Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I don't be dumb...

John Taylor Gatto has a book with some pretty interesting points to make about the U.S. public school system. It's called "Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling". I like it and recommend it as it's a quick read, about 104 pages.

In his second chapter, The Psychopathic School, he gives a list of traits that all his students have, it's obviously meant to provoke rage and/or outrage, but I decided to answer it as if I took it seriously and he would read my response...

I suppose I can only answer what has been written about me by you, Mr. Gatto.

Namely that I was:

1. indifferent to the adult world

2. lacking in curiosity

3. possessed of a poor sense of the future

4. ahistorical

5. cruel to my contemporaries

6. uneasy with intimacy or candor

7. materialistic

8. dependent, passive and timid in the presence of new challenges

That’s a lot of name calling. I guess it was done as bait for responses. This tactic has failed in my case. Even though I find myself writing this, it is not truly of my own volition, I’m doing it to get a grade, so that I might end the cycle of debt in which I find myself firmly ensconced.

The reason that your invective couldn’t snare me is because of the sheer percentage of its inaccuracy. Applying those “standards” to myself, your aim doesn’t even compare favorably to blind fire. I’ll go through this with you step by step.

I was not indifferent to the adult world. As a child entering my K-12 experience in 1979, in Buffalo, N.Y. where the death of the steel industry meant that my father was “paying” our way by racking up obscene credit card debt while working at a car wash. I often intercepted the mail and pondered the same question I ask myself today, “Where is the money going to come from”? This happened so often that my mother took to hiding the mail from me, and netted me my first memorable lecture about how I should enjoy my childhood, and not be in a hurry to “grow up”. This was by no means the last lecture I would receive in that area, and like many other adults, there are many times that I wished I had followed their advice.

Had I been any curiouser, I doubt I would be writing this right now. In the seconds I took typing that sentence I thought of at least five near death experiences I had indulging my curiosity. Sure, you want an example, ok: I’m 12 or 13 and I’m on my first paper route and the street is adjacent to the Kensington expressway, and across from some sort of contractor supply store. I go across the street and amongst the trash and surplus castoffs I find a good amount of thick twine. I am amazed at how strong the stuff is, I pull, prod, bash, saw, and otherwise test it’s endurance to the limits of my abilities. But I’m frustrated by the pitiful amount of stress I can generate with my human body. Suddenly as if hit by a bolt of inspiration, I realize that tons of destructive potential were yards away from… the express way! All I had to do is lash the twine back and froth from the guard rail to the median and back, and I could see how many ‘loops’ I had to make to significantly alter traffic, brilliant! All I had to do is scale 18 foot embankment and time the highway speed traffic. Oh, I’d need both my hands for climbing, so in order to transport the twine to the top, I’d have to wrap it around my waist. I get to the top, avoid getting hit by any cars, and I made one loop. Eagerly awaiting a car I ran across the street to get a vantage point and the first car snapped the twine as if it wasn’t there. I repeated the experiment as I designed it, went back and did two, then three, then four loops with the same result. I think it was when I got to six or seven back and fort loops that I finally had my breakthrough… of stupidity. I was standing across the street admiring my handiwork, when finally a car that hit the twine slowed down noticeably. Unfortunately for me, in my excitement to climb down, and get to my viewing post, I had forgot to unwrap the residual twine from around my waist and the car didn’t break all the twine, it was being dragged, and as the excess line soon payed out, so was I. Across the street on my belly slamming into the wall, I was dragged straight up and over the lip, headfirst towards the ONCOMING TRAFFIC ON THE EXPRESSWAY. I was thinking, “this is going to be such a stupid way to die”, when about 18 inches, no more than two feet from the pavement with it’s accompanying high speed traffic, the twine finally snapped.

I think it is impossible to have a poor sense of the future when you and everyone you know are constantly saving for something. I actually think that is the difference between the lowest part of the middle class and the lower class; that hope and expectation that there is better to be had or earned. So, we were saving for school portraits or the camping trip, or whatever; you knew your actions today affected your opportunities tomorrow.

I don’t know how much a child below a certain threshold of understanding is supposed to sense or even know past predetermination. I do know that if you grew up as a minority, you were made painfully aware of the role the past played in your life. Why don’t I look like the white kids at school…Because their ancestors were too lazy to work for themselves… Where did all the Indians go…Their ancestors were killed by the same people who didn’t have time to work for themselves… Why did Amy’s parents tell her she couldn’t play with me anymore…Because they’re scared she might like you… Why can’t she like me, I like her, what’s wrong with that…Nothing's wrong with that, or you, something’s wrong with them. That last one is a question/response I went through in kindergarten.

All children are cruel to the extent that they are honestly competitive and honestly opinionated. Kids call spades, spades. They’ll tell you that you’re dirty, or that you smell ‘funny’, or that you wore those pants yesterday. If part of being civilized is knowing when to lie, then kids aren’t fully civilized. It’s learned behavior, and learning takes time. They’re minors and should have that level of responsibility.

As with the last charge, I’m not going to refute this one, but say that I do think children are candid (see my previous answer). As far as intimacy, I think true intimacy can only be achieved by post pubescent minds, once again, children aren’t fully civilized. Honestly, childhood is filled with seemingly arbitrary relationships for reasons that you poorly understand (go to school, go to church, go to ‘place X’... Why? ), the only people you could be said to have any intimacy with are your parents but since children don’t even see their parents as people but as immutable forces of nature, even that doesn’t count.

Materialism, like any behavior, is learned behavior. It is also simple behavior rooted in a simple concept, more. This means that it is easy to understand and copy, making it prime material for early adoption by developing minds. The problem isn’t learning materialism from society (it’s a sign of a good mind that can adapt to where it lives), but from not being taught that is primitive and not the ‘be all/end all’. Once again my background didn’t allow me to have a lot of things. This didn’t stop me from wanting lots of things. Oddly enough it was a TV show that my mother liked that soured me on the whole idea of acquisition for acquisition’s sake – Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I would look at the diamond encrusted gold dog bowls, and think about how many months of rent that could pay or pencils it could buy, and think the dog doesn’t care as long as it gets fed, then I turned that thought on myself. It doesn’t matter what brand, as long as it performs the function it’s supposed to, and if I know the information, why does your opinion of my depth of knowledge matter (what letter you’ve decided to grade me)?

Timid, passive and dependent… Nah, wrong again John. You didn’t have time to be timid. Kids are competitive, remember? You didn’t want to be the last person to ‘get’ something, or you would’ve been exposed to some of that ‘cruelty’ that abounds within our hallowed halls for being ‘slow’. Passive and dependent can take the same hike – textbook completion. I always read ahead in the textbook, because I wanted to know more; that can’t be dependent, because that’s independent behavior. For the same reason it can’t be passive, because I was actively reading ahead into unassigned material with no prompting or even a syllabus telling me that I was going to need to read chapter whatever by some date.

This leads me to say that I wasn’t alienated at all, in any way that I felt was important at the time. In retrospect, I was alienated from the adults in the various schools I went to, not from myself or my contemporaries, or even the older or younger students. I think it’s funny because the reason I was alienated from my instructors (for the most part, there were a few good ones) was that they never asked for my input. All the instructors that I remember fondly are the ones who spoke to me and not at me. The teachers who correctly assumed I had a functional brain and that I might be interested in exercising it on occasion while in a place of learning.

My final topic is differentiation. I think any teacher worth the title can divide their classes into zones of aptitude. I experienced it in most of my K-12 career. The problem is what the teachers do, or even what they can do with that information. It seems that nowadays if you even have the appearance of unevenhandedness you’ll be crucified on the cross of the cookie cutter. Everyone knows that everyone isn’t the same, so you are going to have differences everywhere, even in the classroom. If Johnny consistently earns a C while Billy consistently earns an A that doesn’t mean that the teacher is mean or unfair, but societal pressure make it seem like that is the case. So the teacher has to go through this charade of equal treatment when it’s obvious that the two students need to be treated differently. The teacher, under considerable pressure not only to give grades, but give good grades while teaching only one curriculum can either fudge Johnny’s grades or fudge the whole course so that Johnny can earn at least a B. I can’t imagine a large number of teachers opting for the first option, but I do blame the latter option for some of our nation’s educational ineptitude.


PJ said...

You absolutely nailed it! I couldn't have said it better myself. I won't disagree with people who say public schools are failing, but I will point out that they are failing due to the removal competition and insertion of bullshit, "everyone is a unique snowflake" psycho-babble crap.

And that comes from someone with 3 kids in a public school.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Loved your way of framing diagnosis and assessments as name-calling, and still chuckling over your line, “this is going to be such a stupid way to die.” Thanks.