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A Curriculum Beyond Money

by John Taylor Gatto

For the last 20 of the 30 years I taught public school in New York City, I ran a volunteer program in which every single one of the 120 or more 13-year-old students I taught spent a full day each week of the school year, about 35 days or seven school weeks in all, in a volunteer action program which sent every young man and woman, often alone, to the far-flung comers of New York City and even across the river into New Jersey.

This was not an official program sponsored by the government or a university, the State Department of Education or my school district, but a program generated from long discussions with worried parents who were alarmed at the indifference and irresponsibility of their own children and wanted a way to combat it. Although we received scant encouragement from the school district, we proceeded covertly to find a booking for every kid, to provide a ledger of testamentary approvals from every parent, and to recruit some local business and community leaders in support. The school superintendent was presented in effect with fait accompli which gave him an insurance policy against fatal criticism. And so, my first Volunteer Action Program was launched.

For the first eight years, the labor in that program was drawn from comfortable children from comfortable families on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, around the Museum of Natural History. Just beneath the veneer of superficial good manners, these were a group of angry kids, furious I think, at the shallow waste of time academic schooling had become, furious at their parents for their dereliction from family life, their historic role as father and mother replaced by an endless string of surrogate parents in the form of private television sets, phones, computers, closets full of games and toys, and private lessons in music, art, dancing, singing and anything imaginable. What made these kids the school and the home had conspired to make their lives insignificant. Comfortable, yes, but utterly without any importance. Nothing they did really mattered so they took their revenge in moral indifference.

†On the average, it took about 90-120 school days of being handed a real responsibility — to hold the hands of poor men in charity wards of hospitals while they received I-V drips-, to shop for and chat with elderly people living alone in the venue of the older peoplesí own homes; to give variety-show benefits for neighborhood organizations; to cook and serve at homeless shelters. On the average it took about 90-120 school days of doing these things, 18-24 whole days serving other people who needed help, before an amazing transformation occurred in a large majority of those 13-year-olds: They ceased to be children (in the worst sense of the word) right before my eyes. They became, instead, people, human beings just as I thought myself to be, spirits with free will, independent minds, active curiosities and coherent personalities. There were exceptions, of course, but not a single kid was fired or even complained about by the installation where he or she had been assigned. At the end of the school I was bombarded with requests from the field bases to return the following year. More than once I heard "Your kids do more work and better quality than our college volunteers, even than some of our paid staff."

"But these were rich kids" I hear you thinking. For all of their smart aleck ways, they are "tame" and "civilized". "Such freedom would never do for the kids I know." "For them, volunteer work needs to be heavily monitored, ringed about with safeguards, for short periods of time, with little responsibility — say two hours of volunteer service a week and eight hours of talking and writing about it." Yet, if that were so, what will you make of the next group of schookids I tried a volunteer action program on — a large band of children from all over the city who had been covertly dubbed "emotionally disturbed" by the school district and collected in a dingy warehouse of a school on the fringe of the district, among taxi garages and hopeless housing projects near the Hudson River? Here were kids from every race, every economic background, every category of standardized test enumeration — united only by the thread that school drove them crazy, although naturally that would be the last thing school people would admit.

These kids were angry too — angry at the universal hypocrisy of various groups who made a living off of their confinement; angry at the alliance their bewildered parents had struck with their tormentors, betraying the notion of family; but angry most, I believe, at being constantly patronized, made small by having nothing significant to do. These kids, too, took to hard, lonely, responsible volunteer service like ducks to water. After a reasonably short time we could work together as fellow human beings because they were regularly producing evidence of their own competency — not the kind you need to be "graded" on, not the kind you need to be "patted on the back" for, but the kind which monitors itself, in which their is no way to miss when youíve done it — right or wrong — like a haircut, it hangs out there for all to see. Not one of these "emotionally disturbed" kids ever got fired by his/her placements nor did I ever receive a complaint. Maybe I was just lucky.

But luck would hardly explain the last Manhattan school in which I tried the same kind of full-time, one-day-a-week program. This was a school for the worst losers at the game of growing up: Dirt poor Black and Hispanic kids from one of the most famous ghettos of the United States. These were kids nobody trusted. Many had no parents. All were personally familiar with drugs, sexual brutality and violence. They had little sympathy with schools, teachers, social workers or any of the other apparatus of civil society because they had deduced (correctly in my estimation) that they were like crops to be harvested for food by the people who pretended to care for them, but would have been reluctant to ever talk seriously to them without threatening or manipulation.

This school had produced the famous "pin vandals" of the 1980s modus operandi was to surround respectable-looking White women on the streets of upper Broadway and jab them with hat pins. More seriously, it produced seven of the nine rapists of the so-called "Central Park Jogger", a case you might remember from the front pages of the national press. And yet, using almost identical procedures with these formidable young men and women as I had used with the other groups, I was dazzled to experience almost identical results. When given something real, difficult and challenging to do... when left alone to do it...it got done. Not 10 times out 10 as had been the case with the more fortunate children, but 9 times out of 10. We would have been out of business otherwise.

Lest you think youíre hearing fairy tales from one of New York Cityís famous troop of liberal ideologues, I have to burst that balloon night now. I was on of the founding members of the New York State Conservative Party, and every couple of years am elected to the State Committee of that party to this day.

So, when I tell you that across the board for 20 years I saw amazing transformations happen in children who spent a substantial chunk of their schooling in service to others, I am not only speaking of polite children or underprivileged children, I am speaking of all the range of young people. Now I want to tell you about my mother, who died last year. She never worked for a charity, but she always took in stray animals, which drove my father crazy because he was the local manager of National Biscuit Company and she pilfered huge sacks of Nabisco pet food to feed her friends. If a hurt birdís wing needed repair, it was Bootie who repaired it and provided the convalescing creature a sanctuary. If a turtle was crossing the road too slowly, she would stop the car, get out and carry it to the other side. Our back yard looked like a kennel sometimes and I clearly remember the year nine cats shared the house with myself and my sister. I travel a lot to speak out for school change and often find myself reading the Gideon Bible in motel rooms for want of anything else to read; not because of any great religiosity on my part. The other day I was reading Proverbs, a collection of advice set down by King Solomon 3,000 years ago, when I came across these words: "Speak- up for those who cannot speak for themselves." In an instant I realized what my mother was doing for all those years that I thought she was just feeding animals — she was speaking for those who could not speak for themselves.

†And further reading in Proverbs I found this: "Happy are they who are generous to the needy." Reading those words I discovered I had part of the secret that made My mother happy most of the time even though she had a full share of her own desperate troubles. She was unfailingly generous to the needy, anyone who came to our door for a handout or even many anonymous souls she read about in trouble in the newspapers. Somehow, she heard about neighborhood people fallen on hard times and sent them what she could. I had a little lawn-mowing business in those days and I remember in particular a widow with young children whose lawn I mowed for free because my mother asked me to.

I suppose I read the Bible the same way most lightly- religious people do who pick up a Gideon in a motel room— jumping about, not looking for anything in particular. And so, it was while randomly turning the pages of Proverbs I found this judgment, and this warning which can be inferred, too: "There is joy for those who seek the common good."† And I remember my motherís beautiful Christmas trees that took days and weeks of hard effort to create; effort in the familyís common service. I remember her relentlessly collecting kitchen grease and scrap metal for the war effort in the long-gone days of World War II when I was only a young boy. I remember her fierce defense of equality for black kids when she was head of the PTA. I remember her founding a Cub Scout Troop when not one of the local men could be persuaded to do so.

I remember the joy she felt doing these things, so, when I felt myself backed into a corner by angry kids as a schoolteacher — rich, middle-class and/or poor — all angry and joyless, I wondered if my motherís formula — which turned out to be King Solomonís formula, too — might help their condition. I was never disappointed.

The Wall Street Journal recently announced that 70% of all the lawyers in the world are in the United States. We have 25 times the number of lawyers per capita that Japan does , 31/2 times the number that England has, 21/2 times the number per capita that Germany has. If you add public and private practice lawyers together, about one in every 250 Americans is a lawyer. What could the meaning of this be? Joseph Campbell, the philosopher of myth- making, said before he died, that lawsuits are the way Americans talk to each other, the way employers talk to bosses and brothers to sisters. Lawsuits are the way we get each otherís attention because we have lost a normal interest in each otherís fate; lost the concern for human face-to-face justice; lost the taste for plain speech that makers a healthy people. When you examine the tradition of Western law, you discover there are only two reasons to bring a case at all: First, someone hasnít kept a promise. That gives rise to contract law. Second, that someone has encroached on another personís rights and done harm. That gives rise to tort and criminal law.

If you want a new way to mark the American crisis and are weary of hearing about teenage suicide, divorce, crime, violence, alienated families, murder, drugs and the rest of the litany, then think on the 70% of the planetís legal talent gathering under the American eagleís wing.†† There must be a tremendous number of us breaking promises; a tremendous number encroaching on rights to support this battalion of barristers.

We have forgotten, I think, how to live together in families and communities;† forgotten the necessary personal obligations that make families and communities in the first place, all in a rush to escape personal responsibility. I think schools as we have them, bear a great part of the responsibility for this. Schools have systematically redefined the word "education" to mean an array of† expensive services that are provided for and done to young people. No finer recipe for destroying†personal responsibility was ever fashioned.

What does it mean that we break our promises so often, violate each other so often, that an army of lawyers is made wealthy playing our advocates? What does it mean when we abandon personal responsibility for the common good to legions of so-called professionals", saying "Let them do it, They get paid for it."? What does it mean for the future of my grandchildren and your children that a price tag is now set on simple services that through the long history of humanity were freely exchanged — and even freely given? Services such as sitting with the sick, caring for the old, mowing a poor widowís lawn. If it looks as grim to you as it does to me, what can we do about it? The lesson of my mother, of Biblical Solomon, and of my raggedy volunteer program, I mean as a lesson for all schools. When schools consume the youth of the nation in forced confinement, and force all the products of their youth to become mere paper to be thrown away, no joy is possible in the seeking of such lives. The pricing of precious time by ridiculous grade-points establishes an irrational currency by which something valuable is corrupted in the service of nonsense.

The sellers of school services to the government have consistently misdiagnosed and misdefined the problem of schooling, which is not bad reading and counting — those deficiencies are direct by-products of our errors of definition. The problem is that kids hardly learn at all the way schools insist on teaching.

Schools desperately need a new vision of their own purpose because the vision they angrily promulgate now is a dishonest one. It is not factually true that young people learn to read or do arithmetic primarily, by being taught these things — which are learned, it is true, but not really taught at all. Over- teaching interferes with learning. Colonial America was massively literate without any systematic or compulsion schooling at all.

Behind the mask of school necessity, valuable lessons of service and responsibility have been denied the young. Children are crippled by missing the lessons volunteer service, apprenticeships and work/study have always taught.† Lessons of self- significance, personal power, quiet competence and genuine self-respect. By the time we release the schooled cohort at 18, most of it has been drained of vitality and the will to find joy in service to others.

Our cultural dilemma in the United States has nothing to do with children who donít read very well; instead it lies in the difficulty of finding a way to restore meaning and purpose to modem life in the shadow of the institutions which are smothering us. We have progressively stripped children of the primary experience base they need to grow up sound and whole by pricing orderly, structured confinement as a higher value.

The dynamics of the destructive process are hardly visible. In the first place, the natural sequence of learning is destroyed without experience, a sequence in which hands-on experience ("primary data" to give it an academic label) must always predominate.† Only after a long apprenticeship in rich contact with the living world can the thin gas of abstraction mean much to most people. Only a few of us are fashioned in such a peculiar — and hardly superior — way that we can thrive on an exclusive diet of regulations, workbooks, blackboards and talk. When we fail to take into account how children really learn — by involvement, by doing, by self-initiated undertakings, by shouldering a fair load of community responsibility, by mingling intimately in the real world of adults and when we instead set up a laboratory universe in which all are confined with anonymous strangers — then we have created in advance, a world of failing families, wrecked cities; dying religions; rude, indifferent neighbors and lonely, angry individuals. In this way we create a foregone conclusion, a civil reality in which a mathematical bell curve tells us that only a few children have any real talent, so why bother?

Any new vision of American education is going to be forced to find a currency beyond money with which to pay its children to learn. Simply becoming part of the world again and helping it with its problems in exchange for a real field in which to learn real things, largely by self-teaching and self- monitoring, is a big part of the answer. My own experience has been that almost every academic question can be asked around a base of genuine service to† the community and can ride easily around an orbit of service.

Even in the first year I experimented with such a program, most distinctly without the blessing or cooperation of my school district, it worked. It helped others,† it helped the kids, it helped their families and it helped me. It hardly cost anything to establish and maintain, except time and conviction it was the right thing to do.

In Western society over the past several thousand years we have had at various times great social visions overtake us: The pagan vision of† Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic; the aristocratic vision of Charlemagne and the Plantagencts; the Christian vision of St. Augustine of Origen and the martyrs and more.† All these grand conceptions for which curricula were developed — except the bureaucratic vision of the Tudors and the ideological descendants — had a service ideal at the bedrock: a sense we are obligated to each other, that we need duties if we expect to live easily with ourselves.

This is the great secret we have lost sight of in forced schooling, which is built around a philosophy or theology of strict materialism; a curriculum of competition and accumulation; a curriculum of boastfulness, prizes and self- aggrandizement. These directives are prescriptions for bad individuals, bad communities, bad societies and bad consciences.

All transforming visions, we have human record of asked a question beyond money: "What Do I Owe?" And all of these visions promise one way or another, that if we only speak for those who†cannot speak for themselves, if we will only be generous to the poor, if we will only seek the common good, that our lives will be filled with meaning. It worked for King Solomon. It worked for my mother, and it will work for the rest of us, too.

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