Self-Determined, Free Agents: How Would the Modern Schooling System Handle the Spirit of Early America?

Old-thinker news | Dec. 8, 2007

By Daniel Taylor

“Students were to learn to think of themselves as employees competing for management. Not as Franklin or Edison had once regarded themselves, as self-determined, free agents.” — John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education

John Taylor Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education” is an incredible journey from the early beginnings of modern schooling to its present day form which now threatens to squelch the fiery passion, zeal and self determined nature that made America strong. Having only read the first two chapters, the incredible amount of insight found within its pages has already resonated with me as I feel compelled to write this commentary. John’s piercing commentary and observations can be readily and intuitively recognized by anyone who has gone through the public education system as being spot on. The manufacturing of “incomplete people” who do not threaten established order is the game.

Free thinking and independent individuals are the arch enemy of mechanized systems of oppression. Easily managed, predictable “cookie cutter” people are the ideal human resource, which happens to be the way the architects of modern schooling view the majority of humanity; as human resources.

“Self-Determined, free agents”, as Mr. Gatto calls them, – I’ll call them renegades – were free to do as they wished in a society in early America that had very little managerial control over such individuals. Thomas Edison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin are a few of the widely known historical characters that have so impacted our country. They disobediently ran away from apprenticeships, destroyed train cars in the process of conducting scientific experiments, and had very little if any official “schooling”. But yet, they ended up to be some of the most well known, most admired and most influential people in American history.

John Taylor Gatto speaks of this self determined drive found in Thomas Edison,

“When I was a schoolboy in Monongahela, I learned how Thomas Edison left school early because the school thought him feeble-minded. He spent his early years peddling newspapers. Just before the age of twelve he talked his mother into letting him work on trains as a train-boy, a permission she gave which would put her in jail right now. A train-boy was apprentice of all work. Shortly afterwards a printer gave Edison some old type he was about to discard and the boy, successfully begging a corner for himself in the baggage car to set type, began printing a four-page newspaper the size of a handkerchief about the lives of the passengers on the train and the things that could be seen from its window.

Several months later, twelve-year-old Edison had five hundred subscribers, earning a net profit monthly about 25 percent more than an average schoolteacher of the day made. When the Civil War broke out, the newspaper became a goldmine. Railroads had telegraph facilities so war news was available to Edison as quickly as to professional journalists, but he could move it into print sooner than they could. He sold the war to crowds at the various stops. “The Grand Trunk Herald” sold as many as a thousand extra copies after a battle at prices per issue from a dime to a quarter, amassing for Edison a handsome stake. Unfortunately, at the same time he had been experimenting with phosphorus in the baggage car. One thing led to another and Edison set the train on fire; otherwise there might never have been a light bulb.” [1]

George Washington, the first President of the United States, who had all but two years of official schooling, is described by Gatto,

“George Washington was no genius; we know that from too many of his contemporaries to quibble. John Adams called him “too illiterate, too unlearned, too unread for his station and reputation.” Jefferson, his fellow Virginian, declared he liked to spend time “chiefly in action, reading little.” It was an age when everyone in Boston, even shoeblacks, knew how to read and count; it was a time when a working-class boy in a family of thirteen like Franklin couldn’t remember when he didn’t know how to read.

As a teenager, Washington loved two things: dancing and horseback riding. He pursued both with a passion that paid off handsomely when he became president. Large in physical stature, his appearance might have stigmatized him as awkward. Instead, by developing the agile strength of a dancer and an equestrian, he was able to communicate grace through his commanding presence, élan that counterpoised his large build at any gathering.

Washington had no schooling until he was eleven, no classroom confinement, no blackboards. He arrived at school already knowing how to read, write, and calculate about as well as the average college student today.

Following George to school at eleven to see what the schoolmaster had in store would reveal a skimpy menu of studies, yet one with a curious gravity: geometry, trigonometry, and surveying. You might regard that as impossible or consider it was only a dumbed-down version of those things, some kid’s game akin to the many simulations one finds today in schools for prosperous children—simulated city-building, simulated court trials, simulated businesses—virtual realities to bridge the gap between adult society and the immaturity of the young. But if George didn’t get the real thing, how do you account for his first job as official surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia, only two thousand days after he first hefted a surveyor’s transit in school?

For the next three years, Washington earned the equivalent of about $100,000 a year in today’s purchasing power.” [2]

Gatto also writes of the dramatic life of Benjamin Franklin, who began school at third grade age and quit when he would have been in the fifth grade. “As a writer, politician, scientist, and businessman, Franklin had few equals among the educated of his day – though he left school at ten,” writes Gatto. [3]

“At twelve he was bound apprentice to brother James, a printer. Aftera few years of that, and disliking his brother’s authority, he ran away first to New York and soon after to Philadelphia where he arrived broke at the age of seventeen.

“Young Ben was yanked from grammar school and sent to another type less ritzy and more nuts and bolts in colonial times: the “writing and arithmetic” school. There under the tutelage of Mr. Brownell, an advocate of “mild, encouraging methods,” Franklin failed in arithmetic:

‘At ten years old I was taken home to assist my father in his business…. Accordingly I was employed in cutting wick for candles, filling the dipping mold and the molds for cast candles. Attending the shop, going on errands, etc. I disliked the trade, and had a strong inclination for the sea, but my father declared against it.’

There are other less flattering accounts why Franklin left both these schools and struck out on his own at the age of ten—elsewhere he admits to being a leader of mischief, some of it mildly criminal, and to being “corrected” by his father—but causation is not our concern, only bare facts. Benjamin Franklin commenced school at third-grade age and exited when he would have been in the fifth to become a tallow chandler’s apprentice. [4]

Franklin would go on to be a leader in multiple fields and an outrageously successful entrepreneur. Certainly the way it used to be and the way it is are two drastically different things.

Ask yourself: How would the modern system of schooling in America handle the likes of George Washington, Thomas Edison, or Benjamin Franklin?  Would they be medicated out of their minds and tamed into a safe and easily managed manner as a young energetic colt is broken into becoming a domesticated animal? Perhaps labels like Attention Deficit Disorder would be bestowed upon them? Would they be festooned with labels marking them for future remediation?

How could these men have achieved their exploits as “un-schooled” individuals? Well schooled individuals are the successful ones, we are told. The un-schooled are assigned to hard labor and menial tasks.

Perhaps the path to understanding, prosperity, and an educated mind, as John Taylor Gatto believes, is found purely through self-directed study, observation, and exploration. The problem is, modern schooling doesn’t allow for this. We all sit in the same classroom every day, follow the same manufactured curriculum, and are given little chance to take on tasks of great responsibility to test ourselves and gain insight into our own soul. Is that what the target of modern schooling is, the free human spirit? I say we take it back.


The Underground History of American Education is available for free online at:



[1] Gatto, John Taylor “The Underground History of American Education” Oxford Village Press, New York, 2006.  p. 24.

[2] lbid p. 30-31

[3] lbid p. 26

[4] lbid p. 25-27

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