Monday, June 08, 2015

"Genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us." - John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto is an interesting figure in the history of US education. Ask anyone in the alternative education or homeschooling worlds, and they will know of him. Most everyone else will not.

Mr. Gatto was New York City teacher of the year three years in a row, then New York State teacher of the year in 1991, and in that year announced his retirement in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "I Quit, I Think," declaring that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living."

Nothing like criticizing the education world as a whole to go from heroic to obscure very quickly. But he's worth learning about and from. His thinking in that op-ed piece will challenge you:
I’ve taught public school for 26 years but I just can’t do it anymore. For years I asked the local school board and superintendent to let me teach a curriculum that doesn’t hurt kids, but they had other fish to fry. So I’m going to quit, I think.
... 
I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t train children to wait to be told what to do; I can’t train people to drop what they are doing when a bell sounds; I can’t persuade children to feel some justice in their class placement when there isn’t any, and I can’t persuade children to believe teachers have valuable secrets they can acquire by becoming our disciples. That isn’t true.
 To the point of the original quote, he goes on:
In 26 years of teaching rich kids and poor, I almost never met a “learning disabled” child; hardly ever met a “gifted and talented” one, either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by the human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.
Here's the actual quote in context, from his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling:
I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us. I didn't want to accept that notion--far from it--my own training in two elite universities taught me that intelligence and talent distributed themselves economically over a bell curve and that human destiny, because of those mathematical, seemingly irrefutable, scientific facts, was as rigorously determined as John Calvin contended. 
The trouble was that the unlikeliest kids kept demonstrating to me at random moments so many of the hallmarks of human excellence--insight, wisdom, justice, resourcefulness, courage, originality--that I became confused. They didn't do this often enough to make my teaching easy, but they did it often enough that I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
Interestingly, I think many of us harbor deep conflicting thoughts about our children: that they are inherently valuable and capable of genius; but that they might be flawed or defective, thereby disappointing us or somehow reflecting our own weaknesses or failures. In the simplistic world of teaching and testing, many of us have succumbed to categorizing our own and others' children in equally simplistic ways. And yet the world, and these children, are not simplistic or simply-categorized, and Mr. Gatto's quote should remind us that it is our perspective on them that will determine what we see in them--and what they are surely then most likely to see in themselves.

Perhaps we tell ourselves, in the midst of drugging, constraining, and categorizing children, that we are being realistic, practical, or pragmatic--and that Mr. Gatto is being naively positive. If so, I would suggest that we need to take a very hard look at ourselves in this area, for a society that has trouble seeing and taking the time to support the potential of every child will face serious generational consequences, and the loss of a moral center.

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