Monday, October 02, 2006

Why schools don't educate.

  One of my favourite graphics. From a 70's book about the lack of student 'voice'in schooling. Posted by Picasa

Notes taken from John Taylor Gatto’s acceptance speech as New York Teacher of the Year 1990.


Gatto was recognized in Tom Peter’s (the business ‘guru’) in his book ‘Re-Imagine’ published 2003 as an important future orientated educator.

‘We live in a time of great school crises, Gatto began his presentation, ‘and we need to define and redefine endlessly what the word education should mean. Something is wrong. Our school crisis is a reflection of a wider social crisis – a society that lives in the constant present, based on narcotic consumption’

In his 25 years of teaching Gatto has noticed that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant. The truth is, he believes, schools don’t teach anything but how to obey orders not withstanding the efforts of countless human caring teachers. In spite of the teachers hard work the institution of school is psychopathic – it has no conscience. Every thing revolves around the bell, timetable and fragmented learning.

Compulsory schooling is an invention of the state and in the early days in the US school attendance was resisted and children learnt to read at home – today home schooling is on the increase and these students are testing higher than their schoolmates.

Gatto doesn’t believe we will get rid of schools anytime soon but that if we’re going to change what is rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance we need to realize what school do well even if it does not ‘educate’. He believes that it is impossible for education and schooling to be the same thing.

Schools in the US were designed to be ‘instruments of scientific management of a mass population’, to produce, ‘formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.’ To a very great extent schools have succeeded in this. But, he says, ‘our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self reliant, confident and individualistic and care little for the common good of the community’.

Schools Gatto says are ‘anti –life’. They compel students to sit in confinement with people the same age cutting them off from ‘the diversity of life and the synergy of variety’; cutting them off from their own past and setting them in a continuous present. It is, he says, absurd to move students around from cell to cell at the sound of a bell for every day of their natural youth in an institution that allows them no privacy.

Today students learn to read, write and do arithmetic cut off from the life that unfolds around them. ‘In centuries past’, he says, ‘young people would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach you what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of the time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of community…dozens of tasks to become a whole man or woman.’

Today little time is available for young people in a school week to be involved in such activities and what little there is is taken up by TV and electronic media. The effect of all this is to take away the time children need to grow up and, in the process, ‘creating cosmetic human beings’, who, all too easily get caught up in aimlessness and dependency - drugs, alcohol, violence, brainless competition and the ‘worst pornography of all - lives devoted to buying things; accumulation as a philosophy’ this, he says, ‘is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce’

Gatto sees children who are indifferent to the adult world. Nobody, he says, wants to grow up these days; he sees children with almost no curiosity and what they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate very long; he sees children with a poor sense of the future and the past, living as they do in continuous present; he sees children who are cruel to each other lacking in compassion and laughing at weaknesses; he sees children who are uneasy with intimacy and candor; children who are materialistic; and he sees children who are dependent, passive and timid in the face of new challenges, too often masked by surface bravado.

Either school has caused these pathologies, or media, or both, he believes. All the time children have is eaten away. This, he believes, has destroyed the American family.

What is to be done? First of all he believes we ‘need a ferocious national debate…about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other’.

‘We need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling.’ ‘For over 140 years this nation has tried impose objectives downwards from the lofty communication centre made up of “experts”’ ‘It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. And it is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise’. ‘It’s fundamental premise is 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 and indifference’.

He believes we need an educational philosophy that works. ‘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 schools that trust people to from an early age with independent study.’ ‘We need invent a curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self reliance.’

Gatto is confident that as students gain self knowledge they also become self teachers – and that only self teaching has any lasting value. He believes we ‘have to give kids independent time right away because that is the key to self knowledge, and we must involve them in the real world as fast as we possible.’ It is urgent to change our ‘warehoused’ schools, he believes, ‘because our students are dying like flies in schooling,’

‘Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships’, are all, he says, ‘powerful cheap and effective’. 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’. ‘If we use education to break children away from parents…we are going to have the horror show we have now.’

Gatto concludes saying we have to bi pass the vested interests that support the status quo and get grass roots thinking to demand that ‘new voices and new ideas get a hearing’; that, ‘we have had a bellyful of authorized voices’. That, ‘we need a decade long free-for-all debate…not more “expert” solutions’; “experts” in education have never got it right’.

‘Enough’ he says, ‘time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family.

I bet he hasn’t been invited to be teacher of the year again but he were to be he would have my vote! It would seem to me that much of the poor behaviour that schools in New Zealand complain about, and violence in society generally, relates to the ideas that Gatto expresses?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Our Ministry of Education talks endlessly about involving parents in their childrens' education; having high expectations of all students and the importance of quality teaching but is quiet on the fact that the whole school structure ( secondary anyway) is the problem. Parents we want to be involved feel alienated while the 'high flying parents' like things as they are; it is hard to have high expectations of poorly behaved students, and quality teaching is all but impossible in such restrictive structures.

And of course the Ministry "experts" have never put into practice what they preach!

Time for a major educational conversation as Gatto says. At least we should think of some creative alternatives.

Anonymous said...

Bruce where do you find these great articles. Isn't this just a fact though. Why don't we get the experts, especialy politicians, out of education and give our kids a chance at learning something useful to them..

Bruce said...

Too much time searching around on the internet! The Gatto article though was sent to me by a friend who thought I would enjoy it!

And you are right about "experts" but we need brave politicians to create the conditions for educational change - all we can do is "seed" the ideas!

Mind you I enjoy the "experts" who agree with me - I dislike more the "technocrats" who just do what their masters require of them!

Anonymous said...

Too many kids bored in school and with time on their hands when they are suspended or leave - trouble either way. You are right we need some new types of schools for such students.