The civilized world got along fine without institutional schooling for 2000 years, progressing from grass shacks, caves, and donkey carts to Duesenbergs, space rockets and mansions, so why did mankind require such a prison as confinement schools for its children in the 19th century, unless it found a reason to hate and fear the young all of a sudden? How were the young educated in all the centuries before? Could we do it again if we had a good reason to do so? Happy, self-sustaining adult lives? Wouldn’t that work today and save us a world of money and grief? I’m serious. Why then and not now? Seriously. Do not evade the question. How is it that Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Edison could do without, and not us?
As a longtime public school teacher, I ended my teaching career as New York State’s official “Teacher of the Year” in 1991, voted that honor by the state education department. Prior to that award, I had, on three occasions from 1989 to 1991, been named New York City’s “Teacher of the Year” by three different organizations. Why me?; what exactly did I know? The same thing I’m trying to teach you now, that if you restore dignity and meaning to children’s lives that algebra will take care of itself. The young most of all need vitamin L (for Liberty). What success I enjoyed as a public school teacher came from being powerfully goaded and inspired to self-examination by two enlightening stimuli: 1) from reading John Holt’s most radical book, Escape From Childhood, (hey, I bet you read it too) where he calls into question the absurd idea that confining students to chairs has any educational value, and 2) from having the good fortune to personally know two homeschooling families who had the courage needed to “unschool” their children, allowing the young to decide what to study, when and how to study it, “making it up as they went along” in the memorable words of Chris Mercogliano, co-director of the private Albany Free School, in his book of that title. Read it to learn how you’ve been flummoxed, euchred, suckered, and bamboozled by school propaganda into thinking, delusionally, that your sons and daughters must have what John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison knew they did not need. What fools our masters made of us! The entire human race got to where it is today school-free; we could go on that same road, too, if not in collective groups, then one family at a time.
Crazy as that sounds to people who have been conditioned to minutely pre-plan their lives far in advance, such free-form gambles in pursuit of education were common back in colonial times, when large numbers of prominent families trusted to their own common sense, instead of to professional pedagogy, in planning education for the young. Feedback obtained from rigorous self-examination and from close observation of the real world was considered sufficient data from which to put together a worthwhile course of study as proper foundations for acquiring and sustaining independent, satisfying adult lives; in fact, it’s rare to encounter a colonial boy or girl who did not follow what in our day would be regarded as the unschooling path.
David Farragut, first admiral in the American navy, and Ben Franklin, our boy wonder polymath, both followed the common educational route of their day “making it up bit by bit” as they went along, learning through real work experience, adventure, emulation, and exploration; everything they needed to live distinguished lives. The positive energy released by granting liberty to the young, and the enthusiasm free choice bestowed from re-leading them from the thrall of tutelage paid visible dividends in the new nation “dedicated to liberty,” involving students as principals in their own educations, making the modern concept of motivation ridiculous, (as it is), except as encouragement for manipulative charlatans, con men, and mountebanks. The generations which trusted children to educate themselves had taken note that, regardless of schoolmasters, children are learning all of the time. They noticed as well that it took generous applications of liberty and assignment of work responsibility to release the best genius lurking inside each individual student; without such trust, lassitude and enervation occur—as is the norm in American government schooling at the moment. By totally depriving our young of volition, as we do, they exact vengeance by refusing to learn. It’s As simple as that. As soon as Free Will begins, we see greater involvement in all studies and in attempts at character improvement.
For ten years as a teacher, after I began a semi-unauthorized program grounded in liberty to allow students to follow their own instincts, I enjoyed the exhilarating thrill of being confined with a small army of young people eager to aggressively pursue their own educations. Truly, it was a thrilling experience, being in the midst of a crowd eager to learn and understand; in the end they taught me more than I taught them. And all it cost taxpayers was trusting that what worked for Washington, Franklin, Lincoln and Edison would continue to work in the atomic age—and it did. Now you know my secret: unleashing the same irresistible force that drove our Revolution and ended global slavery: I sharply cut back on the slavery, the pornographic mental colonization of forced schooling.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the most important philosopher on earth at that time, a professor at the University of Berlin named Immanuel Kant, published a legendary essay affirming the irreplaceable value of liberty to human life—calling it the highest good possible to achieve—gaining and having full enjoyment of the capacity to exercise Free Will. He published an extremely complex argument to that end in 1781 titled, “The Critique of Pure Reason” which resonated among the ruling classes of important nations swiftly, providing justification for the prevailing style of aristocratic education (which, historically, has always been experience, adventure and responsibility rich), as well as indirectly suggesting (unfortunately) a strategy for reducing the menace of the lower classes by denying them the important liberty vitamins and offering thoroughly stupefying intellectual substance to think upon, a procedure made easier to administer through a system of forced institutionalized schooling. Kant called extended tutelage, which was to become the driving engine of institutional schooling, a horrible form of mind-slavery; in so characterizing professional schooling (he called it “tutelage”), he gave voice to the inner thoughts of trapped children by the tens of millions. John Holt’s Escape From Childhood can fairly be regarded as a descendant of Kant’s thinking about liberty, one blessedly much easier to read (Kant, in translation at least, is very tough slugging to plow through). But Kant, Holt, and the history of the French and American revolutions taken together gave me determination as a schoolteacher to invent a system to avail myself of the benefits I was sure would flow from reprieving my classes from intensive tutelage and freeing up their free will capacities. To do so against the will of a bureaucracy meant constant conflict, but that will not be so for homeschoolers who follow the liberty path.
When I experienced infuriating indifference to ideas among my students in the 1970s and 1980s, I remembered what Kant said about bad consequences to expect from interfering with liberty; it was exactly what John Holt affirmed many years later, and I decided on the spot to test that hypothesis by devising a program which would put experience, adventure, and exploration ahead of memorizing lists of alleged facts off blackboards. As an English teacher, I concluded that my only moral obligation was to increase proficiency in five specific areas—reading, writing, public speaking and logical organization of arguments, so I felt no particular loyalty to any officially ordered curriculum planned and written far away; that need not concern me I decided, as long as I was willing to put up with the slings and arrows of outraged school administers as the price to pay for doing what I BELIEVED RIGHT. The real obstacle to change was to break students free from the prisons of boredom which fatally distracted them from concentrating on learning language skills. To accomplish this, we (students, parents, and myself) determined in many meetings that our new program would abandon schoolrooms, blackboards, bells, and textbooks three days out of every five, using the world outside the school building as both space to study within and text to study, finding opportunities to read, analyze, write, organize and speak out in the real world. In pulling such a project off there were many exhausting hurdles to leap politically, but perseverance and some Machiavellian cunning removed them. During 60 percent of the school week (3 days) we left the school building to start service businesses, to walk around every zip code zone in Manhattan, administering public opinion polls, etc. This heavy dose of ACTIVITY in place of SEAT TIME awakened the spirit of curiosity in most of my students, who showed enlarged interest in the nature of things, as had been hinted at by Kant and Holt, but it came as a welcome surprise to me as my classroom began to buzz with excitement generated from students newly eager to learn. Other teachers asked me what had gotten into my kids, curious at the transformation they saw.
After three months of this new regimen, my classes of indifferent ghetto teens became INVOLVED in their own learning, not only in my English classes, but in all their classes. This general improvement caught me by (pleasant) surprise, but it had been implicit in the writing of Kant and Holt. Praise poured in from parents and community members at the positive things my kids accomplished with their newfound liberty, which raised my standing with school authorities, enough for them to grant me unprecedented permission, and our program was off and running. Through it I discovered what a national resource we waste by locking our children away from involvement with the problems of society.
Now, it’ll amaze you how I learned the astonishing fact that soldiers without supervision do better than those overly trained by superior officers, as unlikely as that sounds. Here is how I learned that: One of my newly freed students who I released from classes to spend his days reading at the local public library developed a taste for reading military history, sitting all alone at the neighborhood public library. From that addiction came unexpected evidence we were on the right track in our school experiment. He had been reading the impressive books by Israel’s legendary combat analyst, Martin van Crevald, whose research uncovered a shocking anomaly in battles between WWII German soldiers and Americans. Hold onto your hat, what you are about to hear really is shocking: in spite of being outnumbered and out-gunned in every major battle of WWII (as Winston Churchill confirms in his own six volume history of the war), The Germans managed to inflict 30 percent more casualties than they suffered! Thirty percent! A huge military advantage! What made such grisly efficiency possible? All the time they retreated across Europe they remained and HOW? Were they on drugs? Sort of, but of the psychological variety.
Crevald contended it was caused by superior combat training that focused on enhancing involvement INSTEAD OF ON OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS! While in America such independence of thought as ordinary German soldiers were encouraged to exercise would have resulted in court martial; German officers urged their troops to think like field marshals—who ever heard of such a thing?! It was a visionary ideal originally proposed by Napoleon. But the conception worked brilliantly, even when the Germans were fighting against heavy odds. Uncommanded warriors allowed to pick their own targets performed better than those expected to behave like parts in a machine. Now apply that principle to school training. But it wasn’t adequately proved to me until a US Marine general, S.L.A. Marshall published a book, Men Under Fire, containing the remarkable claim that only one American frontline soldier out of every four fired his weapon at the enemy(!!), even when under attack. Fantastic! Apparently the same psychological mechanism that turns American school students into zombies, dis-involved in their own educations, turns American fighting troops into warriors not completely involved in shooting at the enemy. Distilling “involvement” as the crucial quality in military success is Crevald’s wake up call to the rest of us, but the experience of Holt, myself, and thousands of unschoolers provides additional laboratory evidence that the theory holds water, so you needn’t feel on thin ice if you join in the experiment. Wherever intricate ladders of authority are found, and rules exist in profusion, you should expect lassitude to exist and indifference. American training stressed obedience, while German training urged common soldiers to think for themselves. Just the opposite of what our propaganda taught the home front during the war. Make use of this valuable lesson. And thank Crevald and Marshall for telling the truth about the best way to get the biggest bang for the buck from underlings. Cut them in on planning and arrangements of everything. Don’t ignore the importance of this evidence. I found it priceless as inspiration.
America’s society and institutions were conceived and patterned to a great extent after the model of classical Rome, but a monumental book published during the 19th century about how Rome became dominant, and then collapsed, The Decline And Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon had immense influence on American policy thinking, including upon the way we arranged our schooling. It was the “decline” part that drew most attention from American elites because in our brand new revolutionary nation, surrounded by enemies, it has working classes, and needed privileged treatment to affirm this.
Much of Gibbon’s analysis resonates strongly in American policy even in the 21st century. Scholars were fascinated by Gibbon’s reasoning and when it was constantly at war; as its ambition waned and its citizenry demanded peace, the martial vigor of its population weakened and it became a prey to enemies. Eventually, too much prosperity created a mass appetite for luxury and Rome’s poet succumbed to the debilitating effects of civilized living, and to the humane codes of Christianity, especially the destructive doctrine of loving your enemies and forgiving trespasses.
According to Gibbon, Rome thrived as long as it kept its population sharply divided into social classes and rewarded the wealthy and powerful with honor and privileges because each wealthy family was worth many times in value added to the political state what a poor family was.
All these insights of Gibbon, and more, were made targets of American institutions and of government school training when it finally happened. Did you ever wonder why what schools call HISTORY is principally the history of warfare? Or why students are rigorously divided into CLASSES on flimsy pretexts? Now you know, but you can never expect to find a single school employee who understands the mechanisms of social engineering at work; Gibbon said the martial appetites of the masses had to be kept high, so school history had to focus on war. Class conflict to Gibbon was a source of great energy to a nation, as it stoked the fires of ambition in all to RISE, but NOT TO FALL.
Enough. If it’s possible that common warriors fight best when they are encouraged to share leadership with officers, and my 40 plus years of classroom school teaching found the same dynamic at work in learning, you might want to share decision-making with your own students or at least give it a trial.
This article appeared in the May-June 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine
After 30 years of teaching in NYC’s inner-city schools, John Taylor Gatto was named Teacher of the Year, three times. He quit from teaching, saying he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living.” He began worldwide public speaking and writing, receiving several awards, including the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Excellence in Advancement of Educational Freedom. John supports unschooling and open source education.