Education for Non-Dummies

John Taylor Gatto is a former teacher in the New York city public school system. I don’t know his story in great detail but what I do know is that he wrote a book called Dumbing Us Down and in the book he makes some very good observations regarding public education and its hidden curriculum. In short, Gatto, through some thirty years of award-winning teaching (New York State Teacher of the Year), analyzes the harmful results of the rituals and mythologies of modern compulsory schooling.

With such a brief introduction, I’m doing a disservice to John Gatto’s very sensible teaching about learning. Nonetheless, what I want to post here is a summation of a talk of his that I heard recently. Basically, he was talking about the elite college preparatory schools (that most of the people elected to high political office have attended) and the qualities in the curriculum of these schools.

More importantly, if you want to pursue a good education for yourself, or if you want your child to learn from such methods — through homeschooling or whatever — here are 14 educational principles that these high quality schools recognize as components of a top-notch education:

(All quotations are those of Mr. Gatto’s.)

1. Theory of human nature — To know “what human beings are like” — through the study of the history, philosophy, theology, literature, and legal systems of mankind.

2. Active literacies — By this he means writing and speaking, and if you get the feeling that our public schools often seem to place more priority on the passive literacies of reading and listening, you’d be right. (Suffice to say that what is pushed in public schools is not necessarily aimed at superior learning and critical thinking. Long topic, but in essence there is a whole mess of ulterior motives that have informed our educational system; learning is often way down the line.) Also, these active literacies — speaking and writing — are actually learned simply and naturally, through a continual practice of these skills. Indeed, the teacher’s intervention is often more harmful than good for the learning of these competencies. And not to say that the guidance by a competent teacher isn’t helpful. Yet it’s the actual writing and speaking that develops these skills. Are you shocked?

3. Insight into the major institutional forms — such as the courts, the corporations, the military, etc. — learning through the study of the details of the ideas that drive these institutions. Knowledge gained into these things allows for a clarity of argument, which is prerequisite to effective participation in society.

4. Examples of good manners, politeness, and civility“Politeness and civility is the foundation of all future relationships…” — John Gatto

5. Independent work — Contrary to the learned dependency of compulsory schooling, one would do well to find motivation and direction from within rather than from the extrinsic rewards that can squash our inherent curiosity. This is fostered through a learning environment wherein the students are expected to do most of the work.

6. Energetic physical sports — Gatto insightfully teaches us that these activities confer “grace on the human presence” as well as the ability to deal with pain and the various emergencies of sports — emergent conditions of various types.

7. Complete theory of access — Gatto reckons that students learning approaches for gaining access to various leaders in the larger community is way better than the typical civics class. I agree.

8. Responsibility throughout schooling — This comes in many forms, but is obviously about students being responsible. In Japanese classrooms, and throughout the schools, the students are responsible for various duties — sweeping the classroom and hallways, leading clubs, and a bunch of other things that instruct students in being personally responsible.

9. Arrival at a personal code of standards — standards in: production, behavior, and morality

10. Familiarity with master creations – that is, the arts: visual art, literature, music, architecture, dance, etc. Because, as Gatto puts it, “Apart from religion, the arts are the only way to transcend the animal materiality of our lives.” “To get in touch with the bigger you.”

11. The power of accurate observation and recording — “sharpen your perception

12. The ability to deal with challenges of all sortsTo know what will challenge your son or daughter, you have to know your son or daughter very very well.” So you can, through awareness of the weak points, pursue corrective measures.

13. Habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions — Better get it straight lest you come up with dubious reasons leading to misguided conclusions.

14. Constant development and testing of judgments — Follow up on your notions and value judgments to see where you might have been right and where you were off track.

So there you have it.

Schooling needn’t only be something programmed to serve the global economy through stupefying behaviors — as the more cynical might believe. It could also be more than day-care for the children of people too busy or confused to know what might constitute a worthwhile education. And yes, it may very well require a lot more than what the weary and lobbied calls for more science and technology would suggest.

And yet, our current public school system doesn’t particularly support Gatto’s principles of a good education. However, if you have a compelling interest (read: your children, or your community, or your society) in recognizing these things as valid, you may want to hold your and/or your children’s schooling up to this learning yardstick to see if you are on the right track or not.

For Lea Marie.

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