School’s Out

July 1st, 2004

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In 1991, John Taylor Gatto received the New York State Public Teacher of the Year award.  Most of you are unfamiliar with his name; yet many of you have probably heard of his book, Dumbing Us Down.  Ever since its publication; writers and public officials have repeatedly lamented the “dumbing down” of education, citizenship, media and so on.  It’s become part of our lingua franca.

Dumbing Us Down is drawn from Gatto’s comments upon receiving this award in 1991.  Telling the audience he primarily teaches seven lessons, here are Gatto’s opening words:

The first lesson I teach is confusion.

Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning.  Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well concealed.  This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple relationship between “let’s do this” and “let’s do that” is just assumed to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned how little substance is behind the play and pretense.

Think of the great natural sequences — like learning to walk and learning to talk; the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; the ancient procedures of a farmer, a smithy, or a shoemaker; or the preparation of a Thanksgiving feast — all of the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifies itself and illuminates the past and the future.  School sequences aren’t like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes.  School sequences are crazy.  There is no particular reason for any of them, nothing that bears close scrutiny.  Few teachers would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized, since everything must be accepted.  School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism.

I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order.  In a world where home is only a ghost, because both parents work, or because of too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition, or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.  That’s the first lesson I teach.

This past week, The Clapham Institute (along with Annapolis Area Christian School) hosted its first Summer Institute for Secondary School Teachers (public and/or private).  We agree with Gatto and put this together to help educators teach coherence, not confusion.  School may be out, but not for these 16 educators who came together to work at improving education.

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