Part 2 of Note from Gatto’s Talk at AERO ’10

So, where we left off with notes from John Taylor Gatto’s AERO keynote  (yesterday’s post), England was noticing India’s system of monitorial schools to train the underclasses. According to Gatto, a half-mad Quaker named Joseph Lancaster misread these monitorial schools as a blessing to the poor and set about to replicate them in London. The royalty and the government worried that Lancaster might actually succeed in perverting the monitorial system.  For a while the Christian philosophy worked to counter a long lineage of anti-commoner philosophies. Then, the Anglican church began to teach that it was a waste of time to read original sources when comic books or encyclopedias had already digested the material for you.

Leaders insisted on teaching the underclass their place. Training them early could be justified by religious sayings that if you teach children early they will not stray from the right path. But suppose the path chosen (1) did not believe all children were created equal; and (2) believed the inferior majority constituted a deadly menace to the best people, who were a minority.

The first step in this early training was to win the cooperation from the children’s parents. So beginning around 1800, schools began to reward some families, punish others and leave the great middle hopeful, but also fearful and divided from one another.

What Gatto calls the Darwin Gang–Charles Darwin and two of his influential cousins, Thomas Malthus and Francis Galton–became the most effective at creating an artificial climate of fear. These cousins threw the prestige of mathematical and scientific thinking decisively on the side of anti-commoner philosophy. They urged protecting the upper-class by dumbing down the children of the poor.

Malthus “proved” mathematically that the poor can never be fed. He argued that working the poor to death was a mercy because it shortened their suffering. (??!) He urged making birth control widely available. He recommended flooding men with pornography so their sexual urges could be satisfied just with fantasy. He encouraged training to keep the poor childish so working to support a family would become intolerable. Gatto also credited Malthus with ideas on forcibly sterilizing men with or without their knowledge and said that for a while, America did have some forced sterilization policies.

In addition to the famous ideas about the survival of the fittest, Darwin’s work Descent of Man also contained  an idea that only a small favored fraction is actually evolving. But evolution is kind of red herring. This argument about some few being better and more evolved than most became license for educational tracking.

Francis Galton, another supremely wealthy and influential Darwin cousin, translated natural selection into institutions. He saw the purpose of schooling as eugenics. He believed labeling, tagging, and humiliating inferiors in schools would make them unmarriageable.

Gatto had asserted that if big-time thinking showed sympathy for ordinary people it was only in the New Testament (Christian Scriptures/Gospels), Gandhi, and Tolstoy. Otherwise he said the history of philosophy was a long list of attacks seeing ordinary people as dangerous; He cited such big thinkers as Plato, Calvin, Spinoza (see Tractatus Politicus or the Tractae) right down to the Prussians/Teutonic Knights. He said you do not have to go to conspiracy theorists; you just have to go to original sources, originally intended just for crowns of Europe or Presidents of the newly formed United States. He says people have learned to speak more circumspectly now, but still the common people are seen as dangerous, although maybe the percentage of those seen as common has changed from say 90% to 80%.

In his remaining time, Gatto began listing mechanisms by which schools train the common people. First of all, schools he said create an environment of constant stress so students can’t notice the concurrent low level of boredom. Gatto says the stress, ranking and labeling sets students against one another. Testing, grades, and ranking create anxiety, fear, insecurity. Having to do more school work at home limits access to family.

More specifically mechanisms Gatto listed included

*replacing raw experience and development of diverse talents with memorizing lists

*avoiding deep analytic projects that demand concentration. He said brilliant people can block out the world and concentrate until the job is done. By ringing a bell every 43 minutes he said schools become laboratories of anti-concentration.

*making only what he termed a confused version of reality available for kids to base decisions on. For example, he said that nothing called a subject has any existence at all on its own. This fills students’ heads with nonsense, half-truths, and Plato’s Big Lie.

*dividing powers to make sure it’s difficult to get anything done.

[So the first two bullets suggest to me that involvement in the wider community, with hands-on real-world projects, will counter a tendency to dumb down.]

But Gatto was well over his keynote’s allotted time at this point. If you want to explore more of his ideas and their sources, check out his books. I suspect at this point in his talk he was working from Weapons of Mass Instruction.

Notes from Gatto’s talk at AERO

Part One, Introductory material and outline of the 4 purposes of education [these are my report of Gatto’s views, not necessarily my own views!].

There will be  no way to capture the charming insightful and sometimes rascally stories of John Taylor Gatto’s Friday morning keynote at the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference last month, but I will include here some of his key points and resources.

He opened with a long list of amazingly accomplished people from his coal-mining, steel-working hometown of Monongahela, PA. He attributed this to learning the “divide and conquer” strategy from reading The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar during middle school and then being invited into the mind of the richest and most powerful man of  an era through reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius in high school.

Gatto recounted how he became a teacher, initially by borrowing his roommate’s credential, eventually taught for 30 years, and was even named New York State Teacher of the Year. Then he began to make his points, using his own experience and citing references from ancient Greece to the previous day’s edition of USA Today.

An anecdote from one of his early substitute-teaching experiences illustrates a theme of Gatto’s publications. One day he found himself assigned to substitute teach in a Spanish class in New York City. He said he didn’t know much Spanish but he did know how to tell time so he taught the kids that. He said it took fifteen minutes. Gatto said the principal told him he would never work in that school again because he had ruined a whole month’s worth of curriculum. Later in his life Gatto would write a book about schools entitled, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.

Gatto’s talk contained at least two lists of accomplished people with very little schooling, including a contemporary four-year-old who makes appointments and runs the schedule of her famous artist mother. He referred to the June 24 edition of USA Today to point out how many of the world’s twenty largest economies are in deficit; he said they are all led by well-school presidents surrounded by well-school advisors. The only country that has a healthy surplus is Brazil, headed by a president whom Gatto described as having grown up in a hillside ghetto without formal schooling. Among other accomplished people with almost no schooling he included many historical figures from the time before compulsory schooling existed (but still it does show people have been able to learn and achieve outside of school), but also Francis S. Collins (Human Genome Project). He said Richard Branson “didn’t waste time in high school or college” and listed other successful folks without college degrees including the head of Ikea,  founders of Walmart, MacDonald’s, etcetera.

His radical conclusion: “You must remove your cooperation from this institution [compulsory schooling]!”

Gatto’s talk was very loosely organized; he numbered the questions he wanted to pose and points he wanted to make.

Question 1: Why must kids be schooled like fish? Why do schools teach what they do? Who decided and for what reasons?

He claims that back in Athens teaching flourished but was all entrepreneurial and study was its own reward. There was no “remote control homework” in Athens he said, only performances (demonstrations) of strength, agility, beauty, imagination, courage, dependability. Training was seen as a voluntary act of self-discipline leading to personal power.

In contrast he said Sparta was a universal schoolhouse where all behavior was regulated 24/7. The illusion of public representation was a sham arranged to befuddle the Spartan public, he claimed.  Gatto says Sparta’s system of schooling and surveillance was imported into America from Prussia.

Then the speech moved into four different purposes of schooling, or arguments used to justify schooling.

First, he said was religious purpose, to make good human beings. He said this was the dominant argument for schooling until two centuries ago, and that 55% of all elite private schools celebrate religious affiliation. He says the well to do take pains to provide this for their own kids while denying it to the kids of less wealthy kids.

The second purpose is to make good citizens–people who will serve the general good, not just their own. Leading thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams believed that unless ordinary people are deeply involved in government their leaders will betray them. To be effective a citizen requires a great deal of raw experience and also skill with language (rhetoric, public speaking and persuasive writing).

The third purpose he mentioned was schooling for personal development. This is currently a very commonly accepted purpose. He went on to elaborate that this purpose encourages people to divide from one another; it breeds selfish, materially ambitions men and women, but they are imaginative and productive.

These three traditional purposes are each in its own way intolerable to management. The corporate ideal lives in absolute horror of principled people.  Even the less principled people produced by the third purpose of schooling tend to be too productive and overly productive people are deadly to capitalism. Gatto says overcapacity destroys fortunes because prices collapse.

So a fourth purpose, which Gatto termed “Face Reality” and likened to the “monitorial schools” of  colonial times in India. Gatto went on to quote, William James, a famous psychology professor from Harvard circa 1890 for saying that habit alone is what saves children of fortune from the dangerous uprising of the children of the poor. So compulsory schooling founded by children of fortune was designed to teach habits to children of the poor.

Gatto said that what gave forced schooling its final lift off was England’s recognition that forced or “monitorial” schooling in India taught children of the underclasses just low-level literacy at the price of robotizing their young.

To be continued….

Notes on Child-Led Learning

On Saturday June 26, I attended Laurie Spigel’s workshop “Applying Child-Led Learning Principles in the Classroom.” Laurie offers classes at two homeschooling learning centers in New York City and runs the website, where she offers hundreds of world-class educational activities that are free (or really cheap). The site could interest anyone who loves New York City.

Laurie asserted that many people have traditionally viewed teachers as having all the responsibility for knowing what to teach and serving as the well of knowledge for students. She says seeing learning as child-led instead really reduces the burden on the teacher. In child-led learning activities she keeps in mind that an educator’s goals are not the child’s goals are not the parents’ goals.

She prioritizes the child’s goals and tries to meet the parents’ goals while keeping her own standards high.

She said the most important ingredient to keeping the kids interested is keeping yourself interested; enthusiasm in contagious, so have a good time!

She likes to first find out what the child is interested in by asking them, ‘if you could learn anything in the whole wide world…[examples]…what would it be?’ For the exact question, with the long poetic list of examples, see her book Education Uncensored. She said it usually only takes a child 3 minutes or less to answer. She also suggests asking children, “Are you learning in the way you want? in the place you want? How can we change it?”

Then instead of the teacher having to be the well of knowledge on whatever topic the child chooses, the world is the well and the teacher and the child go to the well together. Everybody is a potential resource, including each student.

Each child enters with a home, a background, a heritage, a language. Each is a gold mine to a teacher if the teacher will look at them this way. Then they will feel special and see their classmates and other students the same way as well. Paula Rogovin’s book, Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning, documents how a primary grade teacher in a public school in Harlem creates a complete curriculum from her students’ interviews of family, friends, and school staff .

Being child-led means the curriculum topic is never the end, the goal in itself. Like many other people, Spigel is interested in helping the child learn how to learn, so the goal is to impart the skills of identity, inquiry, imagination, interaction, etc….Her goal is for the learners to never look at anything the same way again. The child’s goal may be to learn about cowboys. The parents’ goal might have to do with emotional maturity.

It helps to be in thoughtful communication with the child and the family. Follow-up and feedback are so important.

After the short introduction to these principles, much of the rest of the workshop included describing the courses Spigel teaches that she has found very conducive to having learners generate the ideas. She teaches her own interview course, playwriting, improv comedy, writing your own historical fiction children’s book, and making your own board game. The last two are really serious research projects that culminate in a fun, informative, and/or beautiful product to share with classmates. She said she does not assign homework, but the kids all love to do work at home because of how they can use the work in the class.

Related posts:

Alternative Education Conference

Alternative Education Conference Report