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There has been quite a bit going on lately that has caused me to think about what we consider education in this country right now. Mississippi’s school system has recently been outed for the racist, homophobic set up that it is. As if the treatment of Constance McMillen wasn’t enough it has come to light that a Nettleton school has race requirements for who can run for class officers. I am embarrassed at my state’s behavior in these cases. Yet, we are not alone in our disregard for the needs of students. A recent report has shown that fewer than half of all black males graduate from high school.

“…the rate at which Black males are being pushed out of school and into the pipeline to prison far exceeds the rate at which they are graduating…”

The findings are in the 2010 Schott Foundation Report and although they do mention some individual successes in New Jersey and Maryland the reality is dismal. How did we get here? Substandard curriculum, bullies, drugs, overcrowded schools, poorly trained and inexperienced teachers, how did it all go down the tubes so fast? It seems like we had an education system the world could envy not too long ago. Yet, today I look around and we are truly failing these children. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, all have predictably low graduation rates for black males but even states like Colorado and Washington are falling down on the job. Overall drop-out rates have risen for the second year in a row. In the midst of this failure we are cutting education. The economic meltdown America has experienced has caused state revenues to drop by astounding proportions. School districts long ago stopped trimming fat and started cutting into the real meat of our system.

If ever there was a time ripe for reform this is it. We need it. We won’t be able to compete in the new world economy without it. With that in mind I would like to introduce my readers (all four of you:) ) to John Taylor Gatto.

John Taylor Gatto

Gatto is the New York Teacher of the Year who quit on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal back in ’91 and went to work trying to reform our education system. In his Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling he says, “I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time, I became an expert in boredom.” His body of work presents some very good ideas about how we got here. There is plenty of blame to go around, too. Students are bored, teachers are bored, why wouldn’t they be? Teachers themselves are products of the same sucky schools that are failing our children now. As Gatto says, “By the time I finally retired in 1991, 1 had more than enough reason to think of our schools-with their long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students and teachers-as virtual factories of childishness.” I couldn’t agree more. The remarkable thing is it was all set up like this. Gatto offers evidence that “From the beginning, there was purpose behind forced schooling, purpose which had nothing to do with what parents, kids, or communities wanted. Instead, it was forged out of what a highly centralized corporate economy and system of finance bent on internationalizing itself was thought to need; that, and what a strong, centralized political State needed, too. School was looked upon from the first decade of the twentieth century as a branch of industry and a tool of governance.” You can read his essay Some Lessons From the Underground History of American Education for some great quotes on this. Quotes like Woodrow Wilson:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

The bottom line seems to be that we have arrived at the current state of affairs by no accident and it is only by intense effort at change that we will lift ourselves from this slippery slope of systemic failure. We have to accept that this is not just about parental failings, nor about money, nor about teacher training and salaries. It’s an entire way of life we have to rethink. We do not need schools to prepare children for manual labor jobs anymore. We do not need childhood unnaturally lengthened. We do need real education, not just compulsory prison for those under 18. Gatto has described the system as a “diseased empire.” All empires crumble, this one’s time is at hand if we care about our future. Do what you can. Read, learn, promote change, release your children from the bonds of school, but make no mistake, the people who set this system up had no problem jamming your children into their scheme- one size fits all- No child Left Alone. Their lofty visions are not humane ones. I like how Gatto puts it,

“only the fresh air from millions upon millions of freely made choices will create the educational climate we need to realize a better destiny…..But here is a warning: should we ever agree to honor the singularity of children which forced schooling contravenes, if we ever agree to set the minds of children free, we should understand they would make a world that would create and re-create itself exponentially, a world complex beyond the power of any group of managers to manage. Such free beings would have to be self-managing. And the future would never again be easily predictable.”

We must deconstruct forced schooling, minimize indoctrination, free universal libraries, sponsored apprenticeships for the young that want them, maximize access to tools, labs, mentors. “Reform” is not enough to save us, the entire notion of schooling must be changed.

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