Monday, February 15, 2016

What does it mean to be educated? John Taylor Gatto chapter excerpt from the Natural Born Learners reader.

This is an excerpt. To read the entire chapter, buy the reader here.

How you choose to spend your time, I think, says a tremendous amount about yourself.
The admissions officer at Princeton, (a long time ago) told me the first thing he looks for is hobbies.
I said, “Why do you look at hobbies?”
He said, “It’s really the only way a young person has an opportunity to commit to something without being pushed into it. The choices they make, when they have choices, tell me all I need to know.”
I asked, “What would it tell you? What would you like to see?”
He said, “We would like to see someone with an intellectual hobby, a social hobby, and a physical hobby.”
“Wow,” I said, “like what?”
He said, “It could be chess playing, it could be ballroom dancing, and it could be swimming.”
“So what about sports?”
“It’s got to be there, but people do not understand that individual sports like bike riding and sky diving, and long distance walking and stuff like that,” he said, “are much more important than team sports.”
“Why so?”
He told me, “Team sports enable an individual to hide behind other people. You can slack off and let your teammates carry you. Whereas, when you are out there alone, if you make a fool of yourself, or if you are inadequate, there’s no place to hide. And people willing to do that,” he said, “are superior people, the ones we want at Princeton.”

So why aren’t these ancient, well-understood truths the stuff of schooling?

In a corporate economy, you have one boss, twenty sub-bosses, and fifty sub-sub-bosses. That arrangement is only possible if people don’t know how to escape their placements. You can lie, saying with Darwin that most of us are inferior and they couldn’t escape their placements, but my experience teaching for 30 years is that is not true. Harlem kids are capable of exactly the same quality of intellectual production as upper-middle-class white kids.

I don’t say that as a romantic, or as a humanitarian. I say that as somebody locked up with children, who decided to do a first-class curriculum with poor ghetto kids out of personal boredom. I got in a lot of trouble, at first, doing that, but the minute the kids caught on that you actually meant what you said when you told them you’d treat them with respect, after the adjustment period, the quality of the work was exactly as high as it was with so called gifted and talented kids. And these were street kids from the ghetto!

I can’t be the only one who’s discovered that. But what would you do if 70 million kids graduated every twelve years in the United States, and every one of them had, as Napoleon advised, a field marshal’s baton in his backpack? What if everyone was looking for an independent livelihood? What if everyone wasn’t just willing to pick up a pay cheque, but brought principles and moral standards and aesthetic preferences to the job and said, “No, I won’t do that!”

Let’s suppose that tens of millions of kids tomorrow grow into a modern America in which employment will be part-time for many, and not well paid. That’s cause for resourceful thinking, where you say, “How can I improve this situation?”
Don’t you think kids have a right to know these things? To spend a respectable amount of their school time reflecting and researching and debating and coming up with personal answers that will help them in their lives? To leave them completely in the dark about this, until they are laid off and remain out of work for four years, such is the fate of many of our people. Why would you do this if you had any real concern for them? Truth is, the mass population in America is no longer relevant, except to man armies to suppress the rest of the world.

Kids, from first grade on, are set against one another. It’s no surprise, then, when they become adults after twelve years of back-biting, competing, being placed in class/status relationships to one another, that they can’t build a community. It’s no surprise at all.

Community isn’t built, intellectually, by saying, now wouldn’t it be a good idea if we all worked together? Kids have had twelve years of never working together. These are truths so fundamental it almost embarrasses me to say them, except for the fact that people have been trained not to think of these things. They strike the virgin ear as some radical statement.
What can you do for the entire society? I think the answer is nothing, except doing your best for the principles you believe in. Struggle, argue, and don’t expect any substantial change but what you can change for yourself, and your friends, and your neighbour. It’s not easy, it remains a struggle but it’s just so much more correct a way to live.
I mean you don’t live that other, selfish way. You say, “I prefer not to act these other ways.” And sometimes, you submit; because not submitting would exact a price way out of balance with what you would win from acting on principle. I think you develop the mind of a saboteur.

You look and move like everybody else, you don’t draw attention to yourself, but from time to time you find where the gears are meshing and you put a nice handful of sand in them. The biggest handful of sand, though, will be your children. If they come to the age of majority with independent critical minds, with a good attitude towards things, without expecting change to come easily, enjoy the struggle of testing themselves, this gives them good lives.

In having good lives, they’ll be helping me and you and everyone else. It will happen after I’m dead, I think, but at some point a critical mass of people will emerge who just won’t accept bullshit any longer. Then things will change, as they did in 1776. Now, what I just described is very, very hard for a nation to do, but it’s not that hard for a family, a neighbourhood, or a community.


John Taylor Gatto (born December 15, 1935) is an American retired school teacher of 29 years and 8 months experience in the classroom and author of several books on education including Dumbing us Down: The hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (2005), and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through The Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2009). He is an activist critical of compulsory schooling and of what he characterizes as the hegemonic nature of discourse on education and the education professions.


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