you fully alive. I recently heard about a woman who was having an affair openly in front of her husband and her six-year-old daughter. “It’s no big deal,” the woman told her mother. But if infidelity and the shattering of a child’s innocence are no big deal, then what is? When we intensify our moral awareness, everything becomes a big deal.
To enhance life we must stop making preprogrammed choices. The fewer choices we make automatically, as if we were only machines, the bigger our lives will become, because every choice will have a moral dimension. Despite any excuses we may make — and there are legions of fine ones — the record of our choices marks us as worthy or unworthy. Even if nobody else knows what rats we are, deep inside us the running balance of our accounts will vitally affect our ability to trust, to love, and to gain peace and wisdom.
On aging and death: This world is only a stage in some longer journey we do not understand. To fall in love with our physical beauty, wealth, health, or capacity for pleasure is to kid ourselves, because all that will be taken away. Upon the death of her husband of sixty years (who had left her millions of dollars) my aunt said to me tearfully, “They don’t let you win! There is no way to win!” She had lived her life in the camp of science, honorably observing all its rules of rationality. But at this final pass science was a useless ally. The Christian tradition would say that you can win — and if you think you can’t, then you’re playing the wrong game.
The only thing that gives our choices any deep significance is the fact that none of this will last. Awareness of mortality gives relationships an urgency, makes our choices matter. If we were immortal, how could it possibly mean a hill of beans whether we did something today, tomorrow, or next year? There would always be more time later, so we wouldn’t have to live now.
Everyone has experienced having too much of something — candy, sex, company. We can even have too much money, such that no individual purchase involves real choice, because real choices always close the door on other choices: if you can buy everything, why bother to buy anything? For the same reason, it’s possible to have too much time: if there’s time for everything, why bother to do anything at all? The solution is full awareness that time is preciously finite. You have less now than when you started reading this, so hurry; the clock is ticking! As you spend time on one thing, you lose the chance forever to spend it on something else. Science cannot help you one bit with time. Indeed, using scientific methods to save time is the best way to guarantee your life will be eaten alive by trivial matters, none of which will ever be any big deal.
The best lives seem to be full of contemplation, solitude, and self-examination; full of private, personal attempts to engage the riddles of existence, from the cosmic mystery of death to the smaller mystery of exchanging secrets with a cat. When I see kids daydreaming in school, I am careful never to shock them out of their reverie. What I have to say can wait. We make the most of our limited time by alternating hard effort with still moments free of the cultural imperative to “get something.” If such solitude seems impossible in the world we live in, consider that, in spite of all the hype about global communications, 67 percent of the world’s population has never made or received a single phone call.
I may seem to have strayed from the topic of American spirituality, but I haven’t, really. Until we understand that the factual contents of our minds — the “truths” upon which we base our decisions — have for the most part been inserted there by others whose motives are not our own, we will never fully appreciate the unique gift of American Christian spirituality. For it teaches that the answers to our problems lie within us, that we are the center of the universe, and that wisdom cannot be learned in school, but only through accepting the burden of work, learning the lessons pain teaches, sorting out right and wrong for ourselves, and coming to terms with aging and death. If these are our spiritual compasses, we need no rulers or experts to tell us how to live.
American spirituality offers a set of practical guidelines, street lamps for the village of our lives. Although the focus is on the individual, nobody is asked to wander aimlessly. What constitutes a good life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, compassion, acceptance of loss, preparation for death. In this neglected tradition, no teacher does your work; you must do it for yourself.