I recall my second summer break from university pretty vividly: I didn’t work (I wasn’t employed), but I did work (I got after it). I had three pursuits: training for the upcoming football season, studying for the MCAT and decoding the mysteries of the fairer sex.
I succeeded in each to varying degrees.
Nevertheless, there is one thing that struck me and stuck with me in that summer of unemployment.
You see, part of my training was dedicated to fine-tuning some of the fine motor aspects of catching a football (I was a WR.). I would walk over to a buddy’s (yuppity’s own TRF) and put my talents to the test: cones, agility, ladders – the whole nine yards. (or is that 10?)
Every time I walked over to TRF’s I would walk by this monumental structure. It was probably four stories high. Constructed of brick and mortar, huge and expansive. It was austere and inviting at the same time. Even more strange, there were hundreds of kids in it. Literally hundreds. I observed they spent something like eight hours a day, five days a week there. A bell would ring and they would all form like a school of fish and hurriedly dash inside. They did a lot of sitting and staring at a chalkboard once there. There was also some scribbling on paper and they spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time learning to stand in line.
I’ll step out of the ‘ignorant observer’ role now. Clearly, I knew what a school was. But when you take a second and look at it from a blank-slate stance, with no prior assumptions about it or its merits or its demerits, you might ask the same question I did: what are all these kids doing sitting in a classroom? I know that’s the last thing any kid should want to do!
In the intervening years, I’ve thought about the question and found some pretty interesting and startling answers. I thought about how I arbitrarily excelled at converting oral language to scribbles on paper and performing Mad-Minutes and how this sort of odd behavior was rewarded and valued by the people in that austere yet friendly monumental structure. I was made to know I was ‘smart’. Others were made to know they weren’t. We were kids.
Recently, a college homie tipped me off to a public education prophet who has asked the same sorts of questions – and this prophet isn’t just some college kid having a passer’s by philosophical moment:
Primary School Teacher of 30 years
3 time New York City School Teacher of the Year (1989, 1990, 1991)
New York State Teacher of the Year (1991)
In case you were wondering, those are some bonafides. And it is with that weight he has made waves and turned heads – including mine.
I recently shared an essay of John Taylor Gatto’s, titled quite provocatively “Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why”.
(*Old-Spice voice*: Look at John Gatto’s bonafides above. Now look at the title of his essay. Now back at the bonafides… Swan dive into the rudest awakening of your life!)
Whenever a brutally unconventional idea appears, people usually either run as far away from it as possible with their ears covered or gravitate toward it intensely with their thinking cap on to sniff it out. That said, a few people I know gave it a read and I can quote one (an author on this site) as saying it was “paradigm shifting stuff” and subsequently recommending it to people in the business (a school principal and a Master’s of Education student). I am going to pull a few excerpts from that essay.
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were…
…Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:
1) To make good people.
2) To make good citizens.
3) To make each person his or her personal best.
These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not
to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim.. . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else. …
…Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues… Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.”
It is not for me to say what school is and what it isn’t, but its image for me has certainly changed since those days where I used to hit the gridiron, helmet, cleats and all. Now off to work in a different monumental, austere yet friendly structure where there are hundreds of highly trained professionals and a lot of very sick people. I wonder what secrets it holds, if any.