education philosopher

Reflections on Gatto

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on June 8, 2009

About 6 weeks ago, I read and reviewed (for amazon.com) John Taylor Gatto’s book “Weapons of Mass Instruction.” [The review and subsequent comments can be seen here.] In the book, Gatto offers a sustained critique of American compulsory public education and espouses a more libertarian approach to education; what he terms “open source education,” where parents and children are free to get education through any variety of means, be they private schools, homeschool, apprenticeships, etc.

While I am very politically libertarian, I did not review the book kindly and while I believe individulals should be free to educate their children how they see fit, Gatto’s approach is too “Rousseauean” for my tastes. Anyhow, my review has provoked several critical comments along a similar theme: where I fault Gatto for his romantic view that children learn best when left free to pursue their own interests, others fault me for holding that children should not be granted such freedom.

A public school teacher, for instance, writes that he  “empathize with students who should not be in school or who should not be forced to do crap they neither want or need,” and that he “now see[s] more clearly the delineation between learning out of compulsion and learning out of desire.” Another reader – advocating homsechooling – suggests that one should “wait until the child is ready or shows interest and then use that interest as the spring board for teaching.”

Again, I am quite sympathetic towards a libertarian view of education, where education might be best suited to each invididual child (as judged by his or her parents). But I am quite against the Rousseauean idea that children, if left to pursue only what is in their interest, will learn what they need to know in order to be considered “well educated.”

Obviously, no one wants to deny that interest can be a huge factor in students’ ability to learn. We all know that students will learn best what interests them, and every teacher realizes that even the hardest-to-teach student can probably spout quite amazing knowledge about the subject(s) that interest them.

But current educational theory often takes this too far (as does Gatto). The reviewers quoted above are simply taking the Rousseauan vision currently in vogue and repeating it. The myth is that we should only teach it if the child is interested in it, and if they are not, they shouldn’t be expected to learn it.

To put it bluntly, I think this takes far too optimistic a view of childhood. As coercive as it sounds, anyone whose ever been a (decent) parent knows that children must sometimes be made to do what they would not ordinarily do. We make them eat what they do not recognize is good for them, punish them for habits they erroneously think are in their best interest (smoking, cheating, breaking laws, etc.) And just as we force students to eat vegetables because they do not yet realize the long-term value of good health, we force them to learn math and government because they do not yet realize the value of doing so (and the mistake of not doing so).

While some children may be mature enough to realize that they need to learn x, y, and z to prepare for the real world, students who have not yet experienced the real world cannot very well be expected to knkow what such a beast demands. And there is a big chasm between what kids want to learn and what they may need to learn in order to live good lives.

I am not sure why the Rousseauan fantasy (in more and less extreme variants) is so alive and well, but I think it is time we rethink this view. As libertarian as I am, I cannot see “wait[ing] until the child is ready or shows interest and then use that interest as the spring board for teaching,” as any more effective than having a sports coach tell the team to practice “only those drills that interest them.” Just as this would obviously lead to an ill-prepared and undisciplined sports team, it would lead to an equally undisciplined and ill-prepared mind.

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