The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher

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Call me Mr.
Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do,
I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an
instructor of English language and literature, but that isn’t what
I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.

Teaching means
many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching
from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways
than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:

The first lesson
I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I don’t
know who decides that 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. Over the years the variety of ways children
are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see
the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering
children is a big and very profitable business, though what the
business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case,
again, that’s not my business. My job is to make the kids like it
– being locked in together, I mean – or at the minimum, endure
it. If things go well, the kids can’t imagine themselves anywhere
else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for
the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching
order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school.
You come to know your place.

Nevertheless,
in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children
to higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from
the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will
come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores,
even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly) indifferent
to such things. I never lie outright, but I’ve come to see that
truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.

The lesson
of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except
by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.

The second
lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I
demand 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 drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work
station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in
any other class I know of.

The lesson
of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply
about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their
argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting
every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living
mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate
each undertaking with indifference.

The third lesson
I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of
command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without
appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions,
issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary
confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments
come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly
to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all
systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory.

Here are some
common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment
in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick
me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they
need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in
children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my ken.
Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only privileges,
which can be withdrawn, exist.

The fourth
lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will
study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who
pay me.) This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly.
Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and
a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value
to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine.
Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight
against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions
for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that
and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures
to break the will of those who resist.

This is another
way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher
to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all,
that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves,
to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say
that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.
Think of what would fall apart if kids weren’t trained in the dependency
lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive, including
the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of
all sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered
how to make their own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food
warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals
rather than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern
law, medicine, and engineering would go too – the clothing
business as well – unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people
poured out of our schools each year. We’ve built a way of life that
depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know
any other way. For God’s sake, let’s not rock that boat!

In lesson five
I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure
of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly
report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes
to spread approval or to mark exactly – down to a single percentage
point – how dissatisfied with their children parents should
be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection
goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the
objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which
compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and
his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.

Self-evaluation
– the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared
on the planet – is never a factor in these things. The lesson of
report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust
themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of
certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

In lesson six
I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student
under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no
private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change
lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels.
Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle
on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own
child’s waywardness, too.

I assign "homework"
so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students
might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps
from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person
in the neighborhood.

The lesson
of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy
is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain
influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by
Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in the Republic, by Hobbes, by
Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the
same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep
a society under central control.

It is the great
triumph of schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers,
and among even the best parents, there is only a small number who
can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only a very few lifetimes
ago things were 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 many things independently, to think for themselves.
We were something, all by ourselves, as individuals.

It only takes
about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills
well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry
for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which
schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach
them the six lessons I’ve just taught you.

We’ve had a
society increasingly under central control in the United States
since just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the clothes
we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by
from coast to coast are the products of this central control. So,
too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence,
cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the U.S., products
of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual
and family importance that central control imposes.

Without a fully
active role in community life you cannot develop into a complete
human being. Aristotle taught that. Surely he was right; look around
you or look in the mirror: that is the demonstration.

"School"
is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering
that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid
that narrows to a control point as it ascends. "School"
is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable
(although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American
Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the early
Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of democracy
was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise
by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory training
in subordination for everybody. Compulsory schooling was the secret
Plato reluctantly transmitted in the Republic when he laid down
the plans for total state control of human life.

The current
debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony;
we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I’ve told you
about and a few more I’ve spared you. This curriculum produces moral
and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be
sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is under discussion
is a great irrelevancy.

None of this
is inevitable, you know. None of it is impregnable to change. We
do have a choice in how we bring up young people; there is no right
way. There is no "international competition" that compels
our existence, difficult as it is to even think about in the face
of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important
material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we gained a non-material
philosophy that found meaning where it is genuinely located – in
families, friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple
ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and
service to others, in a decent independence and privacy – then
we would be truly self-sufficient.

How did these
awful places, these "schools," come about? As we know
them, they are a product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848
and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our
industrial poor, and partly they are the result of the revulsion
with which old-line families regarded the waves of Celtic, Slavic,
and Latin immigration – and the Catholic religion – after
1845. And certainly a third contributing cause can be found in the
revulsion with which these same families regarded the free movement
of Africans through the society after the Civil War.

Look again
at the six lessons of school. This is training for permanent underclasses,
people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their
own special genius. And it is training shaken loose from its original
logic: to regulate the poor. Since the 1920s the growth of the well-articulated
school bureaucracy, and the less visible growth of a horde of industries
that profit from schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged schooling’s
original grasp to seize the sons and daughters of the middle class.

Is it any wonder
Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to teach?
Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the
professionalization of teaching would take, pre-empting the teaching
function that belongs to all in a healthy community; belongs, indeed,
most clearly to yourself, since nobody else cares as much about
your destiny. Professional teaching tends to another serious error.
It makes things that are inherently easy to learn, like reading,
writing, and arithmetic, difficult – by insisting they be taught
by pedagogical procedures.

With lessons
like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder we have the
national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent to the adult
world and to the future; indifferent to almost everything except
the diversion of toys and violence? Rich or poor, schoolchildren
cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They have a poor sense
of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of intimacy (like
the children of divorce they really are); they hate solitude, are
cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the
face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral
tendencies of childhood are magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling,
whose hidden curriculum prevents effective personality development.
Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience
of children our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as
a certified schoolteacher.

"Critical
thinking" is a term we hear frequently these days as a form
of training which will herald a new day in mass schooling. It certainly
will, if it ever happens. No common school that actually dared teach
the use of dialectic, heuristic, and other tools of free minds could
last a year without being torn to pieces.

Institutional
schoolteachers are destructive to children’s development. Nobody
survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors.
The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering
will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive
rethinking that schools require would cost so much less than we
are spending now that it is not likely to happen. First and foremost,
the business I am in is a jobs project and a contract-letting agency.
We cannot afford to save money, not even to help children.

At the pass
we’ve come to historically, and after 26 years of teaching, I must
conclude that one of the only alternatives on the horizon for most
families is to teach their own children at home. Small, de- institutionalized
schools are another. Some form of free-market system for public
schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers. But the near
impossibility of these things for the shattered families of the
poor, and for too many on the fringes of the economic middle class,
foretell that the disaster of Six-Lesson Schools is likely to continue.

After an adult
lifetime spent in teaching school I believe the method of schooling
is the only real content it has. Don’t be fooled into thinking that
good curricula or good equipment or good teachers are the critical
determinants of your son and daughter’s schooltime. All the pathologies
we’ve considered come about in large measure because the lessons
of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with
themselves and their families, to learn lessons in self-motivation,
perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love – and, of
course, lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons
of home life.

Thirty years
ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school.
But television has eaten most of that time, and a combination of
television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent
families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time.
Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-soil
wastelands to do it in.

A future is
rushing down upon our culture which will insist that all of us learn
the wisdom of non-material experience; this future will demand,
as the price of survival, that we follow a pace of natural life
economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in
schools as they are. School is like starting life with a 12-year
jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly
learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.

This originally
appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of Whole Earth Review.

June
22, 2010

John
Taylor Gatto is the author of Weapons
of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark
World of Compulsory Schooling
,
The
Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate
Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling
, and
Dumbing
Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
.
He was 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year.

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