“Open Source” Education

Dear Reader,
I have written a couple of posts now on John Taylor Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction (see here and here), but I wanted to look specifically at the method of education which he describes in this volume. It is not all laid out in one place, but I am piecing together bits spread throughout the book. Since my approach to homeschool is mostly based on Charlotte Mason’s writings, I can’t help comparing what he has to say with her approach. And there are a lot of similarities.

A major tenet of Gatto’s book is that education is not the same as schooling (and that in fact the latter has little or nothing to do with the former these days). Just as Charlotte places the burden on the student to learn and says that it can’t be forced, so too Gatto says that children need to “take an education rather than merely receive schooling” (p. xiv).

Both also have a very high view of what children are capable of. Charlotte’s twenty principles begins with “children are born persons”; Gatto says that:

“I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women.” (p. xxiii)

As I have written before, I am not a huge fan of labels like “gifted” and so this idea appeals to me. I think if we were doing our jobs correctly, we would be able to see the giftedness in all children. Gatto expands a bit on this topic. He believes in neither gifted nor learning-disabled students (p. 85). As for the treatment of gifted students by the schools, he says that only slightly more is expected of them. They not only “memorize the dots” but also “what experts say is the correct way to connect those dots” (p. 16). Even at this highest level of education possible within our schools then, it is not the child’s individuality which is really being prized. They are still parrots, just higher level parrots.

Both Gatto and Mason see education as the ability to make connections for oneself.  Gatto says that ” . . . education [as opposed to schooling] sets out to provide a set of bountiful connections which are random, willful, promiscuous, even disharmonious with one another” (p. 177). This does not on the surface sound like it is necessarily positive, but I do think Gatto means it well. He goes on to say that schools tie one down by breaking everything into subjects while true education provides rich contexts. It is when we get cross-disciplinary that progress happens:

“But over and over again in the sciences and elsewhere we’ve come to understand that cross-fertilization, mixing the academic disciplines (and more) is the powerful driver of scientific advance.” (p. 177)

Charlotte would agree. She said “Education is the Science of Relations” by which she meant that an education is comprised of all the relationships that the student forms with the materials he studies. If he does not make his own connections, there is no education.

Thus we see that both Gatto and Mason value the ability to think for oneself, to draw one’s own conclusions. And in order to do so, one must be in contact with real things, and particularly, real ideas. Charlotte would say ideas are the food of the mind. Gatto also talks about ideas, saying how in the classroom, students are not encouraged to produce their own ideas but only to consume those of others. This is a little different from how Charlotte puts it. She is actually all about taking in others’ ideas (though they are usually not those of the teacher but of some perhaps long dead author). But I do think that in the end, they are both getting at the same thing. One must ingest ideas in order to form one’s own. Charlotte would say ideas are only caught from other minds. They are contagious, if you will.

Living books are a staple of Charlotte’s approach. Gatto speaks of “real stories” which “help a boy grow up” (p. 59). I am reminded in this of a wonderful post I read recently by Liz Cotrill at ChildLight USA in which she shares the stories of how books helped her and others cope with real problems in life. Her examples are perfect ones for discussing how real stories lead to maturity. Too often, we feed our children’s intellects not on living books but upon ones which are dumbed down for them. Gatto also laments the use of cartoons which replace “real world ideas” and “artificially extend childhood and childishness.” (p. 133)

Gatto calls his approach free-form or open-source education (p. 27). It is something he is hesitant to define as it varies so much from individual to individual.  In his approach, Gatto says, students are the initiators of their own education. This is in sharp contrast to schooling in which so much is imposed from without:

“Schooling is organized bt command and control from without; education is self-organized from within . .”

(p. 177)

One’s teachers, in Gatto’s approach, are whomever one learns from (p. 31). Education is also largely about learning from one’s mistakes. It requires “curiosity, patience and intense watchfulness” as well as trial and error (p. 62).

A large part of Gatto’s book is about describing how the schools have undercut true education. Charlotte would agree, I think, that this is done largely by the use of incentives which elevate one human desire, usually that for recognition and success in competition, above that which hould motivate education, the inborn desire to learn. The end result is that one’s innate love of learning is suppressed (Gatto, pp. 100, 123; and see this post on the use of incentives). Testing, and particularly standardized testing, largely contributes to this atmosphere. Gatto says that true education is not testable (p. 27). Testing subverts one’s standards. It “correlates with nothing very real, it mis-identifies winners and losers in a reckless fashion” (p. 152). Charlotte also was down on standardized testing as you can see in this post and this one.

Another way that the schools undercut true education is by breaking up one’s time artificially (p. 143). Now Charlotte believed in varying lessons and not making them too long, especially in the earlier years. But she also believed in  masterly inactivity, in letting children have some freedom to pursue their own course. The schools do just the opposite. They control every minute (and often these days many of the minutes one is not in school as well) and they don’t allow any time to process or to control one’s own thoughts.

These are just a few of the insidious ways in which schooling undercuts true education. Children have an innate love of learning but, as Gatto says, “The only way to stop a child from learning to read and liking it . . . is to teach it the way we teach it” (p. 152).

Gatto gives a good summary of what education, when not mucked up by schools, should be in the middle of the book:

” . . . embedding a student in a personalized curriculum whose aim would be to multiply the number of connections — to ideas, to experiences, to other people . . .

The educated mind is the connected mind, connected to all manner of different human styles . . . ” (pp. 129-130)

It all sounds very CM doesn’t it?

Lastly, we may talk of the goal of education. Gatto again does not lay this all out as straight-forwardly as I would like but he gives a list on pages 149 and following of what an educated [person looks like. So we may extrapolate from that what his goals are. Here is my summary of that list:

An educated person

  • is comfortable being alone
  • forms healthy relationships
  • has values and appreciates those of others
  • enjoys creating new things and ideas
  • values the past, seeks out enlightenment from the past, nature and other sources
  • knows themself and their own limits
  • is aware of their own mortality

This would not be my own list of goals for my children though there is some overlap. But it is not a bad list.

I have said this before, but what really strikes me here is how two educators from different times and places can come to such similar conclusions about what education should be. It really confirms to be that there is something in all this.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen on November 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    I really enjoy Gatto’s writings. I’m still working my way through the “Underground History…” book. Thanks for the review of this book.


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