It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything about John Taylor Gatto, the teacher who rejected compulsory schooling and argued forcefully in favor of a true education, one unbounded from mass school schemes. I was on a kick back in the spring of listening to his talks, but hadn’t listened to him much lately.
That is, until the YouTube Algorithm—may it be praised—tossed this video into my feed:
I know, I know—it’s nearly an hour long. I don’t expect you to listen to it all now (please finish reading this blog post first), but if you’re in the car or warshing (as my girl would say) the dishes, put it on in the background. It’s a must-listen.
While I think Gatto gives the Pilgrims a bit too much credit—America was born in the South at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, not at Plymouth Rock in 1620—he does admirably point out their radical decentralization, limiting the influence of each church to its congregation. That’s a big deal: in Puritan New England, church membership was akin to citizenship in the polis, and was not given out freely; it required proof of one’s “Election,” as being among those God Chose to accept Christ’s Salvation. The freedom of each congregation to manage its own affairs is admirable and enviable, and the results speak for themselves—virtually all New Englanders in the seventeenth century knew how to read, in spite of the total lack of public schools or coerced schooling.
I love teaching and have gotten a bit of my “mojo” back this school year, but our warehouse-style of education is far from the best option. Even small private schools like my own face the inevitable trade-off of quality versus quantity: getting bigger means, necessarily, the loss of some individualization of instruction. My Economics class this semester, for example, feels like a room overstuffed with teen bodies impassively enduring tedious macroeconomic analysis (although that might be my fault… hmm….).
Beyond that issue of faculty-to-student ratio, though, is the inherent structural deficiencies of compulsory schooling. Locking kids into a regimented schedule, especially in later years, is stultifying. Routine and structure are good, yes, but they leave little room for exploration.
I’ve talked to one student who wistfully recalls the early days of The Age of The Virus, in which many students were given a list of assignments to complete for the day, after which they’d be finished. He could truly focus in on his work in a way that isn’t possible during a school day, during which there are—in addition to the hourly ringing of the bell—multiple interruptions throughout the day: announcements; students interrupting class to use the bathroom; Yearbook students barging in to take photos and to interview students; administrators wandering in officiously; noise from other classrooms; etc. As a teacher, you learn to tune out these distractions, or to tolerate them as an inevitable part of the hustle and bustle of school life. But it makes for a difficult environment in which to complete deep, focused work.
As Gatto points out, early American colonists with very little formal education and few resources managed to give their children excellent educations—and without crippling student loan debt, to boot! If they could do it while in the middle of taming a continent, we can certainly do it in the twilight of our empire, a time in which we enjoy unfettered access to virtually all of human knowledge at our fingertips.
Well, the dead man in the video says it better than me. Listen to it today!