A bit of a digression – a long-held rage against the machine finds resonance and through it, self-loathing

Being a victim survivor end product chewed up and spit out wad of dehumanized anger graduate of public schooling, partaken throughout a variety of different states and economic levels, rural and urban, I think I am qualified to say that the essays and work of the godfather of educational reform, Mr John Taylor Gatto, are dead on.

Gatto was a teacher who was finally so disgusted with the system and what effect it had on the children that passed through it that he left teaching after receiving the NY City Teacher of the Year award, saying that he was no longer willing to hurt children. He is now working to reform the education system from the inside out.

The first piece of his I stumbled on is titled “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher,” in which he elucidates the seven biggest lessons that he, as a schoolteacher, taught during his early tenure (before he became a cultural saboteur and educational whistleblower).

Those lessons, with excerpts from the essay, are as follows:

Confusion: “Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?”

Class Position: “I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class…If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else, because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline the class mostly polices itself into good marching order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.”

Indifference: “I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor…But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan.”

Emotional Dependency: “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command…children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels, or they steal a private instant in the hallway on the grounds they need water. I know they don’t, but I allow them to deceive me because this conditions them to depend on my favors.”

Intellectual Dependency: “Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives….Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm…Don’t be too quick to vote for radical school reform if you want to continue getting a paycheck. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do. It’s one of the biggest lessons I teach. ”

Provisional Self-Esteem: “If you’ve ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him to believe they’ll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.”

One Can’t Hide: “I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts three hundred seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. Of course, I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness too. A family trained to snitch on itself isn’t likely to conceal any dangerous secrets.”

There’s more, a lot more, in the essay these were taken from (and a few typos as well – which goes to show that not even radical educational reformers are perfect). And, as he notes, he isn’t just referring to poor, marginal schools – this is pretty much what any decent, self-aware teacher will tell you is absolutely true about the public school system (a reality I have found to be true when discussing this issue with a few carefully chosen teachers throughout my life).

And it’s a recent phenomenon, too. As he points out further down in the essay,

“Only a few lifetimes ago things were very 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 much for themselves independently, and to think for themselves. We were something special, we Americans, all by ourselves, without government sticking its nose into our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel. We were something special, as individuals, as Americans.

But we’ve had a society essentially under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War, and such a society requires compulsory schooling, government monopoly schooling, to maintain itself. Before this development schooling wasn’t very important anywhere. We had it, but not too much of it, and only as much as an individual wanted. People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic just fine anyway; there are some studies that suggest literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least for non-slaves on the Eastern seaboard, was close to total. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population of 3,000,000, twenty percent of whom were slaves, and fifty percent indentured servants.

Were the colonists geniuses? No, the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things, it really isn’t very hard. Pick up a fifth-grade math or rhetoric textbook from 1850 and you’ll see that the texts were pitched then on what would today be considered college level. The continuing cry for “basic skills” practice is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the seven lessons I’ve just described to you…School as it was built is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control.”

I’ve been there. I remember. And I find, much to my horror, that I’m repeating many of those 7 lessons in my own service in the homework club, both out of necessity to uphold consistency with the school’s curriculum and policies (an absolute requirement) and because even though I went through it, hated it, fought it, escaped it and then spent a not insignificant chunk of my adult life trying to shed it like a rotting, ill-fitting skin, it’s so deeply ingrained that I am still nearly incapable of truly seeing and feeling any alternative. It’s automatic – be quiet, do your work (even when that work seems completely arbitrary and even nonsensical to my professional eyes), obey, conform, earn your attaboy, submit.

Sometimes, I can’t stand to think about what I’m doing in the name of service to my fellow man, but at the same time, as Gatto points out in various essays and interviews, even though there has been great change, there really are few practical and functional alternatives currently available.

A shinier, prettier whip is still a whip and simply by doing what I’ve been assigned to do, damned if I don’t find myself becoming the very people I nearly killed myself to escape as a child, without reasonable means to stop doing so without terminating or subverting my service, which I don’t want to do for a variety of reasons, one of which is, ironically, the hope that maybe – just maybe – I can actually change a child’s life.

Hell of a thought, isn’t it?

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One response to “A bit of a digression – a long-held rage against the machine finds resonance and through it, self-loathing

  1. Pingback: Still life of Americorps member, as seen through a haze of pain « Getting Things Done: A Year of Service

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