Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher by John Taylor Gatto

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".


Leo said...

"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."

His anti-capitalist and conspiricionist tone is just sad.

He does he hate those companies and the jobs they create?

How could the schooling system be so aware of its own flaws to be able to produce idiots on purpose?

It's sad that he insults those jobs. It's not lack of self-worth that makes a person a productive worker, on the contrary. A person working productively at any job is a virtuos person. It's the people that feel too ashamed to get those jobs that are in trouble. They usually lack self-esteem at the same time they suffer from grandiosity.

emma said...

he is indeed anti-capitalist. As the other post shows (the most recent one) he has a somewhat rose-tinted view of small community living and I suspect he'd rather everyone in such communities traded home-made honey and hand-crafted knitware than that money ever changed hands.

And yes, I guess it's conspiracy theory - I don't think Walmart is a big lobbyist for mass schooling because of its potential for filling their vacancies for employees. OTOH, mass schooling does have those roots of wanting to control a populace (although writing that - do I believe it? Or is it just something I've read several times andhaven't yet thought about?)

I think the effects of schooling are probably at least partially true, but I'm sure it's not on purpose.

Christina said...

I don't think he is anti-capitalist at all... This is just another term used to denounce the ideas of out-of-the box thinkers.

Gatto is saying not all students are privy to opportunities that public schools say they can provide. Student achievement IS directly correlated to the socio-economic status of the student and the surrounding community. Some communities use allocations of funding better than others, however, the majority of lower functioning schools are operating at economic levels that are about 10% of their needs.

Gatto's not degrading lower paying work as a non-essential for society, he's arguing that powers could be in effect to limit a person's self-worth in order to perpetuate a lower class. No, this isn't a rosy opinion of schooling but using encompassing words such as "hate" and "anti-capitalist" are unfair.

Most people will agree on some level about the worth of this capitalist society we've built, however, it's unfair to tell someone they can live their life on feeling "virtuous" about their job and lack of benefits. I don't know any underemployed or unemployed individuals who pay rent or hospital bills on virtue. There is a difference between having pride for the work one does and being paid a living wage. Many people clearly don’t have pride for the work they do and are paid the same or even more money. Some end up stealing billions of dollars from the very people they claim to protect!

Gatto is only saying the education that is provided by public schooling may not give everyone the same rights for the pursuit of happiness.

This reminds me of a similar debate we're having today...healthcare! There are too many people who blame the less fortunate for not going out and getting what they deserve and not enough people who see the bridges and processes that could be made to make hardships easier to overcome. Too many people see the need for their own situations to be changed but are blind to the accommodations for other's needs.

When are we really going to understand what it means to have these basic rights? Healthcare? Education?

Swallow your pride, America! We aren’t the best…haven’t been for a while…let’s be a little more open to ways we can change that.

. said...

...and the problem with being "anti-capitalist" is...???

After years of teaching school, and then many more on a school board, I would have to say Gatto's criticisms are right on the mark. A conspiracy? Not all conspiracies are spawned in shadowy secrecy. More often, we conspire against ourselves. It is a conspiracy, folks, and we are it.

I think some of the comments left miss the mark of what Gatto is trying to say, however. It's not about what you do, pride, and virtue. It's about becoming a thinking, caring, autonomous human being. That has nothing to do with what you are, but instead with who you are. Don't confuse these, and don't misrepresent Gatto.

Rick said...

Rather than reading this person's summary of Gatto's essay, why not just read the actual thing? Its not very long. This summary does not do it justice. And nowhere does Gatto even mention McDonalds or Walmart..

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the real essay:

Fotofule said...

His magnum opus, TheUnderground History of American Education" is a must-read for those trying to grok the mediocrity of our schools, teaching, curriculums, etc. it's available yo read online. You can find it on Amazon, but they're appreciating in value.

Anonymous said...

you "capitalists" crack me up, there is no capitalism ! fractional reserve banking and fiat currency arent capital ! they are numbers on a computer and a piece of paper ! productive jobs !? what does assembling a burger produce ? they are only there until cheaper robotics can assemble a burger. what does a sales clerk produce ? havnt you seen self check outs ?