Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble






Seven wrong lessons






John Taylor Gatto was employed to teach English language and English literature in the city of New York for twenty-six years and was twice named New York State Teacher of the Year before he realised that rather than teaching English he had been teaching seven other subjects. These were confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem and the impossibility of hiding. He left the world of conventional education and devoted himself to writing and lecturing about the way education ought to be.

Confusion is taught by the constant switching between one subject and another without any logical reason for doing so, and without giving time for any one topic to be satisfactorily digested. Class position is an attempt to encourage effort by competition, while at the same time making sure that every child knows his place the place where someone else has put him. Indifference is taught by the use of bells: no matter how enthusiastic you are during a lesson, as soon as the bell goes everything must be dropped. 'The lesson of bells,' says Gatto, 'is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?'

Emotional dependency is taught by stars and stickers, smiles and frowns, honours and disgraces. There is no appeal against the judgement of the teacher. Intellectual dependency is taught by having to rely on the teacher to tell you what to do before you do anything, and to tell you afterwards whether you have done it well or badly. Provisional self-esteem is personal pride that depends entirely on recognition from the teacher; self-evaluation is never considered.

And the seventh lesson is that you can't hide. Whatever you do is watched, written down, judged. Every minute of the day you are under observation by teachers and other staff. Privacy is out of the question.

These lessons were being taught by a brilliant teacher, and he found he could not work in an ordinary school without teaching them. He taught them effectively, and his teaching won him prizes. It was not until he realised that he was depriving his pupils of their self-respect, preventing them from making sense of their own learning, denying them privacy, limiting their enthusiasm and maintaining control through domination rather than from any sense of shared purpose that he decided that he had to give up teaching in any traditional school.

Most parents, though, insist on sending their children to traditional schools. Gatto explains this.

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
        Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are tested procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult, naturally if the kids have respectable parents who come to their aid, but that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools. No middle-class parents I have ever met actually believe that their kid's school is one of the bad ones. Not one single parent in twenty-six years of teaching. That's amazing, and probably the best testimony to what happens to families when mother and father have been well-schooled themselves, learning the seven lessons.

Dumbing us Down, pp 8 -9

It is not surprising that parents fail to recognise the damage that Gatto has identified if he himself did not recognise it until he had been teaching for twenty-six years.

I taught for three years in a traditional boarding school, and during that time a visiting old boy, applying for a place for his son, told how in his day the bigger boys used to put a smaller boy in a bath, cover the top of the bath with bath-racks, sit on them and then turn on the taps. It never did him any harm, he said, and he apparently thought it would be the right school for his son, in spite of knowing that something similar might happen to him. Was this due to confusion? Or indifference? Or intellectual dependence (because whatever actually happened at school must have been all right)? Or provisional self-esteem (because his self-esteem, such as it was, depended on conforming with the current mores)?

Whatever the reason, it illustrates Gatto's view that well-trained parents accept whatever a school may do. That is why it is so hard to initiate change.