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What is the primary purpose of public schooling?

The following answer is from the New York State Teacher of the Year who taught school in New York City for 26 years. It is taken from pages 66-68 of his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto.

For one hundred and fifty years institutional education has seen fit to offer as its main purpose the preparation for economic success. Good education = good job, good money, good things.

The absurdity of defining education as an economic good becomes clear if we ask ourselves what is gained by perceiving education as a way to enhance even further the runaway consumption that threatens the earth, the air, and the water of our planet? Should we continue to teach people that they can buy happiness in the face of a tidal wave of evidence that they cannot? Shall we ignore the evidence that drug addiction, alcoholism, teenage suicide, divorce, and other despairs are pathologies of the prosperous much more than they are of the poor?

On this question of meanings we’ve hidden from ourselves for a so long hangs both an understanding of the illness that is killing us and the cure we are searching for. What, after all this time, is the purpose of mass schooling supposed to be? Reading, writing, and arithmetic can’t be the answer, because properly approached those things take less than a hundred hours to transmit - and we have abundant evidence that each is readily self-taught in the right setting and time.

Why, then, are we locking these kids up in an involuntary network with strangers for twelve years? Surely not so a few of them can get rich? Even if it worked that way, and I doubt that it does, why wouldn’t any sane community look on such an education as positively wrong? It divides and classifies people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other; and it publicly labels the losers by literally de-grading them, identifying them as "low-class" material. The bottom line for the winners is that they can buy more stuff! I don’t believe that anyone who thinks about it feels comfortable with such a silly conclusion. I can’t help feeling that if we could only answer the question of what it is that we want from these kids we lock up, we would suddenly see where we took a wrong turn. I have enough faith in American imagination and resourcefulness to believe that at that point we’d come up with a better way - in fact, a whole supermarket of better ways.

One thing I do know: most of us who’ve had a taste of loving families, even a little taste, want our kids to be part of one. One other thing I know is that eventually you have to come to be part of a place - part of its hills and streets and waters and people - or you will live a very, very sorry life as an exile forever. Discovering meaning for yourself, and discovering satisfying purpose for yourself, is a big part of what education is. How this can be done by locking children away from the world is beyond me.

What do you think? Send your own essay for posting.

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Last updated: 09-11-99 01:10 PDT