Obviam Schola


John Taylor Gatto
, a former educator who was "New York City Teacher of the Year", wrote an article in 2001 for Harper’s Magazine, entitled "Against School". He starts by saying that for the thirty years that he was in the public school system, there was one constant – boredom.

They [students] said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more.

He goes on with his argument.

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest.

Gatto traces the roots of the modern school from Prussian military schools and alludes to a more sinister reason for our current school structure:

Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.

After a review of some of the influential educators in America, Gatto concludes on a positive note:


After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.


Given that most of the children in our schools today will not be working in a factory or for a corporation (except as casual workers for a multi-national franchise), why are we still preparing them to be docile recipients of information, doled out in pre-measured Pablum consistency? Not only does once size not fit all, it fits no one. Our current age-cohort school system of "bums in seats" can easily be replaced by any number of other learning environments – apprenticeship; mentorship; collaborative learning across age groups; problem-based learning; etc.

For instance, the current cost of access to information is approaching zero. The same is happening with communications. Therefore, our children can connect with just about anyone and find out about any fact for almost free. In spite of this, our children go to school in the same group every day to receive parcels of information and are told to be quiet in class for six hours a day.

What are we preparing our children for? Definitely not to be entrepreneurial and start their own business (touted by our governments as the prime driver for prosperity). I don’t see any changes to this status quo until something tips the balance, such as:

  • homeschoolers outnumber those in school;
  • a major financial crisis;
  • the price of gas makes it impossible for children to get to our collector schools; or
  • everyone realises that The Emporer Has No Clothes.

So there you have it. The problem is not that we don’t teach enough math or science or English. The problem is the structure itself. Until the structure is addressed, I don’t imagine that any fine-tuning of our current system will address the systemic problem that our schools promote childishness and discourage learning.

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4 Responses to “Obviam Schola”

  1. Marco Polo

    If Gatto is correct, and he’s not the only one to have come to this conclusion, the problem is rather that institutionalized schooling, admirable tho its aims and many of its proponents may be (equitable education for everyone) is a system that requires a great deal of centralized control over many areas of a society’s activities, and as such lends itself to being invisibly hijacked by the “insiders”, those who thirst for ever increasing power over ever increasing numbers of people, and who can spot an opportunity to do so across continents and several years (even decades) ahead of time.

  2. Marco Polo

    In 1944, Austrian economist (then living in Britain) wrote The Road to Serfdom, which lends some support to Gatto’s conclusions. In particular, Hayak points out how a) seductive socialisms aims are, and b) how incompatible with true freedom they are, too: in trying to create utopia, we create its opposite.