It’s happened to me a several times over the past few years. I read a book or hear a sermon or listen to a talk that changes everything.
Or at least how I look at everything.
An epiphany of sorts. An ah-hah moment.
It happened when I first discovered Lutheranism. And the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. And the first time I heard about classical education. And after I listened to Dr. Steven Hein speak about ‘vocation’.
And then today. After I read Dumbing Us Down, written by John Taylor Gatto. It’s an expose on the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling and it knocked me flat.
How many awakenings does one girl need in any given three year span? Stevie feels the same way and has forbid any new books for at least a month. He’s kidding. But I know what he means. It can be a little like losing your footing. Or like waking up from a deep slumber and being blinded by a very bright light that exposes all manner of short comings in your life. Truth has a way of tearing down the pretenses and straw men we’ve built.
And before truth nurtures your soul like a good medicine, it can be a bitter, harsh reality.
Growing up as a product of nearly 25 years of compulsory government schooling, I never questioned the institution. It seemed perfectly natural for 35 adolescents of similiar age to be quarantined together all day under the auspices of ‘education’. Away from the influence of their parents, grandparents, and community. And relieved of any community responsibility to serve the neighbor. To obey a set of prescribed rules where one is allowed to learn math only between 8 and 9, stop all learning when the bell rings, and use the restroom between 3rd period and lunch. The ‘institution’ then invades the sacred ‘family time’ by assigning far too much homework and thereby successfully further isolating children from the most promising influence most can hope to have—-their own parents. ‘They’ have taken the lion’s share of children’s lives by demand and we have grown so accustomed to the system that we wouldn’t think or dare to question the goals or motives or outcome. Gatto asserts that basic reading, writing, and arithmetic can be learned in 100 hours if the child is ripe for learning. So what is happening in the other thousands of hours? He taught for thirty years in New York City and was crowned with many glowing achievements. He seems fit to have an opinion.
He ponders the hard questions.
Why have we allowed them to capture nearly the entire childhood and adolescence of our children without so much as asking the obvious questions? The ‘pseudo-communities’ that schools forge, he says, lack real nurturing and love that families and real communities provide. And given the amount of time spent in school, after school activities, and homework…plus the time spent under the mind-numbing brain-washing effects of most television, it’s no wonder that our generation is frought with people who are addicted, divorced, lonely, and literally at a loss to make meaningful connections and relationships.
This ‘network’ created by people of similiar age or interest is a shallow excuse for a supportive environment that is conducive to growing healthy, happy, independent adults. The school system itself fosters dependance…..where we want someone to tell us where to go and what to do next. That’s what we’ve been doing all our lives. He makes the point that the system is designed this way because those dependant types prop up our economical system well….where the average high school graduate is most likely to work at Walmart or in fast-food. In that sense, he says, the system does exactly what it is designed to do. To make a society of people addicted to dependance and consumerism…..thereby ensuring the ‘big machine’ will continue. They will tell us what to buy. We will buy it. It works for everyone. Or so it seems.
This sort of pseudo-commmunity lifestyle is also sorely lacking in solitude.
Our kids have no time to play. Without homework. Or lessons. Or organized sports. Or electronics. And if they do have free time, they don’t know how to use it. Where are the creative, inventive, industrious children that could spend an entire afternoon amusing themselves with a roll of tape and an egg carton? Or heaven forbid a book with any more depth than Goosebumps.
As a result of growing up highly addicted to distraction, it took me many years to appreciate solitude. And to use it effectively. To learn a new skill. Or to read a good book. Or to sit and watch the sunset and appreciate the beauty all around us. Solitude is where the real ‘work’ happens. Where our souls are fed. And without solitude, our lives become a series of poorly linked events….without meaning or purpose. We’re addicted to distraction according to Gatto. And we’re teaching it to our kids. Or at least we’re letting schools and television teach it to our kids, all day long, as we sit by and wonder why we live in a society full of violence, drugs, pornography, a myriad of psychiatric illnesses, and addictions of all kinds.
We need meaningful relationships, a safe and stimulating environment in which to learn, and solitude——where the real learning happens. Most of our lives are filled with overextended schedules, very little solitude and shallow family relationships that are mostly based on the ‘next activity’. And I’m as guilty as the next guy. Homeschooling is sometimes a wonderful alternative , but it doesn’t ensure that the learning won’t be fragmented and devoid of real meaning. I will certainly not be interrupting anymore ‘in the zone’ playtime, which is probably where real-life math skills are learned, to require the girls to do another worksheet. I will no longer feel guilt or pressure to mimic the ‘school’ environment where the lines between math and history are so clearly demarcated. And we will take more field trips. To learn about sewing from a seamstress, and baking from a baker, and gardening from a gardener. People who have a talent or skill and are passionate about it are the best teachers. Which reassures me that my girls will at least be able to transform an old door from Goodwill into a killer sewing table…..and make the world’s best brownies…..and when all else fails, add lip gloss and ribbon. I do hope my love for reading gets transmitted. At least then there’s hope of lifelong learning.
So, this book has affected me profoundly. It has illuminated why I have struggled so much with certain issues in my own life. Parts of this book rang so true in my heart that I found myself at times full of emotion—-of regret for so many ‘lost’ years, and of guilt, for sitting by for so long and expecting someone else to do for my children what I can most effectively do. Whether they go to school or stay home with me.
Waking up from such a slumber is painful. The light is bright and hurts my eyes. I want to pull the covers back up and pretend it’s not morning. Just one more hour. Or five more minutes. But I know what I must do. I must brave the light.
And pray for mercy.
I would recommend the book to you but I hate to be the one to disturb any good dreams. Be careful if you read this one. Approach with caution. It is powerful and will sound a mighty loud alarm.
BTW, he offers a glimmer of hope where schools are more locally controlled and does offer homeschooling as an alternative that seems to be successful. But for most of us, we must live with the consequences of the education we have received. And hopefully we will all continue to be self-taught and self-directed enough to fill in the gaps. And although I have very large gaps, I seem to have an insatiable appetite for filling them.