Friday, April 18, 2003

Okay, I'm against public education now. John Taylor Gatto convinced me in his book Dumbing Us Down, which is a collection of speeches given after being presented with various Teacher of the Year awards. I can't imagine why anyone would keep nominating him for these awards when he responded with such scathing declamations against public schools, making it perfectly clear that he believes these institutions to be absolutely wrong and unnatural in every respect. From the very beginning the intention of compulsory public schooling was to separate children from their parents, yet another step in the process of categorizing our society. Just as children are locked away in schools all day, old people are placed in nursing homes, Indians on reservations, the poor in shelters, and working adults in their tall windowed boxes. Everyone has a category, so no one is required to think or learn for themselves. Community has been replaced with networks. And think of all the economical gain! Why, without these networks and tidy categories, we would have no need for therapists or indeed much medical science at all, the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, pornography (and there goes 98% of the Internet), ever more sleek and seductive automobiles... Society as we know it would indeed collapse without public schools.

The words in Gatto's speeches drive home again and again the point he is desperate to make--public schools turn children into automatons, not people. We insist that to be true citizens, people must be taught the three R's, and yet what typical adult can honestly say he reads more than advertisements, email, or the front page of the newspaper? What typical adult writes more than, again, emails (and there, of course, he uses the best of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, not to mention a rich content), or brief notes and lists? What typical adult uses more arithmetic than a quick headcount or a glance at monthly bills--and higher math, if it ever resided in the brain, departs at graduation!

Besides, these basics of education do not require anywhere near 13 years of schooling. Gatto claims that once a child is ready, he can be taught to read in one hundred hours--and the process takes even less time if the child is encouraged to learn the skill on his own! Children are eager and willing to learn, their brains are programmed to learn and absorb knowledge; yet public schools have been devised to squelch every natural autodidactic impulse. If a child is lucky, he first leaves home at five or six, to enter kindergarten. He is shut into a room with a strange adult, more strange children than he can count, and nothing that belongs to him. He spends each day being herded from one incomprehensible and boring activity to the next, being taught more than anything else to share toys designed for only one child, to stand in line, to wait his turn, to suppress emotion, and to memorize meaningless facts.

Once this child reaches a more structured class, he is taught to work at the same pace as everyone else (too fast, and he is bored; too slow, and he is dumb), to switch his brain from Ancient Egypt to long division at a moment's notice, and to compete for the teacher's attention. Encouragement and discouragement comes through red letters or numbers written at the top of a workbook page, and acceptance from the equally mindless children around him. These have been my experiences, in the few times I have unwillingly found myself in a public classroom. Having been homeschooled, I am more aware of these atrocities, and have always felt that it must be like hell. Public schools, through association, quite effectively shut off any natural desire for learning and produce helpless automatons who must be shuttled through the rest of their lives. Of course, as always, this is not a general statement--I have many acquaintances who struggled through public school and emerged with knowledge and a desire for continued knowledge, but they were fortunate enough to possess genius or family that drove and inspired them.

I'll end this lengthy post with an interesting anecdote from Gatto's book. When Thomas Paine's Common Sense was first published (before compulsory education was instituted), it sold 500,000 copies to a population of 3 million. Fifty percent of that population was slaves, and another twenty percent indentured servants. Now there's a bestseller!

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