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….


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