The Bartleby Project

In the end of his book, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World  of Compulsory Schooling,  John Taylor Gatto outlines his plan for a very simple project that could have a powerful impact on the future of public schooling. He suggests that everyone involved with schooling, from teachers to students to administrators, simply say “I would prefer not to,” when it comes to standardized testing.

rusty fountain penGatto calls this The Bartleby Project, and the title comes from the story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville.  In the story, Bartleby, through his use of the simple phrase, “I would prefer not to,” elects not to work, not to have his own home, and eventually not to eat. This behavior confounds the other characters in the story, who expect and explain that Bartleby must and should conform to the expectations presented to him by society.  Gatto says we can all exercise our “Bartleby power” to say we prefer not to with standardized testing: “The simple exercise of free will, without any hysterics, denunciation, or bombast, throws consternation into the social machinery—free will contradicts the management principle.”

That management principle is the foundation of high-stakes standardized testing. In states like Texas, where No Child Left Behind originated, the standardized test is the driving force behind all we do, and at an administrative level, the main question asked is “how can we get these scores higher?” Unfortunately, there are systems in place to keep teachers in line when it comes to testing, most notably threatening removal of their teaching license. So the teachers, at least in my state, have limited power to change the testing situation.

The power in this situation, as it always has, resides with the students, and the Bartleby movement must start in their hearts and minds. They must decide that the tests to not meet their personal integrity. They must recognize that education should do more than dictate to them what to learn and how to learn it, then how to recite that knowledge back. They must decide that their future and their value to society should depend on more than if they passed a series of standardized tests. Finally, and most importantly, they must believe in their human right to be valued as more than a number, or a score, or a cog in the machine, and recognized for the strengths and values they possess that cannot be measured by any test. Then, with these simple words, a whole generation of students prefers to no longer take these tests, and in one resounding act of free will, breaks us all away from the behemoth of standardized testing.