Friday, November 17, 2006

Re-post: Gatto: Dumbing Us Down - Feb 05

From Wednesday, February 09, 2005

I’ve now finished Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto and here’s what I learned from the book:

John Taylor Gatto was a successful copywriter in New York, earning lots of money, when he realised his job was unsatisfying and meaningless so he switched to teaching, taking a huge drop in salary, in the hope of gaining more enjoyment and fulfilment from his work.

26 years later, in 1991 he won the New York State Teacher of the Year award, and gave his now famous speech on its receipt. Explaining that it would be of more use to set out what he had to do in his job that was wrong, than to talk about what he’d been doing right, he proceeded to state that although he was qualified to teach English, that wasn’t actually what he taught. What he actually taught, in line with every other teacher in every other state school in the world, was the following 7 lessons:

1. CONFUSION: In school, nothing links to anything else. From a child’s point of view, the whole of what they’re supposed to learn doesn’t fit together properly and isn’t meant to. Children are asked to learn a random set of arbitrarily chosen facts, skills and subjects, which prevent them from using their natural faculties, experience and time to make sense of the world. “I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.” (In martial arts, one of the fundamental tactics is confusion of the enemy, because a confused person is always off-balance, uncentred and unable to make good decisions or gather and use their energies.)

2. CLASS POSITION: Children are taken out of their natural mixed, multi-aged setting and segregated into groups according to their precise age and sometimes gender and ability. Their position in class is often assessed and graded to the nearest percentage point or place number. “If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else, because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline the class mostly polices itself into good marching order, which is the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.” (This makes me wonder again whether the competitive instinct really is innate or necessary, or whether it’s just engendered in us and used against us to have us continue infighting instead of measuring resources and working out whether they’re fairly distributed, for example.)

3. INDIFFERENCE: For learning to have any meaning (this I know from my own and my children’s experience) it has to be a very deep, focused activity that takes place in its own time in an absorbingly enjoyable and interesting way and requires a full investment of thoughts and emotions. Schools don’t allow this kind real learning to have chance to take place, because as soon as a child has their interest engaged, a bell rings and the child is required to brutally switch their thoughts from one subject to another completely unrelated subject. “The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? .. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.”

4. EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCY: “By Stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honours, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.” Rights do not exist inside schools, especially the right of free speech. “Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.”

5. INTELLECTUAL DEPENDENCY: “Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.” Experts decide what children must study and when and how. The child is not allowed to decide. This allows for the corresponding grown-up rule: “Good people wait for experts to tell them what to do,” which is the basis upon which Western-style economies are run. If people trusted their own judgement there would be no need service industries, lawyers, centralised agriculture, health services, education, politics, policing or governments. The economic structure as we know it would collapse. Gatto says: “Don’t be too quick to vote for radical school reform if you want to continue getting a pay check.”

6. PROVISIONAL SELF-ESTEEM: “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that a kid’s self-respect should depend on expert opinion.” The teacher decides whether parents should be happy with their child, not the parents and certainly not the child. Unconditional love and acceptance aren’t allowed in the world of schoolchildren.

7. ONE CAN’T HIDE: Children are watched, or at fear of being watched all day in school. Privacy is denied. Even at home, school-surveillance extends in the form of homework to be done in the evening. This lesson teaches children that “privacy is not legitimate, no-one can be trusted” and that “children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight control.” Parents are encouraged to complain about their children to the authorities, and children are encouraged to snitch on their parents. The natural, healthy solidarity that comes from normal family life is repeatedly undermined and thwarted.

I’ve tried to paraphrase and quote selectively from the 7 Lessons Speech (soon after which he resigned his teaching post), but for a clearer, more complete picture of Gatto’s message you must read the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a compilation of speeches, essays and narrative that can’t fail to make the reader think about and question aspects of our so-called civilised life that we’re conditioned to take for granted.

Gatto is of the view that state-controlled schooling can’t be made right. “No amount of tinkering will make the school machine work to produce educated people. Education and schooling are, as we all have experienced, mutually exclusive terms.” Or, as he says in other words: “This is not a devil you can wrestle with, … but one that has to be starved to death by depriving it of victims.”

But I don’t think this devil will lie down and obediently allow itself to be starved to death. I think it will come out fighting and looking for more victims. Too many livelihoods now depend on the education system continuing in its present form. I’ve been in a position where my income has been suddenly withdrawn and it’s a frightening prospect and one that people naturally fight tooth and nail to prevent. Gatto refers to Socrates who apparently condemned the Greek Sophists for accepting payment for their teaching, because he realised that as soon as teaching becomes a profitable industry involving money, the incentive shifts from the learner to seek tuition, onto the teacher to compel learners to receive information, whether they like it or not.

In the UK in recent years we’ve seen the introduction and sometimes brutal enforcement of tighter Truancy Laws and at the current time Local Education Authorities are locked in a peaceful yet tense stand-off sandwiched between National Government on one side, demanding that truanting families be detected and persecuted, and home educating families on the other, demanding their rightful freedom to go about their business unhassled by anti-truancy teams and initiatives.

After 26 years of school teaching, Gatto thinks that the homeschooling (home education) movement is the solution to society’s problems, though someone said on one of our home ed e.lists yesterday that he apparently predicted a limit of 10% of families who would be likely to homeschool, due to practical and financial considerations. I don’t know whether this is true, or why 10% and I don’t think I agree, but it does seem true to say that once UK families become aware that it’s legal for any parent to home educate, their next step is often to think about deregistering their children from school.

I was involved with Lyddie earlier, reading a book, and I happened to glance at the clock. 3.15pm, home-time. For us it’s a time like any other, to read, eat, play, learn, create something, chat, watch TV, write blogs, anything. For schoolchildren it’s home-time, or nearly home-time: the end of their day. The difference between the two lifestyles struck me as being a huge, immense chasm, like different worlds. No wonder my old friends who still have children in the system have little to say to me now, and I them.

posted by Gill at 4:39 PM 4 comments


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