Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gatto, Farragut, and the Nature of Machines

I just finished reading John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction. It took me four days to do it, compared to the months it took me, slogging through the epic Underground History of American Education. Part of that is because Weapons is a shorter read, and maybe a little bit easier too. Another part of it is that I'm quite a bit more literate now than I was then.

In 2003, I lost the best job I had yet been in. In a panic, I sold our little house and eventually sought low-paying employment programming financial software at a multinational mega-corporation while I pursued what I thought would be a beneficial education at the University of Utah. This was during the tech bust that followed the dot-com boom of 1999 and 2000. We rented a small apartment that kept the family close — when we were together — and I spent my time between work, school, and my small replica of the Armed Virginia Sloop (which I finished building in less than two years, in spite of my insane schedule).

The only really interesting thing I learned at school that year was how to make a blind continuous contour drawing. My math teacher was so useless that I started skipping class regularly, teaching myself at the kitchen table instead. To my knowledge, I'm the only one who achieved a perfect score in the class of about 200 students. I got a 4.0 GPA for the term; other than that, I don't remember anything about my schooling (well, there was once when I almost got crushed by a train while trying to find a shortcut across campus in the dark. But the risk shaved about five minutes off my walk and I was able to get home early that evening). Today, I'm a college dropout.

It was also in those days that I began to feel a vague uneasiness about the upbringing of my two kids.

I began to realize that I hadn't been sufficiently programmed to fit the image of "father" that I had been taught about in church. It was the dormitory model that I pursued instead. My three-year-old wanted bedtime stories and playtime with dad, but I wanted to do my own things after a crazy day at work and school. It occasionally bothered me that I spent so little time with him. I don't even remember what my daughter was interested in as a fourth-grader at Midvale Elementary school. All I remember was that sometimes I had to pick her up from school, that once I went to a parent teacher conference, and that there was mold growing in her bedroom closet.

I wondered who my daughter was, or who she was becoming. Even had I wanted to be an engaged dad, the short windows of actual human interaction enforced by lives lived away from home made the prospect of my daughter turning into a decent adult seem like a twisted sort of lottery. I counted on other people not to mess her up. It wasn't a good feeling.

In 2003, the best education I got happened during the frequent train rides between work, home, and school. It was the only leisure time I had, other than occasional after-dinner spurts of work on the model sloop (also quality education) when there was no homework to worry about.

Some friends of mine, Aaron and Diana, were homeschooling their kids. Sometimes they talked about it with us, and one way or another, I ended up with a loaned copy of Oliver DeMille's "Thomas Jefferson Education" which I read on the train. I must have been inspired by something in that book because soon enough I was consuming every classic I could get my hands on. I read Defoe, Verne, Goldstein, Richard Feynman, Roger Lancelyn Green, David McCullough, among many other classics related to my own profession. Once, on a visit to Aaron's house, he pulled out a copy of Gatto's "Underground History" and began quoting passages from its pages. It was mostly boring stuff; I couldn't understand it. I wasn't interested in education or in schooling at all, only in forgetting about it. What in the world is pedagogy, and why would I ever care to know about that?

But the schooling problem still nagged: I was walking on that line between trusting my kids to the invisible hand of the public school lottery (Look, I turned out OK! I work for a successful fortune 500, spending most of my conscious hours in a 4x4 cloth-covered cubicle worthy of Dilbert!) and the unknown world of homeschooling that I once perceived as the exclusive realm of crazed conspiracy theorists and deranged, maladjusted cranks. I decided that if my homeschooling friends thought Gatto had something important to say about school then I would read it and then make my decision.

The Underground History was not an easy read, but in the pursuit of it, something happened that I hadn't experienced since I learned to speak fluent Portuguese in the early '90s. As a result of that effort (accomplished largely on the streets of Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) my mind was expanded to new thoughts, never to shrink again. As I struggled through Gatto's prose (often with multiple re-readings, with the aid of a dictionary, and with Wikipedia), I felt and understood ideas in a way that I had never experienced before. It was real education like I never knew, and I could hardly explain the sense of it even if I possessed Gatto's own considerable talent for exposition. I realized for the first time what it felt like to come face-to-face with greatness, and that was a life-changing moment.

Gatto spurs and prods. He is a revolutionary, a trouble-maker, a dissenter, a rule breaker. He is the kind of man who can give a calm lecture at an upscale school (by invitation) right here in America, armed with nothing but independently verifiable facts, and be forced from the podium by the police before he is allowed to finish his speech. That's how dangerous his ideas about society and freedom are, even in America. His writing can be angry, shrill, agonizing; but it is all true. Mostly true; true in the important, overarching sense.

Gatto is a conspiracy theorist worth listening to, because he bothered to do the research needed to sketch legitimate pictures of actual reality. He knows how to connect dots or at least how to ask the important questions, like Neil Postman, Eric Hoffer, Aldous Huxley, and all of the other great Noticers the world has ever seen.

How do I know? Because the allegations Gatto levels against schools (himself a decorated veteran of the New York public school system, an English teacher of some 30 years experience) are so serious, so monumental, and so intricately detailed that I had to look into it for myself. It seems I suddenly lost my disinterest in schooling and education.

So I read Hobbes, I read Adam Smith, John Locke, Hugh Nibley; I'm on track to finish everything Eric Hoffer ever wrote. I was introduced to Niel Postman; I discovered the Catholic Distributists quite on accident (McNabb, Belloc, and Chesterton among others), and I've even read a great deal from the Pope (Benedict XVI). As a non-Catholic, I'm quite impressed, really. I have my fingers in Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Whitehead, and Newton; some of them still waiting for more anxious scrutiny.

Gatto cracked open a whole new world of yesterday, today, and tomorrow; showed me that I am allowed to make my own connections between people and places and ideas and things that happen in this world. I don't have to wait for the textbook assignment. Now my appetite for this kind of learning is insatiable. This is the love of education that prepares a man for freedom, the kind that Thomas Jefferson knew was the only hope for America.

All of my reading and personal observations have, up until now, proven to me that Mr. Gatto is overwhelmingly correct in his mighty harangue against public schools, and against most kinds of schooling in general.

I also find that I can criticize Gatto on some of the particulars.

For instance, David Farragut didn't exactly sail a captured British ship to Boston at the age of 12, Like Gatto claims in Weapons. He even has some of the story a bit out of order in The Underground History. I checked the facts myself.

It is true that David Farragut was only 12 years old when he was given command of the HMS Barclay as prize master — an occasion in which Farragut had to overcome the rage of a much older British captain whom he subordinated (Gatto recounts this bit, if I recall). On that particular cruise, Farragut had already completed the second year of his service in the Navy.

Now, the Barclay wasn't a warship, it was a whaler captured by the US privateer, Essex (itself, a fifth-rate frigate useful mostly for prize taking). Farragut sailed the Barclay from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Valparaíso, on the coast of Chile, where he rejoined the crew aboard Essex as midshipman. He didn't sail to Boston, but it was a great feat nevertheless.

The Essex was later attacked by the combined forces of a powerful British fourth-rate ship of the line and a smaller sloop of war. It was then that Farragut first experienced the horrific carnage of naval battle, another character defining moment. During the battle, Farragut — considered an officer — was charged to "do his duty" against a fellow crew mate, "a quarter gunner named Roach," who had deserted his post in awe of the advancing British forces.

Of that experience, David Farragut wrote:
"The most remarkable part of this affair was that Roach had always been a leading man in the ship, and, on the occasion previously mentioned, when the Phoebe seemed about to run into us, in the harbor of Valparaiso, and the boarders were called away, I distinctly remember this man standing in an exposed position on the cathead, with sleeves rolled up and cutlass in hand, ready to board, his countenance expressing eagerness for the fight: which goes to prove that personal courage is a very peculiar virtue. Roach was brave with a prospect of success, but a coward in adversity."
A keen observation, for a teenager. Don't you think?

Farragut would have been 13 at that event. In the end, the Essex was badly beaten and those still living who hadn't deserted were captured. The crew, including Farragut, were paroled by the British and, by stratagem, the captain escaped to rejoin them in New York to a hero's welcome. Heroics don't always include winning.

Reading David Farragut's cruise diary is like reading fiction. How can these things happen to ordinary people, much less to "children"? How can mere kids be so magnificent? Gatto may be technically inaccurate about David Farragut, but even Gatto doesn't do Farragut justice. Not by half.

The stories of David Farragut, of Thomas Edison, of George Washington, of the founder of my own Church, Joseph Smith (One of Farragut's contemporaries, getting his leg cut open at the age of seven, having refused anesthetics, possibly around the same time of year when Farragut was sailing to Chile); they all really bother me.

I once led a group of church boys. I was in the business of teaching them that they had great potential. They were choice people, perhaps the best young people in the history of the world. They had powerful true doctrines and a powerful heritage to live up to. They had the very power of God to reckon among their virtues. And yet all they wanted to do was talk about XBox and pop culture! Some of their forbears walked in theological darkness, by my estimation; yet they commanded ships, ran successful businesses, walked barefoot and fatherless across vast tracts of America, and talked to God like Moses once did. All this because they stood as men, not as boys. They had done just what Paul once suggested in the book of Corinthians and put off childish things.

In 2004, a researcher by the name of Dr. Jay Giedd reported that, in spite of the human brain being materially complete at age 12, it takes until at least age 25 before the synapses are sufficiently "pruned" for an individual to exhibit judgment advanced enough to be considered "adult."

Far from interpreting Dr. Giedd's work as a wake-up call to action against a system of learning that is so flawed it keeps us childish until at least age 25, we now use this research as an excuse for everything from jurisprudence to insurance claims. We have been absolved of all fault. Our biology has predestined us to stupidity; adolescence is a greater disease than we first suspected.

John Gatto says that if we are still treating kids as little children much beyond the age of seven, then we are doing them a huge disservice. Oddly enough, the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith said the same thing: when any child reaches the age of eight, let him be accountable for his own actions and a full-fledged member of the congregation (with its attendant responsibilities — no small order) if he should so desire.

At age twelve, we consider worthy male members of the laity qualified to wield the authority of God in ministering to the Church. No schooling required. That used to mean something. Smith claimed that God revealed these things to him, and I can believe it. Today we barely allow our eight-year-old to walk on his own to Cub Scouts, half a block from home. What happened? Gatto knows.

Is it any wonder there is such a mess of broken homes in our communities? I can't seem to escape stories about it on the Mormon media these days. Have you ever seen kids play together, especially young siblings? Not five minutes can pass before they've resorted to physical violence against each other. Could divorce be largely a result of adult children getting married? Do you think it's important for people to grow up? John Gatto shows us just how schools are designed to ensure that never happens — and why.

There are other nits I can pick with Weapons of Mass Instruction. The open-source learning metaphor, with its cathedral and its bazaar, and used without citation by Mr. Gatto, comes from an idea published by Eric S. Raymond, a computer programmer who was preceded ideologically by Richard Stallman (another alumnus of the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab).

What has happened to me? How is it that I begin to discover the provenance of ideas not even properly cited by the author? I would still be ignorant of Mr. Gatto's little sin to this day, except that I once read Eric Raymond's book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, on that train to and from the University of Utah in 2003. It is a treatise on something called "open source" software. There is a long-standing dispute between the Free Software ideal and the Open Source ideal. Richard Stallman still bothers the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery with his insistence on Free Software instead of Open Source. Dr. Stallman wrote the essay "The Right to Read." Gatto might be interested in it (available here). I would have never known all this, except that Oliver DeMille, who studied one of the most brilliant men in American history, told me that I could educate myself about my own profession by going straight to its classics. So I did.

Perhaps I differ from Gatto in the nature of Conspiracy that is afoot in the world. Hobbes envisioned an artificial man; Adam Smith, an invisible hand. I have worked with artificial machines for long enough, coaxing them to do what I want, to know that they are all psychopathic creatures in spite of the best intentions of their stewards. I say this in all seriousness.

Not long ago, a friend and I traded ideas over stir-fried eggplant at a local Chinese restaurant. My friend, Paul, is probably the most brilliant programmer I know. Without any college degrees, Paul is presently Chief Technology Officer at a tech firm with customers like Facebook, Harvard, and NASA. He's interested in the anarchist philosopher, Jacques Ellul; and it was Paul who introduced me to Niel Postman's work, among others.

During our lunch, Paul was telling me all about psychopathy from his latest reading (a book called Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, if I remember). Paul was working on hiring some new employees and was interested in discerning emotional health, hence the incursion into the subject. It turns out that psychopaths are to emotion as the blind are to color. It is often true that psychopaths know all about emotions and that people have such things as feelings, but psychopaths experience little of these things for themselves. They become dangerous when they learn to manipulate emotions in other people by carefully programmed stimulus and response. It occurred to me that business organizations are naturally psychopathic, out of necessity.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on Dr. Horvitz, a researcher in machine intelligence, who is concerned that smart machines might someday look down on humanity and get out of control. In spite of this, he feels that research into machine intelligence can benefit humans and perhaps even make up for our failings. To illustrate his hopes, Dr. Horvitz demonstrated a medical machine that could detect negative emotions from a patient's spoken words and then respond with carefully programmed, simulated empathy.

The machine exhibited the disturbing trait of a psychopath: carefully measured response to an emotion that it knew about, but could not actually feel.

The most disturbing part of the article is that, "a physician told him that it was wonderful that the system responded to human emotion. 'That's a great idea,' Dr. Horvitz said he was told."

Now, ask yourself this: Would a master painter cherish praise, even if it came from the blind? So, who craves empathy from a psychopath? The same kind of people who have been taught to believe that praise is important, even if it isn't real. To these, Dr. Horvitz's machine must seem like a miracle.

The irony of this is that we have already subjected ourselves to machinery, described best by Thomas Hobbes as "the Leviathan, that mortal god." The machinery is invisible to us because we are its pieces. Our great social machines make all of this hand-waving about robot overlords seem a little bit silly. We've been trying to automatize ourselves ever since the Industrial Revolution; is anyone surprised that actual automatons would be better at the new humanity than people?

The Leviathan — embodied in any bureaucracy (school, business, or government) — is just as psychopathic as all other artificial machinery. It matters very little how benevolent its stewards, how righteous its members. Each of them may have only the best interests of the commons at heart. They only wish to help the children, the shareholders, the underdog.

Eric Hoffer once wrote that "there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse." Such is the nature of inhuman machines, and those who worship them; whether they be machines of steel or of abstract social, economic, or political systems.

It requires very little actively malicious conspiracy to produce a system of conspirators, as cogs in a clock unwittingly conspire with each other to measure time. This is the sort of conspiracy we are dealing with (and participating in): one conspired years ago, mostly by men long dead. Philosophers, businessmen, pedagogues, clergy. They all had a hand in it, some of them ignorant of the fact, others perhaps less so.

Gatto tells us all about many of them, and how he has connected their dots together into the modern sickness of forced schooling. I recommend his work to anyone who has courage to read it.


Dave said...

It's difficult to comment on the psychopathology of the Leviathan and its ilk without being entirely sure what the definition of emotions is.

Is it psychopathic to feel emotions but ignore them, preferring only the rational choice?

Also, how is it possible to simulate empathy without converting empathy into some sort of logical algorithm? Is it possible human emotion is only a different sort of biological algorithm, something coded in acid strands instead of binary? Can human emotion be described as a biological function -- differing only from digital function in terms of complexity?

I contend that intelligence is intelligence -- the only contrast being between the intelligences becoming more complex and aware, and the intelligences degenerating into simplicity and final chaos. The composition of the intelligence is irrelevant.

On the other matter, I feel that educational opportunities are generally abundantly available in many variations, but the key element to learning is a difference of mental attitude. I agree that some environments are anathema to constructive education, however.

Peter McCombs said...

From the New York Times article:

"When a mother said her child was having diarrhea, the face on the screen said 'Oh no, sorry to hear that.'"

Adam smith described what he called Fellow Feeling, or Sympathy, as the ability to observe the condition of another, and bring his situation home to oneself.

Tell me, how does a machine with no anatomy and no possibility to ever experience what the patient has been through, imagine and "bring home" the situation to itself? In order to feel empathy? The machine doesn't share the same existential context as the human being.

Its empathy has been reduced to an algorithm, a dictionary of words and grammars with functional mappings to appropriate responses.

This is what I am referring to as psychopathy.

As for educational opportunities, recall your reading in Kant. One of Kant's central questions is: what is possible to know?

If you are subjected to a system designed to conceal from you specific kinds of knowledge and experiences - by wasting your time, for instance - no amount of positive mental attitude is going to change that.

Dave said...

It's true the machine doesn't have the context. I still maintain this is only a matter of complexity, however. In a sufficiently advanced machine, it should be theoretically possible to duplicate the psychological trauma of having diarrhea.

The educational system is a retardant no doubt, but not so bad as, say, a sweatshop. There are much worse environments. Of course, it's possible that a child working in a sweatshop is much more eager to learn than a child in school is.

It reminds me of Animals In Translation, the part about Alex the gray parrot who defied what animal experts thought animals should be capable of. It turns out, the experimenters had stupid experiments. They figured classical operant conditional was the way to go: the animal has to learn to do something a certain way in order to get what it wants. It gets rewarded for doing the right thing.

The problem with that is, an animal isn't paying attention or caring. It doesn't ever understand why. It never learns. But scientists thought it had to be that way, because it's a controlled experiment, it's scientific. It didn't matter that it was unnatural.

Dr. Pepperberg taught Alex by having Alex observed what happened when another student got the right answer: the student got to play with some bark that Alex wanted to chew on. Alex cared about the bark, and he was jealous that the other student was getting to play with it, so Alex observed.

What even more amazing is that Alex began *asking questions* (he asked what color he was for instance, and thereafter understood the abstract concept of "gray"). Grandin speculates that we would make much greater strides in animal intelligence if we got the animals to ask questions, instead of insisting they do experiments the way we think they should.

If the educational systems suffers most from anything, it's from the assumption that we know how to properly educate the masses (or only care that the masses become gainfully employed). It's also another instance of a rigidly "controlled" environment.

The Untergeek said...

Mmmm. I sure miss talking with you, Peter. It sounds like your world has been turned upside down since I inadvertently introduced you to Gatto. :)

Peter McCombs said...


You might say it was turned right-side up.

Anonymous said...


I just found out about this blog, and I have to say these are some crazy awesome and eloquently written posts.

I wanted to say that kids today DO commandeer ships, run businesses, and walk barefoot across vast plains... in The Sims and Argh Matties 2 for playstation.

It's true that in some 3rd world countries, some children are forced to take on heavy responsibilities like taking up arms, and running little kebab shops of their own; but in America, we don't just live a little, we live A LOT. As you put it, we're living the industrial age, and kids now days aspire to be dentists and lawyers. To achieve such aspirations, all we have to do is follow the government-assisted steps of lower and higher education, and then we are all but guaranteed a lifestyle far greater than what most people get in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, we turn to our toys and electronics to live out our prestigious goals of leading armies against the evil zombie plague. Think about it. It's a pretty sweet deal.