Despite doing reasonably well in school (I never gave it my best, but came out with a B average) I hated it. I hated the structure, the antiseptic, impersonal approach of it, and the social environment. If I’m quoted for anything after I die, I hope it’s “the environment least suited for learning is public school.” What I learned in school is that individuality is punished by both authority and peers.
At work we have big cages, into which books that are to be destroyed are thrown. We destroy an alarming amount of Harry Potter and Lonely Planet books. Those books have their covers torn off. Other miscellaneous returns retain their cover. I don’t know why they destroy books. It seems a waste. Every day I make a point of rescuing as many books as I can carry home. Yesterday one of the books I grabbed was “Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.” It’s written by a fellow who was a schoolteacher for 30 years, and who won awards for it in New York City. When I got home from Marlo’s this morning I sat down on the couch with Kodos and started to read it, since it was right in front of me. I have to stop now to get some work done, but I want to share this with you, because I think it’s important.
Reprinted without permission:
The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher
This speech was given on the occasion of the author being named New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991.
Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Thirty years ago, having nothing better to do with myself at the time, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. The license I have certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isnt what I do at all. I dont teach English; I teach school and I win awards doing it.
Teaching means different things in different places, but seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. You are at liberty, of course, to regard these lessons any way you like, but believe me when I say I intend no irony in this presentations. These are the things I teach; these are the things you pay me to teach. Make of them what you will.
A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana, the other day:
What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isnt idiosyncratic that there is some system to it all and its not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. Thats the task, to understand, to make coherent.
Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world… What do any of these things have to do with each other?
Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, a host of internal contradictions. Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education. The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science, and so on than with one genuine enthusiasm. But quality in education entails learning about something in depth. Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship with each other,pretending, for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.
Meaning, not disconnected facts is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age old human search for meaning lies well concealed. This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple relationship between lets do this and lets do that is just assumed to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned how little substance is behind the play and pretense.
Think of the great natural sequences like learning to walk and learning to talk; the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; the ancient procedures of a farmer, a smithy, or a shoemaker; or the preparation of a Thanksgiving feast. All of the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifying itself and illuminating the past and the future. School sequences arent like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes. School sequences are crazy. There is no particular reason for any of the, nothing that bears close scrutiny. Few teachers would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized, since everything must be accepted. School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism.
I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion: what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition, or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach students how to accept confusion as their destiny. Thats the first lesson I teach.