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A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling
by John Taylor Gatto
reviewed by Jeremy Solomon

What is wrong with the school system to Gatto is not bad teachers, bad administrators, nor even bad parents.
Rather, it is the design of the institution altogether from inception.  Instead of superficially searching for quick fix reforms, Gatto desires to see the system junked altogether.

Gatto sees most schools as prisons of
coercion, where students are regulated by a
life of fragmented knowledge, where they
show obedience to strangers, where the design of education is dependency, obedience, regulation and subordination.

Schools make childhood surreal by:

   • enforcing sensory deprivation

   • sorting children into rigid categories (read: standardized testing)

   • training children to stop at the sound of a buzzer

   • keeping children under constant surveillance and depriving
them of private time and space

   • assigning numbers to children which feigns the ability to
discriminate personal qualities

   • insisting that every moment be filled with low level abstractions

   • forbidding children to make their own intellectual discoveries

To counter this process
his goals for school reforms are as follows:

   • teaching needs to be deconstructed - teachers need to be centrally 
     involved in the development and maintenance of standards and practices,
     not just the drones of someone else's blueprints.

   • decentralize school systems - no one right way to teach but allow
for other possibilities, such as home schooling.

   • developing areas for privacy and solitude in character development
     - schools are too big and too concerned with surveillance.

   • less policing in schools - trim bureaucracy for more teachers.

   • eliminating artificial subject divisions -students should solve real 
    world problems not abstractions in an interdisciplinary fashion and should
    not mimic a Henry Ford assembly line with classes limited to 40 minutes.

Gatto also looks at a corollary issue: why do schools cost so much?  Statistics have shown that home schooled students have higher test scores on average than students who go to public schools.  Even many high school dropouts do quite well.  So why doesn't money generate into better educated students?   New York state, for example, spends 51% of its budget on administrative costs.  Local administration reduces this to only 25% spent on students.  Gatto sees this a "protection money paid to the school ring."  

How did this happen on a nation wide scale?  Government schooling came to function as a jobs project where "the primary mission of schools and compulsion laws guaranteed an audience no matter how bad the show" (25).  Indeed administrators nationally have grown 110% from 1983 to 1991 and increased spending by the federal government has only aggravated the problem rather than solving it.

How did the school system get so bad?  Between 1896 and 1920 a small group of industrialists and financiers subsidized university chairs and researchers with the aim of bending schooling to the service of business and the political state.   For leading industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John T. Rockefeller, public schooling was engineered to serve a modified command economy and an increasingly layered social order.  And how best to do this?   By copying the Prussian model of public education.

The Prussian way was to train
only a leadership cadre while other students would be taught to fit in their place.  Moreover, fear of European immigrants in the 1840s, specifically Catholics, made it essential to leading industrialists and educators to adopt a system based on three Prussian principles:

  • The state is sovereign, the only 
true parents of children.

  • State appointed teachers are
     the guardians of children.

  • The schoolroom and the
workplace shall be dumbed down
     into simplified fragments.

The Prussian systems explains the
inordinate interest the foundations of Carnegie and  Rockefeller took in shaping early public schooling around compulsory education, which to Gatto, has been from the beginning a scheme of indoctrination designed to create a harmless proletariat held hostage by its addiction to luxury and security.

The Prussian school system relied heavily on the French philosopher August Comté who argued that one could create a useful proletariat by breaking connections between children and their families, their communities, their God and themselves.  Rather than family enterprise and individual effort as the main agencies of personal definition, state institutions would do this better with an army of specialists.

So if the present school system is so awful, how can it be reformed?  Gatto argues that there is no one way to teach, that schooling should be what the parents, community and even the children want it to be, an experiment not codified by the state.  Rather than have standards set by politicians or administrators, schools should survive the market place, much like a business, with plenty of competition.  Before the "Progressive" era of mid 19th century compulsory education laws there was great diversity and autonomy in education rather than one best system which was forced on everyone. Though not a proponent of vouchers, Gatto believes that a portion of school taxes should be given back to parents so they could shop around for better options than public education has to offer.

For schools to be worthwhile they need to have worthwhile goals such as:

  • creating independent, resourceful and fearless citizens

  • tapping the educational power of family life

  • bestowing significance on personal choices

  • arresting the epidemic of alienation and loneliness

  • restoring democracy as a natural mission

  • reversing the growing isolation of social classes

  • regenerating community life

Gatto believes schools can pursue these goals and still teach reading writing and arithmetic.

Gatto, J. (2000) A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, Berkeley Hills Books; ISBN: 1893163210


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