6 min read

Gatto's Got Me Thinking

I know that I am way too tender to be reading John Taylor Gatto, but his Dumbing Us Down (1992) has been on my pile for almost two decades and I finally started it. His opening chapters ends with this:

It is time that we squarely face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children. Nobody survives the seven-lesson curriculum [confusion, class protection, indifference, emotonal dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, one can't hide] completely unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking the schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen. You must understand that first and foremost the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency for letting contracts. We cannot afford to save money by reducing the scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to help children grow up right. That is the iron law of institutional schooling—it is a business, subject neither to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition. (p. 16)

And also,

After an adult lifetime spent teaching school, I believe the method of mass schooling is its only real content. Don’t be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son’s or daughter’s education. All the pathologies we’ve considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity, and love—and lessons in service to others, too, which are among the key lessons of home and community life. (p. 17)

Probably after Gatto I'll go back to Holt. I think my greatest objection to these unschooling types is that I'm won to their critique but not to their vision.

Miss Anne Shirly Goes to School

I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time and genunly enjoyed the 19th century Messianism of the great Ms. Stacy, swooping into Avonlea and cultivating our heroin into the Superfrau of our greatest imagining: the student who goes on to...attend more school. And then go on to work for a school.

How is that not idealizing a pyramid scheme?

What if Anne wanted to be like Matthew and work on the farm? I've had the unique experience of working with two heart-and-soul farm girls and what strikes this city mouse is how they well and truly love their farms. They love the animals and rituals and the aesthetics (I work with a young woman right now whose desktop wallpaper is a selfie she took with her cow).

By way of a counter-factual, what if Anne had been one of those girls? What if she had truly grown to love the idyllic setting of her Green Gables as a farm girl? What if her love of cultural and books and plays and music had instead been a love of all creatures, great and small?

What whould Miss Stacy's value be in that story?

Original Sin

On the one hand, there is a noble sort of social vision that wishes to release the inner genius of the as-yet-unsullied child (I mean, hey, I earned my "Every Child Can" certificate just like every other woman in the class).

But I struggle with this romantic world view because, candidly, I don't believe in the natural goodness of children. My experience has been that immature humans (just like their adult counterparts) have two waring natures and are capable of both kindness and homicide.

Side note: I think the story of Cain and Able makes the most sense if we see them as elementary- to middle-school-aged boys. I have four brothers, most of whom now have sons of their own. And I have to say: murder is definitely on the table – particularly during these young years.

My qualm with the Romantic heroes and the quest to champion the child's nature is that they tend to speak pass the sale: They skip over the part arguing for The Prestine Child and jump right to polemicizing The Big Bad System and its systemic child-squashing.

This is forfront to because I just finished Milton Gaither's Homeschool: An American History and he has several lengthy discussons about the Calvinism, but he pretty boldly concludes,

The key to the entire synthesis and the bulwark to the American theory of education was the thoroughgoing rejection of a major aspect of the Calvinist heritage of early America. Nearly as soon as Calvin’s doctrine of innate depravity inherited from Adam’s original sin had been formulated, it drew reactions, and by the eighteenth century the reactions had triumphed. Those who agreed with Jonathan Edwards’ classic description of children as “young vipers and infinitely more hateful than vipers” had been steadily losing ground in the colonies. After the revolution, such pessimism about childhood nature was all but abandoned, despite periodic efforts to hold the line by old guard ministers. And though the ministers themselves would often blame conspiratorial atheists or Romanizers for the shift, in fact it was not the freethinkers who were transforming the American view of childhood. It was the Protestants themselves. (p. 53)

But like all shifts in Protestantism's Overton Window, it's not been argued for as much as it's been intuited as correct. Really, that's the problem with all romantic thought: "romantic thought" is a contradiction in terms.

But while I'm all up for a deep dive into anthropology and harmatiology, I kind of wonder if it matters?

Child Reering Vs Formal Education

Is it a mistake to conflate "moral instruction predicated on humann nature" with all projects aiming at knowledge aquisition?

The objection raised by anti-establishment educators (I'm still trying to look for a neutral classification) is that our social contract has consented around the idea that all knowledge acquisition must vector through the same path.

And it demonstrably does not. So I'm onboard.

For example, we just finished a week of VBS and it's really a pedgoical relec: We'll segment children according to birthdate, circle them around an instructor, and teach them Bible stories they can recite before class starts.

It's a very strange practice.

And I'm happy to see the age-integrationists have won the war. Though the movment went out with both bangs and whimpers, I don't know any reputible youth ministry who thinks age segregating the congregation is a win.

Personally, I'd like to see the thought go a bit further and ask why an age-integrated lecture is preferible, but baby steps, I guess. And I say that as sombody who loves lectures.

Actually, now that I thnk about it, I guess I did argue pretty loudly against sermons. You know what, guys? I think I might be ecclesiastically Lutheran. That's a bummer.

Anyway, the point I'm floundering to make is that I think it's not so much about "nature", per se, nor about "nature vs. nurture", but rather a quadripartite "Form plus Content plus Nature plus Context".

And you're welcome for bringing the word "quadripartite" into the conversation.

Critique and Visions

I guess I'm natrually inclined to "let a thousand flowers bloom" and I think that's what Gatto is championing, but it seems that it will bump up against the very nature Gatto wants to promote, namely, the part of human nature that is endlessly obsessed with building systems.

We can't help ourselves. We have to do it. And for exhibit A, I submit the fact that the copy of Dumbing Us Down I'm reading is an eTextbook.

It seems some professional educators are so enthralled with Gatto's libertarian manfesto they have...assigned it to their students.

Talk about misunderstanding the assignment.

The Suzuki Association believes "every child can", but you can only take the class from a certified SSA instructor. So I guess every child is unique and deserves special attention, but the teachers should sit in a formal class and learn in lecture – the very method we're certain doesn't work.

I just played a gig at a Montisorri School. I love that. A philosophy bult on individulization and taught at, wait for it, a franchise.

We just like to organize and systematize. It's in our nature.

All of that makes me wonder: are libertarian ideals (in the broadest sense) capable of governing? It seems to me these kinds of thoughts are only capable of destroying the system, not building the future. And when we're talking about education, it seems to me that "building the future" is the only thing we're supposed to be doing.

So, yes, let a thousand flowers bloom. Sure. But what plants the Redwoods?