Monday, June 05, 2006

Lessons Learned

John Taylor Gatto was voted New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Although he is certified to teach English and Literature, what he is best known for is his writing on what he believes school actually teaches children, which can be distilled into the six lessons covered in the article you can find here.

Because reading Gatto's Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling was instrumental in our initial decision to homeschool our kids, it is good to occasionally remind myself of and reevaluate these reasons, so I was glad to have been sent a link to this article from my homeschooling friend Jaimie in AZ.

Lesson 1 is to stay in the class in which you belong. How the kids were categorized into the classes are not really the business of the teacher, just how to keep them happy that they are there. The students envy and fear the better classes and hold the "dumber" classes in contempt, which is why they are content to stay put. See Brave New World for a more detailed explanation of why it is so much better to be an Alpha (or a Beta or Delta, depending on whom you ask).

Lesson 2 is to turn off and on like a light switch. While kids are expected to be enthusiastic and interested during the lesson, they must immediately drop everything and switch gears, finished or not, when the bell rings. "The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?"

Lesson 3 is to surrender your will to a "predestined chain of command" where a child's rights to question, to disagree, to privacy, and to individuality are granted or withheld by the adults in control.

Lesson 4 is that only those in charge decide what is important enough to learn. Curiosity is discouraged, conformity encouraged. Gatto writes, "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."

Lesson 5 is that your self-respect depends on the evaluation of someone else. An incredible amount of store is set in the grade a teacher assigns. "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." One aspect of this lesson he doesn't discuss in the article is the role of peer pressure. Teachers use this tool for years to encourage conformity in the classroom and make their job easier, but amazingly enough, when kids reach adolescence, they are told to think for themselves and not follow the crowd, especially when it comes to risky behavior. The evaluation of one's peers is a powerful force, and one that is hard to resist after so much encouragement.

Finally, Lesson 6 is that you are being watched. This has been a central theme in theories of government throughout the centuries. "Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control." Gatto continues with a blistering assessment of how school prepares kids to be good workers who do as they are told and don't ask questions or think much for themselves. This is juxtaposed against the values on which our nation was founded:

"Yet only a very few lifetimes ago things were different in the United States: originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things independently, to think for themselves. We were something, all by ourselves, as individuals. It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the six lessons I've just taught you...
At the pass we've come to historically, and after 26 years of teaching, I must conclude that one of the only alternatives on the horizon for most families is to teach their own children at home... I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know."

Wow. Powerful stuff. I hear you, John Gatto, and I agree! I enjoy knowing that I have spared my children from these six lessons of compulsory education and have lit a fire for learning in their hearts so that they may grow to be the independent, free-thinkers that our 21st century Global Community will need and value.

Okay, seriously now.

I have probably taught my little Savages a bunch of these lessons already, despite my good intentions. Numero Uno told me today he wants to be a hobo when he grows up, just so he doesn't have to think or do any real work. This assertion closely followed a blistering assessment of my own educational system. According to him, I have denied my students their rights, forced them to learn arbitrarily chosen boring stuff, evaluated them harshly and kept them under constant surveillance.

Has he been reading Gatto?

Probably not, since he no longer is interested in reading or learning anything after 4 years of my crummy teaching.

I suggested to him that if this is the case and he really hates learning so much, he should just go to school and hate learning there and leave me out of it. I actually like learning and could use the extra time on my hands to finally finish my PhD.

Of course, like with most things, after sitting with it for a while, I can see his point. I have not kept to the ideals with which I set out on this journey, and the results are clear on days like this. I could do more to encourage the kids to think for and evaluate themselves and give them more space to be free-thinking individuals.

I will. I promise.

As soon as they start behaving better and do as they are told.

Okay, maybe Gatto and I need to have another chat, because I'm having a hard time with parts of the plan.

For now, I will console myself with the knowledge that Numero Uno is still free-thinking enough to speak out against his oppressor.

The Founding Fathers would be proud.

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