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The 4 Crucial Responsibilities to Accept Before Education Can Occur

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The 4 Crucial Responsibilities to Accept

Before Education Can Occur

Part 1

By John Taylor Gatto


John Taylor Gatto

I’ve cast about for some use this schoolteacher can be to an enterprise about education and found a way – I’m going to reflect on what kind of ground educational seeds grow best in, what needs to happen before an education does.

True Education Has Pre-Conditions

1. The pre-conditions of an education came to seem to me – the long I taught school – to be laid in an acceptance of the terms of mortality, that is they appear to be fashioned from an understanding of the obligations which have to be accepted to be fully human. This is a two-stage process, recognizing the obligations first then welcoming them so they are discharged lightly with a glad heart, not in some grudging, mean, or perfunctory way.

The longer I taught school the clearer it became to me that kids who wore their destinies easily – and I saw as many poor kids do that as rich ones – had a chance to be educated as well as schooled. While the others, their classmates, were only being trained like laboratory mice.

I worked in a school and did schooling for nearly 30 years, but I always felt like a fraud when well-meaning people called me an “educator;” to judge whether anyone deserves to be called an educator you need to ask children and even they don’t know whether it’s true or not until after they grow up. You have to see long-range results before you know.

Almost nobody I ever met has a good education. Our schools are a large part of what that’s so, but not for any of the reasons newspapers offer – like bad teachers or bad kids. The reason is that schools by their very nature interfere with necessary preconditions of an education, they interfere with development of a full human consciousness by preempting vast amounts of critical time, and too closely regulating critical experience at exactly the moments in early life when such interventions do most damage. If present government plans to extend schooling backward to the age of four, three, or even two, materialize, I predict that the catastrophe of spirit we currently see in teenagers and young adults will grow worse.

The first one hundred years of American schooling – up until about 1960 – were less culpable in regard to comprehensive expert intervention in young lives because schooling, prior to Sputnik had a strong part-time aspect to it. The hype had not set in yet and there were many different ways to grow up. How many of you are aware, for instance, that in 1959 – just half a century ago – 40% of all American engineers were self-taught? They didn’t have college degrees.

In 1959 families, cultures, and traditions still held central in the lives of children and schooling was a modestly useful adjunct. The great American myths we retailed back in those days, even inside of schools, were of unschooled heroes like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andy Carnegie, Albert Einstein – men who made their way without the benefit of much schooling. But after 1960 all that changed, driven by massive and profitable interventions into children’s lives by big government, big business, big private foundations, big universities, big psychology, and big Utopian thinkers who itched for a programmatic society.

After 1960 there just wasn’t any way to escape comprehensive schooling. Not for most of us.

True Education Is a Matter of Life and Death

2. I am very well schooled, but cannot claim to be well educated. I know I am not. What is missing is something I’ve been pursuing for years, and before I die I hope to recover what schooling kept me from learning: Who I really am. Who my father and mother really were. What our collective history signified.

For sloppy minds the expressions “schooling” and “education” are interchangeable, but most are aware that schooling is a trivial thing, sometimes useful but never essential, while education is a matter of life and death. An educated life is made up of self-determinations, of many free-will decisions courageously made and many penalties courageously accepted. Yet well-schooled people are determined externally by managements, by experts.

When I say education is a matter of life and death I’m trying to indicate something precise; schooling trains you to be obedient to a script written by remote strangers who cannot care (except in the most abstract sense) whether you sink or swim. Education demands you write the script of your own life, frequently with the help of people who or care about you, sometimes alone.

Never make the mistake of thinking that a college degree gives you an education. Don’t think you are educated because you have an official title. Those are traps for the well-schooled to fall into. A strong indication that education is happening occurs when you find yourself increasingly challenging the premises of experts or suspending judgment until you can check things out for yourself.

(c) 1995 John Taylor Gatto

The Art of EducationJohn Taylor Gatto was a New York State Teacher of the Year who tendered his resignation via an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Author of several books, including The Underground History of American Education, John wrote this timeless piece in 1995 as a foreword for Linda Dobson’s first book, The Art of Education: Reclaiming Your Family, Community and Self.


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