Scott Alan Miller

Monday, May 02, 2005

Six Lessons of the School Teacher

Art and Danielle sent me this article in an email recently and I thought that it was so good that I wanted to post it on here.

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher

by John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

*Call me* Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing
better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license
certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature,
but that isn't what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win
awards doing it.

Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to
schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons
in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what
they are:

*The first* lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong."
I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my
business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can
be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways
children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard
to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries.
Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though
what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the
kids like it -- being locked in together, I mean -- or at the
minimum, endure it. If things go well, the kids can't imagine
themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and
have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps
itself in good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged
competition like school. You come to know your place.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to
urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual
transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that
the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of
test scores, even though my own experience is that employers are
(rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've
come to see that truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.

The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your
class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you
are put.

*The second* lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light
switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons,
jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing
vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I
insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the
next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class,
nor in any other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care
too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime;
their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future,
converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes
every living mountain and river the same even though they are not.
Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

*The third* lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a
predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by
authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many
personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or
initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens
my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality
is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality
is a curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of
class theory.

Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a
private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels;
they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds
that they need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of
me in children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my
ken. Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only
privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.

*The fourth* lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum
you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the
people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad
kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of
conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things
of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices
are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to
make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we
allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are
procedures to break the will of those who resist.

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people
wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most
important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better
trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no
exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson
being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't
trained in the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses
could hardly survive, including the fast-growing counseling
industry; commercial entertainment of all sorts, along with
television, would wither if people remembered how to make their own
fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses
would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather
than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law,
medicine, and engineering would go too -- the clothing business as
well -- unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of
our schools each year. We've built a way of life that depends on
people doing what they are told because they don't know any other
way. For God's sake, let's not rock that boat!

*In lesson* five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an
observer's measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated
and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent
into students' homes to spread approval or to mark exactly -- down
to a single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with their children
parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how
little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the
cumulative weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a
profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain
decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment
of strangers.

Self-evaluation -- the staple of every major philosophical system
that ever appeared on the planet -- is never a factor in these
things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that
children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely
on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told
what they are worth.

*In lesson* six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep
each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues.
There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time.
Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at
low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to
tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their
own child's waywardness, too.

I assign "homework" so that this surveillance extends into the
household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn
something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by
apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood.

The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted,
that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency
among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription
set down by Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in the Republic, by
Hobbes, by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men
discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if you
want to keep a society under central control.

*It is* the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of
my fellow teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a
small number who can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only
a very few lifetimes ago things were different in the United States:
originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from
regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class
boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was
marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things
independently, to think for themselves. We were something, all by
ourselves, as individuals.

It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and
math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on.
The cry for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which
schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach
them the six lessons I've just taught you.

We've had a society increasingly under central control in the United
States since just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the
clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we
drive by from coast to coast are the products of this central
control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide,
divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in
the U.S., products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening
of individual and family importance that central control imposes.

Without a fully active role in community life you cannot develop
into a complete human being. Aristotle taught that. Surely he was
right; look around you or look in the mirror: that is the

"School" is an essential support system for a vision of social
engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a
pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. "School" is
an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem
inevitable (although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the
American Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the
early Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of
democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this
promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory
training in subordination for everybody. Compulsory schooling was
the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the Republic when he
laid down the plans for total state control of human life.

*The current* debate about whether we should have a national
curriculum is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six
lessons I've told you about and a few more I've spared you. This
curriculum produces moral and intellectual paralysis, and no
curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects.
What is under discussion is a great irrelevancy.

None of this is inevitable, you know. None of it is impregnable to
change. We do have a choice in how we bring up young people; there
is no right way. There is no "international competition" that
compels our existence, difficult as it is to even think about in the
face of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every
important material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we
gained a non-material philosophy that found meaning where it is
genuinely located -- in families, friends, the passage of seasons,
in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity,
generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent
independence and privacy -- then we would be truly self-sufficient.

*How did* these awful places, these "schools", come about? As we
know them, they are a product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and
1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our
industrial poor, and partly they are the result of the revulsion
with which old-line families regarded the waves of Celtic, Slavic,
and Latin immigration -- and the Catholic religion -- after 1845.
And certainly a third contributing cause can be found in the
revulsion with which these same families regarded the free movement
of Africans through the society after the Civil War.

Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for
permanent underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of
finding the center of their own special genius. And it is training
shaken loose from its original logic: to regulate the poor. Since
the 1920s the growth of the well-articulated school bureaucracy, and
the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from
schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged schooling's original grasp
to seize the sons and daughters of the middle class.

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he
took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the
inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take,
pre-empting the teaching function that belongs to all in a healthy
community; belongs, indeed, most clearly to yourself, since nobody
else cares as much about your destiny. Professional teaching tends
to another serious error. It makes things that are inherently easy
to learn, like reading, writing, and arithmetic, difficult -- by
insisting they be taught by pedagogical procedures.

*With lessons* like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder
we have the national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent
to the adult world and to the future; indifferent to almost
everything except the diversion of toys and violence? Rich or poor,
schoolchildren cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They
have a poor sense of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of
intimacy (like the children of divorce they really are); they hate
solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent,
timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a
grotesque extent by schooling, whose hidden curriculum prevents
effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the
fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children our schools
could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher.

"Critical thinking" is a term we hear frequently these days as a
form of training which will herald a new day in mass schooling. It
certainly will, if it ever happens. No common school that actually
dared teach the use of dialectic, heuristic, and other tools of free
minds could last a year without being torn to pieces.

Institutional schoolteachers are destructive to children's
development. Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed,
not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly
anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great
ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools
require would cost so much less than we are spending now that it is
not likely to happen. First and foremost, the business I am in is a
jobs project and a contract-letting agency. We cannot afford to save
money, not even to help children.

*At the* pass we've come to historically, and after 26 years of
teaching, I must conclude that one of the only alternatives on the
horizon for most families is to teach their own children at home.
Small, de- institutionalized schools are another. Some form of
free-market system for public schooling is the likeliest place to
look for answers. But the near impossibility of these things for the
shattered families of the poor, and for too many on the fringes of
the economic middle class, foretell that the disaster of Six-Lesson
Schools is likely to continue.

After an adult lifetime spent in teaching school I believe the
method of schooling is the only real content it has. Don't be fooled
into thinking that good curricula or good equipment or good teachers
are the critical determinants of your son and daughter's schooltime.
All the pathologies we've considered come about in large measure
because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping
important appointments with themselves and their families, to learn
lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage,
dignity and love -- and, of course, lessons in service to others,
which are among the key lessons of home life.

Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time
left after school. But television has eaten most of that time, and a
combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or
single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be
family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and
only thin-soil wastelands to do it in.

*A future* is rushing down upon our culture which will insist that
all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; this future
will demand, as the price of survival, that we follow a pace of
natural life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be
learned in schools as they are. School is like starting life with a
12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum
truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.