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The 4 Crucial Responsibilities to Accept Before Education Can Occur: Part 3

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The 4 Crucial Responsibilities to Accept

Before Education Can Occur: Part 3

By John Gatto

education5. If Good and Evil are the first responsibility that has to be accepted, the second is the necessity of work. I stress “necessity” because it is independent of personal wealth, cleverness, or genius. Education doesn’t just happen, not even to the brilliant, but is only acquired by active involvement.

We live in a time that despises hard work. We live in a time where most of us avoid productive hard work. There are few jobs that ask for hard work, by which I mean close attention and hard effort over a long period of time, and so this need to find real work is thwarted by synthetic reality. By comparing the small product of personal labor (one hand-knit sweater vs. 100 machine-knit; a small garden plot vs. a thousand tons of vegetables grown with chemicals and machinery) we lose sight of the necessity of hard work, we are not able to grasp its lessons – which go far beyond lessons of production and consumption, lessons which go deep into the mind and character.

Self Control a Prerequisite to Education

The third great responsibility that has to be accepted is development of self control, self mastery. Bureaucratic and military leaders regard that as a matter of following orders, but it is only that to a minor degree. Self control means you are able to follow your own orders. An unwanted byproduct of being constantly disciplined by others is either noticeable servility or regular outbreaks of rage and violence – a phenomenon long exploited by military minds.

In the last 200 or so years the most violent nation on earth has been, not accidentally, the nation which gave lockstep government compulsory schooling to the world. I never get tired of holding that fact up for inspection. A couple of German scholars and writers, Erich Remarque and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had no trouble tracing German fury to the type of school discipline the government institution inculcates in children. Bonhoeffer said that WWII was the inevitable result of good schooling. Remarque attributed WWI to the lies of schoolmasters.

Education and Natural Discipline

One reliable way self-control is learned is from situations which require natural discipline to negotiate successfully. Think of the timeless lessons taught by jumping a horse, or piloting a small boat. In both you may be crippled or killed if you don’t know what you’re doing. Is it any wonder that horses and boats have been the exercises of the ruling class cultures all over the world for thousands of years?

But the lessons of risk-taking needn’t be class-based if we recognize them for what they are – ways to develop and test our self-discipline. Inexpensive analogies are everywhere for those who recognize what is at jeopardy when the obligation of self-discipline is ceded to strangers.

Acceptance of Mortality an Education Prerequisite

The fourth great responsibility which must be accepted as a pre-condition to taking control of life – which is surely the ultimate aim of an education – is the ability to accept loss, in particular losses which arise from your aging and inevitable death. Learning to accept these things with courage, wisdom, and even as a warrior might, with a glad heart.

In our time a childish utopian fantasy has gripped the official imagination, one that argues that death and aging should be regarded as deadly enemies to be avoided. I think that has crippled our collective ability to grow up. The immense amount of human energy and treasure devoted to that futile end keeps too many of us like angry, desperate children. Making death unnatural, lying to children about it, hiding it (supported by the growth of a titanic medical industry based on claims of chemical magic), the growth of a vast cosmetics industry and any number of other fantasy industries. Good for business but not good for the struggle to become fully human and have an education.

Earlier in this century we severed the young and their natural exuberance from our consciousness by locking them away in schools under the direction of strangers. Now we hide from death and aging as if by doing so they would go away. A world without young and old is a sterile, dead place. A world without past or future.

Conclusions on Responsibilities to Accept Before Education Can Occur

6. What I’ve tried to do here is describe a set of conditions which precede and accompany the acquisition of an education. I’ve said that based on my experience as a schoolteacher I don’t think you can become educated without an intimate awareness of right and wrong, without a love for hard work, without a good degree of self control, and without an acknowledgment and acceptance of your personal mortality.

A masterful command of language and numbers is a petty, mechanical trick compared to these things. And when I say that I put stress on the adjective “mechanical.” Having come to worship machines in the days of the French and Scottish Enlightenments we have come also to revere those accomplishments which can be quantified in statistical language, even though quantification in what makes us human is only a charlatan’s trick.

There are few formal schools in the United States set up to allow worthy goals to be pursued – a few but not many – and all of them private schools. Yet wherever I’ve spoken around the country to people courageous and wise enough to do that in the face of substantial opposition by the general culture, I’ve seen these pre-conditions for education being learned.

Now I’d like to close with a personal story. It took me about 25 years of watching children to figure out these principles and feel confident I was on to something. Then one day a few years ago I was talking about my discovery with a woman I met on a boat to Alaska. I was telling her how I had come to study silently my most successful students, students I was attracted to because they acted unknowingly as my own teachers. I’m talking about those kids who command respect from every stratum of the student population just for being the way they are; wherever kids like that exist everyone knows who they are.

Anyway, I was telling this lady I had found these four qualities well-developed in every single one of the truly successful children I’d seen, even though the age group I worked with was mostly only thirteen years old.

She listened to me patiently and when I was finished her face lit up and she said “Genesis!”

“What’s Genesis?” I asked. I was puzzled.

And she repeated, “Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. You just named the four burdens God put on Adam and Eve as the price of being human; they had to leave Eden and accept those penalties you were just talking about, and accept them gladly if they were ever to be redeemed. God said you had to climb over those four obstacles in order to regain Eden, but Science says No, there is no good and evil, you don’t have to work – machines will do it, the right combination of psychological tricks will control behavior, self-discipline is unnecessary, old age can be fixed by medicine, plastic surgery, and prosthetic devices, and death can be postponed until science finds a cure for it.”

As soon as I got back to my cabin I grabbed a Gideon Bible and read Genesis, perhaps for the first time. Sure enough, there it was. Set down thousands of years ago. Whether by human hands or divine you’ll have to decide 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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