Public Education: A Frightening Essay

It’s rare that I read something that I share everywhere; this story is first in a long time. The Schools We Need: When public education fails, democracy fails with it

Read the whole thing.

After reading all of these existential scenarios, I decided to hand out an essay by John Taylor Gatto called “Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why.” A career New York City schoolteacher, Gatto argues that students are bored because they are supposed to be. The education system is intentionally designed to shape them into a passive mass who will, in bovine fashion, join the labor force and become unthinking mass producers and mass consumers. Public education, in Gatto’s estimation, is a scheme dreamed up by the captains of industry to incubate servility and ultimately sabotage anything like a real democracy. I don’t think my classes quite bought into Gatto’s conspiracy theory (“yeah . . . maybe . . . whatever”), but they did agree that the American high school classroom is pretty damn dull.

I suspect the hesitancy by many high school teachers to hold active class discussions about real moral and ethical dilemmas may be a byproduct of how contested and politicized the word values has become. No one wants to talk about them because someone might become offended, or someone might say the wrong thing, or the messiness of open debate might get exposed.

Deborah Meier, a senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education and a founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, suggests that we replace the cover-the-material mode of teaching by cultivating a “habit of mind” that can be applied to all material. Such a habit nurtures the intellectual skills students need to make decisions on complex matters and is based on such things as: quality of evidence (how do we know it’s true?), consideration of various viewpoints (how would it look through someone else’s eyes?), the search for patterns and causes (what are the consequences?), and relevance (who cares?). These criteria will serve students well on any standardized test because they will have been taught how to evaluate the evidence before them, regardless of what it may be. And Meier’s last question, “who cares?” speaks directly to my students’ complaint about the relevancy of subject matter, because their demand for assignments that are relevant to real life does have merit. In the year 2011, real life can be quite scary, and helping students to navigate it requires a much more challenging curriculum.

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9 Comments

  1. Anonymous August 29, 2011 at 15:25

    Thanks for sharing this – really quite enlightening.

    “we want to teach your children to think for themselves and to communicate those thoughts through effective use of language.”

    As far as the school system may be failing our kids, I’m afraid that it’s not only the fault of schools/teachers that the above sentiment is getting left behind. The increase in social networking / mass media communication really only encourages most kids to spel incurrekly and construct sentences un-goodly.. (see what I did there?)

    Reply
    1. Jim Duncan August 29, 2011 at 18:16

      Thanks for the comment. If we’re leveling blame/fault, the teachers have a real responsibility; the poor grading, the passing kids who clearly aren’t competent, the misspellings by teachers sent home … these are unacceptable yet they persist. 

      Regarding social networking, etc. – you’re absolutely right. I’m proud of my daughter for refusing to succumb to what passes for “communication” now – looking at the facebook messages to her one would think that these children have never been taught the English language … 

      And it’s the parents’ fault as well for refusing to hold their kids and their kids’ teachers and the system itself responsible. 

      And it’s society’s fault for not allowing candid discussions because of fear of “offending” someone. Show me where in the law or the Constitution that people are entitled to not be offended – kids and people who are unable to put together a coherent argument are ceding our democracy to those who can. “Those who can” too often are “those who shouldn’t.”

      Reply
      1. frank the tank August 30, 2011 at 02:31

        Duncan,
        You’re waving too many classic platitudes — “schools are failing; democracy in turmoil; english language these days” — smells like you and Bobtile on the fear train.

        Guess what? Your parents, their parents, and their parents said the same thing. Somewhere in the primordial ooze some single cell organism said, “Kids these days…hmm.”

        Modern language evolves, a la Facebook, text, whatever. Get used to it. 
        Nobody parties like is 1899, yo!

        Besides, the hands of change via democratic revolutionaries has little to do with coherent sentences. 40% of our representatives are lawyers. Trained to argue “coherently”. 

        Sometimes a new lexicon starts with a guy and a briefcase standing in front of a tank.

        Reply
        1. Jim Duncan August 30, 2011 at 12:13

          Language evolves, true. My concerns focus more on the lack of curiosity, lack of questioning of all things – authority included.

          Our “representatives” currently represent no one other than themselves and their donors; their coherent argumentative styles are coherent only insofar as they succeed in sustaining themselves and the system. 

          On a slightly different tangent, it’s concerning that activism is defined by so many as clicking on a Facebook poll. That, and the Filter Bubble – http://goo.gl/OxcJd – in which we all are existing. There is seemingly little curiosity to reach beyond the barriers of this bubble.

          A kid told me recently, (paraphrasing) – why should I present original thoughts? The goal is to get a good grade! I need to write what she needs to hear!

          Reply
        2. Anonymous August 30, 2011 at 15:45

          This is true, language evolves, and people have been saying similar things (The world is going to the dogs! It wasn’t like this in my day!) since we first created language. I think that, for one, it’s far more obvious these days – many people now, if they did not have access to the WWW or a cellphone, wouldn’t write at all, and if they did write, they’d take much more time over it (because, presumably, they’d be writing a letter to someone). Everything is faster now, and we feel the need to communicate more quickly, so kids (and adults) use faster words and ways of getting their point across. I suppose that this is fair enough, to an extent.

          But none of this negates the simple fact that most people do not know how to spell very basic words or construct very simple sentences correctly. Even when someone’s spoken English is impeccable, their written English often is not. You just need to look at one page of comments on any youtube video to see how appalling general standards are. It’s not as simple or forgivable as missing an apostrophe somewhere.

          It’s inevitable. I blame, for the most part, the huge increase in speedy written communication over the past couple of decades, but at the same time, I do think that educational standards are getting worse. All over the world. I’ve taught English in China, and even in kindergarten there, the teachers try to stamp all curiosity out of their students, drilling them with set phrases and facts. It’s always been like that there, and I feel like education in the West is steadily heading back in that direction too…. as Jim said
          “The goal is to get a good grade! I need to write what she needs to hear!”
          I wasn’t at college all that long ago, and I often felt like that.

          Reply
        3. Artnesten August 30, 2011 at 18:17

          Your Tankiness,

          And you respond with the classic “so it ever was” platitude.  But guess what?  Civilizations do end.  Fascism happens.  Towns and cities die out.  Sure, things change… but not always for the better.  So we have the responsibility–same as every generation as you correctly point out–not to be passive sheep dismissing valid concerns with a faux-knowing roll-of-the-eyes.

          Reply
  2. Joseph Mark Davison August 30, 2011 at 13:34

    My favorite passage:
    “Specialization has, too often, been the enemy of educating the
    citizen-self. It encourages careerism as the only goal of education, and
    its narrowness can result in an abdication of responsibility concerning
    problems that lie outside of one’s specialty. These narrowly focused
    specialists can cause problems. Financial specialists caused the
    economic collapse, genetic specialists have created crops that require
    far more pesticide application, and we don’t yet know the full havoc
    caused by deep-water drilling specialists.”

    Reply
  3. Artnesten August 30, 2011 at 18:06

    Nice article.  Thanks.

    Reply
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