Gatto’s Scorched Earth Solution to School Reform

This is from Chapter 4 from Gatto’s book “Dumbing Us Down”. The chapter is titled “We Need Less School, Not More”.

Let me start with the last lines from the chapter, his ultimate solution to fixing schools:

“Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole business — trust the free market system. I know it’s easier said than done, but what other choice do we have? We need less school, not more” (Gatto, p.145)

This is one of the most radical solutions I’ve read. Unlike other reform advocates, he’s not talking about curriculum design, teacher training, or accountability. He wants to blow up the whole thing. Awesome, I say. Now let me take you through the first part of the chapter to see why he’s come to this solution.

First: the school is a product of and propagator of “networks”. And you guessed it, networks are evil. The network is positioned directly in opposition of the community and family. Relationships in communities and families are based on love, respect, whole-person understanding and all the other human affirming qualities we have. Relationships in networks are based on shared interests and mutual benefit.

You are born into a community and family and your job as a human is to find your place within in and ultimately to live harmoniously with others in it. All members of the communities and families are whole persons worthy of love and respect. Think about your annoying little brother. As annoying as he is, you still love him.

On the other hand, networks only care about one thing: what you offer. You choose (or sometimes are forced) into a network and you either make yourself useful or are relegated to the outside. Think about that kid in class that never contributes during groupwork; you develop a hatred for him. Because he’s doesn’t do anything to help your team achieve some arbitrary objective. Like a bad employee, he needs to go. But in this case, going means being villified by his peers. Notice, it’s the artificial environment of the school that induces the hatred.

“Networks like schools are not communities […] By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables — and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways — network schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with their humanity intact.” (Gatto, p.51)

Gatto is essentially saying, through schooling, we forget (or never learn) how to value or love people for who they are, but only by what they do for us. The kicker is we that shine this spotlight back onto ourselves and come to define out own worth based on what we can contribute. And contribute to what? Contribute to whom? Abstractions: government, nation, god. At the expense of what? Real human contact and emotion.

“The pathological state which eventually develops out of these [networks] is a feeling that your “friends” and “colleagues” don’t really care about you beyond what you can do for them, that they have no curiosity about the way you manage your life, no curiosity about your hopes, fears, victories, defeats” (Gatto, p.53)

There’s the first reason we need less schools, not more. Schools propagate network structures at the expense of family and community structures. Following closely from this is the second reason for less schooling. Schools promote institutional living, rather than individual living.

Institutional living means surrendering your life, your goals, your relationships for the livelihood of the institution, to work for institutional goals and to value only your relationship with the institution. Think about what happens when a young person is asked to go to war for his nation. He is asked to put aside his whole family (wife, children, parents, cousins, etc.). You’re going to put a heavy strain on your marriage, damage your relationship with your child, and see your parents far less than you otherwise would. The person is also asked to put aside his own aspirations. Forget painting, writing, exploring. Just forget it. But that’s nothing compared to the ultimate demand of the institution, which is to give up your spot on this earth altogether. You will die. For the institution. Without ever realizing your full, or even half, potential, as a human being.

“Institutional life have demanded a role above and beyond service to families and communities. They have sought to command and prescribe as kings used to do, though there is an important difference. In the case of ancient kings, once beyond the range of their voices and trumpets you could usually do what you pleased; but in the case of modem institutions, the reach of technology is everywhere — there is no escape if the place where you live and the family you live in cannot provide sanctuary.” (Gatto, p.54)

The third step in Gatto’s argument against schools is that, as an institution, schools are psychopathic. They will never be able to serve human needs. They have no conscience, nevermind compassion or sensibility. No matter how well-intentioned institutional goals claim or want to be, they will never live up to it. Their stated goals will only ever be undermined by their modus operandi. Like an Edwards Scissor hands trying to caress a baby, it’s not going to happen.

“No matter how good the individuals who manage an institution are, institutions lack a conscience because they measure by accounting methods. Institutions are not the sum total of their personnel, or even of their leadership, but are independent of both and will exist after management has been completely replaced. They are ideas come to life, ideas in whose service all employees are but servomechanisms. The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks are to regulate and to make uniform.” (Gatto, p.145)

So now we’ve gone fairly deep into Gatto’s argument. But here’s not even finished there! I won’t go much deeper into it because this is a blog post. But in the rest of his chapter he goes even deeper to pull out the irrational logic of schools. That when trying to strengthen families, they actually weaken it. That when trying to gets kids to learn more, they make kids dumber. That when trying to better utilize children’s time, they actually just waste it. His contempt for school becomes quite clear.

“We should begin thinking about school reform by stopping these places from functioning like cysts, impenetrable, insular bodies that take our money, our children, and our time and give nothing back.” (Gatto, p.145)

Ultimately, I think Gatto is coming from a good place. For Gatto, education is all about discovering your individuality, finding that spark inside yourself that makes life worth living, and avoiding being sucked into the vortex of institutional living. Schools, on the other hand, turn you into a conformist, usurp your personal goals for institutional ones, and turn you into something only fit for an industrial society. So, what to do? The short answer is to de-institutionalise schools. I’ll save this long answer for another post.

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