Schools train children to remain children all their lives, John Taylor Gatto argues in his new book. There’s another way: Teach them to become leaders and adventurers.
I taught for 30 years in some of the worst schools in New York City, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: The work was stupid, it made no sense, they already knew it. They wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. Teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: The teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes found there. When asked why they’re bored, teachers tend to blame the kids. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching
students who are rude and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same 12-year school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel, they’re trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed on the kids. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was 7, I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, he said, and those who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible.
That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable students. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of this trap.
By the time I retired in 1991, I’d had more than enough reason to think of our schools—with their long-term, cell-block-style forced confinement of both students and teachers—as virtual factories of childishness. Yet I honestly couldn’t see why they had to be that way. My own experience had revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: If we wanted, we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness—curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight—by being more flexible about time, texts and tests, introducing kids to truly competent adults, and giving each student the autonomy he or she needs to take risks.
We’ve been taught (that is, schooled) to think of “success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent on, “schooling,” but historically that isn’t true in either a financial or intellectual sense. Plenty of people throughout the world find ways to educate themselves without resorting to a system of standard school programs that all too often resembles prisons. Why then do we confuse education with such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature was conceived and advocated throughout most of the 19th century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold: to make good people, to make good citizens, to make each person his or her personal best.
These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools fall in achieving them. But we’re dead wrong. We’d better look at Alexander Inglis’ 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education. In it, Inglis makes it clear that compulsory schooling in the U.S. was intended to be a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give peasants and proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized compulsory schooling was to make a surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age, by constant test rankings and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the actual purpose of modern schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals of education listed earlier:
- The adjustive/adaptive function.
Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
- The integrative function.
This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labour force.
- The diagnostic and directive function.
School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
- The differentiating function.
Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits—not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
- The selective function.
This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favoured races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit—with poor grades, remedial placement and other punishments—clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
- The propaedeutic function.
The social system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed so government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labour.
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education.
Vast fortunes stood to be made in an economy based on mass production and organized to favour the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the 20th century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: It encouraged them not to think at all. That left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modern era: marketing.
Now you needn’t have studied marketing to know that two groups of people can always be convinced to consume more than they need: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy and fear, they would grow older but never grow up.
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’ve 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 $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.
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology—all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so they learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cellphone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centres for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day.
There’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life and 30 years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
John Taylor Gatto is a retired schoolteacher. This is an edited excerpt from Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, published by New Society in October.