Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

John Taylor Gatto and Me

A friend and colleague has been reading John Taylor Gatto, and was struck, in conversation, at how often my own views of the problems of the public schools are the same as his. I am not terribly happy to hear that someone else has stolen my thunder.; I guess it is a confirmation I did feel I had to look into this author, a former New York State Teacher of the Year who quit, declaring that the public school system was broken beyond repair.

Having read some of his An Underground History of American Education, and part of his Dumbing Us Down, both available free online, I am not that impressed. Like most professional critics of the schools. Gatto seems to me to go over the top. Everything about them, including what seem to me opposite tendencies, is wrong. He is also very bad at citing sources, and when I try to trace them, his claims turn out to be often quite wrong.

I do agree with what seems to be his solution: school choice. This is essentially what we had in Ontario when our school system was first set up by Egeerton Ryerson. The schools buildings were actually owned by the local trustees—the local parents—and they hired and fired the teachers (Donald Akenson, Being Had, p. 149. Another book I happen to be reading, about the Irish experience in North America).

Gatto points out that in 2000, New York State spent $200,000 per child over the course of an educatnio in the el-hi schools (p. 10, An Underground History of American Education). If, instead, given that that figure is accurate, each child was given that $200,000 at high school graduation age, they would likely be set for life. At least, they could buy a house, cash. However, Gatto's number seems too high. In Canada, expenses per student per year, according to the National Post, are $11,835.. Granted, Gatto includes lost interest, and is probably including the cost of school buildings. My guess is that the National Post is not.

Gatto is dead right here: “Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard” (P. 11). This is a problem with the professions generally, but one can see immediately that it is a special problem with making teachers a “profession.” Their job is to make the hard easy; their training is all on making the easy hard. As a result, they are more likely to retard than to aid their students' learning, and this is immediately in their self-interest This alone explains why home-schooled kids invariably outperform their public school peers on any measure of academic achievement.

It also explains why the brightest students tend to hate school, while schools in general seem to concentrate their efforts on the weakest students.

From the beginning, according to Gatto, public schooling was the project of people who saw themselves as an intellectual elite. As such, they were the rightful rulers of society, and they did not want their control tampered with by the unworthy rabble. As a result, the schools are by their nature deeply undemocratic and class-conscious, and the great majority of students are deliberately kept down. This explains to me why public schools do not teach essential life skills: public speaking, rhetoric, which is also to say salesmanship, debating, parliamentary procedure. If they knew these things, the masses could organize effectively and protect their interests' individuals could move ahead and assume leadership. These subjects, interestingly, are always taught in the posh private schools to which the wealthy send their children.

Gatto points out the interesting fact that of twenty occupational groups measured, public school teachers score seventeenth on the GRE. Who scores lower? School administrators, who score 51 or 80 points lower, depending whether you are measuring them against elementary or secondary teachers (p. 21). I have seen similar figures before. Yet studies show a good GRE is a strong indicator of an effective teacher. We are sending the wrong people into the classroom, and the system is upside down, with the dumbest in control.

How can this happen? Probably for the same reason that the mentally retarded do a better job on assembly lines than the normally intelligent. Anyone reasonably intelligent and honest would be driven mad by the drivel and obvious errors required for teaching qualifications, and would have to be seriously masochistic to sit for a Master's degree in education.

Gatto points out that pay is not, despite the constant demands of teachers, the issue. He points out that teachers in the US before the 1960s used to make far less, barely enough for subsistence, yet beck then the job attracted many bright and talented young men on the way up, including some who later became famous. These well-educated young men, the best teachers according to studies, are now barred from the classroom. So are seasoned professionals in their fifties and sixties with real-world experience to share.

Gatto runs through a list of famous people of the past who seemed to do very well without schooling. David Farragut shipped off at age ten. Lincoln had less then a year in the classroom, Thomas Edison had three. Benjamin Franklin had less than one, and was working as a printer's apprentice at 12.

The main effect of schooling, Gatto says, is to retard adulthood. I think this is right. There were no teenagers, and there was no teen angst, until the forties or so. It is unnatural and unkind to hold young people back from adult responsibility, and it causes immense social problems. Here in the Gulf, they are at least conscious of what they are doing, and why they are doing it. A big reason why governments are pouring money into higher ed is that they have a problem with youth unemployment, which stands at 29%. So it is better to herd and watch them in classrooms than to leave them on the street craving adventure and probably causing trouble. The same logic may well have been behind the GI Bill in the US, to deal with the glut of returning soldiers, which resulted in everybody needing a university degree for the same jobs that used to need only a high school diploma. After the First War, there was a big unemployment problem among decommissioned doughboys, and the Depression was still barely over.

Gatto points out that, at the time of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton was 20, Aaron Burr 21, Lafayette 19 (p. 46). George Washington was pulling down a huge salary as a government surveyor at age 16.

Much is made of the exploitation of children in the Third World, by letting them work. My Filipina wife is hearing none of it. What do they expect the kids and their families to do—starve? The truth is, child labour laws in the beginning, as now, have most to do with protecting the interests of the old and already established against the young. Minimum wage laws probably do the same. Denying people the right to work is not nice.

More to come...

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