Looking back (5)

Where To Now?
Originally uploaded by Katelyn Gibson

Gatto and Holt made the most convincing arguments, and provided the most practical help.

Holt pointed out that children (people) learn most from what they themselves actually do, rather than from what teachers do (or don’t do): “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” (from Holt’s Wikipedia entry).

Both Gatto and Holt seemed to have come, independently, to the same conclusion (here in Holt’s words, though they could easily have been written by Gatto): “Education… now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and ‘fans,’ driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.” (from Holt’s Wikipedia entry).

When I first read Holt, I found it hard to accept his bitter anti-school conclusions. I had a similar reaction to reading Gatto at first. If Gatto is right (and he’s not the only one to have pointed out the roots and motivations of compulsory, state-sponsored educational systems, by any means), then I am part of that social engineering: I’ve gone through it, and am now implementing it. How can that be, when schools are so full of good, nice, sometimes even inspiring, passionate people? Like me, for instance! I’m not a bad person; my teachers weren’t bad people.

I had to admit, tho, that some things rang true:
* my students certainly behave like people who know that they are being asked (and will inevitably be asked) to do essentially meaningless things in school. That’s what happens in school: you do meaningless things. Hence the lethargy, the lack of enthusiasm, the boredom;
* they do seem to be being trained to move at certain times, to be grouped together with other people they don’t know and haven’t chosen to be with, according to criteria they have no say in; they accept this as “normal”;
* school (here I mean the universities where I work) seems to be more a matter of keeping people managed than actually educating them – hence the memos warning teachers of dire consequences for letting the students out early.

Although I could feel anger and outrage while reading Gatto, I could not sustain it. I didn’t hate the system as much as he did. And without that sustained fury, I was unable to invent my own strategies. The ones that Gatto described (and he describes only in broad outlines for the most part; there are no easy-to-follow instructions in his books) required a great deal of courage, determination and crazy inventiveness, more than I had.

I still could not see clearly what the roles, systems, schedules, mentality of school were doing to my students, although I was beginning to; I was unable, equally, to see what they had done to me. But I did not look in that direction until later.

Reading Gatto forced me to ask myself some difficult, disturbing questions:
1) What do I really know of freedom?
2) What kind of freedom or autonomy do I have?
3) Am I really free? Or do I assume I am because of certain symbols I’ve been accustomed to associate with freedom?
4) Do I have real autonomy? Or is it merely an appearance, like being in a spacious and comfortable cage?
5) Am I a slave unwittingly perpetuating an enslaving system?
6) If I’m not really free, how can I “teach” autonomy? Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Where to, now?

2 thoughts on “Looking back (5)”

  1. All excellent observations, Charles. Just a couple of quick responses: 1) It was not my intention in these final, “wrapping up” posts to make suggestions for what we should do about education. I really don’t have a clue what we should do about it, if indeed anything can be done about it. I am describing a personal journey, and a crossroads I have I reached on that journey. From what I am seeing and discovering, I am making personal decisions about what I will and will not do.

    2) Your suggestion (also made by others, including Gatto) of some kind of apprenticeship made me reflect on my own situation: how would that work with my students? I think it would be very hard to implement, because something has happened to them. They have been somehow damaged. They know (because they’ve been told) that learning is important, but their own experience of it has been toxic. They no longer know how to do that. What they know how to do is “school” – trying to guess what the teacher wants then trying to provide it, even though this simultaneously feels degrading yet also gets them some things they (think they) want (praise, credits, grades). They’ve forgotten that they already know how to learn; they’re convinced, have been convinced, that they don’t know anything, not even how to learn, and they must depend for everything on a teacher. This might sound like it would make the teacher’s job very easy. It doesn’t. Just listen to the teachers complain about these kids, day in, day out.

    Thanks for taking the trouble to write.

  2. Some rambling thoughts: It’s true that learning is a result of activity, but much, perhaps most, learning is through observation of what others are doing. Just look at how children imitate the behaviors of others.

    Certainly schools are set up in a lock-step fashion that doesn’t attend to how people learn. More effective learning could likely occur in an apprenticeship form. That would require an exponential increase in the number of teachers, or we would have to change to some form of “child” labor in which youngsters could learn.

    Of course, that has problems, too, one of which is, Would all students also be learning the essentials for taking part in a democratic society (if they live in one)?

    Another problem with doing away with educational institutions as they are now, as you noticed, is the time intensive nature of responding and working with students. If we do away with educational institutions, how many provide the time needed for children to learn?

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