Book Review
Journal of Alternative Education, Summer issue, 1998
The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses reviewed by Chris Mercogliano
Authors die for the perfect titles for their work. Well, John Breeding has come up with a doozy here -- never have I seen a title better sum up a book's essential meaning. Just don't let the author's last name cause you to miss his metaphor. In The WiIdest Colts Make the Best Horses, Breeding is not referring to our four-legged equine friends, but rather to the estimated two million American children (recently updated to as many as five million) who are assigned such pseudo-psychiatric labels as "hyperactive," "attention deficit disorder," or "learning disabled," and then administered one or more mind-bending, spirit-deadening drugs to render them more submissive and manageable both in school and at home.

Before I go any further, let me state up front that as a teacher of rascals and misfits for twenty-five years, I wholeheartedly agree with Breeding's basic premise and share his horror at what we are doing to our society's wild colts. A glance back through history will quickly confirm that some of our greatest geniuses and leaders were once wild colts themselves. Homeschoolers love to remind us that as children Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Agatha Christie accomplished very little of their learning in the classroom. And it was Mahatma Gandhi's admitted ineptitude as a law student and later as a courtroom attorney' that forced him to practice law among outcast Indian immigrants in South Africa, thus starting him on the road to one of the most astounding social and political victories in human history.

Yet never were these unforgettable men and women cut from the herd and corralled with psychopharmaceutical drugs: Schedule II controlled substances such as the powerful amphetamine-like stimulant Ritalin, the antidepressant Prozac, the antihypertensive Clonidine, the anticonvulsant Tegretol, and the tranquilizer Mellaril. In this current brave new world for American children, the parameters for what is considered "normal" have been so narrowed that any childhood expressions of wildness virtually guarantee non-conforming kids a lifetime of this kind of "treatment."

Breeding elects to focus mainly on today's most popular designer label for children who don't fit the mold, "Attention Deficit Disorder," or ADD as it is known in the trade. He makes for a very effective whistle blower because, as a clinical psychologist who could be making a handsome living writing prescriptions for Ritalin, et al, he emphatically repudiates any and every psychopharmaceutical approach to the behavioral management of children.

Instead, the author spends the first part of this groundbreaking book questioning the validity of ADD as a medical disorder. He introduces us to the emerging field of "biopsychiatry," to which psychopharmacology owes its current and future success. According to Breeding, the principles of biopsychiatry are as follows:

    • Adjustment to society is good.
    • Failure to adjust is the result of mental illness.
    • Mental illness is a medical disease.
    • Mental illness is the result of biological and/or genetic defects.
    • Mental illness is incurable.
    • Symptoms can be managed primarily by drugs

Breeding's analysis is confirmed by the words of Dr. Robert Coles, who warns in a new preface to The Mind's Fate that twenty-first century psychology and psychiatry is going to be entirely based on chemical solutions to psychic distress. Coles, an eminent professor and researcher at Harvard University and author of the now classic Children in Crisis, says that we are already witnessing the arrival of a new generation of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists who no longer undergo their own analyses, a fundamental training requirement ever since Sigmund Freud and others invented this new science of the psyche. What current and future generations of mental health care providers will be schooled in instead, according to an alarmed and saddened Coles, is how to correlate the client's "condition" with the proper label, and then how to prescribe the right pharmacological cocktail to keep the symptoms in check. That's it;---Huxley's soma here we come.

Where Dr. Thomas Armstrong, who has written extensively on the subject, calls ADD a myth, John Breeding sees it as a metaphor which enables a society that is becoming more and more identified with its corporate/global economy to extend the mechanisms of social control into every home and classroom. Conformity becomes an almost mathematical certainty and our growth-addicted economic system is all but insured the delivery of future generations of compliant consumers and producers.

And it didn't take long, Breeding points out, for the pharmaceutical industry to discover what a gold mine had been opened up when the educational system in the 1960s began to label and segregate the misfits, and its partners in crime, the school "psychologists," started handing out Ritalin like candy. Today the makers of Ritalin and Prozac are reaping untold billions in profits and market analysts tell us this is only the beginning. I recently learned from a family practice doctor in Syracuse, NY, that researchers at the teaching hospital there are experimenting with Ritalin on three-month-olds. And did you know that the manufacturer of Prozac, which like the tobacco industry before it, now has American teenagers in its cross hairs, and is now making its poison available in a variety of flavors? Or that Ciba-Geigy, which produces Ritalin, has given nearly a million dollars to the national ADD "support" group, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD)? CHADD is currently lobbying Congress to relax FDA controls on Ritalin.

In a chapter on schools, Breeding clearly spells out what I call the "iatrogenic" nature of this supposed new "disease" called ADD. The Prussian-style, factory model of education, which was installed in every school in America during the compulsory education movement of the late nineteenth century, values absolute obedience and conformity, not experimentation and independent thought. Echoing John Gatto, who says that it is the schools that are psychopathic, not the kids, Breeding believes the various labels that have been cooked up for kids who are flighty, inattentive to boring and repetitive tasks, loud, impulsive, or aggressive are "a distorted way of describing the effect--not the cause--of a bankrupt philosophy of education."

At the same time, Breeding acknowledges that there are increasing numbers of children and families in this country who are genuinely distressed. Toward this end he devotes the latter two-thirds of this lucidly written book to coaching struggling parents on better, more creative, more caring ways to relate to their kids, especially when they are being difficult.

Included in this section are excellent chapters on how to set limits effectively, how to help your kids deal with the impact of popular culture, and how to help them open up and grow emotionally. His solution to so-called attention deficit disorder: Learn to read your children's behavioral signals and give them the positive attention they so urgently need. If you find yourself in over your head--which should not be a cause for guilt or shame since so many of us had ineffective parental models--then don't hesitate to seek out experienced support.

A real family therapist, Breeding knows what he's talking about. His psychological theory is firmly grounded in years of successful practice. So, parents out there, if the "psychiatric police" show up at your door, you don't have to turn your kids over to them. There is another way.

Chris Mercogliano is a writer and activist who was Codirector of the Free School, a twenty-nine year old, alternative school in Albany, NY. His book, Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of the Albany Free School, tells some of that story.