“We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” — Woodrow Wilson
Education and school have been the subject, direct or tangential, of a number of posts lately. Most notably this fantastic, honest piece about Antigone’s school experience. Government schooling is an emotionally charged subject since most of us attended school every non-summer weekday for 12+ years. Many of us are sending or planning to send our children to this institution for the same duration.
The “public education” narrative is that the fabric of our civic society is founded on universal, compulsory education. According to this narrative, the difficult and time consuming job of distilling curricula and applying it to individuals and groups of children in a scientifically validated manner should be left to state-certified professionals, freeing the parents for work more suited to their specific talents. Deviating from this model will result in a society in which only the sufficiently wealthy and privileged will receive the education to succeed in life while the poor will not have access to the tools to remove themselves from poverty. Additionally, many adults will not be capable of critical thought, but will instead learn about gods, ghosts, creationism, and a worldview supporting racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia. As with most state-centered narratives, the consequences it claims will inevitably occur are already manifest all around us. State education has been, if not wholly responsible, at least a large component in creating the reality that we’re told we should fear.
The purpose of this post is to introduce and wildly recommend the works of John Taylor Gatto. He was a teacher for 30 years, was awarded New York City teacher of the year 3 times and retired after winning New York State teacher of the year in 1991. He’s got a handful of books–an online version of one is available via the prior link–plus he and his former students have been covered fairly regularly in mainstream’ish media.
My prescient partner Alisa got me a collection of his essays, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, during my brief stint as a high-school math teacher. I expected it to be a motivational, Lean on Me style book. Instead it was The People’s History of the United States, shredding everything I had previously been taught and understood about the role of state education in society. Anyone who wants to speak authoritatively about education reform and definitely anyone who is considering how their own children are or will be educated would benefit tremendously from Gatto’s experience and research.
Well, that’s kindof it for the post–more of a slightly-too-large-for-a-comment-comment. I am comforted by the fact that, should you read a few dozen pages of his work, your mind will be sufficiently blown to justify this recommendation.
I will leave you with a couple sample passages with links to the relevant resources to tempt your palette:
There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to favor the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modem era – marketing. — Harper’s Magazine (easier to read in this reprint)
Something in the structure of schooling calls forth violence. While latter-day schools don’t allow energetic physical discipline, certainly they are state-of-the-art laboratories in humiliation, as your own experience should remind you. In my first years of teaching I was told over and over that humiliation was my best friend, more effective than whipping. I witnessed this theory in practice through my time as a teacher. If you were to ask me now whether physical or psychological violence does more damage, I would reply that slurs, aspersion, formal ranking, insult, and inference are far and away the more deadly. Nor does law protect the tongue-lashed. — The Underground History of American Education (the entire book is available online)
I will tell you this – a kid who learns to read at five, and a kid who learns to read
at 9, will be indistinguishable to each other at the age of fourteen, assuming
they both like what they’re doing. On the other hand, we can say its too
inconvenient, or too expensive, to allow that and impose a learning curve in
first grade that produces this wonderful bell, we can then assign the people on
the fringes of the bell to special ed and the people in the middle of the bells
- the walls of the curve – to the dull classes and so on. And we will create a
class system by simply doing that. Inside of a year or two, the kids will impose
that kind of class system on themselves! It’s a phenomenally intricate, but
rather easy to unravel puzzle there – reading is pathetically easy to teach, you
assume that once you assemble 30 people in a room, and do it in the same
routines, that you’ll fail to teach it to some of them, that this bell will
appear, and the atmosphere in the classroom is that the humiliation of being a
dull reader or bad reader will never wear off. You can predict the rise of a
giant remediation industry. — Interview with Jerry Brown