". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"How dull those walks, and those deaths, made all my toys"

Yesterday I attended a homeschooling conference, where I was privileged to meet and listen to John Taylor Gatto. Mr. Gatto is a former New York City Teacher of the Year who resigned from the teaching profession after 30 years because, as he explained at the time in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, he wanted to find a job that did not ask him to hurt children. Shortly thereafter he began writing books devoted to accurately detailing the history and purpose of what he calls "confinement schooling" in the United States. Those books include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education (1992); The Underground History of American Education (2001); and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008).

Mr. Gatto is not a homeschooler, but homeschoolers have embraced him (and he them) because of their shared realization of the destructive nature of institutional education as it is practiced in this country. In his writings on the development of American compulsory education, he convincingly argues that the motivation of those who originally promoted and developed it was not philanthropic, considering the best interest of the student, but selfish, considering rather the growing need of an industrialized nation to have an ever-ready supply of compliant, non-thinking workers. Schools, then, were designed to "normalize" people--to stamp out imagination and individuality so as to make them more manageable and thereby increase the efficiency of the machine: "When you flip hamburgers, sit at a computer all day, unpack and shelve merchandise from China year after year, you manage the tedium better if you have a shallow inner life, one you can escape through booze, drugs, sex, media, or other low level addictive behaviors" (Weapons of Mass Instruction, p. 14).

According to Mr. Gatto, the seven lessons that our government schools most successfully teach these days are--*

1. Confusion. There is no logical sequence to the way things are taught. Facts are presented in a disconnected way rather than in a context that gives them meaning and purpose.
2. Class position. The school population is segmented according to age, and there is no breaking out of the position into which you are born.
3. Indifference. The school day is governed by an inflexible schedule that teaches that "nothing is worth finishing and hence nothing worth starting" because the learning process is at the mercy of the teacher or the bell.
4. Emotional dependency. "By a skillful use of rewards and punishments . . . schools teach that free will, even in matters as basic as urination, must be subordinated to the whim of an authority figure."
5. Intellectual dependency. "In school, teachers tell you what to think about, how long to think about it, in what order to think about it and what evaluation should be placed on ideas and their management."
6. Self-alienation. "By breaking children away from families, cultures, religions and neighborhoods--private sources of strengths--. . . schools teach that you must not trust yourself, you must wait for the teacher to tell you not only what to do, but whether what you have done is good or bad."
7. You are watched. "Schools teach that you can't hide, that there is no sanctuary from the oversight of the state father."

My husband and I made the decision to homeschool before we were familiar with the writings of John Taylor Gatto, but as we read his books we felt confirmed in many of our gut feelings about institutional schooling. We are Christians, but that's not why we homeschool. If the secular, liberal worldview of public schools were the only issue, we could address it by sending our children to a private Christian school. But private Christian schools are by and large structured and governed by the same assumptions as public schools and as a result have the same frustration-inducing, curiosity-killing effects.

At the conference yesterday, I went up to meet Mr. Gatto before his presentation, my copy of Dumbing Us Down in hand. He graciously autographed it for me and inquired about my interest in a signed copy of Weapons of Mass Instruction. How could I say no? I have been reading it since last night (as I bide my time in a hotel room while my son plays chess) and have already found much on which to muse. Mr. Gatto gives example after example of successful, productive, meaningful lives that came about without the "benefit" of a college or high school degree or much formal schooling at all. Some of these are historical figures (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Daniel Farragut) but others are names from our own time--people like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, and human genome project scientists Venter and Collins. I love the anecdote Gatto relates about complaining to his grandfather at age 7 that he was bored, to which his grandfather responded by saying that if he was bored it was his own fault . . . . "The obligation to amuse and interest myself was entirely my own, and people who didn't know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible" (Prologue, p. xiv). Makes me feel better about my own relaxed, often quite unschooly approach to learning at home--"What did you read today? And did you get those socks folded?"--as well as my lack of sympathy when my 6-year-old complains of not having anything to do: "Sorry, honey, not my problem. You're a smart boy. Go find something."

I also love Gatto's description of long, evening walks with his mother when he was a boy in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. After the breakup of her marriage, Gatto's mother had moved back to her hometown, taking her children with her. But because she was embarrassed at her single mother status, the walks always took place at night, after dark. As they walked, Gatto and his sister listened to their mother relate story after story about the town and her growing up years:

Each excursion covered roughly five miles. We wove in and out of the darkened hill streets, reaching zones of settlement I was only dimly aware existed. I still hear our footsteps crunching the fall leaves or the winter snow, or sloshing through the spring rains. I can hear our hushed whispers. Every house had a story, and mother knew all of them. Many had a symbol in the front window telling the world that some man inside had gone away off to the wars. In some windows there was a special symbol . . . which declared the man had died in service to the rest of us.

The presence of death on our walks added something wonderfully deep and profound to the rambles, a sadness reminding me at the corners of consciousness that someday my mother would be dead, too, and my sister, and myself.

From time to time mother would reminisce what a particular soldier or sailor, once her schoolmate, had been like as a living boy. For a little fellow this was like being confronted with ghosts. It was stunning drama. How dull those walks, and those deaths, made all my toys. In the face of a dramatic reality that ennobled, even the most ordinary toys were less than insignificant; they were humiliating by contrast, unspeakably childish. Real stories help a boy grow up; toys beyond a point reached in early childhood retard the hard road to maturity.

I learned more about mother and sister from those walks than I could fully comprehend back then; today I realize that the personal information gathered incidentally as we walked was the most important data I was ever to have about who we Gattos and Zimmers really were. The walks were open-source learning of the highest order. I'd gladly trade Cornell and Columbia for more of them" (pp. 59-60).

Mr. Gatto may not identify it as such, but if that's not homeschooling, I don't know what is.

*Essays by John Taylor Gatto: Notes on Education, Schooling and Curriculum, 2010.


mz said...

After I graduated from college I decided to pursue a teaching certificate. During the first course in the program I discovered J.T. Gatto. His "Underground History" confirmed the mixed, lukewarm feelings I had regarding a teaching career. I used that book (and Paul Simon's song "Kodachrome") as a basis for my philosophy of education paper. I dropped out of that program even though the professor tried every which way to talk me out of it.

When the time comes, Lord willing, we hope to homeschool as well. I'll have to request his newest book from the library. Thanks for inspiring me! :)

Cheryl said...

"I used that book (and Paul Simon's song "Kodachrome") as a basis for my philosophy of education paper."

Sounds like a great paper, mz!