22 April 2007

John Taylor Gatto - Against School

I've been doing some more detailed thinking about the enterprise of education lately, since I've been invited to participate on Steve Paikin's show, The Agenda on TVO, this coming Thursday. Having had two children traverse the Ontario public education system - both successfully and in good schools - I have come to realize that our public education system does an excellent job of preparing our citizenry for the 19th century. I suppose it could be worse; but it can also be a helluva lot better. A few days ago, I suggested some of the philosophy that might form the foundation of "the better." But many may object, claiming that if the education system was good enough for them - and they turned out alright - it's good enough for our kids.

A counter argument could be mounted that simply states, "look around you'; the dysfunctions of our society are indeed the product of modern, public education. But an even more compelling case is mounted by John Taylor Gatto, a one-time New York State Teacher of the Year, and fierce critic of the current public education system. His Six Lesson Schoolteacher is a scathing critique of the systemic failure of the school system to prepare youth for today's world.
With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder we have the national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent to the adult world and to the future; indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence? Rich or poor, schoolchildren cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They have a poor sense of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of intimacy (like the children of divorce they really are); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, whose hidden curriculum prevents effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. ... Institutional schoolteachers are destructive to children's development. Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that it is not likely to happen. First and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and a contract-letting agency. We cannot afford to save money, not even to help children.
Likewise, his 2003 essay in Harpers Magazine, Against School traces the historical roots for an public education system specifically design for mediocrity, conformity, instilling discipline, and the replication of privilege rather the promotion of equity and true opportunity:
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole...

We don't need Karl Marx's conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don't conform. Class may frame the proposition, as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be class-based at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that "efficiency" is the paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they can stem from simple greed.
Actually, I think we should be greedy, we should never consider ourselves sufficiently full of the very things that Gatto laments are being lost in the modern education industry - love, liberty, laughter and hope. It is only through our collective hunger for the aspects of life that are truly worthwhile that the collective will for change can emerge.
(Thanks, Graham!)

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Leigh said...

i quote that article in Harpers all the time. Have to agree most public education is focused on the wrong things. Especially now, they are teaching kids how to take tests not the important skills such as critical thought.

Good luck on the show. Sounds like it should be an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

Mark, thanks for the mention. I'm trying to work out what I said. Perhaps it was the Values Education post ("Government get an F").
Nevertheless, I think you may be my doppelganger (except that you are clearly much younger and have actually studied this stuff formally). I am a huge fan of Gatto, also, and of McLuhan ever since I first read him in 1966. There are some people whose views on the world open profound new possibilities for the way one sees the world. These are two of those people.
One of the understandings I have got from McLuhan is that the means are the ends (as in medium=message) so that, for example, the lasting and real legacy of the war in Iraq will be the way it was done, both in Iraq and in the invading countries. Can I properly make that connection with McLuhan?

Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your comment, Graham. I think of "the medium is the message" more in this way, which is very close to the way that McLuhan himself explains it in UM. So in the context of Iraq, the message or effect of the invasion medium will indeed be its legacy, and the changes that are occurring, and will yet occur, in the total global environment. In one sense, the way in which Iraq was, and is being, handled by the U.S. has pushed that medium into reversal - having the diametrically opposite effect of what was intended. I have always liked the current U.S. president because he offers so many rich teaching points for those who use the Laws of Media tetrad as an analytic and perceptual tool.