Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lesson 1 of John Taylor Gatto's Seven Lessons

I intend to homeschool my children...

I'm not anti school and my husband and I certainly will send my children to school if homeschooling is not working out for us or them. But I'm going to try my best to teach them at home.


The decision to homeschool is based on personal experience of school, observation of my younger siblings who were and are being homeschooled, observation of other homeschooled children, and a desire to raise happy, confident children to will continue to practise their Catholic faith as adults.

So it was with interest that I read John Taylor Gatto's 1992 book Dumbing Us Down. When Gatto stood up to accept the New York State Teacher of the Year award for 1991, without a hint of irony, he listed the seven main lessons that school teaches. They were:
  1. Confusion
  2. Class Position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional Dependency
  5. Intellectual Dependency
  6. Provisional Self Esteem
  7. One Can't hide
It's a harsh critique of the American school system and it made me think whether these seven lessons relate to me and my experiences in Australia. So here we go.


Gatto writes
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the unrelating of everything... Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions... The logic of the school mind is that it is better to leave school with a took kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on, than with one genuine enthusiasm.
So, did I experience this confusion as school? I didn't think so at the time, as school was just something that you do because you have to. What was to question?

I do remember desperately wanting to know how all the different history lessons connected together and how did they connect to what I was learning in English. Where did Keats fit into the timeline with Shakespeare or with Medieval history? What was happening elsewhere in the world throughout all the dynasties of China? In that sense all the subjects I learned were tiny isolated islands of facts and figures which did not clearly relate to other subjects or even other topics within the one subject.

And what do I remember of these subjects? Not much, except random things like what is osmosis and who wrote Waiting for Godot. I remember more experiences unrelated to formal lessons such as running out of a religion class after a fight with the feminist teacher, and singing with the choir at an old people's home or being called "Crrrretons!" by our music teacher.

Gatto suggests that genuine learning is not meaningless: it is interconnected. As with the sequences of learning to walk or talk, "every action justifies itself and illuminates the past and the future". So I guess he is talking more about learning through living. Sounds a bit like unschooling to me.

School was not a place I attended  to learn anything I really wanted to: that's what holidays were for. In holidays I read what I wanted, despite the difficulties (oh, the simultaneous pain and joy of skim-reading Gone With the Wind in one day!) and had leisure to sit in the sun and think (happy memories!). As a family we laughed and fought and explored rock pools by the beach. All worthwhile and memorable lessons.

Only as an adult have I been able to explore the interrelatedness of all the random things I was taught at school. Only now have I had the space to explore what I really wanted to explore without the pressure of examinations crowding out substance with assorted facts.

So yes, I can understand what Gatto means when he says the first lesson of school is confusion.

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