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Walkabout: London - Reflections on Open Source Learning, Part 1 of 4

by John Taylor Gatto

Catherine Levison
John Taylor Gatto

Adapted from a talk given at the University of Washington, the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Brisbane Australia and Budapest, Hungary.

PART ONE: A Letter From Tulsa
Potter Stewart, a former US Supreme Court Justice, once remarked that he could not define hardcore pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. You could say the same thing about open-source learning, which is the subject of my meandering presentation. To define it precisely, to reduce it to a mere formula, is to ruin it. Nevertheless, I want to explain roughly what I’m trying to get at. In open-source, everything under the sun is a potential lesson; nothing is excluded automatically on grounds of age appropriateness, test scores, stage theories of human development, or anything else, and everybody alive or dead is a potential teacher, even mass murderers or the hopelessly insane. In open-source, teaching is a function, not a profession.

In open-source, nothing is standardized; the only tests are performance demonstrations, not displays of memory. Students are pushed into taking an increasingly active role in selecting and recruiting learning sources, establishing sequences, and evaluating progress, with the ultimate goal (being) comprehensive self-initiation, management, and judgment of learning. The fundamental assumption is that nobody else can give you an education; an education has to be taken. Teachers, textbooks, equipment and facilities play no decisive factor in education; the only sine qua non is the will and discipline of the learner.

A letter I received last October from a 16-year-old fellow in Tulsa will help to clarify these abstract ideas. As you read it, you’ll notice my correspondent builds his argument around an open-source use of the internet. This is the way of a large and growing number of people. Its advantages aren’t hard to recognize, but it’s important not to tie the open-source phenomenon exclusively to technology. Open-sourcing is an attitude; a method of procedure. It can find materials for superb education in any situation, with or without technology.

Dear Mr. Gatto:
Compulsory schooling indoctrinates people in the faith of arbitrary systems which are, or will soon become, obsolete. Schools teach as if what is now thought true will always be truth. They suppress the natural evolution of concepts and practices. But science, culture, politics, philosophy, and society aren’t static at all.

Schooling perpetuates itself by making people so dependent on obsolete systems they can’t change. Case in point: school upends natural learning priorities: instead of focusing on learning useful stuff, or on self-mastery, it concentrates on test scores and class rankings. But those things can be improved in clever ways without actually learning anything. Except how to game the system.

Now contrast the internet with school: anything can be learned through the internet, it transcends all boundaries and social distinctions, it makes knowledge difficult to hoard and free speech hard to curtail. Before the internet, a student with a yen to pursue esoterica like number theory would wait for college, or buy some difficult books which follow an order designed for the average person. But average people don’t exist except as statistical fictions. So standardized presentations are an inherently inefficient educational compromise.

Learning doesn’t have to proceed that way. As quickly as I type “number theory” into a search engine, my study begins. I design my own curriculum, one that fits me. And as I do that I develop deeper understanding of the concept. On the internet I learn what I choose, not limited by someone else’s curriculum or standards. As it stands, it’s possible to school yourself from kindergarten through PhD without ever entering a classroom. All you want is free. Ask in a forum—like magic many will answer.
The institution of standardized schooling is needed less and less: it can’t adapt to individuals, it can’t provide the same depth of concept and quality of assistance.

For my teenage friend, the Internet makes schooling irrelevant. Homeschooling does the same for millions of others; the international democratic school movement for many more.
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, O school, it tolls for thee.

PART TWO: Shen Wenrong
A few years back, the ThyssenKrupp steel company decided to unload its huge Phoenix plant in Dortmund, Germany on China. Steel prices were stuck in a trough, long term, it appeared to management. What better time to dump Phoenix on unsophisticated China for two payoffs: once in the sales price; once more to move it.

China swallowed the first hook, but not the second. It wouldn’t pay the moving bill which Thyssen estimated at three years’ work for an army of highly-paid engineers and specialized technicians. No, China would buy the place, but move Phoenix itself. And one fine day, a raggedy band of one thousand peasants, led by a ham-handed farmer from the Yangtze Delta, showed up in Dortmund.

Shen didn’t use a computer, he worked from behind a common school desk. And, he saw no need to pay housing or meal costs, so his crew’s first undertaking was to build dormitories and commissaries, which they did in three weeks. Then, they took down Phoenix, crated it, shipped it, uncrated it, and reassembled it near Shanghai in one year, not three. In performing this miracle, rules were broken or ignored left and right, but instead of calamity, it was a triumph in more ways than one.

In the time it had taken to dismantle and transport Phoenix, China’s huge orders for steel on world markets drove the price through the roof. So Phoenix was a profit-maker from the start just as it would have been if it had been kept in Germany. The Chinese had factored this predictable jump in steel prices into their original decision, of course, and the Germans had not. And so, sophisticated German college-trained expertise was outfoxed by the peasants from China.

Don’t forget Shen’s story; it will serve as a useful reference as you work to de-program yourself and to understand how rule-driven schooling, radically disconnected from real-world realities, is an exceedingly poor preparation for an uncertain future.

How did Shen learn to direct such a colossal operation with his peasant background? Consider the possibility that you’ve been deceived all your life into believing that experts and specialists are needed for things which really are well within the reach of ordinary people. If a farmer and an unspecialized crew can tear down and put back together a gigantic steel plant three times faster than experts, then, you and I may need a new perspective on things; one which puts experts and expertise in their proper place.

PART THREE: Walkabout London
An undue, even irrational, respect for experts, specialists, and rules is conditioned into us by twelve years or more of rule-driven schooling. That’s why we find it hard to believe that a stupid peasant could do a better job than professional German engineers or that an ignorant torch singer could take over the admissions office at America’s premier technical college and do such a fantastic job that she is given the school’s highest honor for administrators. More on that lady in a minute.

This softcore brainwashing is why we don’t know what to think when we learn that America’s first President, as a fatherless boy of eleven, started school by studying trigonometry, geometry, and surveying, gradually adding ship-building, architectural design, military science, horseback riding, and ballroom dancing to the curriculum. And, that his contemporaries didn’t consider him overly bright!

Rule-driven schooling creates a wonderful fit with factory work, clerical duties, hamburger flipping, and bureaucratic jobs, but it hurts our ability to think critically or creativity and, oddly enough, this disturbing fact has been quite well known for centuries. It helps us to see that the battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton or that WWII German forces were able to inflict many more casualties than they took, even when heavily outnumbered, because it trained the officer corps that war was a game, and to go at it that way.

Dense nets of rigid rules were built into the original design of forced institutional schooling a hundred years ago in preparation for the advent of a big industrial economy, and a big government to match. That’s why our schools function as they do, in order to construct a predictable proletariat who would serve the new economy faithfully because it didn’t know what else to do.

Trouble is, our big industrial economy is dying, and the big government set up to run interference for it has been spending over a half-trillion dollars a year more than it earns for some time now. So, the familiar bells and loudspeaker schools, built around low-grade and mostly irrelevant intellectual training, built around the strict rationing of skills-training and an absolute minimum of practice in applications—and a maximum of drills in passivity and obedience—tools which once served the older economy well (even as they dis-served and mutilated young lives) seems now to be unable to help produce the much different sort of citizen needed for the dangerous future ahead.

Rule-driven schooling gave America the most docile, predictable, and manageable population on earth, a joy for leaders of business and government to boss—Americans could be counted upon to do as told. But, in the 21st century, the dogged persistence of lockstep pedagogy is economically worrisome. You see, one of the insights that our stupendous balance of payments deficit and perilous condition of many giant corporations testifies to is that our leaders don’t know how to lead us out of trouble. The docility of the common population in this instance suggests we can expect no relief from that quarter which once was capable of revolting against England, the most powerful nation on Earth.

There’s a widespread feeling these days, both here and abroad, that America has lost its way, that we’ve gone crazy, and that school has something to do with it. Personally, I agree. But what change in schooling could restore our lost national vigor?

Since 1983, the answer from policy circles has been: even more of the same! More hours, more days, more homework, more tests, more college, and a more coercive transfer of officially-approved curricula designed to make classrooms teacher-proof. In this tight prescription, critical thinking, artistic expression, and actual applications of learning have received short shrift. But what if regimented schooling is the disease making us sick and not its cure? This essay is an old schoolteacher’s way of saying that it is the disease, and we need to be looking elsewhere for a solution: to less school, not more; to less college, not more; to no paper/pencil testing at all; and to a sharply reduced role for licensed school personnel.
My argument is called “Walkabout” because my inspiration for 30 years of classroom teaching was the rite of passage attributed to Australian aborigines, in which a young fellow grows up on a very long and solitary walk full of marvels and dangers. He educates himself on this walk.

And, I call this presentation “Walkabout London” because a walking adventure changed the life of Sir Richard Branson, as he tells it in his autobiography, Losing My Virginity, and retells it in the May, 2007 issue of New Yorker.

Branson was four years old and out on a ride with his mother, miles from their home, when Mrs. Branson stopped the car and asked her little son whether he thought he could find his way back alone from where they were. He said “Yes”, whereupon Mother Branson told him to get out and do so. Then, she drove off. “My mother was determined to make us independent,” Branson remembered to the magazine reporter 52 years after the event. And, once he got home, he could never again submit easily to institutionalization. Eventually, he dropped out of high school, skipped college, and had his first important business at 19 while his friends were college undergraduates.

Branson considers that walk to be the important lesson of his life. Can you see how it might be? It wouldn’t cost anything to give every four-year-old an equivalent solitary adventure, would it? But, of course, no institutional school could permit that because their root mission is psychological—to institutionalize young people to certain routines and attitudes. If walkabouts were prescribed for all, the delicate web of controlled society would come apart.

PART FOUR: Dropouts Are Dead Ducks?
Branson’s walkabout, and the dirt-farmer savvy of Shen Wenrong, are things more easily achieved outside school than in, which is the common historical experience of mankind and which helps to explain why it took almost all of recorded history before factory schooling came about. I hear all the time these days that people who don’t graduate high school are ruined, and those without college are doomed to be lifelong flunkies. And yet, something puzzles me: America’s two best Presidents, Washington and Lincoln, had almost no school and neither had college, either, and America’s two most potent industrial titans, Rockefeller and Carnegie, were in the same unschooled boat. “Yes, but what about scientists”, I hear you say. Well, two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, didn’t even have a high school diploma , and the head of the Human Genome Project, Francis S. Collins didn’t see the inside of a classroom until high school, and followed a perfect open-source method until then.

Continued in next issue.

Copyright 2007 by John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved. ■