The Lessons Schools Teach

I’m hesitant to quote John Taylor Gatto for several reasons, but I am doing it anyway…

Anyone who has looked into alternative views on public education has run into the work of John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was New York City Teacher of the Year three times, and New York State Teacher of the year once. One thing he makes very clear, though, is that his teaching success had nothing to do with the system that employed him, and everything to do with his willingness to defy it. The methods he used to help his students, many of whom were already labelled as defective and inferior, were not sanctioned by the school system. He has proudly admitted that he did things that were actually illegal, because that’s what real learning required.

None of that bothers me, but I have some disagreements with Gatto’s political and social hyperbole. I agree with a lot  of  his criticisms, but they often lead me in a different direction. So, while I am less than sure about some of his historical and political arguments, I am quite in agreement with his practical assessments of our school system based on his classroom experiences. Those observations strike me as dead on accurate.

Gatto distilled these observations into an essay titled “The Six Lesson Schoolteacher” which was published in the Whole Earth Review in 1991, the same year he finally quit teaching. The first of these lessons is that school teaches kids to “Stay in the class where you belong…”

“…If things go well, the kids can’t imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.”

One reason this resonates with me is that I spent a good deal of my life stuck between this envy and contempt until I finally pulled my head out of that dilemma and saw the distinctions of “better” and “dumber” as illusions keeping me from seeing anything for what it really was, especially myself.

But it isn’t just my own experiences of envy and contempt that convince me of this truth. Several years ago I mentored a middle school science project. Our middle school required every student to participate in a formal science project. It still does.

Isn’t that great?

Not really, since the project had to be done outside of school time and the students were responsible for finding their own mentors and resources. It’s a clever trick. The school just has to require participation and it gets to take credit for that participation. The actual content of the projects didn’t matter, and the actual experiences of the students didn’t matter. The school was mostly interested in those projects that were done well enough to gain accolades for the school. Other than that it was just another hoop to jump through.

The goal of our project was to design a school of the future. It was just me and four very successful kids. These were stellar, straight A, involved in activities, stamped with approval, well-liked kids, who made it clear in our very first discussion that their goal was to get an A without having to do much work.

This didn’t really surprise me. They understood the currency school deals in and they hadn’t really chosen this project because it interested them. This was just the least distasteful option available to fill yet another school requirement.

What really struck me, though, was the first requirement these kids came up with for their school of the future: “No dumb kids!” My son glanced at me nervously when he heard it, wondering how embarrassing my diatribe against this might be. They repeated it over and over, with palpable contempt, their banter quickly devolving into examples of the incredibly stupid things other kids had said or done at school.

This wasn’t my first experience with this contempt, and it isn’t just the kids who express it. Remember that woman I referred to in my last post, the one who wanted the “gifted” kids to be in classes “with their own kind”? It’s the same thing. We nurture this.

Of course I objected to the idea of “no dumb people”, but I kept it low key. The opinion of one goody two shoes parent on one Sunday afternoon isn’t going to undo a lifetime of indoctrination, and I let them put it on their list because this was supposed to be their project. I wasn’t there to censor them. They clearly understood that school is all about judging worth and categorizing people according to that judgment. Their day-in, day-out experiences at school taught them that some kids just weren’t as good as others, and they were determined to claim their status as the good ones. Gatto got this one right. Things had gone well. Our school culture had successfully given these kids contempt for the dumber classes, and pride in their own superiority. It had also taught them the value of displaying that superiority.

(Update 7/5/2016… The War on Stupid People  from the July/August issue of The Atlantic)

(Another update 8/5/2016)…Are You Smart Enough To Live in a Free Society, by Stephen Hicks)

Another of Gatto’s six lessons is what he calls “intellectual dependency”. I had recently lost faith in schooling, which is part of the reason I was willing to work on this project – I was already knee deep in research. In the run-up to our design I mentioned that some kids don’t formally attend school or follow any curriculum. It’s called unschooling. One of the kids blurted out “How would we learn anything if we didn’t go to school?” He was completely shocked by the idea.

That is another great lesson of school. It teaches us that our own learning is dependent on authorities and experts. It can’t be left to us. It teaches us that education depends on expensive institutions, credentialed experts, and some external means of measuring its worth. This is high on my list of the sins of our school system.

The educational system has stolen education from the people it educates.

Later that year, I told my own children that I no longer cared how successful they were in school. I didn’t want them thinking I agreed with the lessons they were being taught. I’d already told my younger child that homework was optional as far as I was concerned, but he had to be respectful about it and understand that it would affect the grades he got. He usually did it, but sometimes he didn’t. I stopped paying attention. Now I told them graduation was optional. It was much more important that they learn to direct their own lives and navigate the world for their own purposes. They already knew I valued learning. I needed them to understand that I value it far too much to let school take it away from them.

By the way. If you’re looking for a way to confuse your children, move to an affluent suburb that is blinded by elitism and competitive success, help them be successful in school, then tell them you don’t believe in it anymore. There were some pretty big events leading to that statement, and both children understood why I took this stance, but still…their entire identities had been built in school. Where did this leave them?

What’s the right thing to do when you stop believing that school is doing your children any good and start believing it’s actually doing them harm?



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