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Bootie Zimmer's Choice

By John Taylor Gatto ©

~~Special thanks to Mr. Gatto for allowing us the use of his story.

The government began to compel us all to send our children to school in 1852 in the state of Massachusetts, and from that state the compulsion spread south, west, and north. But did you know that in 1818, 34 years before compulsion laws began, Noah Webster estimated that over 5 million copies of his Spelling Book had been sold? That's pretty good in a population of under 20 million, don't you think? And every purchase decision was made freely, by an individual or a family, and there were no federal, state or city tabs to run bulk purchases on -- each decision was made privately, and in each somebody forked over some cash to buy a book.

John Taylor Gatto named New York City Teacher of the Year on three separate occasions.

The climax of his career came when he shocked the country and publicly announced, he was quitting in the OP ED section of the Wall Street Journal in 1991.

All while still holding the title of "New York State Teacher of the Year," stating he was "no longer willing to hurt children".

That would seem to suggest that most folks don't have to be compelled to learn, they do it on their own, because they want to.

Here's another 5 million copy fact. Did you know that between 1813 and 1823, a fellow named Water Scott sold 5 million copies of his novels in the United States? That would be about equal to a writer selling 60 million books today, but we all know that could never happen. The puzzle becomes even denser when you pick up a Walter Scott novel and try to read it. Let me quote from the opening of Quentin Durward, published in 1823, and read by a lot of kids back then.

"The latter part of the fifteenth century prepared a train of future events that ended by raising France to that state of formidable power which has ever since been the principal object of jealousy to the other European nations. Before that period she had to struggle for her very existence with the English, already possessed of her fairest provinces, while the utmost exertions of the King, and the gallantry of her people, could scarcely protect the remainder from a foreign yoke. Nor was this her sole danger..."

That's pretty heady stuff, isn't it? I've never read an adequate explanation in John Dewey how an unschooled agricultural mob could manage such material, but I assure you the sales figures are accurate and drawn from the research of a well-respected American historian, Merle Curti. And remember, there was no compulsion then so the readers had to pretty much want to tackle stuff like that in between plowing and strangling the chicken.

It seems almost unfair to tell you that there was another writer beloved of common Americans before we had government compulsion schools, but there was; he was a man from upstate New York who sold millions and millions of books, and who currently has a box-office bonanza movie on the boards called "The Last of the Mohicans." His name was James Fenimore Cooper and he wrote material like this for ignorant, unschooled Americans:

"The incidents of this tale occurred between the years 1740 and 1745, when the settled portions of the colony of New York were confined to the four Atlantic counties, a narrow belt of country on each side of the Hudson, extending from the mouth of the falls near its head, and to a few advanced "neighborhoods" on the Mohawk and the Schoharie...A birds eye view of the whole region east of the Mississippi must then have offered one vast expanse of woods, relieved by a comparatively narrow fringe of cultivation along the seas... In such a vast region of solemn solitude..."

Well, I'm sure you get the picture. Such attention to detail would take an ambitious college professor to attend to these days, a mere lecturer wouldn't have the span of attention for it. A transplanted Englishman, John Bristed, wrote in 1818 that the mass of Americans excelled every other people in the world in shrewdness of intellect, general intelligence, versatility and readiness to experiment with untried things. William Cobbett on his return to America in 1817 observed that every farmer was a reader, unlike the European peasant. How on earth did that come to pass and why isn't it true in our well-schooled era?

How we achieved this amazing literacy is wrapped up in the secret that reading, writing and numbers are very easy to learn -- in spite of what you hear from the reading, writing and number establishments.

You and I are confronted with a great mystery: we had a perfectly literate country before 1852 when, for the first time, we got government schooling shoved down our throats. How we achieved this amazing literacy is wrapped up in the secret that reading, writing and numbers are very easy to learn -- in spite of what you hear from the reading, writing and number establishments. We aren't in the mess we're in today because we don't know how to do things right, but because "we" don't want to do them right. The incredibly profitable school enterprise has deliberately selected a procedure of literacy acquisition, which is pedagogically bankrupt; thousands of years ago Socrates predicted this would happen if men were paid for teaching. He said they would make what is easy to learn seem difficult, and what is mastered rapidly they would stretch out over a long time.

The first thing that an effective system of school choice would demonstrate is that our children have been held captive by a method of literacy transmission that ignores reality -- and makes a very large fortune each year doing so. Eventually, with choice, the present system would run head-on into efficient competition that would destroy it. That would be inevitable because profitability would vanish once literacy is managed correctly.

Let me guide you to a few private businesses where literacy is managed correctly right now -- at a fraction of the public school cost. Before I do, I want to caution you that the two places I'll cite use radically different methods from each other, are based on radically different theories -- but the outcome in both places is very impressive.

We'll start at 8801 Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia in a place called "The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential" which has been teaching babies to read, and teaching mothers to teach their own babies to read, since shortly after the Second World War. Babies. By the time these kids are 4, what they can do would cause you to think murderous thoughts about your local government school. And what is diabolical is that the kids have a great deal of fun learning. Study sessions only last a few minutes, and the kids learn all the mathematical operations, too, fluency in several languages -- and the violin!

Well, don't believe me -- you have the address -- write them a letter and go see for yourself. IAHP isn't going anywhere, it's been there for decades. You might want to ask your local school superintendent why you haven't heard of this place -- presuming you're as impressed as I was.

Place number two is 20 miles West of Boston, a few miles from Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous Wayside Inn on the outskirts of Framingham. It's the beautiful Sudbury Valley School, in the old Nathaniel Bowditch cottage, which looks suspiciously like a mansion to 20th century eyes. A place ringed about with handsome outbuildings, private lake, woods, and acres and acres of magnificent grounds. This place is a private school, of course, with a tuition of $3,500 a year -- about 63% cheaper than a New York city public school seat costs.

Sudbury teaches a lot of things, but two things it does not teach anybody is reading and numbers -- and its kids range in age from 4 to 18!

The first thing that an effective system of school choice would demonstrate is that our children have been held captive by a method of literacy transmission that ignores reality -- and makes a very large fortune each year doing so.

Kids learn reading and calculation at Sudbury at many different ages (but never as babies), but when they are ready to learn they teach themselves. Every kid who has stayed for long, at the school over the past 25 years, has learned to read and compute, about 2/3rds of them go on to college without ever taking a standardized test or getting a report card, and the school has never seen a case of dyslexia. The don't even believe such a condition exists outside of a few physically damaged kids and the fevered imaginations of compulsion school reading specialists.

They don't teach reading and yet all the kids eventually learn to read and even to like it? A frustrating puzzle for many observers, but no more frustrating than trying to explain how Thomas Paine's Common Sense sold 600,000 copies in the year 1776 to a nation of two and a half million people, about 70% of whom were African slaves or indentured servants. It just boggles the mind to see today's graduate students in political science seminars wrestling with Paine (no pun intended) when young farmers whizzed through it with exhilaration over 200 years ago.


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