Monday, 26 August 2013

John Taylor Gatto and Education that works all too well (plus Eric Hoffer)

Well, I've been reading John Taylor Gatto's work - the Underground History of American Education is a fascinating start. The man has put together a frightening and coherent history of the American education system, which turns out to be thoroughly contrary to the entire point of American Democracy. It's surprisingly nightmarish - and it, among other works like Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook, really do offer a much-needed wake-up call to the problem plaguing schools. The issue with the US school system, according to them, is not that it's not working - it's only that it works far too well. Having been to Alcatraz and having been reminded of School when stepping into one of the infamous cells at the end of Block 'D', I completely agree with the notion of school as a prison.

Not that many people would be reading this, but if you disagree and think that school is a great place to be, well, that's your opinion. Leave me to have my own. I don't mind making it public, because I do believe that schools and education are far from the same thing. I could go on and on about schools, but that's not the point I'm making here.

I'm bringing Eric Hoffer, an old favorite of mine, into this melee. Eric Hoffer was one of the greatest scholars of fanaticism to have ever lived and his work has yet to be rivalled in terms of sheer simplicty, lucidity, and descriptiveness when it comes to explaining the nightmare phenomenon of fanaticism. To quote the man himself, in section 8 of page 14 in the 2002 Harper&Row edition - "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute in the lost faith in ourselves" - a sentence that is at once simple and profound, and which says more than a hundred pages in average book ever could. Indeed, sections 7 to 13 discuss the ways in which an individual's lack of self-worth and longing for something greater in life - especially when their individual lives are seen as irredeemably spoiled and worthless - leads them to seek a 'greater cause' in order to restore meaning to their lives. "The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice the utmost humility, is boundless", says he (section 11) - and perhaps I have seen some of this in my life as well.

Hoffer's extraordinary analysis doesn't seem to dive deep enough to the root cause of this feeling of insecurity and individual worthlessness - however, Gatto's analysis of the schooling system puts up an explanation for what Eric Hoffer, Der Autodidakt (German: The Self-taught man) did not pinpoint: schooling itself is the basis for creating worthlessness in society. Gatto references the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's analysis of Nazism (which, frustratingly, remains elusive on the internet) as a case in point : the best schooled people turned out to be the best suited to the fanaticism of the Nazi movement. Of course, with Germany having taken a full-on hit from the Great Depression in the early 1930s and the Communists and Nazis brawling on the streets 24 hours a day, it was just a matter of which movement eventually came trumps. The Nazis won, and former communists landed up joining the Nazi ranks.

How does this stay relevant for the present day? Well, all too many commentators the world over have complained either about the education system being hopelessly ineffective (as in the United States) or have clamored for expanding the present system of education to new areas and making it more 'competitive' (as in India). In the Indian case, education is indeed justified because Indian communities, particuarly in rural and poor urban areas, just don't have the resources at hand to educate their kids. But imposing industrial-style 'western' education on them as-is would be asking for a disaster.

Education was never meant to educate : it was meant to train children to be obedient, and accept their place unquestioningly (Gatto even fingers the caste-based education system in India right alongside the Prussian education system as a root of modern education). Even if all these kids are 'educated' to fit into a modern industrial society, what guarantee is there that they'll have jobs and a life that won't stop them from falling into the hands of fanatics? Whether in India or the United States - or any other place where large-scale 'modern' classroom education is prevant - there is rich fuel for fanaticism. Create an army of angry, frustrated people who have been educated to 'know their place' and mindlessly obey orders, and bring in a few 'peddlers of hope' - and you get serious trouble.

As our past educators have sown, so shall this generation, and those following it, reap.

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