Self-Alienation: The Hidden Agenda of Traditional Schooling

A Reflection onA Different Kind of Teacherby John Taylor Gatto

Schools are harming individuals. They are cutting them off from real life and true education. This is the main argument John Taylor Gatto makes in his book “A Different Kind of Teacher”. After 30 years of being a teacher, and fifty-three years of being in schools, Gatto realized the dangers and consequences of coercive schooling.

The notion that children should be controlled in order to shape their thoughts, in order to avoid rebellion, to create stability and to control in society, was introduced 500 years ago. However, it was not until the eighteenth century Prussia that it became a reality. As an instrument of war, Frederick the Great, developed a new schooling system to achieve “human machinery upon the state for its mission and purpose”.

Prussian education soon became an international obsession, and soon “The British Empire” adopted the system as well. This idea — the one of controlling and shaping minds — eventually reached United States. But how did it get there in the first place? During that time, a lot of young Americans studied in Germany, and when they returned, they came back enamored with the idea that you could achieve a better society through schooling. Influenced by Positivism, which was developed by August Comte, the American authorities believed that “the state would teach us how to live in the emerging beehive world, a world which must abandon both true individualism and natural families for a higher purpose.”

Before rationalism and positivism, God was the only supremacy over individuals. However, both of these currents of thought stated that the concept of God was impossible and irrational. This dominance over individuals, created a bridge to for people to stop depending on God and start depending on the State, which was viewed as a “reasonable” belief. The State became idealized. After overcoming the obstacle of religion, the State had to think about how to surpass the authority of parents or family, and the individual nature of each child, making it loyal to the government.

Implementing this schooling system and selling it as a medium to be liberated from ignorance, children were removed from their parents. Being confined in a room and treated like prisoners, the state took away the children’s individuality, making them part of a collective. The objective was for the children to love its synthetic parent, the State. It is shocking to see how individuals gave up their own judgments and fought for whatever the State said was good, an example he gives is that of Nazism, where most individuals didn’t judge by their own whether something was morally correct or not — their thoughts were fabricated by the authority. Of course, fear also played a huge role in stopping individuals from acting or rebelling. The State took control of everything, it was a situation as the one described in 1984 by George Orwell. Everyone lived by motto, “do what the Sate says or be doomed”.

The State has lost its power over the years. However, the characteristics of this kind of schooling remain mainstream even after 200 years.

How is that this compulsory system harms children? First of all, this system is developing dependent individuals who don’t discover their true selves, and don’t rely on their own judgment. They are passive and disciplined individuals who depend on the approval of someone else. It is important to remark that this was what the school system was intended for in the first place.

Gatto presents a remarkable distinction between the purpose of schooling and that of education — they are opposites. On one hand, “schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.” This environment is controlled and it’s made to fulfill the purposes of others. On the other hand, education “describes efforts largely self-initiated for the purpose of taking charge of your life wisely and living in a world you understand. The educated state is a complex tapestry woven out of broad experience, grueling commitments, and substantial risk-taking.”

Schooling is anti-life and anti-human nature. On the other hand, education fosters life and human nature. Gatto proposes to change the purpose of schooling and return to the kind of learning that successful people like Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci, and George Washington experienced. The core of their development as life-long learners was knowing themselves and learning from mentors — having apprenticeships with experts. There’s a common trait in successful individuals — they are “independent, self-reliant, confident, and individualistic”.

Since self-knowledge is the only basis for true knowledge, Gatto suggests including 3 crucial threads in education: independent study, community service, and field curriculum. Independent study involves children choosing a project of their own, which could be from building a small business to reading a book. The teacher and parents monitor this project, and the main objective is for the children to acquire certain skills that will empower him to be more independent and self-reliant. Community service is about getting children to expose themselves in the community, to understand the culture in which they inhabit. This is achieved it by visiting hospitals, animal shelters or building a public gardens, among others. And lastly, field curriculum, which are research projects outside school that are lead by a teacher. For example, researching about market behaviors.

We need to get children out the school cells and experience the dynamism of life and the world! However, there is a bigger problem in reforming public schools, which is government. First of all, reforming the schooling system would mean an economic tragedy. A lot of people would be out of jobs, and the whole system that feeds millions, including politicians, would crumble apart. However, I think that harnessing individual potential is much worse than getting people out of jobs. And besides, if millions of individuals are empowered to pursue their own projects, they’ll create millions of jobs. Anyways, the government does play a part in making these changes happen.

A crucial way of indoctrinating minds is through textbooks, which of course are edited so that the children learn what the State wants them to learn. Why don’t we use regular books? What is it about books that create unpredictable outcomes in society? Schoolbooks always have a “critical thinking” appendix that guides students to ask and answer the same questions. It doesn’t require much thinking. One just has to look at the text and the answers are already there. In distinction, “real books don’t ask questions; they let readers actively participate with their own questions. Real books are deeply subversive of collectivization. They are the best-known way to escape herd behavior, because they are vehicles transporting the reader into deep caverns of absolute solitude where nobody else can visit. No two people ever read the same great book. Real books disgust the totalitarian mind because they generate uncontrollable mental growth — and it cannot be monitored.”

Most teachers under the schooling system lack intellectual ambition, they usually repeat the process of indoctrination with every new group they give classes to. There’s no appreciation of the fact that individuals are unique and learn in different ways. And they have no incentives to recognize that either. Actually, most teachers who try to do things differently and think outside the box usually get fired. Gatto advocates that we need to reinvent teachers, with the understanding that “a different kind of teacher would help kids design original experiments, test hypotheses, and search for truth. Imagine millions of children unleashed to follow the road to discovery in uniquely personal ways”. Teaching is a human connection between people, it goes beyond just giving a monologue on what you memorized.

Schoolbooks and passive teachers are just a couple of examples of how schools shape the mind of children. The system also punishes questions, creativity, and contrary opinions. There is no struggle, adventure or challenge in learning. There is no genuine education.

Probably the solution isn’t changing the traditional system. The solution is creating new environments of learning to compete with traditional schooling. As Gatto says, let the free market decide who are the good teachers and what are the good schools, let parents choose what’s best for their children! We need education, not schooling.

A true educated person knows himself in a profound way; “self-discovery is at the bottom of being somebody real.” Your development, education and learning experience depends entirely on you. Only you can do it for yourself, and the best way to do it is by experiencing the world as it is. School somehow takes away precious time that we will never get back. Children lose twelve years of their lives being passive and indoctrinated. We should be aware that “time is preciously finite”.

Our learning journey should be left unplanned by authorities. Everybody should be free to choose how they want their education experience to be. Let individuals succeed by coming to terms with the deepest elements of their personality and pursue their passions by learning from others and themselves. Let them be free and allow them find their own truths to take responsibility of their lives.

“If you are willing to concede that people want and need different things, and further to concede that individuals must almost always be the judges of what is best for their development if we are to have a free society”.
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