Why Schools Don't Educate

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I accept this
award on behalf of all the fine teachers I’ve known over the years
who’ve struggled to make their transactions with children honorable
ones, men and women who are never complacent, always questioning,
always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word
"education" should mean. A Teacher of the Year is not
the best teacher around, those people are too quiet to be easily
uncovered, but he is a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private
people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children.
This is their award as well as mine.

We live in
a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of
nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic.
At the very bottom. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our
own consumption of the commodity, if we didn’t buy so many powdered
dreams the business would collapse – and schools are an important
sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world
and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor.
In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new marriages last less than
five years. So something is wrong for sure.

Our school
crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to
have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and
locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent
– nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old
people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past,
only a continuous present. In fact, the name "community"
hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in
networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because
of that. In some strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy
just as it is a major actor in the widening guilt among social classes.
Using school as a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to
creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through
subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.

I’ve noticed
a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching –
that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great
enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists
are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes
or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really
teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery
to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools
as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic
of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although
teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic
– it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in
the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to
different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive
from a common ancestor.

Our form of
compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts
around 1850. It was resisted – sometimes with guns – by
an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population, the
last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children
until the 1880’s when the area was seized by militia and children
marched to school under guard.

Now here is
a curious idea to ponder. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released
a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education
the state literacy rate was 98% and after it the figure never again
reached above 91% where it stands in 1990. I hope that interests
you.

Here is another
curiosity to think about. The homeschooling movement has quietly
grown to a size where one and a half million young people are being
educated entirely by their own parents. Last month the education
press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem
to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers
in their ability to think.

I don’t think
we’ll get rid of schools anytime soon, certainly not in my lifetime,
but if we’re going to change what is rapidly becoming a disaster
of ignorance, we need to realize that the school institution "schools"
very well, but it does not "educate" – that’s inherent
in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or
too little money spent, it’s just impossible for education and schooling
ever to be the same thing.

Schools were
designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University
of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other
men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population.
Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae,
formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great
extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating,
and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant,
confident, and individualistic – because the community life
which protects the dependent and the weak is dead. The products
of schooling are, as I’ve said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people
are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper
and talk on the telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering
computer terminal but as human beings they are useless. Useless
to others and useless to themselves.

The daily misery
around us is, I think, in large measure caused by the fact that
– as Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago – we force children
to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with its
absurdities.

It is absurd
and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in
confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class.
That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity
of life and the synergy of variety, indeed it cuts you off from
your own past and future, scaling you to a continuous present much
the same way television does.

It is absurd
and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen
to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct
buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction
of buildings when you want to read poetry.

It is absurd
and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for
every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you
no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home
demanding that you do its "homework."

"How will
they learn to read?" you say and my answer is "Remember
the lessons of Massachusetts." When children are given whole
lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks they learn to read,
write, and do arithmetic with ease if those things make sense in
the kind of life that unfolds around them.

But keep in
mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes or
does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers, we
pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most, and so our children
talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers.
It is very difficult to teach the "basics" anymore because
they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.

Two institutions
at present control our children’s lives – television and schooling,
in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude,
temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction.
In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied
in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search
for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great
deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection,
meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how
to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a
whole man or woman.

But here is
the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with:

Out of the
168 hours in each week, my children sleep 56. That leaves them 112
hours a week out of which to fashion a self.

My children
watch 55 hours of television a week according to recent reports.
That leaves them 57 hours a week in which to grow up.

My children
attend school 30 hours a week, use about 6 hours getting ready,
going and coming home, and spend an average of 7 hours a week in
homework – a total of 45 hours. During that time, they are
under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space,
and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use
of time or space. That leaves 12 hours a week out of which to create
a unique consciousness. Of course, my kids eat, and that takes some
time – not much, because they’ve lost the tradition of family
dining, but if we allot 3 hours a week to evening meals, we arrive
at a net amount of private time for each child of 9 hours.

It’s not enough.
It’s not enough, is it? The richer the kid, of course, the less
television he watches but the rich kid’s time is just as narrowly
proscribed by a somewhat broader catalog of commercial entertainments
and his inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in
areas seldom of his actual choice.

And these things
are oddly enough just a more cosmetic way to create dependent human
beings, unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines
of meaning to give substance and pleasure to their existence. It’s
a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, and I think
schooling and television and lessons – the entire Chautauqua
idea – has a lot to do with it.

Think of the
things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless
competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling,
alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to
buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are
addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand
of schooling must inevitably produce.

I want to tell
you what the effect is on children of taking all their time from
them – time they need to grow up – and forcing them to
spend it on abstractions. You need to hear this, because no reform
that doesn’t attack these specific pathologies will be anything
more than a faade.

  1. The children
    I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience
    of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up
    to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody
    wants to grow up these days and who can blame them? Toys are us.
  2. The children
    I teach have almost no curiosity and what they do have is transitory;
    they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose
    to do. Can you see a connection between the bells ringing again
    and again to change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent
    attention?
  3. The children
    I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably
    linked to today. As I said before, they have a continuous present,
    the exact moment they are at is the boundary of their consciousness.
  4. The children
    I teach are ahistorical, they have no sense of how past has predestined
    their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values
    and lives.
  5. The children
    I teach are cruel to each other, they lack compassion for misfortune,
    they laugh at weakness, and they have contempt for people whose
    need for help shows too plainly.
  6. The children
    I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. My guess is that they
    are like many adopted people I’ve known in this respect –
    they cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit
    of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality
    made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from
    television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are
    not who they represent themselves to be the disguise wears thin
    in the presence of intimacy so intimate relationships have to
    be avoided.
  7. The children
    I teach are materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers
    who materialistically "grade" everything – and
    television mentors who offer everything in the world for free.
  8. The children
    I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new
    challenges. This is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by
    anger or aggressiveness but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.

I could name
a few other conditions that school reform would have to tackle if
our national decline is to be arrested, but by now you will have
grasped my thesis, whether you agree with it or not. Either schools
have caused these pathologies, or television, or both. It’s a simple
matter [of] arithmetic, between schooling and television all the
time the children have is eaten away. That’s what has destroyed
the American family, it is no longer a factor in the education of
its own children. Television and schooling, in those things the
fault must lie.

What can be
done? First we need a ferocious national debate that doesn’t quit,
day after day, year after year. We need to scream and argue about
this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one
or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success
of homeschooling shows a different road to take that has great promise.
Pouring the money we now pour into family education might kill two
birds with one stone, repairing families as it repairs children.

Genuine reform
is possible but it shouldn’t cost anything. We need to rethink the
fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want
all children to learn and why. For 140 years this nation has tried
to impose objectives downward from the lofty command center made
up of "experts," a central elite of social engineers.
It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. And it is a gross betrayal of the
democratic promise that once made this nation a noble experiment.
The Russian attempt to create Plato’s republic in Eastern Europe
has exploded before [our] eyes, our own attempt to impose the same
sort of central orthodoxy using the schools as an instrument is
also coming apart at the seams, albeit more slowly and painfully.
It doesn’t work because its fundamental premises are mechanical,
anti-human, and hostile to family life. Lives can be controlled
by machine education but they will always fight back with weapons
of social pathology – drugs, violence, self-destruction, indifference,
and the symptoms I see in the children I teach.

It’s high time
we looked backwards to regain an educational philosophy that works.
One I like particularly well has been a favorite of the ruling classes
of Europe for thousands of years. I use as much of it as I can manage
in my own teaching, as much, that is, as I can get away with given
the present institution of compulsory schooling. I think it works
just as well for poor children as for rich ones.

At the core
of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge
is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system,
at every age, you will find arrangements to place the child alone
in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem
is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a
horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully
solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can
you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking
confidence in his ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem
is the problem of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond,
or Einstein did in the Swiss customs house.

One of my former
students, Roland Legiardi-Lura, though both his parents were dead
and he had no inheritance, took a bicycle across the United States
alone when he was hardly out of boyhood. Is it any wonder then that
in manhood when he decided to make a film about Nicaragua, although
he had no money and no prior experience with film-making, that it
was an international award-winner – even though his regular
work was as a carpenter.

Right now we
are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop
self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences
that give a lot of that time back, we need to trust children from
a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school
but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need
to invent curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private
uniqueness and self-reliance.

A short time
ago I took seventy dollars and sent a twelve-year-old girl from
my class with her non-English speaking mother on a bus down the
New Jersey coast to take the police chief of Sea Bright to lunch
and apologize for polluting [his] beach with a discarded Gatorade
bottle. In exchange for this public apology I had arranged with
the police chief for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in
a small town police procedures. A few days later, two more of my
twelve-year-old kids traveled alone to West First Street from Harlem
where they began an apprenticeship with a newspaper editor, next
week three of my kids will find themselves in the middle of the
Jersey swamps at 6 A.M., studying the mind of a trucking company
president as he dispatches 18-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los
Angeles.

Are these "special"
children in a "special" program? Well, in one sense, yes,
but nobody knows about this program but the kids and myself. They’re
just nice kids from Central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly
schooled when they came to me that most of them can’t add or subtract
with any fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New
York City or how far it is from New York to California.

Does that worry
me? Of course, but I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge
they’ll also become self-teachers – and only self-teaching
has any lasting value.

We’ve got to
give kids independent time right away because that is the key to
self-knowledge, and we must re-involve them with the real world
as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on
something other than more abstraction. This is an emergency, it
requires drastic action to correct – our children are dying
like flies in schooling, good schooling or bad schooling, it’s all
the same. Irrelevant.

What else does
a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite
on the working community. Of all the pages in the human ledger,
only our tortured entry has warehoused children and asked nothing
of them in service to the general good. For a while I think we need
to make community service a required part of schooling. Besides
the experience in acting unselfishly that will teach, it is the
quickest way to give young children real responsibility in the mainstream
of life.

For five years
I ran a guerilla program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart
and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens
of those kids came back to me years later, grown up, and told me
that one experience of helping someone else changed their lives.
It taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values.
It happened when they were thirteen, in my Lab School program –
only made possible because my rich school district was in chaos.
When "stability" returned the Lab was closed. It was too
successful with a wildly mixed group of kids, at too small of a
cost, to be allowed to continue. We made the expensive elite programs
look bad.

There is no
shortage of real problems in the city. Kids can be asked to help
solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the total
adult world. Good for kids, good for all the rest of us. That’s
curriculum that teaches Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues
in every system of elite education. What’s sauce for the rich and
powerful is surely sauce for the rest of us – what is more,
the idea is absolutely free as are all other genuine reform ideas
in education. Extra money and extra people put into this sick institution
will only make it sicker.

Independent
study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses
of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships, the
one-day variety or longer – these are all powerful, cheap and
effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale
reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and
our damaged society until we force the idea of "school"
open – to include family as the main engine of education. The
Swedes realized that in 1976 when they effectively abandoned the
system of adopting unwanted children and instead spent national
time and treasure on reinforcing the original family so that children
born to Swedes were wanted. They didn’t succeed completely but they
did succeed in reducing the number of unwanted Swedish children
from 6000 in l976 to 15 in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just
got tired of paying for the social wreckage caused by children not
raised by their natural parents so they did something about it.
We can, too.

Family is the
main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children
away from parents – and make no mistake, that has been the
central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the
purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced
it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 – we’re
going to continue to have the horror show we have right now. The
curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life, we’ve gotten
away from that curriculum, time to return to it. The way to sanity
in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the
stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school
time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family
bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother
down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief. I have many ideas
to make a family curriculum and my guess is that a lot of you will
have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest
problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could
reform schooling is that we have large vested interests pre-emptying
all the air time and profiting from schooling just exactly as it
is despite rhetoric to the contrary. We have to demand that new
voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We’ve all
had a bellyful of authorized voices mediated by television and the
press – a decade long free-for-all debate is what is called
for now, not any more "expert" opinions. Experts in education
have never been right, their "solutions" are expensive,
self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough.
Time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family. I’ve
said my piece. Thank you.

This article
is the text of a speech by John Taylor Gatto accepting the New York
City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990.

June
30, 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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