Let’s chat about John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, and how it informs your homeschool life.
John Taylor Gatto has written so proficiently and passionately that I couldn’t possibly do him justice and share all the different ways he could influence us.
So I recommend reading from him. Read his work to be energized. Read his work to put wind in your sails for even your most discouraging homeschool days.
Nonetheless, I would be remiss to not include this powerhouse author as a significant influencer for our homeschools: so here are just 7 ways that John Taylor Gatto informs your homeschool.
Here are the 7 Freedom Loving Ways John Taylor Gatto Informs your Homeschool:
One of the ways John Taylor Gatto informs your homeschool is this:
1. John Taylor Gatto says, “I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my thirty years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides, and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers care and do very very hard work, the institution is psychopathic — it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell.”
Kinda clear what JTG thinks about the education institution. Psychopathic: a strong word.
We all have had helpful, attentive, memorable teachers: they are what made our schooldays pleasant or introduced us to interesting things.
However, we all have had critical, impatient, exacting teachers: they make our schooldays miserable (oh, and also unpleasant students made our schooldays miserable too).
In some of our homeschool days, we can be helpful, attentive, and memorable for our kids too. And in some of our days, we have been critical, impatient, and exacting too.
But how do our homeschools differ from educational institutions?
- The “home” institution we create considers the whole needs of our children: their nutrition, their desire for connection, creativity, and emotional expression, their personal development, their spiritual awareness, and their relational development skills.
- Also, the “home” institution we enable is built on intimate knowledge and connection with our kids.
- The “home” institution we embody is geared toward the specific children in our home, and it honours their uniqueness and their needs.
In a nutshell, there ain’t no school that allows for a connected relationship with their students, that can spend all day listening to them explain their reasons for building macrame owls that they want to sell at the craft market, or cuddle and kiss them during readalouds.
The second way Gatto informs your homeschool:
2. “Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.”
We can try to jam a bunch of facts into the minds of our children and hope they spit out the requested knowledge later.
(Because, ya know, there are certain things everyone needs to learn! say I sarcastically. I believe that if you really need to learn something, since everyone else knows it, there ain’t no way you’re not going to learn it.)
Shouldn’t education be more than just cramming knowledge bits into our brains?
At least once a week, I participate in a variation of this conversation with a random stranger:
So you homeschool?
Yup. And then I smile. (I’ve learned not to explain my choice, nor defend it.)
Is there a government curriculum you follow?
Nope, we’re independent.
Silence. The curious bystander doesn’t understand how I could enable an education without the efforts of a government school system.
Where do you find the curriculum?
Um, it’s everywhere: online, bookstores, conferences, every time we talk to a new human being.
Do the kids just hang out in pajamas and use their screens all day?
Roll my eyes, OF COURSE, we’re in PJs all day, ha, we’re homeschoolers, but no to the screens in my house.
Do you spend more time than a schooled kid on academics, or you can do it faster, right?
Well, IMO most homeschoolers are doing more concerted academics than most schools, but how can I possibly know how every school and how they do it?
I hear homeschool kids are smarter than school kids.
(Clearly a gross generality. But what is smart anyway? And which kind of smart? But why are we discussing this? We have the kids we were given).
Are you a trained schoolteacher?
Nope. I got my Bachelor of Science in Nursing and married a medical doctor: does that make you feel better or worse?
Are your kids’ geniuses?
Insert my rant about ALL children being geniuses in their own way–roll your eyes if you want, but I actually believe that, which would mean I believe YOU are a genius in your own way too.
We homeschool families have to decide for ourselves what we believe an education to be and follow that internal compass.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about what an education is:
- An education is about raising up another human being and enabling that human to live a life of purpose.
- To have meaningful work for oneself and one’s community.
- To be able to provide for oneself and one’s family.
- Also, to develop who they were meant to be.
“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.”
Gatto informs your homeschool in this third way:
3. “Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — the one-day variety or longer — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of “school” to include family as the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.”
Well, you can’t accuse JTG of not speaking his mind.
How you do your family life and how I do my family life aren’t going to be the same.
None of us think the same, we don’t value the same things, and we don’t focus on the same things.
We might vote differently, and we might think differently about vaccines, masks, and lockdowns. Perhaps, we engage in discussions on critical thinking from opposite ends of the political spectrum. You might be afraid that Chat GPT will take over the online world & I might think it’s novel, I might think it’ll make customer service smoother, but I also think that Chat GPT will never replace the human voice.
We don’t do the same things, nor will we introduce our children to the same things.
Your family might live on top of a mountain with your three kids, be connected to the ham radio world, and have direct access to the Space Station (I met that family yesterday at the Canadian Online Homeschool Conference: how cool is that!)
You might have built your own earthship, a passive solar home, to use non-polluting energy sources and smart design. And I may have attempted solar panels but discovered I wouldn’t have enough sun in January so replaced it with an air-to-water heat exchange pump.
Or you think it would be the coolest thing ever to fly to the Nahanni River and canoe the Northwest Territories, but I’d rather take my family to Italy, take a gondolier ride down the Venetian canals, see Michelangelo’s David in Florence, visit a Tuscan farm for a week and learn to make pasta and chocolate-covered boar.
Your family and mine might value different experiences for our kiddos.
Perhaps, you might think it’s valuable to have your kiddos focus on their high school credits, or take college courses before they graduate, and use those credits at the university of their choice.
Yet, I might value my kids following their present passions, whether that be ballet, fashion design, developing friendships, civil engineering, ancient history, languages stepping into leadership roles, or political activism.
Our families may look anything but similar, but we home-educating families have this in common: family is our focus and is the main engine of our children’s education.
…Just as I agree with JTG that it should be.
This is the fourth way Gatto informs your homeschool:
4. “The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.”
Here’s a vulnerable truth about me: I grew up thinking I wasn’t smart.
Of course, it didn’t help that I was told I wasn’t smart. I had repeated continual and harsh criticisms from a significant someone who should have spoken exactly the opposite to me.
However, I also took my cue that I wasn’t smart from my inability to test well, especially when I was tested for anything related to numbers. For example, math, chemistry, physics, or any other math-infused subject.
I also had a hard time recalling and memorizing dates and names or terms and equations.
In low-stress environments, I revealed my understanding. But in high-stress environments, I didn’t test well.
I’d learn decades later that there was a connection between my academic challenges and my home environment challenges. But I didn’t know that until decades after high school graduation.
It will come as no surprise then that I didn’t think I was smart.
Even I was surprised that I did well in my college and university years. I had a marked increase in my GPA and I didn’t shift my study habits exceptionally. My only shift was that I lived in a college dorm, somewhat sequestered from the stresses of home.
I was required to take grade 12 level high school chemistry or math in order to be accepted into my nursing program. And I did it with deep fear. Yet, I completed grade 12 chemistry pretty freaking well. I surprised myself and I was proud of myself for conquering a seemingly mountainous academic goal.
But this still didn’t make me feel smart.
Certainly, I wouldn’t have declared I was smart despite being accepted into an accelerated nursing program.
For sure, I wouldn’t have told you I was smart despite marrying a remarkably intelligent man, who not coincidentally…
- was the high school valedictorian,
- co-led our local hospital through the pandemic years,
- will run in the next Canadian federal election campaign as an Independent,
- and who, to this day, 25 years after I met him, pulls out giant words I didn’t know existed and I’ve never heard before.
I wouldn’t have told you I was smart despite home-educating my four kiddos for a decade and a half.
So when did that shift for me?
Interestingly, it shifted when I had a shift in my faith.
It shifted in a passport office, reading a book about grace by a Chinese missionary named Watchman Nee. (This is the story of why this book was on my Homeschool Mama Reading List for so many years).
Because in one significant moment as I read that book, an epiphany of sorts, sitting in the waiting room for my call to take a new photo for my passport so I could travel with my husband to Mexico.
I got clarity in a very significant relationship: my relationship with God & therefore, my relationship with myself.
If I had been saved by grace and there was nothing I could do to receive that grace, there was nothing I could do to work for that grace, there was nothing I was expected to do to receive that grace, because that grace was gifted to me, then why was I working so hard to gain everyone’s favour, why was I working for God’s favour, and why did I think I didn’t measure up?
In one very significant moment, I saw myself as if I was created whole, worthy, and uniquely here for a reason.
So I’m with JTG, school institutions perpetuate the evaluative approach to our worth. And I’m here to declare it: there’s no grade, test, or report card that defines you or your kiddo. Period.
You’re here. You were placed here, I believe. Intentionally. And you weren’t intended to be a chip off the old school block, or a reflection of anyone else, not you nor your kiddos.
So now you know why the following often-repeated song lyrics mean so much to me:
“When the sharpest words wanna cut me downKeala Settle, “This is Me”
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
The fifth way Gatto informs your homeschool:
5. “Private time is absolutely essential if a private identity is going to develop, and private time is equally essential to the development of a code of private values, without which we aren’t really individuals at all.”
I believe coming alongside another human to help them relate to their peers and family members is one of the biggest benefits of the homeschool lifestyle.
Not coincidentally it’s the one thing I was asked most worriedly and repeatedly: but what about socialization?
No doubt, having an engaged, connected mentor human, aka parent, walk alongside you as you navigate relationships and emotions, and express your needs, is a profound benefit of the homeschool lifestyle.
I think there are few discussions around homeschool socialization that discuss the benefits to homeschool kids: they get a whole lot of free time to think, wander, daydream, and do nothing.
Nonetheless, one of my most frequented posts on my website is a discussion on the benefits of solitude for the homeschool kiddo.
We rarely experience solitude and hardly know its benefit, so we certainly don’t think to teach it to our children.
Our western culture teaches us…
- to love public attention, and naturally, our ego appreciates that, until it doesn’t get it.
- that extroversion is favourable, even necessary, healthy, and normal.
- that constant activity equals importance, value, and purpose.
- or that we should search for meaning outside of ourselves, preferably in crowds of others.
Maya Angelou teaches us about teaching our children how to wield solitude.
You can read more here: how to teach our children solitude: inspiring words from Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou shares, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly, if a thing is desired at any cost, then it will be obtained at any cost,” says Maya Angelou.
She also says, “We need to remember and teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, but at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence, we listen to ourselves.
Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude, we may even hear the voice of God.” (From Maya Angelou’s book, Even the Stars Look Lonesome).
So yes, I’m with JTG, solitude creates a unique individual.
The sixth way Gatto informs your homeschool:
6. “Trust in families and in neighborhoods and individuals to make sense of the important question, ‘What is education for?’ If some of them answer differently from what you might prefer, that’s really not your business, and it shouldn’t be your problem. Our type of schooling has deliberately concealed the fact that such a question must be framed and not taken for granted if anything beyond a mockery of democracy is to be nurtured. It is illegitimate to have an expert answer that question for you.”
This is the reason why I’ve shared on many occasions that I mentor homeschool parents of any religion, homeschool philosophy, worldview, or persuasion: because how you homeschool and why you homeschool is your choice.
It ain’t my business or my desire or concern to dictate that for anyone.
But if you join me in a coaching program or personal coaching, you’ll be unlikely to not hear these three questions posed to you:
- Is how you’re homeschooling working for you?
- Is how you’re homeschooling working for your kids?
- What do you believe an education to be anyway?
I disagree with one minor technicality in JTG’s quote here. He says: “it is illegitimate to have an expert answer that question for you.”
Yes, I agree that it’s illegitimate to search for another person’s answer about what you should decide for your child/children in how to create an education.
What I don’t agree with is that there is anyone except yourself that could BE an expert on your child/children.
There is always someone that knows more about a topic. You name an expert on any topic and you’ll always find another expert.
But there is no one in all of the human race that knows your child more than you. And if you’re interested in learning how you can best serve your child, if you’re deciding to choose home education, then I already know your heart is doing that.
There will be many who can be consultants and helpers along the way:
- a counselor or therapist who can help you figure out your family dynamics,
- someone to help you figure out why your child’s not reading,
- a coach who can help you dismantle your beliefs about what an education is anyway,
- someone to help you figure out why your child is so easily distracted,
- or you fill in the blank with the many other opportunities.
And it’s you that gets to decide what an education is for in your family. Also, YOU are the expert on your child/ren.
The seventh way Gatto informs your homeschool:
7. “Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.”
You weren’t intended to be an individual when you believe the schooled institution is the most relevant form of education for your homeschool kids.
“My homeschooling journey has included a growing pile of books that I have read, browsed, or barely got past the first chapter. This book is just delightful and a gem! It’s not only helpful and inspiring but also funny. The author is like that no-nonsense brave friend who is looking out for you and your well-being as a homeschooling mama. We all need that friend and I am taking my time as I work my way through the chapters and enjoying it all. I love the section on overcoming overwhelm, grappling with perfectionism, and minding and working through our emotions. This book is worth its weight in gold. Find a quiet place to read, bring a warm cup of tea, and enjoy!”–Sonia in S. Jersey
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Call to Adventure by Kevin MacLeod