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Bootie Zimmer's Choice - Page 2

By John Taylor Gatto ©

One final, more or less modern, example of how easy it is to learn to read well -- is myself. In 1941 when I went to first grade in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, a borough of Pittsburgh, at the age of 5, I could read fluently. For the first 200 years of our history most schools wouldn't accept children who couldn't red and count, so they must have learned it where I learned it, and where the Human Potential Institute children learn it -- at home. My first grade teacher, Miss Dane, came to our home on Calumet Street shortly after the term began to protest, "Mrs. Gatto," she said, "your son reads, I would guess, on the 6th Grade level. He is ruining my class an I want you to make him shut up, keep his hand down, and not answer any questions in class." How's that for pedagogy? I loved Miss Dane who was a wonderful woman so I'm not telling this story to insult her, just to give you something to think about.

Earlier schooling was about literacy, and that is why it succeeded. Literacy isn't very difficult to learn when the child perceives that the adults about him think that it's something important.

I suppose the skeptical among you are wondering who this miracle woman was who taught me to read so well before I went to school at the age of 5? Well, her name was Frances "Bootie" Zimmer, and she graduated from Monongahela High School in 1929, the same high school that Joe Montana, the great San Francisco quarterback came out of about a half century later. There wasn't enough money to send Bootie to college but nobody despaired about that in those days because the country seemed to run very well without college graduates.

Did Bootie know some secret method of teaching that could have made her a fortune if she turned professional? I don't think so. What she knew was how to read to me every single day from the time I was 2 years old -- reach to me with me on her lap and her finger running under the words -- read tome from increasingly difficult stuff, none of which seemed hard because I was having so much fun. She read real fairy tales, not scientifically simplified ones; she read real history books and real newspaper stories and real grown-up storybooks including some tales from The Decameron. What she didn't read were scientific readers of any sort, the books with 364-word sanitized vocabularies and a lot of pictures.

Well, there we have the raw material for a revolution: the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the Sudbury valley School, Frances "Bootie" Zimmer...these are important clues to how deep the mess we are in really is, clues to what its nature is. Here is evidence that we already possess the engineering know-how we need to revolutionize schooling. And if you look closely, here too is a warning that the trouble we are in is not what it appears to be (an avalanche of dumb kids), but instead an avalanche of kids who have been deliberately dumbed down by an industry that will not stop what it has been doing just because it is killing us. When we consider the course 20th century government schooling has taken deliberately it is clear we are in the presence of no simple mistake in engineering but that of a powerful ideological agenda, one so passionately and grimly held by its proponents we might almost see it as a religion.

To understand how this happened, a brief tour through history is essential, otherwise you may continue to think that some tinkering or, God forbid, some more money will cure the disease of bad schooling.

Come back with me then to 1812, when one of the founders of the immense DuPont fortune, a man named Pierre DuPont deNemours, published a book called Education in the United States. DuPont was many things but no one knew him as a soft-hearted fellow used to flattering people, so we can assign some credibility to his amazement at the phenomenal literacy he saw all around him compared to the European models he was familiar with. 1812. Forty years in advance of the passage of our first government compulsion school laws. Mr DuPont said that less than 4 people out of every thousand in the new nation could not read and do numbers well. He saw a world in which nearly every child was trained in argumentation (*the old fashioned term for "critical thinking'). How would that be possible, do you suppose, without forced schooling?

And yet two decades later French aristocrat named deTocqueville wrote a book that's still in print, Democracy in America, in which he characterized us as the best educated people in history. And in 1838, still 14 years before the militia began marching recalcitrant children to school, another French aristocrat, Michael Chevalier, wrote a book that ranked the American farmer with the immortals of history, a book which said in effect that the farmer went into the field with his plow in one hand and Descartes in the other.

Who was it that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden? Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free choice where your kid is schooled?

So from 1776, when Common Sense was selling up a storm to unschooled colonists, until 1838, when farmers were observed reading Descartes, the American people seemed to be doing fairly well for themselves educationally, making their own education decisions, using, inventing, or substituting for schooling -- as Ben Franklin did -- as best they saw fit. Individuals made their own decisions, not government experts. this was America, after all, not Prussian Germany.

How on earth did they do it? Almost immediately after the effective start-up of government factory schooling before the first world war it was obvious to anyone who cared to look closely that literacy was not what they were about, but that a redefinition of growing up was what was afoot. Growing up was not to be a socialization of the future labor force to suit some bureaucratic design determined by political experts. As the earlier lightly schooled America had proven, competency was not a scarce thing however you measured it - but the world of the government monopoly school set out to make it so. But the earlier, catch-as-catch-can entrepreneurial form of instruction offered abundant choices of useful ways to grow up, useful ways to read, write and think. Earlier schooling was about literacy, and that is why it succeeded. Literacy isn't very difficult to learn when the child perceives that the adults about him think that it's something important.

I want you to consider the frightening possibility that we are spending far too much money on schooling, not too little, as schooling people contend. I want you to consider that we have too many people employed in interfering with the way children grow up -- and that all this money and all these people, all the time we take out of children's lives and away from their homes and families and neighborhoods and private explorations -- gets in the way of education!

Did Bootie know some secret method of teaching that could have made her a fortune if she turned professional?

That seems radical, I know. Surely in modern technological society it is the quantity of schooling and the amount of money you spend on it that buys value. Surely. And yet last year in St. Louis I heard a vice-president of IBM tell an audience of people assembled to discuss the process of redesigning teacher certification that in his opinion this country became computer-literate by self-teaching, not through any action of schools. He said 45 million people were comfortable with computers who had learned through dozens of non-systematic strategies, none of them very formal; if schools had pre-empted the right to teach computer use we would be in a horrible mess right now instead of leading the world in this literacy.

MIT said a few years back that formal equipment seemed to play almost no role at all in scientific discovery and that inventors presented with state of the art equipment usually went sterile from then on! So MIT and IBM, which are both tied to being judged on outcomes, think one way, and compulsion schools which are tied to rhetoric about inputs, think another. If you're input-paralyzed you tend to stare at your abstract system when trouble arises, but if you care about results you tend to look at what makes Joe do best and you don't make the mistake of thinking that Joe is Sally.

Now think about Sweden, a beautiful, healthy, prosperous and up-to-date country with a spectacular reputation for quality in everything it produces: Sixteen million people in a nation that makes its voice heard all over the planet to such an extent that if you didn't know it was so small you'd swear it must be a world power. It makes sense to think their schools must have something to do about it.

Then what do you make of the fact that you can't go to school in Sweden until you are 7 years old? The reason the unsentimental Swedes have wiped out what would be first and second grades here, is that they don't want to pay the large social bill that quickly comes due when boys and girls are ripped away from their best teachers to home too early. Does that sound radical, or is what we do the radical thing? It just isn't worth the price, say the Swedes, to provide jobs for teachers and therapists if the result is sick, incomplete kids who can't be put back together again very easily. The entire Swedish school sequence isn't 12 years either -- it's 9. Less schooling, not more. The direct savings of such a step in the U.S. would be 75-100 billion dollars, a lot of unforeclosed home mortgages, a lot of time freed up with which to seek an education.

Who was it that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden? Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free choice where your kid is schooled? Who decided you should know about Japan, and not Hong Kong, an Asian neighbor with a short school year that outperforms Japan across the board in math and science? Whose interests are served by hiding that from you? Isn't that the question we should be asking?

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Reprinted with Permission

Carschooling by Diane Flynn Keith
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