Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dead Poets Society--School as Suicide Pact

One of the most stimulating and enlightening books on education is freely available online--"The Underground History of American Education." It has been praised by persons from almost every conceivable ideological viewpoint. It is uncomfortable to read, sometimes painful. Similar to childbirth, in a way.

Soon after I began teaching Moby Dick I realized the school edition wasn’t a real book but a kind of disguised indoctrination providing all the questions, a scientific addition to the original text designed to make the book teacher-proof and student-proof. If you even read those questions (let alone answered them) there would be no chance ever again for a private exchange between you and Melville; the invisible editor would have preempted it.

The editors of the school edition provided a package of prefabricated questions and more than a hundred chapter-by-chapter abstracts and interpretations of their own. Many teachers consider this a gift—it does the thinking for them. If I didn’t assign these questions, kids wanted to know why not. Their parents wanted to know why not. Unless everyone duly parroted the party line set down by the book editor, children used to getting high marks became scared and angry.

The school text of Moby Dick had been subtly denatured; worse than useless, it was actually dangerous. So I pitched it out and bought a set of undoctored books with my own money. The school edition of Moby Dick asked all the right questions, so I had to throw it away. Real books don’t do that. Real books demand people actively participate by asking their own questions.

Those lines are similar to scenes from "Dead Poets Society," with the same rejection of standardisation and manipulation to conformity.

Part of the book is history of education--going back millenia--and part is autobiography of a rebellious teacher. Gatto displays the people who built the educational establishment into its present monument to fossilized conformist mediocrity, displays them in their own words.

If you have ever looked at the dysfunctionality and counterproductivity of schools and wondered, "why?", you should take a good look at this history of education.

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