This is the first essay in Dumbing Us Down
The central message in this essay is that, contrary to what educators might claim they are doing, the national curriculum (and he's talking about the USA, but it applies equally here in the UK) consists of teaching children:
1. Confusion. Everything is taught out of context. Rather than following a child's pace and interests, we present children with all sorts of things but never help children connect them or build up a coherent picture of the universe (which is much easier to do if the person trying to make the coherent picture chooses what to look at next)
2. Class position. He conflates two things in here. First, that in a school, you have to be in the assigned class, like it or not. If all your friends are 11 years old or 6 years old, but you are 9, then tough luck, you have to spend most of the day in a room with the other 9 year olds. No freedom of association. Second, that exam results and grading are seen to be very very important, even though actually future employers, or future customers if you are going to set up a business, are probably considerably less interested in your portfolio of exam results than the schools claim they will be. I was feeling quite resistant to this one, thinking "surely nowadays teachers aren't constantly grading children's work?" and then I remembered the SATS tests. So I guess it is still operational, though I'm certain that all teacher trainees nowadays read the stuff about how summative assessment is a demotivator (well, duh).
3. Indifference. Schools teach children to be indifferent to everything because of the constant interruptions of lesson change and bells ringing. We teach them that it is never worth while to spend the length of time on a task that the task requires, but instead that external factors like bells ringing are more important than finishing a train of thought.
4. emotional dependency. Teachers mostly operate through carrot andstick, punishment and rewards, however sugar coated. The way a child is treated is conditional on the way (s)he behaves in school. Teachers have huge power over a child's happiness - they can prevent a child from going to the loo, even. Children have to learn to keep the teacher happy in order to be treated kindly.
5. Intellectual dependency. School children don't often go into the building and get going on learning. They enter the classroom and a teacher tells them what to do. The teacher then judges whether or not they did it adequately. There is little space for self-motivation and self-criticism when someone else controls the timetable.
6. provisional self esteem. This is the one I am still struggling with. Gatto says that the self-respect of a school child depends on the judgement of the teacher, who tells people (usually implicitly, I imagine) what they are worth. I am thinking that this is just a summary of points 4 and 5.
7. no hiding place. In school, a child is under constant surveillance - and privacy is vital for creativity (have none of them read Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own?!). The surveillance continues at a distance, through homework - some of a child's "free" time at home is tied up with tasks for school.
THe vital thing, he says, is that schools are not about education at all, they are about schooling. And THIS is what schooling is - it teaches all these things so that society is kept filled with people to take up the most common professions (in the USA in the 1990s, it was Walmart sales clerk, McDonald's burger flipper and Burger King burger flipper, in that order) - professions which need people whose creativity and self worth has been squashed out of them. And also that schooling is a big job creation scheme for "educators". There is no way any educational reform led by educators would say "what we need is less school, less money, less hours of education..."
I could see this essay persuading people not to send their children to school.
Lest you think I am completely uncritical of Gatto, I now have to do a Mr Bennett: "Read on, Lizzy, read on".