Austin Dispatches No. 182 June 29, 2015

One day in early August 1975, Mom handed me an envelope from the mail she’d just gathered. A letter for me?

“Dear Danny,” began a mimeographed form letter on goldenrod paper, from the nearest district elementary school. “We’re sure you’re looking forward to attending kindergarten next month.”

My excitement vanished. As best a five-year old could articulate, I expressed my strong displeasure these strangers dared presume what I was thinking, and so wrongly. “Besides, I’ve already been to school” – the neighborhood preschool, where I’d even learned about negative numbers, a useful concept when considering the national debt, or the IQs of Libertarian Reform Caucus members (but that's another issue).[1]

In retrospect, I may have had an even better education. Because of how my parents are, they knew a broad cross-section of interesting people. If, as my siblings claim, I had an “unfair” advantage as the “favorite child,” it’s that these people were favorably predisposed toward me, because I was “Mike and Lynn’s kid,” the first and only for four years.[2] They’d take time to tell me stories or teach me how to do things. I also observed how all these adults interacted with each other, and with other children.

My emphatic negative response to that letter prompted a half-bemused, half-quizzical expression from Mom, as though she were witnessing the emergence of her son’s distinct personality, one yet simultaneously reminiscent of his father’s.

She ruefully half-laughed, half-sighed. “Well, you have to go to school. It’s the law.”[3]

I continued to object to this future other people had planned without consulting me. Mom half-laughed, half-sighed again. “You’re just like your father. We’ll discuss this when he gets home.”

Dad backed Mom, and they both acquiesced to the State, so off I went.[4]

I didn’t realize how right my objections were until the second day of school, when the teacher marched me into a corner, scolding me in her harping, passive-aggressive tone that I’ve come to know so well the past 40 years.[5]

The cause? I objected to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.[6] “Again? We just did that yesterday.”

My remark wasn’t even directed at the teacher. I was talking to one of my new friends.

I listened to them and the rest of the class mumble the pledge for the second consecutive day while I stood facing a corner on the other side of the room. Bear in mind, that happened coincidentally with early commercial and media celebrations of the Bicentennial – marking resistance to tyrannical authority – beyond the schoolyard chain-link fence.[7] If I’d only known my rights.[8]

However, I can’t complain the teacher singled me out, because she displayed the same low-level hostility to other extroverted boys in my class. Gradually, I learned at recesses that other boys in other classes received the same treatment.[9] (At the end of the school year, she proclaimed all of us her best class ever, but I later learned from other pupils that every teacher said that about every class at the end of the term every year. Maybe they meant every year they improved at breaking us.)[10]

Regardless, that second day set the mood for the rest of the school year, during which the staff also objected to:

·       My handwriting, even though the world doesn’t run on elegant penmanship.[11]

·       My trying to write left-handed, just to see if I could do it.

·       My talking to the other kids in the classroom, even though a standard defense of mandatory schooling is that children won’t socialize properly otherwise. So for socializing I got low conduct grades on my report cards.[12]

·       My checking books about World War II out of the school library.[13] They would’ve objected more had they known that during this time I learned from a juvenile history in the city library about the FDR administration maneuvering the Japanese government into attacking Pearl Harbor – a sneaky trick worthy of the playground ("I double dare you…. Teacher, he started it!"), but something never taught even in my last college-level American history class.[14]

e182fig2Best of all, the staff objected to my stories based on the characters in our basal reader,[15] on gray 18” x 12” picture story wide-ruled paper with a No. 2 pencil for text and a 72-count Crayola pack for the illustrations.[16] The school was fussily specific about the supplies the parents had to provide, which roused Mom to grumbling from that first shopping trip onward.

e182fig3While researching this issue, I discovered the Sterling No. 526 roll top pencil box, which everyone had, is a discontinued object commanding $100 on eBay.[17] The Pee-Chee folder illustrations changed after I left high school and that brand folder has since declined in prevalence.[18] Those school supplies were actually useful, even if my classes weren't, and they’re what’s become passé.[19]

It’s almost as though having failed to kill any more than a third of my generation in the womb during the Kinderfeindlichkeit of the ‘70s, the preceding generations attempted to eliminate external proof of our memories.[20]

Anyway, I set about improving on the source material with accretions of popular culture accessible to me.[21] Popular culture then had a stronger New York sensibility.[22] The teachers lacked familiarity with these outside influences. That was my first experience of a pattern through college of credentialed instructors in the liberal arts knowing nothing of art or media beyond the most publicized mainstream fare through the late ‘60s, and knowing nothing of anything that had been produced since about 1970.[23]

Consequently, my stories (e.g., “Bing and Sandy fell into the toilet and wound up in the East River.”) became another topic of concern at parent-teacher conferences, rehashed at the dinner table. Fortunately, Dad was sanguine and even amused about the matter.

“Wow. You were weird and cynical even as a child,” said my College Station girlfriend when I recounted the story between then and now.[24]

So my early efforts weren’t worthy of Joseph Conrad, but all I did was follow the teacher’s instructions.[25] In turn, she was following the curriculum guidelines, which reflected the then-fashionable trends in pedagogy that were supposed to free the child from earlier, rigid approaches to learning, but in practice candy coated an intrinsically coercive experience, and thus was doomed to failure.[26]

The two approaches didn’t mesh well, or at least our teachers failed at integrating them, and I began to suspect the whole thing was just a scam.[27] My suspicions catalyzed with the first of an annual elementary school viewing of “Free to Be … You and Me.”[28] It was so sappy, after viewing it Mr. Rogers growled the best way to rear children was tanning their butts with the business end of a belt.[29] I couldn’t help notice all the people self-actualizing in the movie weren’t stuck in school from about 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. Moreover, did the teachers interact with the students the way the characters did in the movie? No they didn’t. Did the teachers encourage us students to interact with each other the way the characters did in the movie? No they didn’t.

So maybe I did learn something, just not what the educrats planned in the curriculum. And even that wasn’t something I first learned at kindergarten.[30] In Central Park, I met another kid who insisted the English alphabet wasn’t sequenced ABCD etc., but something else.[31] I pointed out his two demonstrative recitals also differed from each other in sequence. His response: “Nah-ahh.” Sort of a preview of the usual discourse on Internet forums.

And this was just my first year in the system. Off school grounds, the closest comparable treatment I received from adults was trick-or-treating the night before Halloween 1975 because Dad’s band had a Halloween gig so he couldn’t accompany me to acquire candy.[32] Even though I explained the situation up front, adults were so cross you’d think I told them I showed up to commit home invasions.[33]

Gradually I figured out that another set of rules applied inside school – that of the prison. Consequently, I treated my teachers the way one would guards, with as little interaction as necessary.[34]

The most damning commentary on all this comes from people I’ve met years after having done my time. Because they think I sound smart, or at least can talk with correct syntax, they assume I attended private or Catholic schools – never government-run institutions.

My sentence could’ve been worse. Fortunately, it coincided with some overlapping, self-sabotaging crises caused by the American power elite that riled the public and put proponents, minions and beneficiaries of the corporatist, managerial-therapeutic, warfare-welfare state – down to the neighborhood school – on the defensive, in the first of three phases, until 9/11.[35]

The 9/11 crisis revitalized these corporatists, and now Sis’ son is experiencing similar problems in their elementary school. The eras changed, but the stultifying system endures.
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[1] AD No. 93 (Oct. 15, 2006); AD No. 98 (June 11, 2007); AD No. 99 (Aug. 10, 2007); AD No. 111 (June 12, 2008); AD No. 113 (July 12, 2008); AD No. 116 (Sep. 7, 2008).

[2] Sowell, Thomas. "Life Is Unfair." Forbes. 5 Dec. 1994: 50.

[3] Gatto, John Taylor. Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2006: xvi-xix.

[4] Ibid., 57.

[5] AD No. 88 (Dec. 23, 2005); AD No. 139 (April 1, 2011).

[6] Baer, John W. The Pledge of Allegiance: A Revised History and Analysis, 1892-2007. Annapolis, Md.: Free State Press, 2007.

[7] Adams, James Ring, and Laurel Ann Adams. “The Great American Birthday Party.” The Alternative: An American Spectator Oct. 1976: 14-15; Bronson, Gail. “The Spirit of (19)76: Is It a Bicentennial or a Buy-centennial?” WSJ 15 Apr. 1975: 1; Jacobs, Frank, and Harry North. “The Bauble Hymn of the Republic, or One Bicentennial Every 200 Years Is Enough!” Mad Dec. 1976: 22-23; Jones, Jessy, and Bruce Elliot. “Bicentennial.” Retro Hell, 16-17.

[8] West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

[9] Jones et al. “Recess.” Retro Hell, 173.

[10] Sommers, Christina Hoff. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men, rev. ed. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[11] Strauss, Bill, and Neil Howe. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?. New York City: Vintage Books, 1993: 78, 80.

[12] Iserbyt, Charlotte Thomson. The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America: A Chronological Paper Trail. Ravenna, Ohio: Conscience Press, 1999: 253.

[13] AD No. 180n4 (Feb. 10, 2015).

[14] Barnes, Harry Elmer. Pearl Harbor After a Quarter of a Century. New York City: Arno Press, 1972; Dower, John W. Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq. New York City: W.W.Norton/The New Press, 2010; Greaves, Percy L. Jr. Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy. Ed. Bettina Bien Greaves. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010; Morgenstern, George. Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War. New York City: The Devin-Adair Co., 1947; Prange, Gordon W., Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, rev. ed. New York City: Viking Penguin, 1991; Stinnett, Robert B. Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, rev. ed. New York City: Touchstone, 2001; Theobald, Rear Adm. Robert A. The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor: The Washington Contribution to the Japanese Attack. New York City: Devin-Adair, 1954; Toland, John. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, rev. ed. New York City: Berkley Books, 1983; Victor, George. The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007.

[15] Cooper, Elizabeth K. A Happy Morning. New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970; Cooper, Elizabeth K., Charles C. Fellows, and Margaret Early. Sun Up. New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

[16] McCue, Donna, and Stacey Donovan. Your Fate Is in Your Hands: Using the Principles of Palmistry to Change Your Life. New York City: Pocket Books, 2000: 104; Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990: 119, 157.

[17] Petroski, op. cit., 351.

[18] Hansen, Dan. “Pee-Chee Folders Aren’t Just Peachy.” Spokane (Wash.) Chronicle 16 Aug. 1989: B1+.

[19] Eisler, Dan. “Re: How're you faring on the roads after this weekend?” E-mail to Chris Loyd, 26 May 2015.

[20] Strauss and Howe. The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. New York City: Broadway Books, 1997: 194-196; Strauss and Howe. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069. New York City: William Morrow and Co., 1991: 98, 324; Strauss and Howe. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?. New York City: Vintage Books, 1993: 68.

[21] Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs. New York City: Hyperion, 1998; Boys’ Toys of the Seventies and Eighties: Toy Pages From the Legendary Sears Christmas Wishbooks, 1970-1989. Ed. Thomas W. Holland. Calabasas, Calif.: Windmill Group, 2002; Children’s Television Workshop. The Electric Company: An Introduction to the New Television Program Designed to Help Teach Reading to Children. New York City: Children’s Television Workshop, 1971; Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. New York City: Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1991; Demarais, Kirk. Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads! San Rafael, Calif.: Insight Editions, 2011; Heiler, Brian. Rack Toys: Cheap, Crazed Playthings. Oshawa, Ont.: Plaidstallions Press, 2012; Martindale, David. Detective Shows of the 1970s: Credits, Storylines, and Episode Guides for 109 Series. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1991; McCrohan, Donna. Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family. New York City: Workman Publishing, 1987; More Boys’ Toys of the Seventies and Eighties: Toy Pages From the Great Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalogs, 1970-1985. Ed. Thomas W. Holland. Calabasas, Calif.: Windmill Group, 2002; Reidelbach, Maria. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991; Tennis, Craig. Johnny Tonight! New York City: Pocket Books, 1980.

[22] Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1998: 16; Gavin, James. Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, rev. ed. New York City: Back Stage Books, 2006: 296; Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York City: Pantheon Books, 2003: 132, 149.

[23] Kostelanetz, Richard. “Exposing the ‘College Teaching’ Scam.” Liberty Nov. 1989: 64-66.

[24] Strauss and Howe, Generations, op. cit., 328.

[25] Ford, Ford Madox [Joseph Leopold Ford Madox Hueffer]. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. London: Duckworth & Co., 1924; Strauss and Howe, 13th Gen, op. cit., 77.

[26] Strauss and Howe, Fourth Turning, op. cit., 197-198.

[27] Strauss and Howe, 13th Gen, op. cit., 75.

[28] More, Riley. “Free to Be You and Me.” Retro Hell, 76.

[29] AD No. 24n12 (Dec. 24, 2000).

[30] Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. New York City: Villard Books, 1988.

[31] Dr. Seuss [Theodore Geisel]. On Beyond Zebra! New York City: Random House, 1955.

[32] AD No. 42n32 (Oct. 30, 2002).

[33] AD No. 88n9.

[34] Cox, Stephen D. The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2009; The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling. Ed. William F. Rickenbacker. 1974. Rpt. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1999.

[35] AD No. 96n52 (Feb. 6, 2007); AD No. 143n6 (June 28, 2011); Sandbrook, Dominic. Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011: 65-68.