Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Has teaching become a factory job?

I've quoted from John Taylor Gatto's books in the past (especially "Dumbing Us Down", but I never actually read his first essay which was published in "The Wall Street Journal" soon after he quit teaching.  He has reposted it, along with a much longer essay at his website, The Odysseus Group. Click here to read the entire essay.  The original letter to the WSJ is below. I think he is spot-on in that our school systems have become a 'religion' meant to slow maturity and "extend the dependency of the young well into what had traditionally been early adult life." Modern schooling's mission is to advance group thought, not to promote the rugged individualism that was always held as uniquely American.

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid. 
That idea passed into American history through the Puritans. It found its "scientific" presentation in the bell curve, along which talent supposedly apportions itself by some Iron Law of Biology. It’s a religious notion, School is its church. I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid.

Socrates foresaw if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be "re-formed." It has political allies to guard its marches, that’s why reforms come and go without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different.

David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can’t tell which one learned first—the five-year spread means nothing at all. But in school I label Rachel "learning disabled" and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, "special education" fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever.

In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.

That’s the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints. We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen—that probably guarantees it won’t.

How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it. I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know. Come fall I’ll be looking for work.


Gayle said...

With close to 7 billion people on the planet, it is inevitable that the factory model is used to educate as many children as possible.

Look no further than the last 5 to 10 decades of education in Russia and China. An incredibly regimented model of public education (government schools) was dictated by the sheer number of school age populace. Economies of scale worked its academic magic in both of these countries. Of course, human nature being what it is - once you educate your populace, do not expect to control them. Ideas have a way of turning governments and economies on their proverbial heads. Every country that offers public education does so with the peril that its citizens will demand a say in the way their country is governed. Reference the current Jasmine Revolution.

The idea that there are no learning disabled or gifted children is nonsense. Some human beings are quicker, more intuitive, and/or more creative than others and some have difficulty learning to read, write and/or compute at the normal level. You will not "slow down" a gifted child. He will read on his own while he conforms to the classroom structure. Many employees that are intellectually "gifted" individuals will need to conform to the corporation's way of doing business so this is probably good practice for them.

In countries where there is no public education, the wealthy elite want a top notch education for their children but no others. What better way to ensure their children continue to be the economic beneficiaries of a stratified society than to offer their children an education while denying it to others.

Public education is fraught with many difficulties, but it is the great leveler. Education is not so much about ensuring our children are dittos of ourselves as ensuring they are able to navigate a complex world.

concerned said...


That was a very well written balanced post.

September said...

The classification of children as gifted or learning disabled has only come about in the last 30 years or so. Before that a student had to have a severe disability to be placed in a special class or attend a special school. Everyone else went into a regular class. Students were grouped by academic ability. The smart kids were in one class and the not so smart kids were in another. Teachers taught accordingly. I think I understand this author's point about labeling students.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher of Gifted in Dekalb, I do see part of his point. Some kids test as Gifted in elementary school because they are early learners. Once things level off, some are simply average or a bit above. But having been labeled as intellectually superior, these kids beat their brains out trying to live up to expectations. It's cruel; parents don't want to admit that their children are average (which apparently is a bad thing), so they fight to keep the label in place.

I love teaching the truly gifted kids; their creativity surprises and challenges me every day. But watching the others drown can be heartbreaking.

I am not sure that practice of labeling in the "factory" is wrong. But quality testing, if you will, needs to be a regular part of the process.

ben dover said...

"It's cruel; parents don't want to admit that their children are average (which apparently is a bad thing), so they fight to keep the label in place."

Parents fight for their kids to be in gifted because they know they will be in smaller classes and with kids who are there to learn not disrupt the class. Truly gifted or not its the place you want your child to be in.

DinoMom said...

@Ben Dover
Your comment is dead-on. The chances of a child getting a decent education in one of those classes with 30+ kids is pretty remote. We made the tough decision to move our child out of the public school system for just that reason. If a kid doesn't make it into the gifted classes, his/her chances for a good education are significantly diminished.

Anonymous said...

Sorry folks, but kids who are not intellectually gifted do not belong in those classes! I have watched them make themselves sick trying to keep up the pretense because it's what their parents want. I have seen kids fail and have to retake the class, and parents still won't face the facts. Yes, there are huge advantages to smaller classes, but there is more to it than that.

I understand your point with respect to behavior in lower-level classes. The teacher has to spend a lot of time just keeping kids in line. But I use the exact same lesson plans for my advanced classes as for gifted--just with slightly different standards of performance. Five more kids in the classroom is just not a hindrance to your chid's learning if he/she is a dedicated student.

DinoMom said...


I'm not saying that all kids belong in gifted classes - far from it. However, I do believe that every child deserves the benefit of smaller class size and more teacher attention, not just the "gifted" few.

Anonymous said...

@ Dino--Absolutely. All classes should be capped at 25, perhaps 28 at the most, which was the standard not too long ago.

betty said...

"Modern schooling's mission is to advance group thought, not to promote the rugged individualism that was always held as uniquely American."

This is news? Conservatives have been saying this for years. Can we finally have a discussion about personal responsibility in this country?