In a comment on my last post, Charley, whose views on public education differs a tad bit from my own, recommended that I read a couple of pieces by John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City teacher of the year. One was called "Why Schools Don't Educate," and the other one was "Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why." I came away impressed with Gatto's intelligence, and I assume he was probably a pretty good teacher. But I feel strongly that the picture he paints of our pubic education system is horribly inaccurate, and quite frankly, I resented most of what he had to say.
In "Why Schools Don't Educate," which I assume is the speech he gave in accepting his teacher of the year award, Gatto started out graciously enough:
I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I've known over the years who've struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones, men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word "education" should mean. A Teacher of the Year is not the best teacher around, those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered, but he is a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.
I'm not sure which teachers he's talking about there, but I assume it's not many of us, because that's the last positive thing he has to say about anything in public education. I would imagine that people like my friend Daniel Simms are thrilled that Gatto basically argues that the entire purpose of public education has been a plot by some nameless entities above us all to keep the masses in their place:
We don't need Karl Marx's conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don't conform...But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be class-based at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that "efficiency" is the paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they can stem from simple greed...
We must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.
Now, I just finished Diane Ravitch's history on public education, and I got the impression that there had been a lot of mistakes made, but I completely missed the idea that Gatto is selling in his history. I don't know how anyone could spend any time in a public school these days and come to the conclusion that we are making kids too compliant. And as if it isn't bad enough that public education is simply there to turn young people into servants, Gatto also blames public education for nearly all of society's ills:
Think of the things that are killing us as a nation - narcotic 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 of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce...
Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don't bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.
My first question regarding Gatto's point of view is this: If that was the way he felt, why did he stay in the field for thirty years? Wouldn't the honorable thing to do have been to resign and find something else to do?
There is only one answer that I can think of, and it is that Gatto saw himself as having a messianic duty to save as many kids as possible from those of us who are unwitting saps and simply cogs in the machine. I have read books by "progressive" educators before who have the same mentality, and I am turned off by it. The arrogance of Gatto and other "expert" teachers like him make me want to vomit. They seem to be saying, "Those few teachers who do things like me are wonderful and caring and saving kids from the system. The rest of you are all uncaring, inept, educational Neanderthals." Gatto gives a couple of examples of things we should be doing as teachers, but I didn't exactly get how I'm supposed to apply his ideas. I think maybe we're just supposed to wing it.
During my career as a teacher I have seen educators with greatly varying styles be successful with them. Quite frankly, the ones who have most consistently been successful have been the ones with the most order and discipline in their classes, and by the end of the year they are often the most popular with their students. Unless I am completely misreading him, these are the teachers that Gatto seems to have the most disdain for. But, on the other hand, I've also seen teachers who use so-called progressive methods be very successful. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that one size does not fit all.
Unlike Gatto, I do not see public schools as prisons. Do I ever get frustrated? You betcha! But nearly every day that I leave my house and head for school, I feel pretty good about it. I see our school as a place of fantastic opportunity for young people. I have seen and continue to see wonderful kids excel in academics, sports, and the arts. I have seen and continue to see kids in our hallways with a spring in their step, and smiles on their faces. Is that true for all kids in public schools? Obviously not. In fact, it's not true for enough of them. But it is true for most of the kids who come to school with the right attitude--the kids who have the desire to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them. If that's a prison, then it's one helluva nice one, and despite all the complaining I do and the frustrations that I feel, there's no place I'd rather be. The good kids we have make it more than worth it. I don't see myself as the educational messiah, but the hope that I'm making a small difference in some of their lives gives me a pretty good feeling.