Why Schools Don’t Educate

By John Gatto-his speech upon being named NYC Teacher of the Year.

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your 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 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 school teachers..I t 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-stop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity. real adventures and that real search for mentors who might teach what one 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 becoming a whole man or woman.

But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with. Out of 168 hours in each week, my children must 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 seek, use about 80 hours getting ready, going and coming home, and spend an average of 7 hours a seek 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 unique consciousness. Of course, my kids eat, too, and that takes some time- not much, because we’ve lost the tradition of family dining. If we allot three 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 a narrowly proscribed by a broader catalog of commercial entertainments and his inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of his 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 - have a lot to do with it.

Think of the things that are killing us as a nation: 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 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 - time they need to grow u[ - and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. No reform that doesn’t attack these specific pathologies will be anything more that a facade.

1. The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousand s 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 little 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 or evanescent (vanishing, fleeting” attention?

3. The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably inked to today. They live in a continuous present’ the exact moment they are in the boundary of their consciousness.

4. The children I teach are ahistorical’ they have no sense of how the 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, they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly,.

6. The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. they cannot deal with genuine, intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret self inside an outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teacher. 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 sale.

8. The children I teach are dependent, passive and timid in the presence of new challenges. This timidity is frequently masked by surface bravado or by anger or aggressiveness, but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude (stamina, endurance)

What Can Be Done?

First, we need a ferocious national debate that doesn’t quit, day after day, year after year, the kind of continuous emphasis that journalism finds boring. 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 home schooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money back 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 that it is we want all children to learn, and why. For one 140 years this nation has tried to impose objectives from a lofty command center made up of “experts” a central elite of social engineers. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. It is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise that one made this nation a noble experiment. The Russian attempt to control Easter 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 backward 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 thinks it works just as well for poor children as for rich ones. IO 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.

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 that 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 of making it jump, but that, or 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 that of mastering solitude as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customs hour.

One of my former students, Roland Legiardi-Laura, 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 is any wonder that in manhood he made a film about Nicaragua although ha had no money and no prior experience with film making, and that is was an international award-winner-- even though his regular work was a s a carpenter.

Right now we are taking from our children the time 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 a curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop uniqueness and self-reliance.

A short time ago, I took $70 and sent a 12 year old girl with her non-English speaking mother on a bus down the New Jersey coast. She took the police chief of Sea bright to lunch and apologized for polluting his beach with a discarded gatorade bottle. In exchange form this public apology I had arranged for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small town police procedures. A few days later, two more of my 12 year old kids traveled alone from Harlem to West 31st Street, where they began an apprenticeship with a newspaper editor. Next weeks, three of my kids will find themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at 6:00 in the morning studying the mind of a trucking company president as he dispatches eighteen-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Are these “special” children in a “special” program? they’re just nice kids from Central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of them couldn’t add or subtract with any fluency. And no a single one knew the population of New York City of how far is 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 reinvolve them with the real world as fast a possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than more abstractions. This is an emergency. It requires drastic action to correct. Our children are dying like flies in our schools. Good schooling or bad schooling, it all the same - irrelevant.

What else does a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. It is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility.

For five years, I ran a guerrilla school program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and ditsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later, and told me that this one experience changed their lives, taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values. It happened when they were 13, in My Lab School program- only made possible because my rich school district was in chaos. When “stability” returned, the Lab closed. It was too successful, at too small a cost, to be allowed to continue. We made the expensive, elite programs look bad.

There is no shortage of real problems in this city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the adult world. good for kids, good for the rest of us.

Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships - these are all powerful, cheap and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large scale reform is ever going 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 this in 1976, when they effectively abandoned the (national 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 reduced the number of unwanted Swedish children from 6,000 in 1976 to 15 in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired of paying form the social wreckage caused by (unwanted children), 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 - it’s 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 it that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, one you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grassroots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large, vested interests 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 on television and in the press. A decade-long, free-for-all debate 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.

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