Saturday, 9 March 2013

Mass Instruction (weapons thereof)

Most people don't realise that compulsory schooling has only been around in western society for a relatively brief period of time, since around 1870. John Taylor Gatto has been around and writing about the evils of school for over twenty years now, having worked within the system, and received awards for doing so, for thirty before that. 'Weapons of Mass Instructions' is his latest offering, and though he has a tendency to circle around and around the same arguments he does present them in a very informal and readable way. They are all arguments I am familiar with so you'll have to excuse the slightly haphazard collection of quotes that I will use to sum them up. Many years ago he sent me a preview copy of his weighty tome The Underground History of American Education (that can now be downloaded in full here), not that we were on first name terms or anything, I was just actively involved in Education Otherwise at the time and he probably pulled my contact details from the newsletter. It was a detailed history of the education system enmeshed with his own life history and experiences. This one has much the same style, skirting around some of his own teaching experiences and giving example after example of people who go their own way and what they achieve by doing so. 

In a potted version of the earlier Underground History he begins his thesis by giving us the state of America prior to compulsory schooling :
"Long before this habit training took hold, America was, by any historical yardstick, formidably well-educated, a place of aggressively free speech and argument - dynamically entrepreneurial, dazzlingly inventive, and as egalitarian a place as human nature could tolerate." (p.17)
I found his view a little idealised (I wonder if it is his way of demonstrating he is not being un-american  in his critique of such a fundamental part of their society) but he then goes on to explain how a centralised school system was imposed on a reluctant population. He claims it's purpose:
"But in the new fashion, different goals were promulgated, goals for which self-reliance, ingenuity, courage, competence, and other frontier virtues became liabilities (because they threatened the authority of management). Under the new system, the goals of good moral values, good citizenship and good personal development were exchanged for a novel fourth purpose - becoming a human resource to be spent by businessmen and politicians." (p23)
and backs it up with this quote from Woodrow Wilson from 1909:
"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." (p.23)
And thus:
"From 1880 to 1930, the term 'overproduction' was heard everywhere, in boardrooms, elite universities, gentleman's clubs and highbrow magazines. It was a demon which had to be locked in the dungeon. And rationalised pedagogy was a natural vehicle to implant habits and attitudes to accomplish that end. Under this outlook, the classroom would never be used to produce knowledge, but only to consume it; it would not encourage the confined to produce ideas, only to consume the ideas of others. The ultimate goal implanted in student minds, which replaced the earlier goal of independent livelihoods, was getting a good job." (p25)

Gatto is a big proponent of what he terms 'open source' learning, people pursuing their own ideas and fascinations and eschewing formal teaching situations. He gives example after example of people who did just that, from Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the likes, to a student of his called Stanley who ditched school in favour of learning the trades of various family members:
"A big secret of bulk-process schooling us that it doesn't teach the way children learn; a bigger secret is that it isn't supposed to teach self-direction at all. Stanley-style is verboten. School is about learning to wait your turn, however long it takes to come, if ever. And how to submit with a show of enthusiasm to the judgement of strangers, even if they are wrong; even if your enthusiasm is phoney.
School is the first impression we get of organised society and its relentless need to rank everyone on a scale of winners and losers; like most first impressions, the real things school teaches about your place in the social order last a lifetime for most of us." (p.63)

He talks about resistance from without, like the Amish community in Wisconsin fighting to preserve their way of life and values, and how little resistance there was from within:
"Once a principal in the richest secondary school in District Three asked me privately if I could help him set up a program to teach critical thinking. Of course, I replied, but if we do it right your school will become unmanageable. Why would kids taught to think critically and express themselves effectively put up with the nonsense you force down their throats? That was the end of our interview and his critical thinking project." (p.76)
John himself found many and various ways to allow his students to escape the confines of both the imposed curriculum and the school building and away also from what he saw as the enforced passivity of television consumption:
"I set out to shock my students into discovering that face to face engagement with reality was more interesting and rewarding than watching the pre-packaged world of media screens, my target was helping them jettison the lives of spectators which had been assigned to them, so they could become players. I couldn't tell anyone in the school universe what I was doing, but I made strenuous efforts to enlist parents as active participants. ...
Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life - sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court system to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action - made them realise, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark." (p.93)
His own attempts at resistance and his aims to spread his ideas and understanding has on occasion been met with quite virulent opposition. He recites an incident when speaking at a prosperous high school about the realities of SAT scores, college admissions and the myths of schooling and the event was literally bought to a halt by the school superintendent calling in the police; the scene is quite surreal and yet quite believable.

He quotes this lovely analogy from a young man called Andrew Hsu who he met at an award ceremony, it captures so perfectly pretty much everything the book tries to say. It concerns the training of fleas:
"If you put a flea in a shallow container they jump out. But if you put a lid on the container for just a short time, they hit the lid trying to escape and learn quickly not to jump so high. They give up their quest for freedom. After the lid is removed, the fleas remain imprisoned by their own self-policing. So it is with life. Most of us let our own fears or the impositions of others imprison us in a world of low expectations." (p.141)


The one thing I find annoying about his approach and use of 'shining' examples, young people sailing singlehanded around the globe or setting up successful businesses or making amazing scientific discoveries, is that he ends up implying that opting out of the school system is only ok if you end up doing something remarkable. It is ok to opt out and just be ordinary, to just live an ordinary life that is of your choosing. Compulsory school is not just a waste of time for geniuses and creative types, it is a waste of time for everybody, it crushes the life out of the unassuming ones too. (Also politically he is a bit of a libertarian, an admirer of free market economics and does not seem interested in political change. For me it seems logical to extend the argument into other areas of life.) It is something that the whole home education community is guilty of to a certain extent, to point vociferously to the success stories as a justification for our opinions and existence, as if we have to be better than school, that our children have to get better exam results so that we can say 'look, we should be permitted to do what we do because we achieve within the confines of your narrow definition of success'. 

While I think that 'Dumbing Us Down' is a better book (and I will get around the rereading and reviewing it some time), it dwells less on history and more on an examination of the effect of schooling on the individual, I find that what I continue to like most about Gatto is that he just pursues the ideas. He keeps pushing and repeating, hoping that in the end more and more people will finally get the message. He ends the main section of the book thus:
"I hope this has been enough to continue weapon-hunting on your own. Writing this has made me so sad and angry. I can't continue."
Sometimes I still feel sad and angry about schools, but so long as there are people out there telling it like it is there has to be hope.

(Fourth book in the TBR pile challenge 2013)

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