The School vs. The Soul: Notes on an Essay by John Taylor Gatto

I read a powerful essay today by John Taylor Gatto  (linked here). I’d highly recommend reading it — it’s a short and deep summary of the history of our public school system, the detriments of the system, and an argument that we don’t need the system at all.

I wrote the following notes in response.

School Wasn’t Designed to Benefit Us. It Was Designed to Benefit Society.

Our school system was based off of a Prussian model that was designed to create adults to man industrial factories and people a totalitarian state. It wasn’t intended to help people thrive. It was intended to create a product of uniform intellect and capability, to fill a society of square holes and limited life tracks. It was never intended to foster dynamic and individually strong people.

A strong and vibrant society is a society comprised of self-actualized, fulfilled human beings. These humans need curiosity, dreams, a solid foundation. They’re people who chase after their goals, who pursue the knowledge that will help them succeed, whose minds and souls are nurtured and well fed.

This all starts with the education.

The School vs. The Soul

Disregard in this discussion the religious connotations of the word “soul,” and let’s establish a meaning. When I say “soul” I’m referring to the . The mind, the personality, the

Everyone has a soul. It’s the thing that drives you. It’s your soul that’s passionate about learning, that

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the depth and the spirituality of existence, and of human development.

The school doesn’t acknowledge this spirituality. It doesn’t acknowledge the soul. It doesn’t feed people knowledge to nourish their souls.

Even if a standardized education system did acknowledge the soul, how could it ever form itself into an entity that was able to nurture these souls? The concept of soul defies standardization. What’s right for the child who’s passionate about art is different than what’s right for the child who loves music, and both are wildly different than the needs and desires of the child who wants to build a rocket ship.

The child who wants to build a rocket ship doesn’t need classroom experience. He doesn’t need to sit and listen to a teacher until all interest and soul has been hammered out of him, dried up and blown away on the winds of sheer boredom. What he needs is to build things. He needs to read about rockets and get hands-on experience. He should be allowed to spend his day creating, learning through the act of doing until he finally learns how to build a rocket ship. He can find mentors. He can find people to guide him. He can build things and fail and try them again. There’s no way to standardize this process. The child already knows how learn. We all know how to learn. The best way to allow the child interested in rocket ships to become the adult who builds rocket ships is to let him evolve. He’s already on the trajectory. The best thing that can be done is to leave him alone and let the process happen.

The only reason any child needs standardized information is to conform to the standardized expectations for entry into a given field. Those expectations are being torn apart. They could be eliminated altogether.

What if we changed our paradigm at the root of the problem, at the beginning of the whole process? With education?

What if learning was a soulful experience? What if it wasn’t worried about numbers and cold standards and was rather interested in the individual’s interests and intuitive desires? What kind of a relationship could we have with our educations, if we did away with systems altogether and started looking at learning, not as a means to a successful test score and a piece of paper documenting completion of a program, but as a pursuit with the goal of personal fulfillment? What if we started to focus not on the objective, but the process? What if we looked at education as something organic?

What if we acknowledged that information and education are needs that vary from person to person? We are individuals. Standards don’t really apply.

You Don’t Learn Because of School. You Learn in Spite of School.

The human capacity to learn is innate. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks that makes us what we are. We’re born knowing how to do it. Nobody taught us how to walk. Yet somehow we all managed to take our first steps. Look at us now — every day, doing one of the most basic and important things we’ll ever learn. We didn’t need school to do that.

If you can learn how to walk without formal education, you can learn anything.

School isn’t a place that fosters learning. It’s an impediment to the process. In school you learn that knowledge is a tool to help you pass tests, that facts are to be memorized but not understood, that it’s a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. How does that make you a more well-rounded individual? How does that benefit you over the course of your life? What value does that bring to your life, when you’re using it as a paradigm?

School doesn’t teach you how to learn well. It doesn’t teach you much of anything. It doesn’t make you a greater and more fulfilled person. It stifles you.

The Education of a Self-Actualized Human Being

The education of a self-actualized human being is an education that

It nurtures the mind and it feeds the soul. It deepens your understanding of the world, and it brings value to you and to your pursuits.

This education does exist. It manifests itself in various forms, from classroom settings in Waldorf and Montessori schools, and outside of the classroom, in the learning settings chosen by homeschoolers and unschoolers. It works. People educated in this manner go on to succeed in the world. Usually they blow way beyond anyone’s expectations. They’re dynamic, they’re vibrant, and they’re wildly successful in whatever endeavor they’ve chosen to pursue. They’re exceptional.

It isn’t just a shift in practice. It’s a shift in paradigm — the way these people are interacting with their lives and their educations.

It creates incredible human beings.

The Right to an Unstandardized Education (OR) The Crime of School

Humans are born with an innate capacity to learn. School kills it.

Children have interests, passions, curiosities. School redirects them to standardized facts and preparation for tests.

Kids want to learn like they play — with complete obsession and reckless abandon, following any track that interests them, naturally. It’s the deepest essence of what they are, and they aren’t allowed to express it.

Over the course of twelve years inside the system, the passion dies.

Think of all of the kids stuck in traditional classrooms, bored out of their minds, quietly having the life stifled out of them by teachers that don’t care and work that doesn’t matter and the numbness that comes from knowing you have seven more hours of this tedium to endure.

It’s a tragedy. You could call it a crime.

Everybody deserves a philosophy of education that allows them the freedom to pursue knowledge and to learn, and to love learning. Everybody deserves an opportunity to become the most dynamic and actualized and fulfilled human being they can possibly be.

The school system that gets touted as being the savior of all our nation’s children doesn’t offer that. It takes it away.

If it Made Sense Once, it Doesn’t Make Sense Now
“The difference between the few dozen standardized life scripts enabled by the industrial age, with its sparse menu of consensual realities, and the millions or even billions of unique ones enabled by the digital age, is not a difference of degree. It’s a difference of kind. In a world where your imagination, rather than our context, is the limiting factor, how fulfilling your life is depends not on external circumstances, but on your inner, mental game.” — Venkatesh Rao

Let’s go back to Prussia for a moment. Let’s go back to the first implementation of the standardized school system in the U.S. The industrial

If it made even a little bit of sense at once point, it certainly doesn’t make any now. The world has changed, and we’re still stuck with an educational system that was designed for an industrialized world, where life paths were standardized, people were stratified, and options were limited. We’ve evolved past the industrial era. As a society, we don’t need it anymore. We’ve moved beyond it, to a place where possibilities are infinite and success — in any area you choose — is within reaching distance.

We need education that nurtures this imagination, and this hunger for knowledge, and this pursuit of becoming a fulfilled human being.

I would argue that we don’t need a system or standards at all.

Who Needs Standardized Education?

My radical argument: no one. It’s outdated, it’s ineffective, and it’s detrimental.

A closing quote, from Gatto’s essay: “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.”

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