As I read through Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto recently, I was struck by how many of his thoughts on education seem to echo those of Charlotte Mason. Gatto is a modern writer, a former award-winning NYC public school teacher who became very critical of our educational institutions. Mason was a late 19th/early 20th century educator who founded some schools in England and wrote a six volume series on her educational philosophy. Despite being separated by time and geography, it was very intriguing to me to see that these two thinkers said some very similar things about what education should be.
Charlotte Mason said that “education is the science of relations.” By this she meant that children should form their own relationships with the material they study, that mere memorization of facts is not an education. She further said that the test of an education is not to ask how much the student has learned but how much they care or with how many things they have formed relationships.
In Gatto’s critique of the public school system, he criticizes it for failing to do just this. He says that he as a teacher taught “the un-relating of everything” (p. 2). A quality education, he says, would be more in-depth, but the current system does not encourage that. Instead, it demands that students follow the whims of their teachers, rather than forming their own relationships with the material. The teacher’s opinions, what he or she thinks is important, are what counts.
This is in direct opposition to how Charlotte viewed things. In her system, the teacher selects the materials, but it is up to the pupil to do the work of learning and to digest them. Gatto sums up the difference in the two approaches wonderfully when he says:
” . . . teaching is nothing like the art of painting, where, by the addition of material to a surface, an image is synthetically produced, but more like the art of sculpture, where, by the subtraction of material, an image already locked in the stone is enabled to emerge.” (p. xxxiv)
I think both would agree that it is very vain of us to assume that we make the students what they are.
Both Gatto and Mason have negative things to say about the role of any kind of rewards in education, whether prizes or grades. Mason talks about subverting the children’s natural love of learning. Gatto says that such rewards “teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command” (p. 6) and that they teach them “not to trust themselves or their parents” but to “instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials” (p. 10).
As I said above, a Charlotte Mason education is about caring. But John Taylor Gatto shows that our educational system produces children who care about nothing (p. 17). Furthermore, they have very short attention spans (p. 27). This is in sharp contrast to Mason’s students who were expected to develop the habit of attention as one of the foremost tools of their education.
I don’t know what exposure Gatto has had to Mason’s ideas, if any, but it is very interesting to me that these two very different thinkers have said some very similar things about the methods and purpose of education.