02 July 2010

Why Schools Don't Educate: A Must-Read Reflection from a Teacher of the Year

It is no secret that my lovely wife Sharon and I support the homeschooling movement. We think it provides an academic, moral and emotional formation superior to traditional schools. But not everyone is able to homeschool, whether by reason of finances, family stability, capacity or temperament. So, while my preference is a strong one, I am not in favor of clubbing someone over the head until they agree.

And yet... and yet....... I will take the opportunity to persuade when I can. The first stage of the matter is to address just why the compulsory school not the best vehicle to form children.

Therefore, I will excerpt below from the acceptance speech given by John Taylor Gatto, the 1991 winner of the New York State Teacher of the Year Award. This speech is an interesting, novel and challenging insight from one "in the know". I strongly recommend reading
the full text at LewRockwell.com, to give full context to these excerpts about the problems with the modern institutional school:


We live in a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world's narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn't buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse – and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for sure.

Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent – nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name "community" hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.


The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted – sometimes with guns – by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880's when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.

Now here is a curious idea to ponder. Senator Ted Kennedy's office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was 98% and after it the figure never again reached above 91% where it stands in 1990. I hope that interests you.


Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic – because the community life which protects the dependent and the weak is dead. The products of schooling are, as I've said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on the telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety, indeed it cuts you off from your own past and future, scaling you to a continuous present much the same way television does.

Two institutions at present control our children's lives – television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction. In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.

But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with:

Out of the 168 hours in each week, my children sleep 56. That leaves them 112 hours a week out of which to fashion a self.

My children watch 55 hours of television a week according to recent reports. That leaves them 57 hours a week in which to grow up.

My children attend school 30 hours a week, use about 6 hours getting ready, [2 hours] going and coming home, and spend an average of 7 hours a week in homework – a total of 45 hours. During that time, they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves 12 hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course, my kids eat, and that takes some time – not much, because they've lost the tradition of family dining, but if we allot 3 hours a week to evening meals, we arrive at a net amount of private time for each child of 9 hours.


I want to tell you what the effect is on children of taking all their time from them – time they need to grow up – and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. You need to hear this, because no reform that doesn't attack these specific pathologies will be anything more than a façade.

1. The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up these days and who can blame them? Toys are us.

2. The children I teach have almost no curiosity and what they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose to do. Can you see a connection between the bells ringing again and again to change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent attention?

3. The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. As I said before, they have a continuous present, the exact moment they are at is the boundary of their consciousness.

4. The children I teach are ahistorical, they have no sense of how past has predestined their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values and lives.

5. The children I teach are cruel to each other, they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, and they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly.

6. The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. My guess is that they are like many adopted people I've known in this respect – they cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy so intimate relationships have to be avoided.

7. The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who materialistically "grade" everything – and television mentors who offer everything in the world for free.

8. The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.

Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents – and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 – we're going to continue to have the horror show we have right now. The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life, we've gotten away from that curriculum, time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief. I have many ideas to make a family curriculum and my guess is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large vested interests pre-emptying all the air time and profiting from schooling just exactly as it is despite rhetoric to the contrary. We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We've all had a bellyful of authorized voices mediated by television and the press – a decade long free-for-all debate is what is called for now, not any more "expert" opinions. Experts in education have never been right, their "solutions" are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough. Time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family. I've said my piece. Thank you.


Samuel said...

Thank you sir. I'm passing this along to my loved ones. I couldn't agree more with the content. For too long the people have been prepared for the day of the dictator. God save America.

Peggy said...

Very good. This generates many, many thoughts. A few, just a few:

1. Centralization of power is a huge problem in public and private sectors, made possible by technology. In most instances, its not that beneficial, though it might be low-cost financially. Morally or socially, there's often a high cost. There are anti-trust laws for business; for govt, we have the constitution--federalism, and separation of powers, which few seem to hold in high regard these days.
2. I imagine schools operated much better, conveyed knowledge and basic skills, and were subject to the parents' vision of education, as they should be, when they were locally controlled. A homeschool group could rent out an abandoned school (if enough $ could be raised) and run it according to its own wishes and do the teaching of one another's kids, share expertise and all that. Keep it small and private is key.
3. Kids seem to be quite different today. It may be a result of the early institutionalization, separation from parents (mommy's especially) at early as 6 weeks from birth. There is much dissociative behavior out there. This is not just an inner city problem of kids raised by drug-addled parents. Kids are being abandoned in one way or another by the parents. The first generation of this are young adults these days. There is science about the emotional/behavioral fallout of the daycares.
4. I recently read an article about job applicants coming in as slobs, eating lunch during the interview, sloppy resumes, mommies calling to ask why their babies aren't hired...etc. Rush talked about an employer who couldn't find enough workers who could do 9th grade math. But, as Rush said, they probably knew all about evil AMerica, corporations, SUVs, etc.. They aren't being taught 3 Rs, but propaganda.
5. Honestly, I don't recall our family being upset about the busyness of school when I was a kid. But coming from a large family, I do understand the need for kids to have down time alone. I am an avid reader and introvert to this day. It's hard playing Star Wars battles when I'd rather read a book. But that's family. That's what we do. I do feel the crunch on family time as a mom. Before we got into sports leagues and homework--which starts in K!--en then there's home room and Sp-Ed teachr's assignments, we had time for drives and hikes. We haven't done so much this year. The sports are pretty important for our one boy in a contained Sp-Ed room. They promised me they'd get results I wasn't getting w/him. Not too impressed frankly, but it's been beyond me as well. [If you read about Russian adoptee issues, you'll have an idea of our range of issues for 2 boys.]
Gotta go. A child beckons. Maybe more if more time...Happy Independence Day!

Anonymous said...

Great post!!


Peggy said...

Oh, I feared my post was lost. Excuse all my typos. I'm jest a produkt uh that there publik skule sistim, ya knows. ;^D

Anonymous said...

Good points, all. I appreciate, in particular, the 8 observations that the teacher made about the children that he taught.

But. . . it doesn't necessarily follow that the 'only' way to combat the cons of institutionalized education is to abandon it entirely. I'm not sure that is even the 'best' way, FWIW.

It is also true that not all institutionalized school settings are alike. Catholic parochial, catholic private, public rural, public urban, public suburban all have their cons (and pros), just as does home schooling in all of its different forms/ways/methods.

Each family has a very significant reponsibility to determine what is the best fit for its children, and that may not be the same for each child.

If there were to be a tag-line for how best to educate, it should be "Your mileage may vary".

Peggy said...

STL Today had an article about public school "models" a few weeks ago. A propos of public school budget cuts in IL. I blogged on it. I had an interesting commenter talk about the Catholic 1-8 (K-8 now) model in which the teachers and principal knew the kid all those formative years, whereas in the public schools that separate elementary, middle and high school, there are new teachers, starting over, etc. And the moving kids from class to class. The poor homeroom teachers now will face having to teach the kids all day w/o music and PE teachers to take them off their hands. I think we were able to have PE and music without specialist teachers in our Catholic grade school. ... Now that Catholic model is all well and good so long as the Faith is indeed being taught.

The comments have disappeared. Arggh.. Not sure why.

Here's my post.


Anonymous said...

A wonderfully crafted blog, Tinman. It is impossible to tell which quotes are Mr. Gatto's, Lew Rockwell's editorializing, or your two cents.

Thanks for the obfuscation.