Excerpts from three articles on education: Dorothy Sayers, Richard P. Feynman, John Taylor Gatto

via chycho

To say that our education system is broken and in need of a gargantuan overhaul is an understatement, but it will happen since it is an inevitable side effect of the liberation of data that comes with an open internet.

What form these new systems of education will take are yet to be determined: only time will tell if they will be optimized replicas of the present models, or if they will be based on a new way of teaching and thought. Either way, the overhaul is long overdue and I for one am excited to see the transformation.

Below you will find excerpts from three excellent articles on education that address some of the problems with our current systems. They are well worth the read:

1)The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers: “Let us amuse ourselves by imagining that such progressive retrogression is possible. Let us make a clean sweep of all educational authorities, and furnish ourselves with a nice little school of boys and girls whom we may experimentally equip for the intellectual conflict along lines chosen by ourselves. We will endow them with exceptionally docile parents; we will staff our school with teachers who are themselves perfectly familiar with the aims and methods of the Trivium; we will have our building and staff large enough to allow our classes to be small enough for adequate handling; and we will postulate a Board of Examiners willing and qualified to test the products we turn out. Thus prepared, we will attempt to sketch out a syllabus–a modern Trivium ‘with modifications’ and we will see where we get to….

“Mathematics–algebra, geometry, and the more advanced kinds of arithmetic–will now enter into the syllabus and take its place as what it really is: not a separate ‘subject’ but a sub- department of Logic. It is neither more nor less than the rule of the syllogism in its particular application to number and measurement, and should be taught as such, instead of being, for some, a dark mystery, and, for others, a special revelation, neither illuminating nor illuminated by any other part of knowledge….

“It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded. In literature, appreciation should be again allowed to take the lead over destructive criticism; and self-expression in writing can go forward, with its tools now sharpened to cut clean and observe proportion. Any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever. It would be well, I think, that each pupil should learn to do one, or two, subjects really well, while taking a few classes in subsidiary subjects so as to keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge. Indeed, at this stage, our difficulty will be to keep ‘subjects’ apart; for Dialectic will have shown all branches of learning to be inter-related, so Rhetoric will tend to show that all knowledge is one. To show this, and show why it is so, is pre-eminently the task of the mistress science. But whether theology is studied or not, we should at least insist that children who seem inclined to specialize on the mathematical and scientific side should be obliged to attend some lessons in the humanities and vice versa. At this stage, also, the Latin grammar, having done its work, may be dropped for those who prefer to carry on their language studies on the modern side; while those who are likely never to have any great use or aptitude for mathematics might also be allowed to rest, more or less, upon their oars. Generally speaking, whatsoever is mere apparatus may now be allowed to fall into the background, while the trained mind is gradually prepared for specialization in the ‘subjects’ which, when the Trivium is completed, it should be perfectly will equipped to tackle on its own. The final synthesis of the Trivium–the presentation and public defense of the thesis–should be restored in some form; perhaps as a kind of ‘leaving examination’ during the last term at school….

“But I am not here to consider the feelings of academic bodies: I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world. For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door….

“What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

2)Judging Books by Their Covers” by Richard P. Feynman: “I was giving a series of freshman physics lectures [in 1964], and after one of them, Tom Harvey, who assisted me in putting on the demonstrations, said, ‘You oughta see what’s happening to mathematics in schoolbooks! My daughter comes home with a lot of crazy stuff!’

“I didn’t pay much attention to what he said.

“But the next day I got a telephone call from a pretty famous lawyer here in Pasadena, Mr. Norris, who was at that time on the State Board of Education. He asked me if I would serve on the State Curriculum Commission, which had to choose the new schoolbooks for the state of California. You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take….

“I had a special bookshelf put in my study downstairs (the books took up seventeen feet), and began reading all the books that were going to be discussed in the next meeting. We were going to start out with the elementary schoolbooks.

“It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, ‘BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!’ — there would be a big explosion from the ‘volcano’ below.

“The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for ‘sets’) which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous — they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by ‘rigor.’ They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.”

3) The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher” by John Taylor Gatto: “Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.

“Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:

“The first lesson I teach is: ‘Stay in the class where you belong.’ I don’t know who decides that my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive….

“The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of….

“The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory….

“The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity….

“In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to spread approval or to mark exactly — down to a single percentage point — how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers….

“In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness, too….

“It is the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a small number who can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only a very few lifetimes ago things were different in the United States: originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things independently, to think for themselves. We were something, all by ourselves, as individuals….

“A future is rushing down upon our culture which will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; this future will demand, as the price of survival, that we follow a pace of natural life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.”

22 Comments on "Excerpts from three articles on education: Dorothy Sayers, Richard P. Feynman, John Taylor Gatto"

  1. I don’t tnk the state is ever going to stop deforming people. That is what the State does. its up to parents and communities of people to take control child of child rearing on a local scale. There is no industrial scale production model that is going to work.

  2. A good one here from Jerry Farber (from a book with a title that got him in some hot water…which he discusses in the Preface):


    In the spirit of this article, here’s an excerpt:

    “School is where you let the dying society put its trip on you. Our schools may seem useful: to make children into doctors, sociologists, engineers–to discover things. But they’re poisonous as well. They exploit and enslave students; they petrify society; they make democracy unlikely. And it’s not what you’re taught that does the harm but how you’re taught. Our schools teach you by pushing you around, by stealing your will and your sense of power, by making timid square apathetic slaves out of you–authority addicts.

    Schooling doesn’t have to be this destructive. If it weren’t compulsory, if schools were autonomous and were run by the people in them, then we could learn without being subdued and stupefied in the process. And, perhaps, we could regain control of our own society.

    Students can change things if they want to because they have the power to say “no.” When you go to school, you’re doing society a favor. And when you say “no,” you withhold much more than your attendance. You deny continuity to the dying society; you put the future on strike. Students can have the kind of school they want–or even something else entirely if they want–because there isn’t going to be any school at all without them.”

    Also, Jiddu Krishnamurti’s book:

    Education and the Significance of Life

    • Awesome! Thank you. This one didn’t make it on my radar. I’m looking forward to reading the article. Peace.

      • Yep! And thanks for the article. Just finished all of “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher” and really enjoyed it. Very much in the same vein as Farber’s piece. I’m gonna check out the rest of the other two when I get the chance.

        If you haven’t read it yet, I also recommend checking out Aldous Huxley’s final novel called “Island”. Lays out a pretty interesting school set-up in that one. Of course, it predated the Internet and that kind of open information (so it wasn’t a factor). But, it definitely treated education in a more autonomous and self-guided (but supportive) way. That, and there was a class where all the kids were allowed to take part in a guided mushroom trip (referred to as ‘moksha medicine’ and/or ‘reality revealers’) when they hit a certain age.

        • Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll add the Huxley’s “Island” to my list. Before that though, I think I might hit up Krishnamurti’s book you listed above. I know of him from the math realm but never read any of his books. The reviews on amazon raved about it. So thanks for that as well.

          As for fungi journey’s as part of a curriculum, what an ideal world that would be. Something to work towards.

          • Krishnamurti’s book is phenomenal, it’s a great place to start. A good deal of Huxley’s later work and philosophy was actually inspired/influenced by Krishnamurti and his teachings.

          • Cool, looking forward to it 🙂

          • Finished the book and it was awesome. It completed a piece I was putting together on education. Thanks again 🙂

            “Paradigm Shift in Education: Krishnamurti on the Educator, RAW on Ignorance, Gato on the System, and Hamming on Learning”

          • My pleasure!!! Its been awhile since I visited disinfo / my disqus page / internet stuff in general, but I’m glad I checked it out to catch your comment. Very much looking forward to reading the article (about to do now). Sounds absolutely awesome (especially with RAW thrown in)! So thank you for taking the time to do that.

          • And, whenever you get the chance (to read it and comment), I’d be interested to hear what you thought about Huxley’s “Island”. Here’s a pretty good recent article on it:


          • Not sure when I’ll get to the “Island”, I have a couple of other books waiting for me right now (“Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”, and “G.E.B.” – this one will take me a year to go through), but I’ll put it on my list and if i can find this thread again, I’ll be back 🙂

          • Sounds good! Thanks again for your recent article. Got a chance to read it, it’s great. And it was my first time hearing about the last two dudes you quoted.

    • I just wanted to come back and thank you for recommending Krishnamurti’s book. I found it online and I’ve been very much enjoying reading it and taking notes.

      Also a correction on my part, it wasn’t Krishnamurti that I knew from the math world, it was Srinivasa Ramanujan. I’m just really bad remembering names 🙂


      • drokhole | Apr 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm |

        Hey, my pleasure! I think my hand cramped from taking so many notes from that book. He’s actually got tons of great material. And thanks for this, it reminded me that I have those other two articles to read.

        No sweat on the mix-up, I was a little confused but thought maybe I had missed something from his background. 🙂 There’s another Krishnamurti named “Uppaluri Gopala (U.G.) Krishnamurti” that I’ve confused with Jiddu in the past (in name, not necessarily in teachings…though they are somewhat similar). I just learned about that Srinivasa Ramanujan sometime last year and he’s incredibly interesting, in his own right.

  3. I agree with drokhole’s comment on Krishmanutri’s Education and the Significance of Life. Everyone interested in education should read this book.

    The most individualistic scholastic systems come from special education models and the Montessori method. Anyone interested in the individual’s gifts over the collective mishmosh should read up on Howard Gardner. His pyramid of multiple intelligences is key. In the last decade, he added intuition as one of the types of intelligences. As we move into a strange new paradigm, innovation is most likely to come from this newly added category. Something to think on.

    • I’d never heard of Howard Gardner. Looks like I have some reading to do on his work. Thanks.

    • Jin The Ninja | Mar 30, 2013 at 11:16 am |

      many indigenous and non-western pedagogical models are focused on collective learning and communitarian learning, i think those systems are quite valuable, and worth exploring.

      • The collective is the individual, the individual is the collective.

        • Jin The Ninja | Mar 30, 2013 at 11:58 am |

          agree, but that’s not quite what i read in the comment above.

        • everything that is outside is inside too, true. the more spiritually in tune one is, the more they can feel and see the outside without having to be in direct contact with it. however, the individual does have gifts. each individual’s gifts are separate from the collective entity. true we are one organism but we are talking education. individual gifts should be more factored in for a brighter whole. i didn’t mean i don’t value the collective, i was speaking to honing gifts.

  4. I agree the Public Schools need reform. Ah, but there’s the rub. The Powers That Be don’t want ‘real’ reform. They just want the public schools replaced by ‘Privatized’ charter schools using public taxation money. In my neck of the woods it’s called T.I.F. (Tax Increment Financing). LOL! It’s a total scam.

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