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What You Are Supposed to Learn in School, p2
John Taylor Gatto and the American Education System
My current intellectual obsession is John Taylor Gatto, one of the most popular iconoclasts in education for the past 80 years. He was widely regarded as the best teacher in New York City for decades but his eventual break from the traditional education system came as the result of him asking really hard questions about why we educate children the way we do. His answers unsettled him and spurred him to critical advocacy for reform.
For those not equipped to answer his criticisms, he is a sinister character, widely maligned for the consequences of his ideas. For those who truck with those ideas, he’s sometimes seen as a prophetic figure, worthy of veneration. His most consuming passion was explaining what the American educational system was actually formed to produce, and the answers are unsettling in the extreme for products of that system.
Gatto divided the educational system into two competing monoliths, the public and private schools. It’s a truism that you evaluate the health of a system by examining its products, and for Gatto, each system turned out a very distinct product.
Coming from the public school system, Gatto was intimately familiar with the ways that centralized educational authority gradually took over curriculum development and deployment over the course of the early 20th century. Coming into the classroom in the late 1960s with a full bite of Noam Chomsky in his mouth, he could see the system of control that underlay the system of education. It was a creepy sensation to be idealistic about education but gradually realize over the years that you were being paid to systematically and categorically remove the creative individualism of each student so that the student would be more pliant in the world that awaited them after graduation.
The realization over the years slowly dawned, in other words, that the point of a public education — even one as well regarded as that of the NYC Schools — was to provide a class of workers, who were taught just enough skills to perform a job, learn the next job, but not to question too much or be too creative in finding solutions to system-induced problems. Let me say it again: the public school system is designed to produce workers.
Yes, yes, I know. It’s infuriating for those who attended public schools. As Americans, we simply cannot stomach the idea that our education system is somehow a grand social-engineering experiment. But … it strikes a nerve doesn’t it? I recently visited a high school that had a very impressive “Culinary Academy,” on the grounds. Why? So that the students could learn to work in the restaurant industry (the director beamed when speaker about their placement rate before graduation). My local high school has a shop class so that students can learn the fundamentals of tool-and-die cutting so that the manufacturing jobs we have in our area are well supplied with workers in the future. Think of your own examples, but understand that you are being supplied with just enough skill-based education to get and keep a job over the course of a lifetime.
That isn’t all you learn, of course. We subject students to the misery of reading the “American Classics” like the trashy Catcher in the Rye, the insubstantial Watership Down, or whatever social justice book is currently in favor (The Color Purple was mine but that’s been superseded now by Toni Morrison and others). Notice that these are select pieces of advocacy on a monumental issue that an individual cannot hope to impact. It’s propaganda, and it isn’t even hidden well behind the Shakespeare and poetry that we administer in limited doses. Students aren’t being taught to think, they are being taught to think like others, a distinction that destroy the distinction.
Gatto pulls 7 lessons that underlie the American public educational system. We’ll discuss them soon, but when you read them, you’ll recognize the truth in his observations. You’ll know you’ve recognized the truth in them by the discomfort and immediate mental gymnastics you’ll put your mind through to make him wrong. It’s chilling.
Let’s turn now to the private schools who don’t get a pass from Gatto. If we were shocked to find out that the public school system is designed to turn out workers, should it be a surprise that the private school also creates a product just as consumable and replaceable? Private schools are designed to produce the managers and owners of the businesses that employs the workers.
So what does a manager or owner learn or know that workers are not taught? This is where Gatto’s genius really shines through as he derives 14 core lessons that private schools focus on inculcating into their students. It’s very important to note that these things are taught obliquely, never directly. Things taught in this manner are harder to transfer unless you’re in on the mission, and the great majority of us simply aren’t. We are in school to learn the things we think necessary to take us to the next level of life.
I don’t think that Gatto ever taught in a private school per se. Rather he drew his conclusions by saying “this is not that” in comparing them with the public system where he gained his own experience. This allows an important critique of his argument, because he tends to treat public and private as monoliths, as if they are all the same, and while public schools across the country are more homogenous than their private counterparts, Gatto misses a big distinction between simple private educational institutions and those I’d term elite. This will become clear as we dive into his list of core lessons imparted by private schools.
For the moment, I’d just posit that there is a third class of schools, Elite as opposed to simply private or simply public. In these schools, those being groomed for power and influence in our society are educated and placed onto trajectories that lead directly to the halls of power. My thesis is that there is just as big a difference between a typical public school and a private school in the aim of their product as there is between an elite private school and typical private school.
An additional criticism, of course, must be noted. Mental models exist in black and white to better illustrate the point of the model. Gatto’s assertion of public vs. private, and mine of private vs. elite are not meant to be quantifiably correct in all situations. We know that there are very good public schools in this country. We know that there are very bad private schools. The existence of one against the other doesn’t invalidate the thesis because the math works on the whole.
In the next part, we’ll look at the 7 core lessons of the pubic school system and then contrast them with the 14 core lessons of the private and elite systems. Then you can make your own mind up about who has the right end of the argument, Gatto or the system of your choice?