5 min read

Yes, but actually no.

This is what I'm talking about. Again from Gatto:

There seems to me to be two “official” ways to look at the state of education in the United States these days, both of them wrong. First, we conceive it to be an engineering problem that can be made to yield to a pragmatic instrumental approach. From this vantage point there is a simple right and wrong way of schooling, never the thousand private individual possibilities the New England Congregationalists might have believed in. Second, we look upon schooling as if it were a character in a continuous courtroom drama, a drama wherein we search for the villains who have prevented our kids from learning. Bad teachers, poor textbooks, incompetent administrators, evil politicians, ill-trained parents, bad children—whoever the villains may be we shall find them, indict them, arraign them, prosecute them, perhaps even execute them! Then things will be okay.
Out of these two wrong-headed ways of looking at education have grown enormous industries that claim power to cure mass education of its frictions or of its demons in exchange for treasure. Into this carnival of magical thinking has come a parade of profit-seekers: analysts, consultants, researchers, academic houses, writers, advisors, columnists, textbook committees, school boards, testing corporations, journalists, teachers’ colleges, state departments of education, monitors, coordinators, manufacturers, certified teachers and administrators, television programs, and hordes of school-related businesses—all parasitic growths of the government monopoly over the school concept. (Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down - 25th Anniversary Edition [pp. 84-85]. New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

I agree that the cottage industry around "The School" is a major problem. But private schools are just as bad.

I think one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that government has ever had a true "monopoly" on schooling. And even if one could, in a post-pandemic world, that grip has been completely loosed – not by a policy change, not by edict, not by law, but by how all libertarian school reformers wish this change to be realized: parents saying, "Yeah, no. This isn't for my kid." and picking something else.

Eventually anti-schoolers (with whom I find myself a sympathetic nodder, if not co-belligerent) have to embrace the fact that "best practice" uniformity and corporate homogeneity is not unique to the education sector. All organizations find themselves on the slippery slope to centralization as soon as they find themselves at a certain size.

I'm confident about that as I sit here in a Starbucks.

You can grow, cultivate, mature, and disciple a room of fifteen students. You cannot do that with a building of 500 students.

And that's the inevitable trajectory of a good school: If a school starts with 15 students and accomplishes it's educative nurturing, that will attract more parents who will populate the institution with more students which will drive the school into a scale crisis.

Ever single time.

But, again, this is a problem for every startup. If someone looks at that narrative and thinks, "Yeah, that's a real school problem." it only demonstrates their sectarian myopia.

Paying for Schooling

It also demonstrate how little they appreciate the economic pressures particularly facing start-up nonprofits. You want your student to be nurtured by teachers that love them? For how many hours? Let's say 4 hours day. How much would we pay for that? I can charge probably $75-$85 an hour for tutoring. Let's divide that across our 15 students. That's $23 bucks a day to have me sit and guide your student every day.

$85 x 4hrs x 5 days x 36 weeks = $61,200. From that, we subtract benefits and all of the infrastructure a modern nonprofit needs to function. I'm certain whatever is leftover would not be enough to raise a family on. Not in Denver, anyway.

And if we divide that across 15 students, that's still $4,000 per student, per year. What family has that? Oh, you have 3 kids? That'll be $12,000 annually, please.

Or is our expectation that we don't pay educators? Or worse, that an educational experience doesn't incur expenses?

In that light, it makes sense that the average per-head expenditure on Colorado public schools is just shy of $10,000. I know my fellow conservatives like to balk and scoff at that figure, but for an enterprise as big as public schooling is, that number tracks for me.

I mean, just me, by myself, with 15 students in a classroom doing half-days (which nobody would describe as a "school") is racking up $4k per head. Why wouldn't a giant, state-wide organization doing full-days in "real" schools be at least double that?

And tuition at our local, giant, private Christian school? More than doubles that hitting a staggering $23,000 this year.

The Future of the School

"But it's not the money, 'the school' is conceptually flawed!" all the unschoolers cried.

Okay, no. You have to bring something more constructive to the table than that.

I want so badly to join this tribe of school reformers because I also hate the school experience and want to elevate education to its virtuous, ideal potential. But their rhetoric seems to illustrate an unserious examination of organizational nature, social behavior, and economic realities – all of which are the glorious, horrendous fruit of human nature.

And if our ultimate conclusion is, "Lets just not do 'schools' (a 250-years'-long failed experiment) and everyone just educate!"

What does that mean? We have to be more concrete than that. And if I, of all people, am telling you that you're too abstract, you have strayed, my friend.

But if we mean, "educate at home." that is not a tenable prescription, either.

Ignoring the stock objection that some families are not positioned to educate at home (assuming there's any kind of "home" at all), homeschoolers form co-ops. And if a co-op finds itself on a scale path, they will open a school. And we're right back here again bemoaning the scale experience of a school as if that's not the experience of everyone who has been a start-up that grew into a institution.

How many classical schools have been cropping up recently? How much of that was influenced by Classically-adjacent (I'm being careful here) co-ops? If jaded, low-energy Xers are opening schools, what's going to happen when Millennial parents suddenly want something better for their students – particularly their high school students?

I wonder if the craziest, most ironic turn in Christian education will be a reemergence of the private school. Private, Christian schools have been on the losing end of cultural logic for a long time and home schooling logic peaked back when I was in high school. Most independent schools are somehow intertwined with state-run districts and, if this cultural war keeps going apace, they can't be that safe, ideologically, which means they'll have to toe the line or disconnect from their state funding – which, let's be honest, is financially unfeasible for most charter schools. That's how they came to be charter schools in the first place.

So I wonder if the phoenix moment for the truly private, Christian school is going to come from the second generation of home schoolers. A flood of home school graduates are about to have teenagers in their homes and the formative memories in those parents are going to drive them to ask questions about what could be a better experiences for their fast-growing, young adult children. And that could make them look around at their friends and ask, "Hey, what if we started a school?"

Millennials, as a generational cohort, seem to have more hustle than their Xer counterparts and our little home school, conservative subculture is especially entrepreneurial and creative. I can't imagine they're going to be content to keep their creative impulses and educative values under their own roofs.

In that light, I think we need significantly better critique, analysis, and prescription on the virtues and vices of The School. And Gatto isn't delivering.

Honesty, this is not the place I expected to find myself with Gatto. As a failed student, an independent educator, and temperamental libertarian, I thought unschooling was my tribe. Maybe it is and I'm just finding myself in an exasperated outrage unique to familial quarrels. But I am very, very frustrated.