When reading John Taylor Gatto’s critique of centralised education, it is easy see why the topic creates such controversy. While on the surface it appears to be a debate between homeschoolers and government bureaucrats, it boils down something much deeper, our fundamental beliefs about children and human nature.
J. T. Gatto (author and award winning teacher of three decades) believes that a centralised solution to education is simply incompatible with the reality of how children learn. He reminds the reader that education and schooling aren’t synonymous, that most real learning comes from the practical aspects of life, rather than being forced to listen to experts talk about subjects we aren’t necessarily interested in ourselves.
He also explains that no matter how qualified or well intentioned a teacher may be, the bureaucratic framework simply doesn’t allow the teacher to assist children towards their fullest potential. It would be overly simplistic to put all the educational blame on teachers, when they have also been victims of the top-down bureaucracy.
While many have argued that schools simply require more money and better teachers to improve, Mr Gatto claims that certain structural problems won’t simply disappear with an injection of new cash. The author explains:
Genuine reform is possible but it shouldn’t cost anything. More money and more people pumped into this sick institution will only make it sicker. We need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want all children to learn and why.
So What Are The Problems With Schools?
Schools have an inherent top-down assumption; authority figures are responsible for conveying the necessary information to children.
We are told that without this top-down chain of command (from bureaucrat, to teacher, to child) a child will not learn the necessary skills and attitudes for life. The core assumption is that the child is not capable of knowing what topics are best to pursue, therefore it is okay to force them (through compulsory schooling) to sit in rooms and absorb information regardless of the relevance to the child.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the above assumption, a certain irony presents itself in the traditional schooling model. Mr Gatto explains from the view of the teacher:
..when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch.
The teacher demands the attention of the classroom, yet when the children actually show in-depth interest, they are only allowed to be interested until the lesson is up. Can’t be late for the next class right? The child learns the hierarchy of values quickly; that gaining an in-depth expertise of the topic is not as important as adhering to the segmented schedule of authority figures.
Most of us know that in order to gain mastery, or expertise, we must be allowed to work at length on any given topic. We might read for hours on end, watch tutorial videos or work on lengthy projects without being interrupted. This is how genuine mastery is able to thrive, and it happens without rewards or punishments because we’re genuinely interested in the topic. Given that self-motivation and uninterrupted learning seems to be a component of expertise and success, it isn’t a stretch to consider why Mr Gatto’s claim might be correct. We have a schooling system where children aren’t able to follow their interests at length, but rather are expected to follow a segmented and stifled schedule designed by bureaucrats who are unaware of the students’ individual qualities. Could anything be more opposed to genuine learning?
Another criticism of the top-down model, is that rather than assisting children where their natural interest arises, adults are telling children what they should be interested in (by an imposed curriculum), then later complaining when children don’t flourish in subjects they’ve been forced to undertake. The saddest part of this whole process is that the teachers themselves don’t often agree with the course content being imposed! They know deep down that algebra holds no relevance to the highly gifted artist, yet they’re also aware that they won’t get paid unless they teach and grade all children by the same metric. Mr Gatto explains the position of a teacher:
I, the teacher, can determine what my kids must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions, which I then enforce.
We are told that the school system provides an adequate opportunity for socialisation, but is this really true? John T. Gatto weighs in on the matter:
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety…
While Mr Gatto’s scathing commentary might seem a little harsh, we must consider the meaning beneath them. Is it really ideal for children to mostly be surrounded by kids of the same age, and only learn from government approved adults? How natural is it for a child to consider those older than themselves as an authority figure to be obeyed? How beneficial is it to separate children from the activities of everyday life in order to teach them about real life? Is it natural to make people ask permission if they’d simply like to use the bathroom? Is the Pythagoras’ Theorem more important than learning a practical building skill from a trusted neighbour? If so, can the same be said for every child?
The author encourages us to consider history before modern schooling, where children were learning from family and communal activities (rather than being set aside with everyone the same age). Children were also considered adults much earlier and often assumed many responsibilities in teenage years rather waiting until they were 18. Mr Gatto explains:
In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.
When asking if schools actually provide a good form of socialisation today, the author encourages us to consider the costs and benefits of the all possibilities available to us, not only the government endorsed social environments.
The Perverse Incentives of Taxpayer Funding
While most people believe it is good for government to fund schools, they tend to ignore the perverse incentives created by a tax-funded model. This model creates a system where bureaucrats and politicians receive their funding regardless of whether the taxpayer agrees with the end result. The only influence the taxpayer has (since they cannot directly withdraw funding), is through engaging in layered political process of begging their political representatives to make the necessary changes once in power.
As an alternative to this power imbalance, the author brings our attention to the decentralised market economy model. In the realm of the marketplace, we know that when a company mistreats us there is always the option to take our dollar elsewhere. Being able to vote with your feet is by definition what makes it different from government-monopolised model. The author highlights the virtues of the decentralised model by referring to historical congregation movements:
As long as people had the choice to vote with their feet, the free market punished severe errors by leaving a congregation empty, just as it could reward a good place by filling it up. And even if enough rotten people were found to make a rotten town or rotten congregation, as long as there was no machinery in place for that one idea to compel all others to bow down before it, the human damage it could cause was strictly limited. Only when situations exist out of which a central orthodoxy can arise, like a pyramid, is there a real danger that some central poison can poison us all.
The author’s point is simple; if the institution (i.e. government schooling) gets funding regardless of whether it serves the people, what incentive does the institution have to reform itself? Trying to reform an institution which has little incentive to provide value (because it gets paid either way) seems like a recipe for failure.
While there is plenty more to be said about this book, you’ve probably gotten the general idea by reading this far. If you’d like to read more, you can find a free copy of the entire book here:
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I’ll leave you with a closing thought from the author:
Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.