Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Likely to offend

I'm going to warn you right off the bat that if you are a big fan, or defender, of institutional schooling you might want to skip this post. Or, better yet, you need to read it, be offended, and then read the book.

I've been reading Weapons of Mass Instruction by former New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto. His book Dumbing Us Down helped shore up my courage when we started homeschooling, by aiding me in articulating some of the things that bothered me about the way that we school children. This book is reminding me again, and giving me reasons for much of what I see going on around me.

Gatto's books take a good hard look at the dichotomy between what we suppose that schools are for--to produce an educated citizenry--and what they were really designed to do, and do well. That is, to provide a trained, more homogenized workforce that does not question that the experts know best and that recognizes that some animals are more equal than others.

This is why in spite of 12-13 years of mandated schooling, with many of us adding a year or two on the front end, and more on the back end, we get statistics like this one:

"Only 31% of college educated Americans can fully comprehend a newspaper story, down from 40% a decade ago." (National Commission on the Future of Higher Education, 2006)

Statistics like this explain why, when I'm discussing the news or world events with people, or am involved in an online discussion, I ask myself again and again, "Can't these people READ?" Unfortunately, that answer is likely to be no, since reading proficiency is even lower among those who are not college grads.

For years we have seen study after study that show that our schools don't do what we think they should. The antidote suggested is always more money and more time. What we generally don't recognize is that schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

At some deeper level, I think many people know this. It is the reason why the main question homeschoolers get is, "What about socialization?" People worry that our children won't know how to wait in lines and get up to an alarm. Homeschoolers are criticized when their children don't fit in seamleesly with a group of others their age. Pepople don't worry that our children won't be able to read, write, and think. They worry that they'll make other people uncomfortable by being different.

Consider this, "We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." This is Woodrow Wilson, speaking to businessmen about the purpose of mandatory public education. Quotes like this and ideas like this are not the exception in the shaping of our schools. They are the norm. For an even more in-depth look, Gatto's Underground History of American Education is available online.

Reading Gatto's books makes me realize what a subversive activity homeschooling is. It helps me to understand why, since we began this adventure 13 years ago, my outlook on so many things has changed. I question more. And I have taught my kids to do the same.

There will be more posts stemming from this book in coming days. It bears many markings and dog-earred pages, each of them a potential post. Read the book. Even if you're sure you disagree.

11 comments:

Elephantschild said...

::stands and cheers::

GreenJello said...

No complaints from me! I am NOT a fan of traditional schooling methods. They don't work well at all.

Barbara Frank said...

I've been wanting to read this book as I'm a big Gatto fan. Judy Aron posted about hearing Gatto speak recently here:

http://yedies.blogspot.com/2009/03/john-taylor-gatto-open-source-learning.html

Wish I'd been there!

Thanks for sharing your take on this book.

atara said...

I loved reading your comments on this book. I'd love to read his things. I've been to his website many, many times. My son is five months old and not a day goes by I don't seriously consider homeschooling and then seriously feel unqualified. Not because I'm dumb, but because I work from home and it takes so much of my time. I don't know how you do it!

Evan said...

People worry that our children won't know how to wait in lines and get up to an alarm... people don't worry that our children won't be able to read, write, and think. They worry that they'll make other people uncomfortable by being different.

So very true.

What's truly amazing to me is how so much of the pedagogical establishment that is so deeply involved in the industrial production of conformity is simultaneously so convinced that individual self-expression is the highest goal of human existence and truly believes they are supporting it. It's cognitive dissonance on a societal scale. Which I suppose you would call "mass hysteria", if we didn't already call it "American education".

Elephantschild said...

"Fever swamps" is always good, too.

sgaissert said...

I read the book, too, and share your opinions. Thanks for the post.

~*~The Family~*~ said...

We didn't start homeschooling 7 yeas ago because we thought the public schools were bad and had an alternate agenda. We felt called to educate this way and now the more I hear from public school parents and other outside sources we would have ended up homeschooling anyway. Great review!

Lisa said...

Ah yes, our children will be different and different is bad. So I hear.

Susan Holowach said...

A different opinion:

Institutionalized school isn't as bad as the thoughts expressed here. It is largely what the parents make it! Jane, if your children went to a public school, they would still excel and come out great... because you would encourage thinking outside the box and questioning things and so on. You would guide them and use every experience as a learning tool.

We homeschooled two years and I wouldn't trade that for anything. It was a good experience and helpful toward our daughters schooling. But, we also are delighted with the institutionalized schools they have attended. Marie and Michelle seek out the AP classes and therefore are surrounded by other high achievers and by good teachers. Oh, and Homeschoolers are not the only ones who can claim to be "different" -- the high achievers in public school can be very weird an different too! The end result is that Marie is now thriving in college, academically and socially. Michelle is still making her way though high school and is doing very well.

So, while I agree that there are problems with institutionalized schooling, there also are many benefits. I believe that either schooling method is good or bad depending on what the parents make it. Good parenting and strong faith is the key.

Evan said...

Susan -

You're entirely right that institutionalized schooling doesn't have to be bad, but that doesn't change the fact that it often is. I feel like the public schools I went to were very very good, yet I still feel like most of my education was in spite of school rather than because of it. I'm only now (at 25) starting to work past deep-rooted antipathies to certain subjects that resulted from having them presented so terribly.

And until we have national school choice, unconscionable numbers of kids will stay trapped in terrible schools. Parents can do a lot, but the handful of kids who beat the odds coming out of terrible schools are more or less homeschooled for hours after school.

For those families lucky enough to have good schools available and children who have the temperament to thrive in them, of course it makes sense to send them. But many many families don't fit that category.