John Taylor Gatto and Jiddu Krishnamurti on conformity
and how it kills true perceiving, learning and creativity
Shortly after I posted my seven questions for Leonardo on the blog I learned of the death of educator and writer John Taylor Gatto. My questions for Leonardo were intended to shine a light on the way people with a passionate interest in the visual arts are often schooled to produce a production-line version of “fine art” that will succeed in the mainstream market, rather than encouraged to dive deep into their own authentic creativity regardless of commercial outcomes. But the wider educational field suffers from the same malaise, and Gatto wrote about it extensively. So, what is the difference between schooling and educating, and why does it matter? In what way is it relevant to this site – The Awakened Eye?
In the introduction to the website – art and the intimate unknowable – I wrote, The Awakened Eye is the eye that perceives without labelling; we could also call it the innocent eye or the eye of beginner’s mind. Simply put, “schooling” tends to be an exercise in labelling, defining and separating in the service of acquiring knowledge. In other words, it’s a form of training. It has its uses, but seeing without shadows is not one of them. On the other hand, education (the root, educare, means to ‘draw out’) will aspire to help uncover and foster the student’s innate and unique genius. John Taylor Gatto had a lot to say about schooling; he was outspoken and ruthless in his criticism of the state school system, and he was in a position to know what he was talking about.
I teach how to fit into a world I don’t want to live in. I just can’t do it anymore.
– John Taylor Gatto
Fifty years ago I was venting the same sentiments about my experience as a young teacher in the state school system in New Zealand. I had started to have nightmares about the psychological harm my students might be experiencing in my classroom as a result of competition and comparison. If I’d read Gatto’s 1991 confession in the New York Times – “I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.” – I’d have been hugely comforted to know I wasn’t the only one.
But I didn’t know about him then; he inhabited the mists of my future. Life conspired instead to introduce me to the thoughts of Jiddu Krishnamurti. The highlights of my career as an educator occurred in the schools he founded worldwide.
… if we really love our children and are therefore deeply concerned about education, we will contrive from the very beginning to bring about an atmosphere which will encourage them to be free.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
John Taylor Gatto was a public school teacher for 30 years and spent another 20 as a world renowned speaker on education, giving over 1500 speeches in 9 countries. In 1991, despite being two-time New York State Teacher of the Year, he quit school teaching with a public announcement on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, saying, “I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.” That article, entitled “I quit, I think” is one of the most scathing criticisms of state-schooling ever written.
Gatto then became preoccupied with researching the true origins of the state-schooling system, mapping out what he described as “an ominous continuity” involving early industrialists, bankers, the eugenics movement and social-Darwinism. In short, a very ‘toxic-soup’ which is still being force-fed to our children today. His work completely exposed the origins and purposes of the government-ran compulsory school system, which he demonstrated, beyond any doubt, was intended to create obedient people who will joyfully serve the state and giant corporations. Understanding Gatto’s research is essential to understanding the situation we find ourselves in today, where we have populations incapable of discerning the ways in which they have been brainwashed, let alone of thinking for themselves.
A few quotes from his writing and lectures:
Genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.
I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
Grades don’t measure anything, other than your relevant obedience to a manager.
The truth is schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.
Schools stifle family originality by appropriating the critical time needed for any sound idea of family to develop – then they blame the family for its failure to be a family.
School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.
Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.
Boys like Andrew Carnegie who begged his mother not to send him to school and was well on his way to immortality and fortune at the age of thirteen, would be referred today for psychological counseling; Thomas Edison would find himself in Special Ed until his peculiar genius had been sufficiently tamed. [Leonardo likewise.]
Question: What are your ideas about education?
Krishnamurti: I think mere ideas are no good at all, because one idea is as good as another, depending on whether the mind accepts or rejects it. But perhaps it would be worthwhile to find out what we mean by education. Let us see if we can think out together the whole significance of education, and not merely think in terms of my idea, or your idea, or the idea of some specialist.
Why do we educate our children at all? Is it to help the child to understand the whole significance of life, or merely to prepare him to earn a livelihood in a particular culture or society? Which is it that we want? Not what we should want, or what is desirable, but what is it that we as parents actually insist on? We want the child to conform, to be a respectable citizen in a corrupt society, in a society that is at war both within itself and with other societies, that is brutal, acquisitive, violent, greedy, with occasional spots of affection, tolerance and kindliness. That is what we actually want, is it not? If the child does not fit into society – whether it be communist, socialist, or capitalist – we are afraid of what will happen to him, so we begin to educate him to conform to the pattern of our own making. That is all we want where the child is concerned, and that is essentially what is taking place. And any revolt of the child against society, against the pattern of conformity, we call delinquency.
We want the children to conform; we want to control their minds, to shape their conduct, their way of living, so that they will fit into the pattern of society. That is what every parent wants, is it not? And that is exactly what is happening, whether it be in America or in Europe, in Russia or in India. The pattern may vary slightly, but they all want the child to conform.
Now, is that education? Or does education mean that the parents and the teachers themselves see the significance of the whole pattern, and are helping the child from the very beginning to be alert to all its influences? Seeing the full significance of the pattern, with its religious, social and economic influences, its influences of class, of family, of tradition – seeing the significance of all this for oneself and helping the child to understand and not be caught in it – that may be education. To educate the child may be to help him to be outside of society, so that he creates his own society. Since our society is not at all what it should be, why encourage the child to stay within its pattern?
At present we force the child to conform to a social pattern which we have established individually, as a family, and as the collective; and he unfortunately inherits, not only our property, but some of our psychological characteristics as well. So from the very beginning he is a slave to the environment.
Seeing all this, if we really love our children and are therefore deeply concerned about education, we will contrive from the very beginning to bring about an atmosphere which will encourage them to be free. A few real educators have thought about all this, but unfortunately very few parents ever think about it at all. We leave it to the experts – religion to the priest, psychology to the psychologist, and our children to the so-called teachers. Surely, the parent is also the educator; he is the teacher, and also the one who learns – not only the child.
So this is a very complex problem, and if we really wish to resolve it we must go into it most profoundly; and then, I think, we shall find out how to bring about the right kind of education.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti, Brussels, June 25, 1956
www.jkrishnamurti.org has an extensive database of Krishnamurti’s writing and talks on education – all available for free.
My personal favourite; the book that steered me towards the ‘K’ educational environment:
Beginnings of Learning
Cartoons by Bill Watterson, the creative genius behind the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.