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Beyond Money: Deschooling and a New Society

I think this is a transcript from a talk he gave.

by John Taylor Gatto
My mother takes in stray animals. Mostly homeless dogs and cats, but if a hurt bird’s wing needs repair, birds also. If a turtle is crossing the road too slowly, she makes my father stop the car so she can get out and carry it to the other side of the road. When Dad objected to how many animals our household was supporting, mother took to setting large dishes of Nabisco dog food in our backyard for the wanderers, an act of generosity that made our house look like a kennel and drove my father frantic, not least because he was the manager of the local National Biscuit Company.

The other day I was reading Proverbs, a collection of advice set down by Solomon 3,000 years ago, when I came across these words: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Suddenly I realized what my mother had done all those years when I thought she was just feeding animals. She was speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. And reading further into Proverbs I found this:

“Happy are they who are generous to the poor.” Reading those words I realized I had part of the secret that made my mother happy, for she was happy most of the time I was growing up in spite of a full share of her own troubles. She was unfailingly generous to the poor – not just to outcast creatures, but to anyone who came to our door for a handout, to any neighborhood person fallen on hard times and needing help. I had a little lawn mowing business in those days, and I remember in particular the widow with young children whose lawn I mowed for free because my mother asked me to.

While randomly turning the pages of Proverbs I found this judgment, and by implication this warning, too: “There is joy for those who seek the common good.” And I remembered my mother’s beautiful Christmas trees that took days of hard effort to create, effort in the family’s common service. I remembered her collecting of kitchen grease and metal scrap for the war effort in the long gone days of World War II, and her fierce defense of equity as head of the PTA, and her founding a Cub Scout Troop when none of the local men could be persuaded to do it. I remembered the joy she brought to so many undertakings of my boyhood.

The London Economist announced recently that 70 percent of all the lawyers in the world are in the United States. This is 25 times the number of lawyers per capita as Japan, 3.5 times the number in England, and 2.5 times the number per capita in Germany. If you add public and private practice lawyers together, about one in every 250 Americans is a lawyer.

What could the meaning of this be? Seventy percent of all the world’s lawyers? Before he died, Joseph Campbell took note of this enormous legal fraternity and called it the way Americans talk to each other, the way employees talk to bosses and brothers to sisters. Lawsuits are the way we get the other guy’s attention because we have lost the normal interest in each other, lost the concern for human face-to-face justice, lost the taste for plain speaking that marks a healthy people.

Looking at the great tradition of English common law, there are only two reasons to bring a case at all. First, that someone hasn’t kept a promise…has not done what they said they would do. That gives rise to contract law. And second, that someone has encroached on another person’s rights and done harm. That gives rise to tort and criminal law.

So if you are looking for a new way to mark the crisis in American society, if you are wary of hearing about teenage suicide, divorce, crime, violence, alienated brothers and sisters, murder, drugs, etc. even one more time, then think on the barometer of crisis represented by 70 percent of the world’s lawyers collecting under the American eagle’s wing. There must be a tremendous of people breaking promises, and a tremendous number of people encroaching on rights to support such a battalion of barristers.

We are forgetting, I think, how to live together in families and communities; forgetting the necessary personal duties that make families and communities in the first place in a rush to get out from under personal responsibility. To escape. How often do you hear the cry, “Let them do it! They get paid for it!” Them can mean police or street sweepers or social workers or any of a number of other occupational titles that have come to identify our transition from a world of human beings who live together and care about each other to a world of institutions and hired hands.

What does it mean when we break our promises so often?

What does it mean when we encroach so often on each other’s rights? When we abandon personal responsibility for the common good so completely to people we hire, so that the air is full of our angry refusals and stony silences, all eyes rigidly turned away from duty, all mouths full of an angry “NO!” Let them do it. They get paid for it.

What does it mean for your future and mine when a price tag has been set on simple services that, through the long history of humanity, were freely exchanged and even freely given? Like sitting with the sick, caring for the old, or even caring for one’s own children? Like mowing a poor widow’s lawn.

If it means something frightening, what can we do about it?

At the turn of the 20 century, a profound social thinker in France named George Simmel wrote a remarkable book called The Philosophy of Money. In it, Simmel – one of the great creative theorists of this century – said that money contained a powerful internal contradiction built into the foundations of its abstract existence: by robbing things of their innate identity and replacing that core identity with a money identity, by making everything interchangeable with money, money often cheapened things and removed their significance! Simmel said that whenever genuine personal qualities like service were offered for money, the pricing of these things inevitably trivialized what had been priced. The services tend to gradually become degraded, to lose distinction, just exactly as if the money itself sharply reduced the value of what was being purchased.

Even though that was written over 90 years ago, it still has a shocking and almost crazy ring to it. But Simmel was quite serious and generations of blue ribbon readership have found enough disturbing truth in his words to keep them available generation after generation. Simmel continued: “Whenever genuine personal values have to be offered for money, one finds that a loosening, a loss of quality in individual life takes place.” For instance, in prostitution – a kind of temporary marriage for money – the monetarization of sex leads to “a terrible degradation of personal value”. Both prostitute and client are worse for the experience, not better. The sale of compassion, the sale of concern, even the sale of a helping hand in many instances, lead to the same destination. At some point, pricing eats away the intangible quality of service and the central value of what is offered will be destroyed. It’s a complicated idea, but one well worth musing upon.

Now think again about the meaning of all those American lawsuits. Think of all the broken promises they represent, the counterfeit “services” rendered. Is it just barely possible that the shift after WW II to what is called a “service” economy is part of the reason for our visible unhappiness as a nation? Is it just barely possible that when most of us don’t accept the obligation of service to each other, performed freely, as part of the social contract, but instead assign the job to hired hands, the payoff might be misery rather than the joy Solomon promised?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but I do have an interesting bit of recent evidence in support of Simmel’s theory. In 1971, the National Book Award for non-fiction went to a title called The Gift Relationship, a book which undertook to explore whether valuable things given freely – like services rendered voluntarily – were more or less valuable than the same services as part of a commercial system.

The commodity the author took for his test was human blood. He made an imaginative, cross-national comparison of the quality and availability of human blood in countries that charge for it, like the United States, and in countries like England where it is given away. Almost all blood in the U.S. is purchased wholesale and then resold several times for several profits; almost all blood in England is donated freely and then given away.

The book’s conclusions aren’t the slightest bit ambiguous. Where blood is sold, the quality is terrible, prices sky-high, shortages common. And where blood is sold, there is also frequently danger to the purchaser, even in the best of hospitals. But there is an additional, intangible cost. Where blood is bought and sold, the community loses the tradition of giving freely to neighbours and strangers, and where that tradition is lost, the donors lose the joy gained from service in the common good. In other words, a social and ethical corrosion ensues from the market in blood. Communities which provide their own blood needs without cost are apparently healthy in many other ways too; people seemed happier in such communities.

Transforming blood into the stuff of commerce is inefficient in economic terms, in supply terms, and in quality terms. The social cost is high too. The U.S. blood supply – the most heavily commercialized in the world – is also the worst in the world.

The lesson of my mother, of biblical Solomon, of Simmel, and of blood, I mean to be a lesson for our schools too. When schools consume the youth of the nation in confinement, and all the products of their labors become paper to be thrown away, there is no joy possible in the seeking of such goods. The pricing of time through grade points establishes an irrational currency by which something precious – time – is corrupted in the service of arbitrary and nonsensical urgencies.

Experts who are the sellers of school services to the government have consistently misdiagnosed and mis-defined the problem of schooling. The school problem is not that children don’t learn to read, write and do arithmetic very well – those deficiencies are direct byproducts of our errors of definition – the problem is that kids hardly learn at all the ways schools insist on teaching.

Schools desperately need a vision of their own purpose, because the vision they angrily promulgate now is a dishonest one. It was never factually true that young people learn to read or do arithmetic primarily by being taught these things. These things are learned, but not really taught at all. Over-teaching interferes with learning, although the few who survive it may well come to imagine it was by an act of teaching. Colonial America was massively literate without any systematic or compulsory schooling at all.

For many decades, an artificially induced hysteria about basic skills has been the masquerade used to intimidate us into abandoning children to a form of confinement-schooling that simply doesn’t work. Behind this mask, valuable lessons of service to a vibrant community of real human beings have been denied the young – and all of us have been denied the reciprocities healthy adults need with children across the full spectrum of ages.

Give and take; take and give. Children desperately need the lessons that volunteer service, apprenticeships and work/study teach but instead they are kept in holding pens with others of their own age and social class. They are priced and valued according to their ability to adjust to this unhealthy regimen, to remain passive, to take orders, to maintain a cheerful demeanor while their time is wasted. They give nothing but are rewarded for becoming quiet parasites. This has been the formula producing extended childishness and the outlines of a caste system in this country, however well it has served the economic institution of mass-schooling. After struggling at the bars of the cage for a few years, most kids just give up and settle into the low-grade vocational activities of the school. The relentless rationalization of the educational experience to one flavor – confinement schooling – has left the modern student a prisoner in a disenchanted world without meaning.

Our cultural dilemma has nothing to do with children who don’t read very well. It lies instead in the difficulty of finding a way to restore meaning and purpose to modern life. There is no point in reading if it seems to lead nowhere. We have progressively stripped children of the primary experience base they need to grow up sound and whole by pricing abstract study higher. The great irony has been that while we devalued service and life experience, abstraction has followed the path Simmel predicted. It, too, matters less and less.

The dynamics of the process are subtle. To begin with, the natural sequence in which hands-on experience – primary data to give it any academic title – must always come first. Only after a long apprenticeship in rich and profound contact with the world, the home, the neighborhood, does the thin gas of abstraction mean much to most people. After 26 years of classroom teaching, I came to see what Benjamin Franklin must have realized as a teenager. Only a few of us are fashioned in such a peculiar way as to thrive on an exclusive diet of blackboard work and workbook work and bookwork work and talkwork work of all sorts.

When we fail to take into account how most children, rich or poor, really learn – by involvement, by doing, by independent risk-taking, by shouldering responsibility, by intermingling intimately into the real world of adults in all its manifestations – when we set up a laboratory universe in which all are confined with anonymous strangers, then we have created in advance a world of failing families, wrecked cities, and blasted individuals. Then we have created the mise en scene where a mathematical bell curve seems to describe a human condition in which only a few children have any real talent.

This is a cynical act. It is only prolonged, in the fact of its deadly effects, because school factories and all the forces which service them have become an integral part of the money economy. The lie of our own unexamined premises has given us the horrible children we complain of as a nation. Indifferent children, cowardly children, dishonest children, selfish children, children who disrespect parents and adults in general, who hurt each other, who trample each other’s rights for worthless prizes like blue ribbons or school grades. Eventually, these are children who grow up to become clients for a nation of lawyers , children who will one day break contracts and encroach on the weak if the opportunity arises.

And why not? That is the example school sets. The logic of confinement schooling in the middle of a democracy is a contradiction of the original national charter. It breaks the contract of the Bill of Rights, using as its justification the excuse that kids can’t learn any other way, that they can’t be trusted with responsibility. The truth is exactly the opposite. Unless they are trusted with responsibility they cannot learn much, and under the thumb of central compulsion the lessons they do learn are bad ones. School encroaches on the right of each new life to test itself against the needs of the real world.

Schools are a training ground for irresponsibility because that is nearly the only thing they are set up to teach.

Schools desperately need a vision of their own purpose. At present they are government jobs for children…and the worst kind of government jobs – the make-work kind, not really jobs at all.

There is nothing or very little to do in school. Our elite high school texts are on the level of fifth grade readers from 160 years ago, in the time before we got compulsion schooling. And dumbing down the work isn’t some sinister conspiracy; it has become more and more a necessity as generations of well schooled children succeed themselves and become parents.

So the damage is cumulative, and it is fast becoming insupportable. Look around you at our society. We have created a whirlpool of addictions much more sophisticated than drug addictions, which children and grown children use to avoid confronting themselves with their own uselessness. We are reluctant to face the truth because it acts as a mirror, revealing more than we can face about the real source of our difficulties. We have forced children to be irresponsible for 12 years. It is no wonder they hate themselves and us, and no wonder they cannot recover. Cut a man’s legs off as a boy and they will not grow back when he is a man.

With the growing public alarm over the effects of science and technology on societies all over the world, we are soon going to have a chance to rethink the basic questions of education, questions that have little to do with reading, writing and arithmetic, but much to do with the fundamental queries of human existence: In what curriculum is a good life found? How shall we all live? What shall we do with our children?

My own suspicion is that systematic, government compulsion schooling is doomed, that there is no way to tinker with it to make it work much better, that soon the monopoly will have to be surrendered because it doesn’t work, it hurts people, and it is far too expensive. If well schooled children are the goal, they can be turned out for a fraction of the cost of government schooled children.

In fact, I don’t think the world can afford well schooled children at all, whether they come from factories of government, church or private industry. We need a different kind of man and woman to tackle the future – the kind of young people who accept the obligations of living in society joyfully. To get to this new place, we need a vision of what an education is and what a school can be; only out of a clearly spoken vision can come the mutual hope we need to find ways to get there.

Curriculum is only the Latin word for a race course, the path by which the racehorse gets to its destination. We haven’t even begun to agree as a nation on a destination for education that is an honest one. “Beating” other countries, scoring well on tests, “getting a good job” – all these are low evasions of what the human spirit needs, all are ways to duck the truth that we have failed, thus far, to pay the price in argument, debate, agony and love that a strong vision will cost.

Without a vision all the talk about reforming “curriculum” will lead nowhere. Unless we can convince ourselves, our children included, that the new course is worth following it will not work any better than the old one did. Why should it?

It must be something all of us can share, a destiny far beyond “winning” and “money” and taking more than our share of material things. For the question will always re-emerge, “To what end?“ ”Why are we doing these things?”

Messy and unpleasant as it will be for a practical people like Americans, the sequence must start with clear goals. In a democracy worth the name, the goals come from the bottom up, not the other way around. It will be messy if done right because hundreds and thousands of separate agendas will be set in conflict by any attempt to change what is, and we will learn, finally, that we need multiple visions, many different curricula.

If I guess right, we don’t have a choice; the present course is almost over. The whole food supply is in jeopardy for one thing. Breeding stocks of fish along the California coast are at their lowest levels in history. Cape Cod Bay, on the other side of the continent, where once the fish were thick enough to walk across, is a dead sea in many places. The radical conclusion forces itself upon us that the oceans are dying. In Kansas a bushel of irreplaceable topsoil blows away for every bushel of corn raised by factory farming methods, and that is true in all the wheat and corn states. The food value of chemical agriculture’s harvest is already much lower than that of the natural harvests of old fashioned farming.

If my guess is right, we need to construct a new vision of what education is, and we need new race courses on which to run the vision. The government can’t do it for us, that’s been tried for 140 years in the monopoly schools, but they just get worse and worse – more the creators of our problems than the solution. If my guess is right we don’t even have a choice. The old system where every child was locked away and set into nonstop, daily cut throat competition with every other child for silly prizes called grades is broken beyond repair. If it could be fixed it could have been fixed by now. Good riddance.

There is no correlation between the play money of grades and the play money we buy things with, except that dishonest correlation forced on the job market by rigging it with arbitrary laws and policies. For example, you can establish by law or policy that the only people who get into medical school are the people with lofty grade point averages, but that will not guarantee that the best people become doctors; the same unpleasant reality holds true for lawyers, businessmen, engineers or school teachers.

We have yet another warning that forcing the collective time of our young people into a contest for symbols – whether money or grades or similar prizes – is a mistaken course. We do not trust each other, we do not like each other, we do not care for each other, we are unable to keep ourselves from encroaching on each other, and we cannot keep our promises. That is a recipe for social disaster, not one for the good life.

The new vision of North American education is going to have to find a currency beyond money with which to pay its children to learn. My own experience after 15 years of sponsoring service learning projects for my students is that a curriculum that seeks the common good will be an important part of that real currency, which doesn’t inflate, as grade do. It holds its value.

My own experience has been that every single academic question that can be asked can be asked around a base of genuine service to the community and can ride easily around an orbit of service. My own kids always did one full day of community service a week. They generally worked alone in order to escape the culture of school children. They took on full adult responsibilities and a full adult work day even at the age of 12 or 13. And in almost every case they discharged their duties splendidly.

Even in the first year I experimented with such a program it worked. Indeed, it worked better for the selfish, spoiled, indifferent children of prosperous families than it did for the lost children of the poor and non-college bound. But the differences were small. It worked for everyone, including the communities, which allowed themselves to be served. It transformed people spiritually, morally and academically too.

In Western society over the past several thousand years, we have had, at various times, great social visions: the pagan vision of Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, the aristocratic vision of Charlemagne and the Plantagenets, the Christian vision of St. Augustine and of the martyrs. All these grand conceptions for which curricula were developed had a service ideal at the bedrock of their foundations, a sense that we are obligated to each other, that we need duties self-imposed if we expect to live easily with ourselves. That is the great secret we have lost sight of in schools built around a philosophy or theology of materialism, a curriculum of competition and accumulation, a curriculum of self-aggrandizement: that these directives are prescriptions for bad individuals, bad communities, bad societies and bad consciences.

All the transforming visions we have human record of asked a question beyond money: What do I owe?

And these visions promise that if we will only speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, if we will only be generous to the poor, if we will only seek the common good, that our lives will be filled with meaning. It worked for Solomon; it worked for my mother; it will work for the rest of us too.

John Taylor Gatto won Teacher of the Year awards for New York City and New York State in the early 1990s. He is the author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and The Exhausted School.

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