On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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John Taylor Gatto’s new book is The Underground History of American Education (Oxford Village Press). He lives in New York City.
I had known Hector for several months as his teacher, but up to that time I had never really seen him, nor would I have seen him then but for the startling puzzle he presented: he was gate-crashing with a fully paid admission ticket in his pocket. Was he nuts?
Before I became a schoolteacher, I hardly thought about television at all, but a short time after I started teaching, I discovered that the kids in class who drove me crazy were always big TV-watchers. TV-addicted kids, I found, were irresponsible and childish, malicious to each other and chronically bored. They whined a lot, ratted constantly on other students, and seemed unusually dishonest.
This month marks The Sun’s twenty-fifth anniversary. As the deadline for the January issue approached — and passed — we were still debating how to commemorate the occasion in print. We didn’t want to waste space on self-congratulation, but we also didn’t think we should let the moment pass unnoticed. At the eleventh hour, we came up with an idea: we would invite longtime contributors and current and former staff members to send us their thoughts, recollections, and anecdotes about The Sun. Maybe we would get enough to fill a few pages.
What we got was enough to fill the entire magazine.
Though we haven’t devoted the whole issue to the anniversary, we have allowed the section to grow beyond our original plans. After seeing the pieces, we felt that our readers would enjoy them as much as we did — for the information about the magazine’s history, for the glimpses into the writers’ lives, and (not least) for the quality of the writing.
Schooling was to be about the creation of loyalty to a principle of abstract central authority, and no serious rival — whether parents, tribe, tradition, self, or God — would be welcome in school. Corporate economics and the developing modern culture eliminated the other rivals, but it took the highest court in the land to bar God.
Modern schooling is a kind of religion. Its goal is most certainly not to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and thinking, although sometimes learning happens because teachers — and even administrators — don’t realize the kind of enterprise in which they are engaged. But this does not happen too often.
“Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste,” said Buddha. If that sounds like nonsense, then read on as I tell you how I and my wife, Janet, came to do nothing with our farm, on purpose. It might help you understand what Buddha had in mind.
Lecturing age-grouped children in cellblock rooms of featureless buildings is a nightmarish way to teach. (And please don’t bring to mind images of slum schools; I’m thinking of wealthy, suburban schools.) What it does to teachers — not to mention students — isn’t pleasant to see.
The new dumbness — the non-thought of received ideas — is much more dangerous than simple ignorance, because it’s really about thought control. In school, a washing away of the innate power of individual mind takes place, a “cleansing” so comprehensive that original thinking becomes difficult.
While teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. I intend no irony here. These are the things I teach, these are the things you pay me to teach.
Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnas Sears and W.R. Harper of the University of Chicago and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College and others to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.