Wednesday, November 30, 2011

-7- Are you against school?

I decided to share an essay I had to do for an assignment. Check the citations if you're interested in John Taylor Gatto, James Bryant Conant, and etc. The latter was a fascinating individual, one praised for creating possible the worst school system ever.

Before you read, ask yourself what school means to you.

               Having graduated from a specialized high school in New York City, I have experienced the best that public schooling had to offer. Was I impressed by the knowledge I gained? Hardly. Did I enjoy the experience? No. Would I recommend this experience to others? Absolutely not. My sentiments are so common that the whole experience of going to school is naturally deemed as unpleasant and everyone agrees on it, students and teachers alike. I have never perceived this as a problem at all; I accepted that this was the way things were and that perhaps school being repulsive was just an unfortunate side effect. In the essay “Against School”, John Taylor Gatto puts forth an unusual thesis: the distaste for school is not an unfortunate side effect but in fact the whole purpose of schooling. Named one of the teachers of the year, John Gatto has experienced teaching firsthand and walked away from the experience in distaste, claiming that he did not want to harm children any further (Nielsen, 2011). How could a star teacher, having just received an award, make such a rash statement?
                One question that stands out in his essay right away is “Do we really need schooling?” It is a question hardly asked. Of course schooling needed, it is mandatory by law, is the reflexive answer. Nonetheless, Gatto presses on, “Why is it mandatory by law?” He goes on to explain, the purpose of schooling, and his research effectively reveals that the purpose of schooling is in fact to “… reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level…” This was stated by H.L. Mecken as far back as 1924. Nonetheless, this same answer is reverberated throughout all of his research. “…to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority… to make children as alike as possible…to determine the student’s proper social role…to select the managers of the system.” This repulsive evaluation is given by Alexander Inglis, who would greatly influence James Bryant Conant, who lead to the current standardized schooling system. The picture painted by Gatto resembles a mugshot of a criminal caught red-handed. It is the fault of public education, which by its industrial model continues to suppress students and make them strive to conform instead of attempting to do their best. The argument is clear.
                One of John Gatto’s most influential sources is James Conant Bryant, the man who practically made the education system what it is today. The credit for creating public high schools in the form that they exist in today goes mainly to this man. This means that I personally should be thankful to this individual for the quality of the education that I received. The overhaul of the American school system by Conant began after serving as an ambassador to West Germany in the 1950’s. This confirms Gatto’s theory that American Education was highly influenced by Germans. The element John Gatto missed, however, was a major historical factor that lead to the acceptance of the current school system. That was the Cold War, and when the American government realized it had to compete, it was willing to try Conant’s method of schooling in order to produce smart, capable youth. It was stated that “He belongs to that long line of valuable Americans who have refused to concede any contradiction between intellectual excellence and education for democracy.” (The Washington Post, 1978)
                Gatto’s argument, however well stated, is still incomplete. While it is clear that public education needs to be reinvented and that the current model is only self sustaining instead of self improving, there is no alternative. Knowing the problem is only the beginning. It is the solution that is important. John Gatto wraps up his essay with fancy rhetoric, “The solution… is simple and glorious. Let them [children] manage themselves.” This statement was interpreted by many parents as a suggestion for homeschooling, and John Gatto indeed had become a major influence for the movement (Kroeger, 1994). But this is not a solution for parents who cannot afford homeschooling. Furthermore, Gatto’s insistence that all children are geniuses and that there are no “average” children is naïve. There is no solid solution to the problem of industrialized schooling, and that is a fact. “Despite evidence that the complexity of the nations education crisis requires an array of solutions including strong curriculum standards and robust consequential accountability, the overhaul of teacher quality, revamp of curriculum and standards, expanding school choice, improving school data systems and giving parents their rightful decision-making roles in education far too many reformers are busy touting and flacking their one grand solution and dismiss others that, in their minds, don’t further their own. (Dropout Nation, 2011). This applies to Gatto, who’s suggestion of a solution is not only naïve, but also narrow minded. There is no one solution that will solve the problems of education, and homeschooling is nothing more than avoiding the problem.
                As someone who had been educated at a high school that was formulated under James Conant Bryant’s suggestions, I agree with John Gatto to an extent. He is right; the educational system will not stand up even to a brief examination. Its purpose is clear: not to educate, but to stall. As students, we weren’t learning to appreciate education; we learned only to dislike it. The only relief came from socializing with one another, and the few teachers that sympathized with us. But the argument against Gatto is just as solid; he only cries foul and has no solid suggestion at hand. The beautiful rhetoric aside, his “silver bullet” to the beast of education is a sham, because there is no such thing. A system can’t be improved in such a simple way, especially one formulated on the wrong premise. It needs to be replaced by a better one, with a completely different framework. There was only instance that stood out to me when I read this essay, “Who… is to blame? We all are.” Indeed, that is the case when it comes to education. I conceded to something I knew was wrong by showing up to school. By accepting the premises that I disagreed with, I became the one at fault. However, I do not feel any desire to change the system of education that we have today. It is not due to a lack of courage, but rather due to the fact that it wouldn’t matter. It is just the same as thinking that school sucks, without knowing why. It was just a small part of a bigger picture; the big picture was the whole educational system, according to Gatto. I don’t think that is where it all ends. If the educational system was the only problem, it would probably have been solved by now. It too, is part of a bigger picture.

[1] "James Bryant Conant." Washington Post 14 feb 1978. n.pag. LexisNexis. Database. 30 Nov 2011.
[2] RiShawn, Biddle. "Three thoughts on Education This Week: The Endless Thoughtless Pursuits of the One Silver Bullet of the ." Dropout Nation 27 Jul 2011. n.pag. LexisNexis. Database. 30 Nov 2011.
[3] Jackie, Kroeger. "Overhauling Is Urged for American Schools ." Dropout Nation 8 aug 1994. 1. LexisNexis. Database. 30 Nov 2011.
[4] Nielsen, Lisa. "I am no longer willing to hurt children - John Taylor Gatto (A Compilation)." The Innovative Educator. blogger, 18 Jan 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <>.

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