The Vampire School

The Vampire School drains the life out of learning, producing dull workers for the Vampire State.

“Schools, I hear it argued, would make better sense and be better value as nine-to-five operations or even nine-to-nine ones, working year-round.  We’re not a farming community anymore, I hear, that we need to give kids time off to tend the crops.  This new-world-order schooling would serve dinner, provide evening recreation, offer therapy, medical attention, and a whole range of other services, which would convert the institution into a true synthetic family for children, better than the original one for many poor kids, it is said—and this would level the playing field for the sons and daughters of weak families.

“Yet it appears to me as a schoolteacher that schools are already a major cause of weak families and weak communities.  They separate parents and children from vital interaction with each other and from true curiosity about each other’s lives.  Schools stifle family originality by appropriating the critical time needed for any sound idea of family to develop—then they blame the family for its failure to be a family.”  (John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling)

One day it struck John Taylor Gatto, Teacher of the Year for New York State in 1991 (and therefore, inevitably, disliked by his administrators), that our schools were not failing.  Rather, they were succeeding fabulously at what they were constructed to do: to produce dull and compliant workers in a technocratic economy.  School, he argued, instills in us a perpetual childish neediness.  We need to toady for grades, because we need to get into the “best” schools, because we need to have a prestigious and well-remunerated job, because we need to buy a lot of stuff to pretend to fill the emptiness of our lives.  Among that stuff will be the odd child or two, who will also need to toady for grades, to get into the “best” schools, and so on, world without end, Amen.

The Vampire State naturally requires a Vampire School.  Recall the two things everybody needs to know about vampires.  Vampires need blood—a lot of it; and vampires endow their victims with a shadow-life, a kind of immortal death, always dependent upon the vampire.  The Vampire School uses words like “community” and “family” the same way a vampire talks about life, as from a vast distance, with only a vague and twisted memory of the reality of such a thing, long ago.

Is that too harsh a verdict?

Someone knocks at your door.  “Hello,” says the fellow, flashing his card.  “My name is John Smith.  I hear you have a twelve-year-old boy here.”

“Yes, my son Bobby.  Has he gotten into any trouble?”

“Oh no, sir, not yet.  I am simply here to talk to him about sex.”

“I see.”

“Yes, I am licensed by the state and the school district,” he says, flashing another card, “to talk to Bobby about sex.  He is here, perhaps?”  The man elbows his way into the living room, glancing at the titles of the books in your bookcase.

“As a matter of fact, he isn’t.  He’s down by the pond fishing with his little brother.”

“A pond, fishing,” says the man, writing on a notepad.  “Unsupervised fishing at a pond.  Very well.  When may I see him?  My appointments are rapidly filling up.”

“Shouldn’t I first know something about you?” you ask, naively.  “Suppose you don’t believe the same things I believe.”

“My dear sir,” says the man, arching an eyebrow, and smiling ever so slightly, “it is not your place to know anything about me.  If there’s any knowing going on, it will be I who must find things out about you.  But really,” he continues, assuming an academic air, “the subject of sex is as scientific and precise as physics or mathematics, so that what you happen to believe about it is of no more import than what you believe about the composition of the moon, or the area of a circle.  It is a part of my work”—here he lowers his voice to something between a purr and a growl—“to disabuse young people of the prejudices their parents bring to sex.  Now then, when will your son be available?”

You hesitate.  More writing on the notepad.

“Will tomorrow at noon be all right?”

“Tomorrow at three, fine.”

You begin to close the door.  “Not so fast,” says Mr. Smith.  “There’s the little matter of the fee.”

“You mean you are going to charge me money for this?”

“My dear sir,” he beams, “recall, I am an expert.  You wouldn’t want to do your own plumbing, would you?  No, of course not.  Or prepare your own meals, except under duress?  Or provide your own entertainment?  Play your own musical instruments?  Invent your own sports?  Get together with your own neighbors to play cards?  Build your own garage?  Farm your own land?  Read your own old and musty books, and think about them by yourself?  Make love to your own wife without the aid of expert tips from magazines and pornographic videos?  Worship God with your fellow believers?”

“What’s wrong with that?” you stammer, but he snaps the notebook shut.  “I haven’t all day.  Here is my bill.  I make $50 an hour.  Sixty hours with Bobby should about do it.  If he fails, my colleague Ms. Jones will be available for remedial lessons.  Good day.”

And you give in.

Or perhaps not.  There are some people—homeschoolers most notable among them—who have tried to elude the Vampire altogether, with greater and lesser degrees of success.  But there are others, whose number is Legion, who have been bitten too deeply, and who have come to depend upon the Vampire School.

They secretly look forward to the nine-to-five or nine-to-nine school whose prospect fills Gatto with horror.  They do not want more time with their children.  They hardly know what to do with the time they do have.  They pay, handsomely, for time-consuming activities that relieve them of the responsibility of a real life.  They have been trained to consider all things done with simple independence as beneath an intelligent person’s notice.  “Slavery is freedom,” says Big Brother, who is now also Big Sister.  So a woman will pay to rid herself of her children for certain hours during the day, so that she may work, let us say, as a cook in a local restaurant, to pay for the Vampire and its minions, and for prepared meals from the Vampire Market.

In Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School, Daniel Greenberg reveals to us not only that the Vampire is a Vampire, but that he is a naked Vampire to boot.  For the Vampire, lending his victims the simulacrum of life, delivers the simulacrum of education, but paradoxically must be seen to “fail” frequently, so as to justify the transfusion of greater and greater quantities of blood.  He can do so only by persuading people that learning how to read and cipher and so forth is so tremendously difficult and unnatural that many children, especially those from poor homes—here he dabs a dry eye with his handkerchief—will never manage it, unless they submit to ever more (and more intrusive) ministrations from the Vampire, who alone knows how to teach, being the expert and all that. 

But Greenberg laughs the Vampire’s pretenses away.  When children are ready to learn a subject, they will learn it.  He tells of a group of his school’s nine-year-olds and twelve-year-olds, who suddenly announced that they wanted to learn arithmetic—all of it.  So he dug up a textbook from 1898, full of examples and exercises, and gave it to them.  Addition took two classes, he says, and subtraction another two.  The children memorized the multiplication tables, then tackled the exercises.  “They were high, all of them,” he says, “sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms.”  Then they went on to long division, fractions, decimals, percentages, and square roots.  “In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all,” writes Greenberg, “six years’ worth.” 

And then there is reading.  Consider that a little child learns the most complex thing that most people will ever learn—human language.  He learns it naturally, because he has a hunger to learn it, and he learns it without training by experts, and at no expense at all.  When speaking has been mastered, reading is not all so hard, if the child has things to read.  These days, it is almost impossible to avoid things to read.  Most of it is junk, but then, so is most of what is assigned as reading in school.  So what are we paying all that money for?  To ensure, perhaps, that children associate reading with drudgery?

Can a vampire be reformed?  In a manner of speaking, yes: with a stake.

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About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.