Homeschooling for dummies? Not.

by Yule Heibel on September 4, 2004

Some weeks ago held a “homeschooling telephone marathon,” which continued over several days. The morning and afternoon sessions were organised by theme, but John Taylor Gatto‘s conference call was in a class by itself. I didn’t blog about it at the time, and now my sketchy notes don’t give me enough information to produce anything worthwhile here, but as it happens, just announced that you can buy a tape of the conversation for $5. The entire marathon session topics are presented on this page, with Gatto listed in the “Homeschooling Styles” section under his trademark title, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.”

In the course of the conversation, Gatto offered startling perspectives on the historical Prussian school system, along with his usual critical look at America’s. He also shared some real “underbelly” type insights into Charles Darwin’s social context. The latter, a member of a very wealthy and privileged English family, was fully imbued with the anti-Irish ethnicism of his class and group, and it inflected his ideas about evolution — something having to do with “evolutionary dead-ends,” and how the Irish represented such “dead-ends” in the minds of the British elite. It was yet another instance of learning about science’s contexts, and how inquiry is hardly ever value-free. [And it also reminded me of my friend Noel Ignatiev’s work, How the Irish Became White. (Can’t resist: Noel and I share the same birthday… Only person I ever met who was also named for that time of year…) ]

One thing I do remember from Gatto’s talk: he noted that elite American prep schools share a common trait, and it’s not simply that the parents all have high-value stock portfolios, not at all. The common thread — and he emphasised several times that every single president from the 1900s onward, along with most business and political leaders, graduated from such a school — the common thread was an emphasis on “literacy,” a literacy that stressed what Gatto called “active literacy.” Active literacy implies learning public speaking and writing. According to Gatto, you can “develop your mind in an exquisitely adversarial fashion,” (or words to that effect), but if you can’t speak well and write well, who cares? You’re “a prisoner in your own mind” if you don’t get to practice public speaking and writing, and this is the literacy that the elite academies instill, but which most kids in most public schools hardly ever get to practice. It’s also the kind of literacy you need to be an active enfranchised citizen, vs. a drone. He added that in today’s more typical public schools, there is “a whole range of speech settings” that is not allowed, and it means we’re losing people (kids) to the “dumbing down” effect. Anyone familar with Gatto’s work knows that he’s intrigued by the high literacy rate of 18th century America, where it was a common practice for children to have a Bible quote for the day which they would be expected to explicate and argue over or debate at dinner. The sullen, non-verbal teenager, in Gatto’s estimation, is definitely a cultural construct, not a natural, hormonally-driven entity. And while I’m uninterested in bringing Bible quotes back to the dinner table, or even in endlessly rehashing the politics of the day (a discussion that over time will sour your gastric juices and cause heart congestion), there must be more active things for the average citizen do while eating than glueing vacant stares to a tv screen.

What kids dumbed down by schooling can’t do is to think for themselves or ever be at rest for very long without feeling crazy; stupefied boys and girls reveal dependence in many ways easily exploitable by their knowledgeable elders.
If you believe nothing can be done for the dumb except kindness, because it’s biology (the bell-curve model); if you believe capitalist oppressors have ruined the dumb because they are bad people (the neo-Marxist model); if you believe dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model); or that it’s nature’s way of disqualifying boobies from the reproduction sweepstakes (the Darwinian model); or nature’s way of providing someone to clean your toilet (the pragmatic elitist model); or that it’s evidence of bad karma (the Buddhist model); if you believe any of the various explanations given for the position of the dumb in the social order we have, then you will be forced to concur that a vast bureaucracy is indeed necessary to address the dumb. Otherwise they would murder us in our beds.
[More from Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education….]

Practically all of Gatto’s writings are available on his website, but they’re also available for purchase, which makes them handier to read if you don’t like squinting at a computer screen for too long, or if you just want to send some money toward Gatto’s continued efforts.

{ 1 comment }

Mike Golby September 5, 2004 at 5:12 pm

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Woodrow Wilson 1909 (as quoted by Gatto on his site)

“When I have control of native education, I will reform it so that natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them. There is no place for him in European society above the level of certain forms of labour…”

Hendrik Verwoerd 1959

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