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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is Gatto being unrealistic?

This is a response to the previous post, Wisdom #11, which provoked some thoughtful and much appreciated comments from two of my most dedicated readers. I hesitate to post my reply here since it seems to give me the upper hand in the discussion; but if I relegate it to the comment page, which as far as I know isn’t tied into the RSS feed, it’s possible that it will go unseen.


Andy and Jeff, thank you both for your comments. I realize that it's hard, for several reasons, to have any sort of substantial back-and-forth via a blog. This has been increasingly frustrating for me as my posts have grown more critical and less lighthearted in nature. For that very reason, I'm happy to have a chance to engage a little more deeply.

First of all, the quotation I chose was of course one of the more provocative, rhetorical ones. If I were able to post the whole book, or several of them, I would; then you would see more of the technical side, by which I mean details about what's wrong (for example, historical figures about literacy rates, social mobility, incarceration...), what alternatives there are (open schools, home schools, un-schools), and how those alternatives have played out in practice. Holt's “How Children Learn” is a fantastic analysis of what children are really learning inside of the elementary school classroom; his “Freedom and Beyond” looks more at the system as a whole and also discusses some alternatives schools; and Gatto's work unveils the history of the institution. All of the books are short (ie 250 pages or less) and well-written.

I have to say, I think that the "I turned out alright" argument falls flat on its face and amounts to ignoring the fact that different groups of people experience the school system in different ways. Of course, some make it through OK - but is that because of the system, or in spite of it? Remember, the three of us are upper-middle class white guys. Most of our parents have post-graduate degrees, and all have stable, relatively high incomes and a lot of choice in life. I'm lucky that my parents had the luxury of considering the quality of the school district in question when choosing where to move; and then, even after buying a house in a relatively good district, they worked to get me enrolled in an advanced program, open to only about twenty-five kids in my age group (out of the the thousand or more at the four schools in my county). I know your stories are to some degree different, but I also know that your parents went to great lengths to get you into the best schools they could. Not everyone is so fortunate.

You're right to point out that an alternative system might fail to prepare children for a lifetime of participation in the modern economy - but that's exactly the point! Life in the modern economy means, for most people, doing work that they don't care about for bosses that don't care about them (and who are in the same predicament). Not to mention that most modern work involves somehow degrading the ecosystem (not to mention the worker) in order to create and distribute products that nobody really needs. Conventional schools train people, emotionally and philosophically, to accept this state of affairs. Why support an institution that supports such a terrible system?

You both argue that school is about learning to think, not about learning specific facts. I agree - as does Gatto, as does Hoolt - that that's the way things ought to be. But that's not what most modern American schools are teaching most modern American children. They teach children obedience to authority that doesn’t care about their well-being; to evaluate themselves in terms of the grades they receive; to accept and complete arbitrary assignments; that the fundamental rule of life is competition; and, above all, that learning is work and work is boring, painful, and without meaning or joy. Most of these ideas are so repulsive and so unnatural, it’s hard to believe that anybody would buy into them if they hadn’t been closed up in a school for twelve years. Once they have thoroughly internalized what schools have to teach, though, it’s easy to see why alternatives would look so unrealistic.

Of course, you can’t change an institution as gargantuan as schooling and keep the rest of society static. The point is not to stop all schooling and then expect the world (or rather, our part of it) to continue as normal. That’s what I love about these writers – they do a great job of tying together a lot of problems. Resource depletion; environmental destruction; vapid consumerism; persistent racial disparity; urban destitution and suburban malaise; and so forth. If any of these problems are to be solved, starting with the institution that does the most to mold our populace's attitudes, abilities, and expectations about the world seems like a good idea to me.


jefe said...

Awesome response, mikdeats. Very thoughtful and well-stated.

It's totally true that we come from a privileged vantage point that makes it easy for us to say, "Hey, I turned out alright." You raise a good question about whether we did because of the system or in spite of it. I would argue the former.

The system CAN work. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers growing up, particularly in my very formative years (say from grades 3 - 10, when most "learning" begins to occur). Each had the same standard tests/curriculum books to go by that the other teachers did, yet somehow they were able to get their students to perform "better" than others.

This makes me think that it's not necessarily the system itself that's broken. Gatto seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe there's serious work that needs to be done within the school system, namely figuring out how to attract/keep better teachers, and realizing that teachers need a degree of freedom to deviate from said standards in order to tailor their teachings to individual students.

Does Gatto propose a solution of any sort?

Andy said...

I appreciate the full-post-as-response. You hit the RSS nail on the head.

I tend to agree with everything Jeff said. No matter how amazing, or shitty, a school is, it is on the students to get the most out of it. It is also on the teachers to inspire the students to achieve. The system may suck, but a good teacher can make up for just about anything.

In my opinion, it is basically pointless to talk about radically changing the education system, because that isn't going to happen, let alone the societal changes that need to accompany that, no matter how necessary they may be. Schools could certainly be improved, but we should talk about how we can slowly evolve education. I think it starts with getting great teachers, however, I have no idea how to do that.

I've depressed myself with this. I can't believe I'm arguing our shitty way of life and education system can't be changed and we just need to accept that. Apparently I've just about lost hope.