Speak Out Of Turn

From my book, Lucy & The Waterfox. The waterfox is shunned for deviating from the norm.

From my book, Lucy & The Waterfox. The waterfox is shunned for deviating from the norm.

I’m not supposed to be writing about the system of education in America. It is a topic that I made off limits for myself because I was ranting too much. I finally allowed myself to admit what I’ve known for years but refused to accept. Our system of education is not broken and never has been; it was designed to create maximum docility and is succeeding magnificently. I decided to open the off-limits file because I just posted a question concerning education inspired by my friend and retired superintendent, Arnie Glassberg, and then this morning the same news story featuring the resignation letter of a teacher came across my screen three times. It is tragic to read and resonated with me: after a career playing in the fields of innovation and change in education, I now have a hard time driving by a public school without shuddering.

For grins I googled “origins of education in America (it was the subject of Arnie’s comment to me),” and came up with more than a few options but was struck by how many of the links topping the list concerned the reprehensible origins and intentions behind this thing we continue to call school. Several were articles, speeches, and youtube clips of John Taylor Gatto, a former New York state Teacher of the Year and most well known for his book, Dumbing Us Down. Here’s a bit from a speech he gave several years ago to a home schooling conference in Vermont:

The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn — nor is it supposed to. Schools were conceived to serve the economy and the social order rather than kids and families — that is why it is compulsory. As a consequence, the school cannot help anybody grow up, because its prime directive is to retard maturity. It does that by teaching that everything is difficult, that other people run our lives, that our neighbors are untrustworthy even dangerous. School is the first impression children get of society. Because first impressions are often the decisive ones, school imprints kids with fear, suspicion of one another, and certain addictions for life. It ambushes natural intuition, faith, and love of adventure, wiping these out in favor of a gospel of rational procedure and rational management.

Compare this quote (or read the text of his speech) with the teacher’s resignation letter making the news today. I’ve read a similar letter each spring for the past several years; a teacher – probably a great teacher – can no longer participate in the creation of docility in children and in themselves. They admit what they’ve known for years: the intention of they system they serve is the opposite of what it purports: they can no longer wipe out their natural intuition with the gospel of rational procedure (standardized tests).

John Taylor Gatto’s quote reminded me of the first few pages of one of my favorite books, Teaching As A Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman. It was published in 1969. Here’s a snippet from page 2:

In our society, as in others, we find that there are influential men at the head of important institutions who cannot afford to be found wrong, who find change inconvenient, perhaps intolerable, and who have financial or political interests they must conserve at any cost. Such men are, therefore, threatened in many respects by the theory of the democratic process and the concept of an ever-renewing society…Such men as these would prefer that the schools do little or nothing to encourage youth to question, doubt, or challenge and part of the society in which they live, especially those parts that are most vulnerable.

Retarding maturity has long term consequences: a population that is 1) incapable of the necessary self-awareness that comes with maturity cannot recognize how far it has drifted from it’s center and, 2) even if it did see the tower tipping, it is incapable of meaningful action as the conjoined twins of passivity (born of fear of speaking up) and divisiveness (do you really think the red state/blue state nonsense has no origin or implication?) have been so thoroughly thrummed into the national anthem.

To loop back a few posts to Master Marsh’s quote that keeps on giving: I’ve come to believe this is less about can and can’t than about the challenge of doing. And not doing is always easier.

Complaining is no substitute for doing. Neither is ranting, which is why education is off limits for me. I do not know what to do and have no belief that a butterfly will come from a system directed by a few small minds so hell-bent on remaining a caterpillar.

The only thing I can think to do is echo a sentiment offered by John Taylor Gatto in this short clip: the system is great at hammering the individual deviant but is incapable of handling a mass of deviants. To the teacher who resigned in frustration and all those who have, will, want to, or do not yet know they can, join hands. Become a mass and deviate. Do the thing that you’ve been so trained not to do: speak out of turn. Stop raising your hand and join hands. The kids can’t resign and they need you to, as Neil Postman writes, become a “shockproof crap detector.”

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2 Responses

  1. I was not raised to believe in the concept of hell. As an adult I began to explore my spiritual side and question our purpose in this physical reality. I concluded that we are here to learn whatever lessons we established as important to our growth before we decided to “jump in”. We could learn those lessons on the other side but because the other side is a positive environment, it would be much more difficult to drive ourselves to grow. In this physical reality the negativity puts us into situations that are so painful that we are willing to confront our growth issues rather than subject ourselves to the continued discomfort that accompanies our natural tendency to avoid the growth. The more I thought about that the more I realized that this physical reality is hell. That helped me understand why religions other than the one in which I grew up had devised this notion of hell. It was a metaphorical reference to life in this physical reality – which meant it is a positive in that it is an opportunity for us to learn and grow, should we choose to do so.

    From that understanding it became clearer to me that life in this physical reality will never change. I couldn’t quite put together the contrast of so many more people choosing roads of enlightenment and at the same time the proliferation of what seem to be truly evil people (terrorists, serial killers, politicians, etc). It is all about balance. As one disease is cured another will come along that seems new to us. As more people turn to peace as a solution we will see more wars and conflict around the world. We need both poles in order to learn and grow. That is our purpose here.

    Having said all of that, it helps me understand the situation in our educational system. As you have said, we know so much about the brain and learning and yet we apply none of it in the interest of making schools better for kids. The vast majority of decisions made within the school community are not focused on the kids but on the adults. No one represents the kids. All of the organizations represent the adults! If I apply my “life philosophy” to the educational system, it all makes sense. Education is all part of this physical reality that is designed to provide a hostile environment that pushes us to choose growth rather than the discomfort of the alternative. It explains why, in spite of the awful system, so many students excel and become beacons for the rest of us.

    Perhaps all of this is just a way of deluding myself so I can live with it but it works for me! I don’t shudder when I pass a school or read another article about Common Core or testing or whatever the answer of the day might be (if I’m really honest, I will confess to you that I simply don’t read articles that pertain to education).

    Again – just some rambling thoughts that were evoked when reading this posting.



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