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What You Are Supposed to Learn in School, p4
John Taylor Gatto and the American Education System
Controversial educational reform activist, John Taylor Gatto, once identified 14 things taught in private schools that were not taught in public schools. His belief was that public schools educated workers to work for the graduates of private schools and he wanted to lay bare the differences in the curricula in the two systems of education.
Although he never used the word, Gatto is describing a very special system of education perfected by the Greeks called Paidea, which referred to the rearing and education of the ideal member of the state. Paideia was meant to instill the aristocratic virtues in the young citizens who were trained in its ways.
Specifically, Gatto identified 14 distinct skills that were trained to shape the worldview of private school students. They are:
Human Nature. How do humans behave, and by extension how should we behave? The only way to know this is in a dedicated study of humans behaving. We look at past behaviors in History classes; We look at the why’s behind those behaviors in Philosophy classes; We look at the spiritual motivations of those behaviors in theology classes; and We explore great literature to see those behaviors in action, for good or ill results; and finally, we might read and study the law to see how human intervention intersects human behaviors. This is the founding principle of Western education, understanding humanity.
Active Literacy. Your schooling should teach you the basics of humanity, but all provide you the active skills in being able to speak and write about those topics in a compelling, persuasive, and reflective way. Writing to understand is one of the great missing pieces of the educational system. I write this newsletter on topics that I am wrestling with, not on those that I have figured out already. The constraint and discipline required to take an idea and wrestle it down into words that others can understand is a high art, and students must be taught this through rigorous repetition.
Institutions. A culture is supported by the institutions it builds to outlast individuals and carry their values into further generations. Education should provide insight into the major institutions that are such a prevalent part of daily life in our society. Teaching students how the three branches of government should function, how corporations are formed and for what purpose, why we have a military structured as it is, and how the educational system functions is a key part of preparing people to enter a world dominated by those forces. The better you understand the institutions, the better you can access them, navigate them, benefit from them.
Comportment. How does one behave in relation to one’s surroundings and peers? The repeated exercise in the forms of good manners and politeness are essential to learning your place in the world. It is based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go. We practice these norms now in the form of Cotillion, Proms, and other contrived social rituals that demonstrate to the participants that they are capable of behaving in way suitable to society. Look for the truth of this in its absence in certain classes of people i.e rednecks and street thugs who reject entirely the concept of manners for a charter of behavior that is simply based on preferences in the moment.
Independent work. Work that must be superintended at all times is the lowest form of work, requiring the lowest form of payment and the lowest grade of respect. The ability to perform thoughtful, meaningful, on-target work without constant oversight is a skill that your education should provide if you are to be successful in the management of enterprises and teams of people.
Physical exercise. Energetic physical sports are a way to confer grace on the human presence, and maintain a level of manageable bodily health that provides benefits into later years of life. Sports teach you how to measure progress against goals, compete against others and yourself, gives you practice in how to handle pain, and to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The mental aspect of physical sport is invaluable.
Access. Access to any place or person is something a proper education should provide. This can be in the form of personal and professional networks. It can also be in the mindset that teaches a young person that they have the right or privilege to come to a place and time of opportunity prepared and able to make a grantable request.
Personal Responsibility. Responsibility over one’s own life and choices, but also over those of others is an utterly essential part of the curriculum. Students should be taught always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is required. This comes largely through small exercises that grow larger over time, until they culminate into launching into a world hungry for those who can and will accept responsibility for the final product of their actions.
Personal Standards. Your education, ultimately, should serve you in assisting you to arrive at a personal code of standards. What level of excellence will you commit to the product of your work, your interactions with other people, your service to your God? Learning how to decide these things before they are tested with great consequence leads to less pressure when confronted with them in the moment.
Cultural Capital. Art is the expression of the human passions, and as such, can provoke its consumers to great emotion. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, artistic expression confers grace and pleasure on the human heart. The entire panoply of art should be a human heritage, from classical music, ballet, musical theatre, but also to more contemporary and popular forms of art. The ability to access appreciation for Mozart and then to switch to Kanye demonstrates a flexibility of the temperament, and a well-roundedness that must be inculcated in early life. Life is not about ricocheting off what you like in the moment, it’s about appreciating what is happening in the moment.
Observation. Acquiring the power of accurate observation and recording of events, feelings, and impressions as they occur are integral to experiencing the world and your place in it. These activities help to sharpen your perceptions, make more accurate your remembrances, and inform better your creative faculties of imagination and creation.
Challenges. Life is nothing but the navigation of challenges to achieve the objectives we think most beneficial to us and those we love. The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts is a point of mastery and comes through the repeated overcoming of challenges, large and small. Education is test-bed environment where challenges are presented and solutions taught so that the lesson of “I can” is learned.
Reasoning. Education should instill in its students the ability and the habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions. It is an effortless exercise to form an opinion rooted in the basest of preferences. A proper education teaches you to be cautious, protective and curious as to how you make decisions, where they lead you. Rejecting always the easiest decision for the best decision should become second nature.
Judgement. The world is full of choices and we are living in an age of over-choice. Education should provide your mind with the faculty of the constant development and testing of prior judgements: you make judgements, you discriminate value, and then you evaluate your predictions over time to see how far skewed, or how accurate, your predictions were. The lack of this skill points one back to the basest level of decision-making, what feels good in the moment with no understanding of how the results of that decision plays out over time.
Reading over this list, no matter where you went to school, you may feel as if you know or do all of these things. Sure, good ideas find homes in fertile soils and the American education system as it stands is an outgrowth of many traditions, all of which favor a Paideia-style approach, at least in principle.
Let me tell you, though, as someone who has recently hired various people from varied educational backgrounds, these things are not being taught in a way that forms the identity of the individual in the vast majority of cases.
I can tell a difference in someone educated in a public school just by speaking with them for a few minutes. I can tell who comes from a private school, and I can definitely tell someone who attended an elite school within seconds of meeting them. I can tell whether or not you went to sleep-away summer camp, I can tell whether you were in a Sorority or Fraternity. I can tell if you did a summer internship or a summer job. These things leave indelible marks on our identities. They leave clues for others to perceive, consciously or not, and those clues signal people how to treat us.
The ultimate goal of education is to curate a life from which we neither need or want an escape. This necessarily implies an intention to look after our educational needs at all times. Doubtless as you’ve read though the items above you’ve recognized an area where you could improve. What will you do about it? Will you curate your life in an active fashion, or be passive in plodding the road you’re on?