We continue our critical discussion of education versus schooling in my composition course. The latest conversation has centered around three texts: John Gatto’s “Against School” and “The Seven Lesson School Teacher,” and Alfie Kohn’s “What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?” Of the three, Gatto’s pieces are most provocative–or at least I thought they were until I saw the majority of my students reaction (or lack of reaction). It was depressing (or fascinating, depending on your point of view). The funny (or depressing) thing is that the very behaviors the students exhibited in class–apathy, boredom, distractability–are exactly the pathologies Gatto offers reasons for in his writing. I would think if the students read the work, they might gain some insight on their own conditioned responses resulting from twelve plus years of institutionalized life. Their utter indifference, though, kept most from reading past the first couple paragraphs.

The aim…is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. –H.L. Mencken

It was unnerving to feel Gatto’s words offered up as an indictment of public schooling in this country, while simultaneously observing firsthand the products of such a system sink back into their seats, passive and docile. What could I say or do to jar them out of their comas? They seem to be quite unaware of the forces institutional life have on them, and yet exhibit it through and through. They say nothing, though, neither denying nor confirming its influence. They just sit. After some prompting, one said he was bored. I asked him what he thought about Gatto’s comment on boredom in “Against School.” Then I read Gatto’s comment to him because he had not gotten that far in the reading.

One afternoon when I was seven I complained to [my grandfather] of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. (33)

At this, he shrugged, and said. “Well, I can’t do anything about this. I have no choice. I have to be here.” I quickly reminded him of his choices. He could, of course, leave. Or he could participate in the discussion rather than tune it out. He could have done the reading, and, as a result, begun to consider ways to break away from tired roles. (Is this logic circular?) Or he simply could choose not to be bored. At this, he slunk back down in his seat and became quiet. My attempt had backfired. I had become that teacher, chastising the slacker student, thereby widening the gulf between us. This was not my goal.

What accounts for this utter helplessness learned by so many of our students? Is our system as Gatto describes it? One “deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens–all in order to render the populace ‘manageable'” (36)? This sounds like the stuff of good conspiracy theory, and yet it rings so true. I have observed this time and time again first hand. It’s like the scene from The Wall when the uniformed kids with facial features literally blotted out march methodically in single file through the factory school, dropping one by one into a giant hopper to be ground into meat for mass consumption.

As out there as this film is, it really strikes a chord. Now if only my students could hear it resonate.