Issue 270 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


John Taylor Gatto responds:

In the April 1998 Correspondence section, Bruce Turnquist took issue with what he called my “portrayal of public education as one system.” I don’t blame him; I disagree with that statement, too. The trouble is I never said it.

Not all schools operate from the factory model, but it is far and away the dominant model in the United States, Britain, Germany, and France — indeed, it was created in these four great coal-mining powers of the nineteenth century — and it shows no signs of diminishing its grip. The goal of this system is to manufacture a universal utopia.

That a few schools (and more than a few individual teachers) practice a better, more humane method seems increasingly irrelevant in light of all the students whose lives are incomplete due to the monstrous preemption of their youth by an abstract system. Even those who successfully resist face a steadily diminishing variety of choices. The system of schooling is foreclosing on choice everywhere except in a relative handful of privileged sanctuaries like Turnquist’s Deerfield, New Hampshire. (Although surely Deerfield’s turn will eventually come, too.)

What confuses most of us, I think, is the phenomenal material success our current centralized form of compulsory schooling has conferred. The astounding power and wealth the U.S. has attained under what is essentially a classical fascist regimen has seduced people into believing they can have inhuman power and luxury and a complete life, but that is impossible. The price we must pay for the degree of comfort and safety we enjoy is the surrender of our liberty, spirituality, and loyalty to family and others. These cannot be allowed to interfere with the scientific management of the nation, or our material paradise would gradually come apart.

It’s ironic that Pam Hanna accuses Daniel Quinn of being “facile and unscholarly” [Correspondence, April 1998], and states that “anyone acquainted with human history ought to be able to smell this ‘noble savage’ fallacy a mile away” — ironic because scholarship and history support Quinn. In Letters from an American Farmer, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur noted: “There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating . . . for thousands of Europeans [have joined the] Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.” Benjamin Franklin was even more to the point: “No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.”

It was commonly noted that, at prisoner exchanges, Indians ran joyously back to their relatives while white captives had to be bound hand and foot to prevent them from running back to their captors. Cadawallader Colden, for example, some hundred years before Franklin, said, on witnessing a prisoner exchange between the Iroquois and the French in upper New York: “No Arguments, no Intreaties, nor Tears of their Friends and Relations, could persuade many of them to leave their new Indian Friends and Acquaintances; several of them that were by the Caressings of their Relations persuaded to come Home, in a little Time grew tired of our Manner of living, and run away again to the Indians, and ended their Days with them. On the other Hand, Indian Children have been carefully educated among the English, cloathed and taught, yet, I think, there is not one Instance, that any of these . . . would remain with the English, but returned to their own Nations, and became as fond of the Indian Manner of Life as those that knew nothing of a civilized Manner of Living.” This is not a “noble savage fallacy” but merely what these writers observed.

Why do we pretend that other, more peaceful, and in fact better ways of living are mere fables? Perhaps so we won’t have to acknowledge that the environmental destruction caused by our culture is the result of a long series of stupid choices, which we continue to make as the world burns around us.

Derrick Jensen Spokane, Washington

One can only feel sympathy for Gillian Kendall after reading her essay about being victimized and traumatized by random attacks [“Protection,” April 1998]. Her confusion in response to these attacks is understandable, but I’m not sure that her quest to learn a metaphysical lesson from the experience — in essence, to comprehend why bad things happen to good people — will give her the peace of mind she desires.

Actually, she has already learned several pragmatic truths: sometimes you have to fight to stay alive; compassionate care from others can reinvigorate your sense of self; and the passage of time often allows a wounded person to inch toward reinvolvement with life.

What more can one learn from such violence, except that some members of the human species have a penchant for betraying their own kind and robbing them of any sense of protection?

Jerry Carrico Plantation, Florida

The photograph on the cover of your April 1998 issue — of a couple in their seventies sitting on a stone bench by a patched and faded stucco wall in Italy, or perhaps the Balkans — was marvelous. He smiles with toothless gums, she with dentures, and together they share the most beautiful laughter imaginable.

Arnold Perrin Union, Maine

Last Friday I took the April 1998 issue of The Sun to lunch with me and read Rami Shapiro’s “In Search of Zen Judaism.” Though raised a Methodist, I do not practice any faith. In fact, I resigned as a member of the First Unitarian Church this past January. The congregation was nice; the minister was nice; the board on which I served was nice — there was simply no “juice” at the church.

That same month, at the end of a long pilgrimage, it became clear to me that I had found God. For several years I’d been seeking a higher purpose in my life, trying out a smorgasbord of ideas and philosophies, reading countless books, meditating, and generally stumbling down one path after another. What I hadn’t done was ask God for help. Then, in a deep depression over the breakup of a relationship, I cried out to God, and He heard me. He took control of my soul and put me on the path to find Him.

What Shapiro describes mirrors my experience. I often feel God’s presence within. Last weekend, while driving up to Steamboat Springs to see my youngest son, I stopped by the Blue River. As I walked up to the snowy bank, sun sparkling, wind whistling through the tall pines, I asked God what He wanted. My awareness of “me” immediately dropped away, and I was crying from the incredible beauty of it all. For several minutes, I was a vessel for God; God experienced His creation through me. I was His eyes, His ears, His voice.

Shapiro says, “Our separate reality is momentary, transient, and relative.” I know this to be true.

Rick Ellis Omaha, Nebraska

When I was seven, I asked my father about God. He said, “There are two schools of thought. Some people believe God is up in the sky, looking down on us, taking care of us. Others believe God is in everything, every rock and tree and person.” I said, “That’s what I believe — God is everywhere, in everything.” And that’s basically what I’ve believed ever since.

As a teenager I wanted to be worldly, and left behind my New York immigrant Jewish culture as soon as I could. It all seemed hypocritical, shallow, and unsophisticated to me then. For years I lived in a Zen Buddhist community. Now and then I looked to the Jewish tradition for support of my Zen practice, believing that my search for understanding and interconnection must come, at least partially, from my roots.

Rami Shapiro’s essay brought painful, joyful tears to my eyes. Reading it, I felt as if I’d come home.

Daya Goldschlag Spokane, Washington

I admire James Hillman’s critique of modern psychology and psychotherapy, and I relish the way he tweaks fundamentalists, be they Christian, Freudian, or Jungian. But I find his theory of the “daimon” disturbingly regressive. It seems little more than another essentialist explanation of human behavior.

For instance, Hillman uses the daimon to justify the traditional male inability to maintain substantive interpersonal relationships. In his discussion of “male absence,” Hillman theorizes that men’s daimons call them away from hearth and home, and that to deny men the freedom to roam is to condemn them to a lifetime of aimless frustration. But I find suspect any theory that purports to explain what people do based on inherent, gender-specific traits. If that’s not sexism, I don’t know what is.

“Fathers have been far away for centuries,” Hillman says, and he infers from this state of affairs that men are called to roam and women are not. The jet-setting women of today’s world disprove this notion, but before modern technology leveled the playing field, it wasn’t so easy for mothers to travel. They couldn’t ride a horse while giving birth, or swing a sword in battle while nursing a baby. Men capitalized upon this by constructing social norms that viewed male freedom and female servitude as natural and necessary. But fathers have roamed more than mothers only because they’ve been more able to, both physiologically and socially. Hillman’s explanation for why the father has roamed more than the mother — “His job is elsewhere” — is not qualitatively different from the usual essentialist explanations for gender inequities, such as “Men are just more aggressive.”

Even when they’re not physically absent, many men still withhold their emotions from their relationships, which is the most pervasive and most damaging form of male absence. We poke fun at Dad because we’re not allowed to enter into mutually satisfying, loving relationships with him. The fatherly rage of the past has become the fatherly befuddlement of today, but both are equally unsuited to genuine relationship. Of course, Hillman might explain this by saying it would be contradictory to the male daimon to have mutually satisfactory loving relationships. That’s the convenient thing about any essentialist theory: you can designate any character trait as essential and therefore beyond reproach.

I know the daimon is a myth and therefore not meant to be apprehended in strict, critical ways. Still, I just can’t buy into it, especially when racism, sexism, and homophobia have already demonstrated the ample harm essentialist myths can do.

Brent Winter Atlanta, Georgia
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