Schooling in Six Lessons
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by John Taylor Gatto
I'm kind of on a John Gatto kick right now, because I've been re-reading some of his work lately. And can't help wanting to share it with you. This is from an article called "The Six Lesson School" that he wrote several years ago.
Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my ken. Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.
The reason I think John Gatto is so important for home schooling parents to be familiar with is that from what I can tell, even though we may use different teaching methods and materials, we still tend to approach education from the same assumptions as institutionalized schools do.
So we may home school, but we are creating the same mentalities in our children as the public schools, only more cleancut (sometimes) and moral (sometimes). Why? Because we tend to create the same course of emotional and personal development and the same expectations about life. So I want to keep reminding you what those assumptions are so you can be aware of them in your home schooling.
I'll intersperse my comments at different places in Gatto's article.
Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn't what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.
Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:
The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.
In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the kids like it -- being locked in together, I mean -- or at the minimum, endure it. 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.
Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores, even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see that truth and [school] teaching are incompatible.
The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.
My comments: I find this "you belong to a certain class" mentality a lot--where home schooling kids grow up with big dreams, but no real belief that they will ever make something phenomenal of themselves because they are so emotionally and mentally "bonded" to their idea of their "station" in life. Plus, there's a subtle spiritual pressure to resist any form of ambition and self-drive because it's interpreted as worldly.
The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of.
The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.
My comment: We also break up our days into "subjects" and "class time" versus other time and tend to dabble at things, partially completing them and jumping to the next thing, the next interest.
The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory.
My comments: Boy oh boy, I'm going to step on some toes here. In home schooling, I have seen the worst possible pressure put on children to surrender their will and individuality to "a predestined chain of command." Although I believe in patriarchy and parental leadership, I have seen it way overused to control children (as well as wives) in a way that is even more damaging than what Gatto is talking about because it equates the surrender to parental authority with surrender to God. This type of demanding of submission usually requires guilting and shaming the child into compliance. To me, there are some aspects of home schooling that are almost cult-like.
The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist.
This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.
Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained in the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive, including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of all sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered how to make their own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too -- the clothing business as well -- unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We've built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don't know any other way. For God's sake, let's not rock that boat!
My comments: Just think about that statement for a minute: "This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives." Wow!
In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students' homes to spread approval or to mark exactly -- down to a single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.
Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.
Self-evaluation -- the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet -- is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials.
People need to be told what they are worth.
My comments: Another statement to think about for a minute: "People need to be told what they are worth." Wow! I can't tell you how many Christians I talk with who are still defining their worth as people by the opinions of others.
In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child's waywardness, too.
I assign "homework" so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood.
The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.
Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in The Republic, by Hobbes, by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control.
My comments: Just like I've seen the "submission to authority" doctrine abused, I've also seen the "accountability" doctrine used to justify constant surveillance of others.
I don't mean to seem so negative, but only want to urge you to take another look at the "hidden curriculum" in your home schooling. What is the way you're doing things--homeschooling, running your household, prioritizing things--teaching your children about who they are and what they can have out of life? Are you recreating the same "lessons" that you were taught in school?
What if instead of teaching our children to "stay in their class," we taught them that everything is possible to them? That no dream was too big. That aspirations and desires were good, not selfish.
That there is no such thing as their "betters."
What if instead of teaching our children to be indifferent about each undertaking, we taught them how to whole-heartedly apply themselves to whatever they were doing and to stay on target until they could savor the fulfilment of its completion? What if we celebrated every success, every completed task, instead of treating it like just something they were supposed to do anyway. What if we taught them to only make commitments they could keep and keep commitments they made?
What if instead of teaching our children to conform, we celebrated their individuality? We taught them to respect authority, but not necessarily blindly follow it. We left them plenty of room to make their own decisions about how they wanted to live their lives instead of demanding that they comply with what we thought was best for them?
What if instead of teaching our children to be dependent, we encouraged their independence?
Taught them that they don't have to wait for other people, better trained than themselves, to determine the meaning of their lives.
What if instead of teaching our children to define their self-worth by the opinions of others, we gave them a strong sense of self, of their intrinsic value and loveableness just as they are?
What if instead of teaching our children they can't be trusted and need to be under constant surveillance, we taught them that they were trustworthy and entitled to their own privacy?
More rants and raves coming in the next issue . Stay tuned....
View past ejournals HERE>>
Books by John Gatto. These books will change the way you think about education. Gatto was a public school teacher for decades and New York's Teacher of the Year, so he has first-hand experience with the effects of public schooling. Not only do his books discuss the major issues about what schooling does to our children, he offers insights into what a true education entails and reflects on our society as a whole and the distorted thinking that leads us to subject our children to an influence that robs them of their creativity and enthusiasm for learning. Gatto's books are "MUST READS."
Dumbing Us Down elaborates on what Gattos shares in this article on what institutionalized schooling actually teaches children.
A Different Kind of Teacher discusses what it takes to really educate children in a way that they become real people.
The Teenage Liberation Handbook. This is a book about how teenagers can successfully "liberate" themselves from the Six Lessons Gatto talks about and get a real education in life. It devotes many chapters to books and suggestions for teaching yourself science, math, social sciences, English, foreign languages, and the arts. She also includes advice on jobs and getting into college, assuring teens that, contrary to what they've been told in school, they won't be flipping burgers for the rest of their days if they drop out.
Guerilla Learning is the "sequel" to The Teenage Liberation Handbook and is addressed more to parents. The authors offer five fundamental principles: opportunity, timing, freedom, interest, and support that will transform the way we relate to our children and greatly assist them in growing up to be joyful, passionate creators.
Until next time....
P.S. Here are the webpages I've finished. Each page listed will take you to more pages on that topic.
Webpages about choosing teaching materials
Webpages about the importance of reading great books and booklists for children of all ages
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