Monday, December 7, 2009

John Taylor Gatto on Education

I first learned of John Taylor Gatto in mid-September after reading an article of his that was posted on Facebook by a local home-schooling friend. On 11/17/09, I had the opportunity to hear Gatto speak at Rutgers with the pleasurable company of the same home-schooling friend and a fellow Wellspring parent.

Gatto related the history of the public school system as it began in the 1950s. According to him, the system was mainly the brainchild of a handful of corporate visionaries (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, etc) who no longer wanted the age-old education system that shaped the country's youth in practical, socially responsible and imaginative ways. This only hindered their dreams of a new American industrialist culture. Instead, they decided to mold the masses of the coming generations into uniform thinkers to ultimately become prime consumers of a corporate economy.

Education should be everyone's right, and when dealing with the masses, there is never an easy way to adapt to individuality. Humanity evolved and evolves. Right or wrong, good or bad, our lives change, within and without our control. But I believe there are sufficient resources to have the ideal setup and form of free education, where children are visibly encouraged to be independent thinkers, to be risk-takers, to take on more socially responsible ventures, to dive in to their own unique hobbies, where emphasis is on skills over memorization, and their capacity to comprehend is not underestimated, so that their learning environment becomes once again multi-dimensional, dynamic and dialectic.

The public school system is not perfect, agreed. Gatto successfully brought, in his 30 years as a NYC public school high school teacher, more good than harm (as perceived by him) to his students. But even for those who never had a teacher like Gatto, the system has helped. Despite the imperfections, many creative and successful minds have been produced, perhaps by those with the resolve to “slip through the cracks” of the public school system and knowingly not let their inner voices be squelched. At times it felt like some of what Gatto said was "easier said than done" because the reality is that for many, or perhaps the majority, there simply isn't the option to choose alternative schooling because individual and family circumstances just don't allow it. But maybe at age 75, one can say whatever one wants (and for as long as he wants – neither he nor the audience moved for four hours!), after a long career of pushing the limits of what is possible, seeing the fruitful results of thousands of students flourishing under his care, and knowing that all it takes is the will of parents to band together and negotiate, or have just 10% of students politely decline to take a test, to do away with mind-numbing exams once and for all.

But so much that has been started in the name of “progress” would have to change for that day to come. In the meantime, I am thankful that we live in a country where we have the freedom to question and change things in ways we feel are right for us, and those who are fortunate to do so. I am thankful for people like Gatto and countless others, near and far, past & present, who have tried or are trying to bring back some of the beneficial and valuable things of "the good old days" or of "thinking outside the box" or of valuing the unique qualities that each and every individual has to offer.

What first attracted me to Gatto's article, and which was later repeated and elaborated upon in his talk at Rutgers, was not only how he perfectly described part of my own experience in public high school. It was that he gave voice to what I was thinking all along, that education and being a learner had nothing to do with grades, diplomas, degrees and certificates. It was a relief to know finally, after all these years, that I wasn't wrong, and hey, I just might be an educated person after all!


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