Belabored Birthday Brain Baring

posted Nov 13, 2002

Warning... the following is going to be a very, very "bloggy" entry. Basically, this post has no thesis, because I'm not sure what I'd want to say.

First, today (Nov. 13) is my 24th birthday. This doesn't directly relate to the rest of this post, but it might put an interesting spin on it.

This Monday, the good Doc posted a link to The Underground History of American Education: An Angry Look at Modern Schooling by John Taylor Gatto. I've only gotten to chapter two in the online book, but I've seen what he has to say before, in shorter form. You may want to read at least the first chapter for the rest of this to make sense.

Mega-short summary: The school system itself is intrinsically broken. As I read it, he would advocate a return to the more informal, flexible, self-motivated education in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries, and makes a pretty good case of it, showing it to be superior in every way to our current system.

I've been resistent to his solutions in the past, mostly out of normal intellectual intertia (a radical idea should not be accepted instantly), but I can't deny his diagnosis and prognosis of the current system. It's horribly, horribly broken, and the worst way in which it is broken is that it is, as Gatto describes, a religion. No school reform proposal can be seriously tabled that doesn't effectively leave the system as is, or even strengthen it. The idea that there may be something much better, or that the system may be a net negative, is so non-mainstream it's not even mocked... it's simply never thought. I wish him well in his efforts, he faces a truly monumental task in reforming a system that is the living incarnation of the word entrenched.

Slowly, as I've thought about it, though, I've come to recognize that he may be more correct then most of us would like to admit. For one thing, I'm still invested in the system, for another few months, before I kiss formal schooling good-bye, and it's hard to look back at what is currently my entire life and chalk it up as an effective waste of time. But with honest examination, I've come to realize that until very recently, the value of school in my life has been effectively negative (in the sense that it could easily have been spent several times better).

Gatto shows that one aspect of school is indeed conformity generation, as we really already know. We joke about it like it isn't true, but it is. I lucked out, though I didn't think so at the time. My parents started me out with reading to me, and working with basic math skills, etc. In fact I recall the one day in Kindergarten I learned something: The teacher accidentally used the word "opposite" and had to explain it to us, which was new to me. In addition, I was not good at athletics, probably due to something I only figured out in high school: I'm nearsighted in one eye, not enough to require glasses, not enough for me to even notice, but enough to scramble my depth perception, rendering most sports very difficult. I also have very, very bad teeth due to a breathing problem which was only diagnosed years later, causing me to sleep with my mouth open all night. Three strikes: Knowing things, bad at sports, ugly... well, at least not good looking. ;-)

I was out. To fit in, I would have had to at a minimum stop knowing things. Instead, I effective dropped out of the social arena entirely, as much as my taunters would let me. It was quite literally not until fourth grade that I would have somebody I would describe as a "friend".

I say these things to show how completely I'd disconnected from the whole system, not in pain or for therapeutic value. I've long since dealt with it. What I mean to show is that I went to school, I sat there, and while I can't claim it didn't affect me, because it certainly did, I did resist it to a large degree. I never really absorbed the implicit social messages that everyone else did.

What's interesting to me in hindsight, and after reading Gatto's opinion, is what I did out of school, where according to the official society line, I should have been doing nothing of educational value without the prompting of school. I read... a lot. The deeper, the better. Fiction or non, either was fine. I learned a lot just with that; one humorous memory I cherish was an child's encyclopedia salesman coming to the house when I was in eigth grade (I think). My mother let him in with the intent of being polite and sending him on his way, but unfortunately, I was home and the salesman lost no time in showing me his wares, much to my mother's disappointment as I made it harder to shove him out the door. (Simpler times, when salesmen could get the time of day from us...) These books were supposed to be useful through high school, but after ten minutes of flipping around the books, I observed that I hadn't seen anything that I didn't already know, which pretty much ended the pitch. (Believe me, whoever wrote those books had a pretty low opinion of the modern high-school student; we're not talking a work that will stand for the ages here.)

What else was I doing? I was playing with my Commodore 64, and in high school, the 486, not just playing games, but learning how things work. The one thing I regret in hindsight is not having better tools, documentation, or awareness that such things would have been useful. (I feel sure I would have at least dabbled with assembly programming on the C64 in middle school, if I had had docs; I had the assembler on a cartridge, and had toyed with it enough to lock up the machine.) All of these things that were supposed to challenge a high schooler or even college student, yet were in reality picked up by an isolated school-age child. In high-school, I dabbled with 3D graphics (via POVray), music composition with MOD players and later a MIDI keyboard, small programs (wish I'd found Python back then), telecommunications, and a few other things, too. Summers were always more interesting then the winters.

Extending beyond myself, anytime someone trusted the "children" to do something, it turns out they could. The local stage tech leader gave a nearly free reign to the high-school group, and they routinely pulled off wonders. They were banned from entering floats in the town's fair parade, because it showed up all the other ones. (Of course that wasn't the stated reason, but it was an open secret.) The one I remember seeing was a train, with moving wheels, several other moving parts, and a working train whistle. Similar projects always turned out well; I remember learning the basics of AutoCAD to help with a math project in 10th grade, because nobody said we couldn't.

Gatto's theories, and also his experiencse (he won a national Good Teacher award of some kind for his extra activities, which he talks about), really make sense of my past, where the best accomplishments I remember were at best only related to schooling because we happened to meet there. I remember little of value from anything else. The only things I remember are the occasions where a good teacher was willing to challenge me directly, rather then sticking to the cirriculum, such as when one of my sixth grade teachers had me read a whole book series for a book project we were doing, instead of a single book. (Hi, Ms. Gillingham, if you're reading this!)

Gatto's work really put my last twenty years into perspective, and while I am sorry I've lost so much time, I am relieved that I haven't lost as much as I could. I've never let school provide my motivation.

Gatto's theories also provide an interesting focus on my current situation. I've been struggling lately with the question of "Why must I bother?" (Subtlety different from the more common question of "Why do I bother?") Why do I do so much stuff on the side (and that's just the stuff I publish, which is no more then half of what I've done), with no significant positive feedback from anybody in particular? Why do I learn so much stuff, many of which have never been covered in a class or work environment? (Yes, that's a link to my resume, but that's not why I learned all those technologies; putting them on my resume is an incidental side-effect.) Why am I working on my current project in my spare time, when I could just be playing video games and boozing it up like my peers, who seem to be happy to do that whenever they don't have homework and often when they do? And most importently, why can't I just drop my stuff and start slacking off? With my lifestyle, it's not like I need The World's Best Paying Computer Job, I'd be satisfied with much less. While I do anticipate eventually reaping the benefits of this policy, I don't really feel it in my gut, it's just an abstract belief. Why does stopping make me feel antsy after a few days?

I guess the answer is that the spark hasn't been crushed out of me, because I really do enjoy my projects. While I feel I've finally gotten to the first level of education that is really worth while (and a good thing, because there's not much left after grad school), and I finally feel I'm learning more in class then I could learn out of it, I still consider homework little more then an imposition, a distraction from my job (interesting) or my hobby work and learning. I still have the drive to learn and do. Reading Gatto's work makes me depressed about my past, but has in some odd way re-inforced my conviction and motivation to keep doing what I'm doing in the present, even in the absense of feedback.

I guess I'd close this somewhat rambly posting with a recommendation to read at least the first chapter of The Underground History of American Education: An Angry Look at Modern Schooling, and to give it serious consideration over time. Even if you don't accept everything he says, I think there's enough there to at least provide a lot of food for thought.


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