The Truth About Educational Choices Comes to Carnegie Hall
The First National Grassroots Speakout on the Right to School Choice
Carnegie Hall, New York City. Edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by JOHN TAYLOR GATTO. With a Preface by PATRICK FARENGA
A WARNING TO THE READER
What you are about to read is much more than it appears to be. A junior high school teacher and a former student, now a friend, rented Carnegie Hall with their own money and with their own sweat equity assembled a band of successful schoolpeople to talk directly to an unscreened audience. No college helped, though many were solicited, no newspaper covered the event, though all were notified, no school reformer extended a hand, though most talked of the event privately, urging each other to silence. And yet this first national grassroots speakout on the right and necessity of school choice was a success. Reflecting upon it you will see that it could hardly have been otherwise.
For what was illustrated that evening in November at a world renowned hall was that all of us, you included, have the power to take a hand in national affairs and in the shaping of our institutions. The day of the expert is over, we have seen the universe experts have given us and it is a bad place. Time to wake up. Time to trust ourselves. The Exhausted School program showed an unscreened audience what school choice means, but as hard as we tried we could only afford to show a few of the hundreds of sensible ways to grow up. Now it is your turn; you’ve been warned. If Roland and I could do it, you can, too. A hundred “Exhausted School” programs are needed; build on what we’ve done, do it better, do it everywhere, and do it yourself without “expert” help. Good Luck.
–John Taylor Gatto…
No, it can’t be October 1!
To: B.J. Cummings Mary Leue
Roland Legiardi-Laura Dan Greenberg
Jamaal A Watson Dave Lehman
Victor Gonzalez Pat Farenga
From: John Taylor Gatto
Subject: Carnegie Hall, “The Exhausted School”
It’s hard to believe that in six weeks, if the breaks go our way, we’ll be on stage at Carnegie Hall in what I hope will be only the first of a national outbreak of grass roots speakouts aiming to revive the public discussion – closed down in my own reading of our history in the mid-19th century because of a panic among the elite caused by the Communist Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. It was widely believed the immigrants would bring the infection with them, and for the second and fatal time in 1919 with the national “Red Scare”/Palmer raids hysteria after the Russian Revolution. But whatever the threads of causation, democracy without participation has become the national norm and that’s no democracy at all.
We’ll all have our own purposes for participating in “The Exhausted School,” but what I just wrote is one of the three major reasons I set time aside out of my own life to try to do this. Another major one, of course, is to take a direct hand in public information about what’s possible in schooling so that the idea of change is given color and form and doesn’t just remain a dead abstraction. In my opinion, all the principals in current school reform rhetoric have failed to do this – perhaps it’s innate in institutional responses to anything that their designs exclude more people than they include, but whatever the case, I believe each one of you knows more about how children and other human beings learn than all the “experts” and titled personages combined.
I want to use this letter to give the evening a shape. In the nature of our lives and my very modest finances there will not be time to get together before early November, perhaps not before the very day of our mutual appearance. The constant running around I have to do to write, disseminate, arrange, publicize, and most of all to fundraise, will make it difficult for us to make contact by phone through me (though by all means call each other) or even for me to respond at length to letters. I’ll try my best but money, publicity, meeting with sponsors, etc. has to be the overriding concern.
I’ll try to address all the issues in which you may have questions. We’re divided into two groups: a) five “schoolpeople” who correspond to the various themes noted on the enclosed flyer, viz.
“How To Bend the Bars of Our Traditional Factory Schools”
That’s me and what I’ve done for most of my 26 years as a teacher:
Work inside the worst schools in New York State (statistically). So I’ll take on how to change the unchanging while remaining inside – the fate of most kids.
“What Real Public School Alternatives Can Do!”
That’s Dave Lehman. And “real” in this context means licensed/authorized by the current form of school governance to be different. Everything I did as a guerrilla teacher was illegal and unauthorized, adversarial, self-financed, and extremely wasteful of time, energy and peace of mind. Systemic change won’t come from people like me because few are crazy enough (or angry enough as was my own case) to spend their lives in combat. Dave [Lehman] represents many of the wonderful possibilities that can grow out of a vital plan, an imaginative staff with a sense of itself as a team, and a measure of cooperation from “authorities” – indeed, trust might be a more accurate appraisal but that’s for Dave to say. His job, as is everybody’s, is not to speak generically but very specifically, to tell us what his school is, where it is (characterize the community), and what its own peculiar logic and experiences have been. Then, and only then, should its “lessons” be abstracted and summarized. The great value each of you represents to a general audience including to those who wouldn’t send their kids to a school like yours is that you are REAL, and that you are doing work that one segment of the population finds useful and inspirational.
Your very presence, Dave’s, mine, and everyone’s, is a testimonial that there is no one right way There are many ways to grow up solid, sane and satisfied – monopoly schooling has stolen that understanding from our population. We once had it to an amazing degree before the Civil War, for hundreds of years of our history; and that kind of choice appears to be the easiest way to get back on track – trust people, kids, parents, communities to pick what’s right for them, because if you don’t believe that you believe that “experts” can do a better job. The last 140 years of one-way compulsion-schooling gives that the lie, I think.
Please, don’t anyone “politic” about “what’s wrong with American schools” (except peripherally, of course) – your very own success described minutely with lively human illustrations, then its principles summarized at the end, will be the most powerful political statement of all. Because you will have demonstrated by your practice that many methods of growing up work just fine, and that they don’t cost the taxpayers one extra cent (indeed in Dan, Mary and Pat’s experience, they cost less.)
I’ve taken longer on Dave’s portion because the points generalize to everyone. Dave has a working public school alternative, approved by the city of Ithaca – it’s his job to represent the whole category of this possibility by representing his own design well (not by doing a survey of the category).
“Exciting Private School Choices…”
The public perception of private schools created by Exeter, Andover, Lawrenceville, Hill, Choate, Groton is a false one. By preempting the public imagination with a vision of the great classical English boys’ schools, the whole canvas of private alternatives – working and as yet undiscovered – is closed to inspection. Furthermore, the idea that private school is expensive and public school is cheap is, of course, managed by a stage trick on the part of the government – of the two forms public school is by far the most expensive in direct cost (we’ll leave social costs out of it for the moment!), averaging $5500 a year per seat nationally, to a national average for all forms of private education of about $2200! Some aspect of “school reform” is going to happen when enough people realize that the distinction between public and private is a very shadowy one – all children come from the public and are returned to it. In nations like Holland 90 percent of private school tuition is rebated by the government to anybody who makes a private choice. Whether we should take that path as a country is not the central issue, but whether we should allow a vigorous national discussion and referendum on this is. Surveys of our growing underclass population show them heavily in favor of having such a choice – even without the necessary national debate. Dan Greenberg and Mary Leue will represent the category of private alternatives by representing their own unique and highly individual communities
The Sudbury School
The Albany Free School
In my opinion, they should not refer to each other, to NCACS and the history of the alternative movement, and not to any other abstraction that tends to de-emphasize their own private genius. Mary should say what the Albany Free School is, how it came about, what makes it work, what happens to its kids afterwards, (everyone will want to know – can they go to college?!) – in other words what the peculiar logic, the spirit of the place is.
Dan, who has written 116 books (!) should do the same. Because of the spectacular appearance of the campus of Sudbury I wish he could see it in his heart to make an enormous photo blowup of the place Grand Central size to set on stage. Its grandeur underlines the low cost of admission and would bring a gasp from any audience that wasn’t dead. (We might be able to show a slide behind him as he speaks – and that is true for all – if we get financing … Carnegie has a stiff charge for every single service they provide: $150 for a spotlight, $600 for an organ no player – etc. etc.)
Once again, by representing themselves well through logics that only abstractly have much to do with each other, i.e. Sudbury is unmisakably sui generis, ditto Albany Free, – the whole range of possibilities 11 come across dramatically.
“How To Get An Education At Home”
… introducing Pat Farenga, and hopefully a mounted photo blowup of Day, his wife, and the two little Farengettes because Pat will stand there representing 500,000 families (or more) currently homeschooling in the U.S. – up from 10,000 a decade ago – and I guess also representing the many national networks of homeschoolers like Pat Montgomery’s Clonlara, the Hegeners, the Colfaxes, et al. Furthermore, although I know it may get him assassinated, he also embodies the homeschooling principle that emerges among religious fundamentalists and whose purpose, as I understand it, is to preserve a culture and outlook. In that regard the Amish and Mennonites and other pietest sects are a variant on the theme too, I suppose.
To all of the Carnegie speakers, homeschooling will be a familiar theme, but to all the great bulk of intelligent laymen it is the greatest mystery of all. Do you nail a desk to the kitchen floor and ring a bell in your kid’s ears every 40 minutes? Will he learn to talk to other kids? Don’t you go crazy hanging out with children all day long? What if it’s a one-parent family? Can they get into college? Sure, “smart” people can do it but can we trust “dumb” people to do the same?
Pat, as Pat the homeschooler, and Pat as a close personal friend of John Holt and the bearer of his tradition through Growing Without Schooling and his network of homeschooling families is the person the audience will be fascinated with on stage. If he represents himself well, and uses examples from the families he knows directly, he will show unmistakably how unique, how singular, how one-of-a-kind every homeschooling experience is. He will prove conclusively without saying it that there is no one right way to do this business of becoming a good human being.
“The Voices of Self-Schooling”
Four speakers on the program represent people who in my estimation – and I watched them all closely as my students in days gone by – had the instinct toward self-schooling which marks those who will become “educated.” My belief is that conventional schooling preempts the time we need to keep appointments with our developing selves, critical appointments to learn self-reliance, confidence, skill, family relationships, judgment, and a host of other skills without which we never become fully human. It’s my opinion, further, that the multiple dependencies children are inoculated with by compulsion-schooling are one of the principal causes, perhaps the principal cause, of the various social epidemics surrounding us in American society: anger, violence, despair, teenage suicide, addiction to narcotic drugs, passivity, envy, divorce, national buying obsessions, et. al. are reflections of dependent personalities, made that way by schooling.
But my beliefs aside, all of the four students represent young people who are adaptable, resolute, and know how to use their time. They were not taught these things, but they did learn them by being given a large diet of raw experience when they were young which provided an opportunity for them to develop. And although my own role in helping their development was only a small fraction of the whole, they represent three progressive stages in my own development as a teacher.
Roland Legiardi-Laura lost his parents as a teenager, had no close relatives within 1000 miles, and had only a very small inheritance, about enough for one year’s modest maintenance. Yet he bicycled across the U.S. alone, hand-sewing 15 flat tires on the way, lived on a canal boat in Europe for a year, became a professional poet and made his living that way (!) for a number of years, taught himself structural engineering, all phases including blueprinting and bidding, and began to make an excellent living that way, taught himself film-making and with no prior experience raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, made a film about Nicaragua, and won nine international film awards with it, and, in his spare time, opened a night club in the East Village which has become world-renowned because of its original theme.
Without being self-conscious about it, Roland is a master of self-schooling, as Ben Franklin and Andrew Carnegie and Lear of Learjet fame were. Somehow he understood on an unconscious level what an education is, how it differs from schooling, and what experiences are necessary to provide the tools to have one.
Nobody wouldn’t want their son or daughter to turn out resourceful, honorable, talented, humane and successful like Roland.
What he did, how he did it, how he sees the world and his place in it, and what school might have done to help him become himself are some of the things he and the other students will explore. Again, like all our speakers, his main force will be spent on exploring himself, not on grand abstractions about what’s wrong with schooling.
Roland, besides being my friend and mentor, represents the first stage of my teaching career, one in which I concentrated on these three themes:
a) That my life, my values, my decisions – and the similar attributes of each of my students – our community nature, put a different way, was the most important thing I had to teach. Thus, from the beginning it was our individual humanity, not textbook abstractions, that made the foundation of our classes.
b) That adolescence was a junk word, a synthetic construct without value. From the beginning I assumed that my students’ minds were capable of any degree of sophistication and so I “pushed” a 13-year-old group into levels of nuance and abstraction that most graduate classes never attain.
c) I only taught what I wanted to learn or explore myself – operating on the theory that passion of mind, and its attendant procedures, was the most valuable thing I possessed to transmit, and on the corollary theory that anything, including plumbing and knitting, is intricate and fascinating – and broadly instructive – if (and only if) you can be presented it by someone who loves the craft.
Barbara Jill (“B.J.”) Cummings was a student of mine 13 years after I had Roland. (She’s 24 now for you number crunchers and detectives). By B.J.’s school year I had developed the intense study of each student’s life to a genuine passion because I had discovered how much it taught me about human possibility and the range of wonderful difference – as various as the human fingerprint – and because it enabled me to individualize my relationship with everybody and invent a private “curriculum” for each.
B.J. was a wonder from the beginning. Though living with her mother on the lip of Harlem (in an area which would have frightened most young people) B.J. was tough-minded, independent, and gutsy from the start. Before the school year was over she had designed an amazing street business to sell handmade creations (scarves, gloves, shawls, etc.) produced by nursing home residents on the streets around Columbia, and had appeared at the night meeting of New York City’s fearsome Central Board of Education, booked a speaking slot, and given them Hell for not teaching entrepreneurship to kids. The Board which she flayed gave her a standing ovation and quoted copiously from her speech in a publication sent all around the state.
Seven years later … B.J. took time off college, taught herself Portuguese, and went to live with the Indian tribes of northern Brazil. Under constant surveillance by government spies 1) she studied the effects of dam-building on the cultures above and below the dams and wrote a sensational analysis, “Dam the Rivers, Damn the People,” which was published when she was 23, in various languages and with the imprimatur of the World Wildlife Foundation.
She also owns a formal black strapless evening dress she intends to wear to Carnegie Hall with long black gloves and is currently a PhD candidate at UCLA.
B.J., as Roland before her, will undertake to show us her own internal path which brought her to young womanhood accomplished, fierce, and ready for anything.
Although she originally wanted to use the Carnegie forum as a platform to explore her interests in political ecology (or the politics of ecology, more accurately) she has a much greater gift to give the audience assembled. They are there to find out how people really learn and how the greater community can help them. In my opinion the only people who have been shut out of that discourse are the learners themselves – who know more about it than anyone. With six weeks to analyze her own development, and perhaps to consider how government schooling might have been useful instead of a barrier to be overleaped (if there is such a word); if B.J. hadn’t followed the course she did, I think she would have distinguished herself in any other endeavor.
Now .. we can either believe conveniently that talent like hers is distributed over a bell curve, or pyramidally like the Egyptians did, (You may have your own opinion on that, but I reject the contention outright based on my own experience. Talent, even genius, is very common, I think), or it is in most all of us and something draws it out. It’s BT’s challenge to figure out what that was and describe it for us after she details her adventures from 5 to 20.
By the time I had B.J.in class I had articulated a theory of experience which incorporated the themes I brought to Roland’s class, but added seven more categories of experience, each wide enough to support any number of individual designs. Without going into the theory of each particle of the new additions, I believe that each “does a job” that is unique, that something important is lost without one or more of these experiences gotten early.
The Seven Themes that BJ.’s Class Got:
1. Community service. The real kind where you go to work with the paid employees, and go home when they do. This is opposed to the community service under the tutelage of “nice” people, with milk and cookies, the kind that “decorates” some alternative programs. I expected the kids to shoulder an adult load of responsibility and prove their usefulness to others. All did.
2, Independent Study. The real kind. One boy took 180 days to get a part on “General Hospital” but in the course of doing it he studied acting, directing, lighting, scripting, advertising, the history of theater, the relationship of theater and the academic disciplines of psychology, sociology, history, etc. And, he got paid! One girl analyzed the public swimming pools of Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs from a professional swimmer’s perspective and rated each on the basis of a checklist she had devised, writing “A Swimmer’s Guide to Swimming Pools in the New York Metropolitan Area.”
3. Apprenticeships. Either “The One Day Apprenticeship” or long-term. The idea: to learn how someone thinks and makes decisions. The purchase price: trading personal services for the right to shadow a person at work.
4. Field Curriculum. In which various parts of the community are studied as living texts and contexts in projects which are semi-independent (although designed by myself) and usually lead to a product of immediate utility. To have a kid furnish a two-and-a-half room Manhattan apartment down to the toothpicks and toilet paper by sallying out for days with a clipboard, and tallying the costs of his selections with tax computations, tabulations and the whole package including architects’ drawings, placement, symbolic graphics, etc. is a wildly successful example; analyzing the commercial community of a 50-block area of the West Side in order to direct a part-time job search is another.
5. Parent Partnerships. At any time and for any family – determined motive, kid and mother, kid and father, kid and granddad, kid and aunt, etc. have the right to “write” a piece of family curriculum and substitute it for the school-authored one. I see now in retrospect that this was my nod to home-schooling and to the absolute centrality (in my own philosophy at least) of the family relation as the basis for a “self,” and for the values which produce a successful, happy life.
6. Work/Study. Consider B.J.’s design for a street peddling business in the Columbia /Barnard area using one of a kind, handmade items made by old people. One boy buffed restaurant floors, in a service business of his own design, many have done pet-sitting; the most successful kid I ever had in a dollar sense made $600 a day selling homemade cartoon character stationery at Comic Book Conventions. His mother called me and gave me living Hell for teaching her son how to make so much money at 13 – but, of course, he taught himself! In a work/study program, school time is exchanged for work time as long as the work is self-initiated, a private business launched by the kid, not a “job” to make spending money.
7. Solitude/ Privacy/ Self-Reliance. This is a complicated idea I won’t spend much time on, but suffice it to say the theme is designed to counteract the hideous lack of private space, private time, private thoughts, private business in a government factory school, or most private schools for that matter. I operate on the theory that the formation of a reliable self requires time spent alone in the wells of spirit – and that it is nobody else’s business what you do there, store there, think there. With many children crippled by a total surveillance model of schooling it’s necessary to “show them how,” to run exercises that demand le’arning to like your own company, keep your own counsel, make your own decisions. Walking the ten miles alone from Columbia University to the Staten Island Ferry might be one of these, going fishing another, but the whole area touched here is vast, subtly nuanced, singular, and a constant struggle.
So, by B.J.’s time with me I was working these themes regularly with a very mixed bag of kids, from school dropouts to kids who scored off the standardized scales – and the mix was evenly divided between both extremes and the middle.
With almost all the experiences, however, John Gatto was the final destination. Each undertaking required some written, verbal, or photographic/graphic documentation, and the ” record” thus created became my own passport to the various “titles” I accrued later – though that was not the purpose, of course. In my own mind I still had not broken the tight connection I thought must exist between “student” and “teacher” – it was that aspect which was to change most radically between B.J.’s time and the present, when I began to “teach”…
Victor Gonzalez and Jamaal M. Watson
My teaching venue changed radically from B.J. to these boys who were students of mine until July, 1991. B.J.’s school was the flagship secondary school of my District, smack in the middle of the Gold Coast of the West Side, dripping with extras, seemingly safe (although three students were raped there during school time over a one-year period, this was unknown to most of the staff/parents). But Victor and Jamaal’s school was in the center of Spanish Harlem, had spawned many of the famous Central Park jogger’s rapists, was the “scene” of four different murders in June of 1990 – two students, two parents – and is one of the 59 lowest rated schools of the thousands in New York State (as of 7/91). Both of the young men had been in serious trouble in the past, one for carrying a gun (dummy) into an elementary school and menacing with it (as well as numerous other peccadilloes); and one for repeated angry encounters with authorities, a hostile manner, and an almost total unwillingness to do class work.
At the end of one school year, the collective production of these two kids in the final version of my “guerrilla curriculum” was as follows:
1. Two first prize ribbons and one second prize award in city-wide writing contests competing with other high school kids from Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and other top high schools.
2. A hard-won weekly apprenticeship with one of America’s top comicbook authors, a young woman who herself is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Columbia.
3. Visits to 20 engineering offices for complex presentations by both high level executives and plant workers – including BOAC, the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, The Path Trains, the World Trade Center, and many more.
4. One full day a week excused from school to journey to a private library and undertake a complex, self-guided study of graphic art.
5. Breakfast guests of Senator Bob Kerrey (Nebraska) and movie star Debra Winger (Hollywood!) at the famous Algonquin Hotel where, for three hours, they chatted about the problems of schooling.
6. Jamaal’s appearance as the student representative of his school at meetings of the “School Improvement Committee,” a job paying $15 an hour.
7. Acceptance at year’s end of both boys – heretofore regarded as mildly retarded – into one of the most competitive special high school programs around, one which admits only one of ten applicants, a stiffer ratio than Harvard’s.
The biggest change that came over my teaching practice between BJ. and these young men was the realization that my own constant surveillance and mediation of student lives was not the critical determinant of value in their experience – the only critical thing was the experience itself! For me this understanding has constituted a great breakthrough allowing me to understand Benjamin Franklin and all the great homeschoolers of history. I now believe that the teacher part of the teacher/student relation is wildly overstated, and probably for obvious reasons – it makes the “profession” legitimate, allows intricate career ladders to be built, furnishes fortunes to various school-related industries, creates gurus in profusion, from Piaget to Howard Gardner and Ted Sizer – all the way down to myself. And in various other fashions feathers many a nest.
I’ve spent much time describing the kids and the parts of my own development they mark partly to explain their presence on the program and partly to offer an insight into the fellow who dreamed the idea up. I now believe the best teacher I ever had was my mother who read to me every day before I was five, so shakily that she had to run her finger under every word to hold the line. By the time I went to first grade I was reading so fluently from that innocent daily practice that the first grade teacher came to our home to complain I was making the other children feel bad. Not phonics, not “whole word”, nor any other bogus theory of reading propelled me, just someone reading by my side, day after day. I think we have labored mightily in creating a science of pedagogy and produced a tiny flea. I think further that our problems in schooling are self-created, and largely persist because the apparatus of schooling is profitable and will not surrender its perks easily.
The “kids” are on this program to prove that point even though they may say whatever they please. If they analyze their own accomplishments I rest content it will be obvious to all we are hearing the voices of self-teachers.
By professional house advice of the Carnegie management the men should appear in tails, the women in black evening dresses (“Mae Wests,” B.J. calls them). Because of time and other pressures I’ll have to leave it to all of you to get fitted for a rental and arrive with it. I will, although the thought makes me shudder, do myself and the two 14year-old boys. If I don’t show up myself November 13, you will know I am pursuing them somewhere through Central Park.
This is the most impressive room I’ve ever been in in my life. To stand on stage is to feel your knees weaken. Let me trust all of you to practice your deliveries in some local cathedral. If financing arrives and we can afford it, I’ll book a rehearsal for the day before, a walk-through so you won’t come to it cold – but we must face realistically the possibility this won’t be affordable, and be prepared. I’ll do my best.
Again, this depends largely on how much money I’m able to raise over the next five weeks. If we go one minute over the allotment, the charge is gigantic; if we go 20 minutes over I must move into a tent that very evening. Therefore, each speaker named has 15-16 minutes (the young kids will probably only use 10 between them).
The boys will give each of you a short (one minute or less) intro, and open both halves of the evening. We’ll all be in black, the plan now is to darken the stage, have the podium at stage left and one at stage right and a big overhead spot. We get a little drama this way, alternating the location of the speakers. Where the others will be during the speaker’s time hasn’t been arranged yet but you’ll get diagrams, etc. in plenty of time.
If it can be afforded – again that bugaboo of finding backers there will be Mozart/Bach from 7:00 to 7:30 (we start sharp!), and at the short intermission, and as the crowd leaves. We have only a short shot at impact and, without theatrics which would jar, I’ll try to load as many class touches as can be afforded to the ensemble. People associate school talk with drabness, fatigue, mean-spirits, fussy people usually so I’m aiming for the impact of the best hall in the United States and white tie, Mozart, the chiaroscuro of single speakers spotlighted, etc. to give us what drama we need to avoid just being talking heads.
As most of you know the cupboard is bare, and it will take a small miracle to pay for what I’ve already contracted. The total cost will be 40 to 50 thousand without a PR person, and much more with one. I’ve established a series of fall-back positions to ensure that the show will go on, even if we are the only audience for it, but even assuming (as I most certainly am) that we pack the house, this is probably a break-even, small-loss operation at best – and a bone-crunching loss at worst. NOT TO WORRY! However, unless financing comes through I won’t be able to pay your expenses. On the other hand, if it does, I will. Hope that’s fair enough. About one half of the tickets in the house will be freebies, perhaps more, in an attempt to attract press and other people (politicians) who need to hear what choices are already out there working. I won’t know what’s happening until a few days before the show in a financial way – and that is compounded by the natural fact that most people don’t buy tickets to a thing like this until the day before!!! Your own school, publication, film, comic strip, whatever will receive major publicity if we succeed, however – hope that this time at least that will compensate for your personal outlay.
Everyone has the privilege of preparing a one-page flyer for the interest of their choice – selling a book, an idea, a film, a newsletter, etc. – which will be combined with the others in an 81/2 by 11 envelope and distributed to the participants. We want to avoid commercialism through lobby sales, but this will be a high-interest intense group we attract. If they are rewarded by the ideas they hear, they will be certain to want to hear more.
If you want to put a flyer in the pot you’ll need to make 3,000 copies of it (6 reams of paper) and send it to a central collection point for assembly with everyone else’s. I know B.J. has a book to sell; I do, too. Jamaal and Victor want apprenticeship opportunities and wouldn’t mind some kind of part-time work, either, that teaches something. Roland has a film to attract backers for. Mary has an education journal to sell subscriptions for, so does Pat. I don’t know if Dave wants to participate in this, but he’s certainly welcome.
The Best of Best Regards,
John Taylor Gatto
The curriculum and procedures of compulsory government schooling derive from an exhausted perspective of human potential and a social destiny bequeathed to us by Enlightenment thinkers and by a powerful synthetic philosophy known as Positivism which greatly influenced architects of American mass schooling. The same ideas – including a notion families could not be trusted to bring up their own children – had a mighty impact on business interests, too, operating as a kind of religious blueprint among society’s leaders during the gestation period of compulsion schooling.
The idea there is only one right way to school and that the State must manage that way, is profoundly Positivistic, but sophisticated readers will also see that it leads them back through Hobbes and Bacon to the ancient Near East. This very old idea of a State socially engineered by experts to reach comprehensively into every corner of human life is a compelling one – but also one soundly rejected throughout European history – until waves of mass immigration provided Public Terror among established classes in the northeastern United States about 1845. New institutions sprang up quickly to deal with the menace: chief among them being state-controlled schooling. A constellation of support mechanisms which eventually included uniform testing, licensing, a radical new adoption law, Children’s Courts, medical policing, State police forces and cradle-to-grave surveillance followed in the van.
Our form of schooling creates an abundance of social pathologies and contradicts the way children actually learn – sacrificing human potential to an obsession with hierarchy, order, routine, surveillance, and the creation of lifelong dependence on “expert” authority. This latter function of schooling has come to support many parasitic forms of employment in our economy. Bertrand Russell once called American schooling the most extreme social experiment in Western history, a mechanism to realize Plato’s Republic.
Of course it has failed miserably in every measure except on its own terms. In undertaking to expose that failure in a positive way, The Odysseus Group hit on a strategy which led to Carnegie Hall on November 13, 1991 and a program of working alternatives to our form of schooling called “The Exhausted School.” Although the operating budget was limited to the small savings of a public school teacher and one of his former students, the decision was made to rent glamorous Carnegie Hall because the unlikelihood of little people taking a world famous showplace to speak their mind was reckoned to provide a dramatic symbol of what is possible.
The immediate purpose was to do what no college or State Department of Education had ever done: to demonstrate a range of choices already operating outside media attention, to show wonderful alternatives, all of them much cheaper and much more effective than so-called U public” schools. A mid-range purpose was to give strong support to plans for stimulating competition in schooling by returning the economic reins to parents and communities. If Holland, Sweden, Denmark and other modern nations can pay the tuition of every child to any school he wishes, then why not here? Early American education, for the first 200 years of our history, was wonderfully hydra-headed and wonderfully effective. There were a lot of “right” ways to grow up. We wanted those privileges of choice returned.
But our long-range purpose was to revitalize grass roots democracy by showing people they could demand to be heard by the simple expedient of bypassing the official stewards of schooling: government agencies, school boards, think tanks, colleges, establishment “reform” initiatives, and the like. And so we did. What we were not prepared for was the swift and massive campaign of sabotage from existing interests, nor the silence of the press in regard to this unusual endeavor. A silence doubly curious because the host of the evening, John Taylor Gatto, was the current New York State Teacher of the Year, and had three times been named New York City Teacher of the Year. Mr. Gatto had a string of commendations from American presidents, governors, publishers and celebrities recognizing his unusual success as a front-line practitioner of an original curriculum design he calls “The Lab School.” His articles critical of schooling had appeared in The Wall Street journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and newspapers from Miami to Vancouver.
Thus, the failure to attract underwriting to advertise the show, and a general press failure to acknowledge detailed press releases as it approached was puzzling. Still, ticket sales were going well. Then a bombshell dropped. Two bus loads of attendees had been booked from the State University at New Paltz, several hours north of the City. Suddenly a call came in cancelling the group from SUNY/New Paltz. Why? “They are putting tremendous pressure on us, we don’t dare come down.” Who was exerting the pressure? “I can’t tell you, I’m too ashamed,” and with that, our correspondent rung off.
After that clues came thick and fast. A highly-placed official of Bank Street College had been a next-door neighbor of John Gatto’s when they were growing up, but three letters asking for support for the school choice event went unanswered from the childhood associate! A dozen profitable “school reform” initiatives originate from various professors at Columbia Teachers College, well-funded by school districts, foundations, government sources, and corporations. Not one of the school reform crowd at Columbia responded to letters, or called to inquire what was going on with “The Exhausted School.” This frosty silence was repeated from Fordham University – a major player in the New York School Game, from Queens College of the City University, from City College from LIU, and elsewhere. No questions, no comments. Silence.
A personal visit to the Vanderbilt University-sponsored “Educational Excellence Network” in Washington, D.C. seemed to spark interest and many questions – but the follow-up was silence. As far as its journal “Network News and Views” was concerned, Carnegie Hall didn’t happen. Nor did it happen for Teacher magazine, for the UFr, for the AFr, for The New York City Board of Education, for the New York State Education Department, or any of the other players who make their livngs from schooling exactly as it is. Change, it seemed, was to be preempted too!
Meanwhile, something even more sinister was taking place – a fact we learned to our horror two weeks before the show. In the financing of such events, fund-raisers regularly call on sources well known to be supportive of such things. In the case of “The Exhausted School,” three such sources had taken the lead to contact Odysseus Group! Nothing could be more promising than that, it seemed. We were wrong. Each of our potential angels and a whole spread of others as yet untried were reached by some unknown agency and warned away from Carnegie Hall.
Who was doing this? Through some adroit detective work and drawing on favors owed, our volunteer fund-raiser disclosed her astonishing conclusion: It was the president of a prestigious foundation on Vanderbilt Avenue, she said, an institution which claimed hegemony in school reform! She confronted him, she continued, but he denied even knowing about Carnegie Hall. That was the clincher. She produced a photocopy of an information inquiry about the event written by the president himself months before to a friend of hers!
Nothing could be done, of course, but press on. Eventually 1,024 people paid their way into Carnegie Hall in spite of the media blackout, the absence of advertising, and a desperate attempt on the part of the “reformers” to destroy our attempt to establish a grass roots voice. An additional 800 people got in on free passes, allowing Odysseus to offer a large group of people, for the first time, a look at what the school establishment and its allies in press and government had managed to conceal from the general public – how schools that work actually do it. The fact that all of them “do it” on much less money than government schools need is the best explanation of the efforts to shut the evening down in the public imagination.
Finally, a word about our “method” in assembling the program. Six separate logics of schooling were unfolded that night. Superficial similarities aside, no two were really alike. Indeed, some of the principals disliked each other thoroughly and several weren’t on speaking terms. Harmony obviously was beside the point.
But right on the point was the powerful truth that there are many fine ways to “school” children – including the way of those intrepid homeschoolers who don’t school at all. Five of the six principals were ardent champions of breaking the economic monopoly government schools possess (through their exclusive use of taxing power). They say, “Give us back a share of our tax money and we will buy the best schooling for our children, public, private, parochial.” But careful readers will detect that one of the speakers, a public school principal, says “No!,” that doing that will “weaken” the public schools. In a different type of forum we might have asked him why a failed institution should be guaranteed its income by the police power of the State, but that would have been to contradict the terms of free discussion.
And make no mistake about it, free and open discussion is what you have been cheated of by monopoly schooling and its bully boys for too long. “The Exhausted School” program was an object lesson in what the government system has done wrong, it argued best by its own example. And so our lone dissenter – who operates a fine school program, albeit “public” – was welcome too.
One final word – six logics of schooling are treated in the following pages, but they are far from the only sensible ways that people school. A properly funded “Exhausted School” program could easily show sixty choices, brilliantly enlarging the presently stunted public imagination about what can be done. You have only six here before you because we just ran out of money, no other reason!
THE EXHAUSTED SCHOOLThe First National Grassroots Speakouton the Right to School ChoiceCarnegie Hall, New York City Edited and with an Introduction and Afterword byJOHN TAYLOR GATTO With a Preface byPATRICK FARENGA An Odysseus Group ImprintSmith & VarinaThe Oxford Village PressOxford, New York