Schooling: What Are We Investigating Here?

1906 Felta School, Sonoma County, California closed on November 27, 1951. Note: I use one-room schools not because they were perfect, but because they represent a true grass-roots effort at education, and were widespread in America before the graded classroom model took over.

Herein we lay out the schooling research program of this blog.

20 years ago, when our first child was 2, I would have argued for rigorous academic schooling for their children as the duty of any parents capable of providing it. Now, as a graduate of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College,  I already had a somewhat different idea of what that meant in practice – in practice, the bulk of my education has consisted of reading books and talking about them with other people.

Then I met a woman who talked about Sudbury schools, and I instantly saw that I, at least, would have done very well in that environment, as I would have spent a lot of my time reading, uninterrupted by those pesky and stupid classes I had to take in grade school. At the same time I did a little co-oping at the ‘developmental’ preschool our son was in, and saw how little kids – 3, 4 and 5 year olds – investigated the world and interacted. Developmental schooling is the idea that kids will pursue whatever it is they need to learn if you put them into a rich, safe environment and let ’em loose – right up to the age of 5 or 6, at which point their education needs to be micromanaged  by the minute or you are dooming them to be homeless derelicts.

Something wasn’t right in this picture.

I don’t remember who turned me on to John Taylor Gatto, but his writing was a real eye-opener. He makes the following assertions:

1. Graded classroom model schooling is designed to make us stupid (Dumbing Us Down);

2. It works by imposing arbitrary rules and structures that, despite the efforts of any well-intentioned teachers, effectively prevent real learning and instead create more easily managed ‘product’ (7 Lesson Schoolteacher);

3. That this state – schools that produce stupid, easily managed people impervious to thought – is the result of a conscious plan worked out in broad daylight by a small group of ‘educators’ with connections to the rich and powerful in this country (Underground History of American Education).

Another of Gatto’s observations: the greatest success of the current model of schooling is that almost nobody can imagine any other way of doing it, even though the graded classroom model was all but unknown 200 years ago, and didn’t become ubiquitous in this country until about 100 years ago.

I’m focusing here on point 3: that the real purpose of schooling is to produce standardized product that will perform to spec – soldiers and workers who will follow orders, managers who do not question the goals of their management, and a population that can be counted on to think the same about central issues, the most central being that those in charge should stay in charge and given more power.

Gatto names names: in America, it starts with Horace Mann, the founding prophet of American public education. He links backwards to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, an influential German philosopher, and his near contemporaries Hegel and Kant. These Germans, in turn, link back a Swiss German pedagog, Johann Heinrick Pestalozzi. These characters, most especially Fichte and Hegel, influenced a boatload of people – people who became the heads of the university education departments and state and federal education commissions in most European countries and all US states.

It is in the writings of these men that the goals of modern education are revealed, according to Gatto. So, I’m reading them.

You can my thoughts on them under the category ‘Education History‘.



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Schooling: What Are We Investigating Here?”

  1. Reading John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down changed my thought process. It has enabled me to really appreciate you reading Fichte, et. al. and reporting on such, which I would never do. Thank you.

    1. Thanks. While there’s many lifetimes worth of reading more purely worthy than Fichte, reading Addresses to the German People would merely be tedious but is saved from that fate by occasional passages of pure horror. But he is easy enough to understand The same cannot be said for Hegel and Pestalozzi, however. I’m pretty sure neither of them meant to be understood.

      And BTW: after your mention, my 9 year old has consumed the entire Netflix Phineas and Ferb library, and I’ve caught a few with him. I shall from henceforth be cultural referent compliant vis-a-vis P&F. Thanks.

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