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Silicon Rose

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[May. 10th, 2006|08:04 pm]
Silicon Rose
[Current Mood |contemplativecontemplative]

I'm currently making my way through The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto, who was the same person who wrote "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher". "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher", along with "Why Nerds are Unpopular", were two essays I read in college which I felt opened my eyes to the way the school system was. I've realized that in many ways - too many ways to count, really - I was very lucky as a child.

I'm having trouble believing what I'm reading in The Underground History of American Education, but at the same time it provokes a chilling feeling of recognition. Gatto states at the beginning, during the prologue, that he is less concerned with facts than perhaps he should be, but he maintains that his conclusions will transcend any factual errors he might have made. It feels like he has almost given up with concerning himself with facts, and that is part of what troubles me, I think. However, given the situation in schools today and the fact that all the attempts made to 'fix' it appear to only make it worse, I can at least not completely discard his premises. That is almost certainly part of what he wanted to convey - that even if his bases were false, he was still conveying truth.

In the parts I have read, at least, I would accuse him of almost ranting at times, but if he truly experienced the things which he claims he did, I suppose I couldn't deny him the privilege. I've certainly ranted over things much more minor, and if the prevailing opinion is correct and blogs are publishing, well, I suppose my rants have been made in some sense official as well.

I've been thinking recently, about the American Dream. I don't believe that it's dead. I've seen too many examples of motivated people taking advantage of what the system does provide - while it is not perfect, it is certainly not defunct, either. However, what I think is lacking is drive and understanding. I don't think most people are capable of stepping outside the possibilities offered to them by the system - and that involves fulfilling particular requirements, filling out a lionshare of forms, and then being accepted into a larger organization. And in reading The Underground History of American Education, I feel like I've realized why no one realizes that they have the ability to succeed if they just put in the effort. It's not that the capacity for effort is lacking - it's just that we've trained people into a certain set of expectations, and that training interferes with their ability to grasp what opportunities are offered to them. Of course, there are other things that can stop people from grasping possibilities - poverty, for example - but there are people who fall into a state where they cannot grasp opportunities because they can't transcend the system in the first place. Our society does try to give people opportunities, but if Gatto's book is to be believed, at the same time it is conditioning them not to take advantage of those opportunities.

I'm still reading and digesting the book, but I feel like I've been called to think about life more deeply than I have been. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how long that will persist in the face of the daily frustrations of just surviving.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ketsugami
2006-05-11 04:28 am (UTC)
I love Gatto's writing, and I'll have to check that book out. Good stuff.

A point, though, about the American Dream. While I do agree with you that the system is actually set up to discourage people from taking advantage of the opportunities that exist all around them, there are a couple of important caveats:

1) The system is set up that way for a reason. There's a limited amount of success to go around, at least in the short run; if it were easy, or if too many people did it, it wouldn't be worth doing. Unfortunately, this is inherent in the basic nature of economics.

2) While difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify, I do believe in that individuals possess differing levels of ability and, yes, intelligence. It's become politically correct in this day and age to assume that everyone could succeed if only they tried, but I think that's simply not the case.

Part of the problem is that intelligent people (you, Gatto, and so on) who are relatively grounded ego-wise tend not to recognize the extent of their abilities. Since they are literally incapable of seeing the world as the less-intelligent see it, they tend to ascribe a lack of success to a failure of will. While I would never suggest that people be denied the opportunity to succeed, I think it's important to recognize that just as you, siliconrose, will never be able to bench-press 400 pounds, there exist people who are not capable of being the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, or whoever you consider to be the emblem of success.

The caveat to the caveat is none of this to say that the bias towards telling people not to take advantage of opportunities is a good thing. The deck is stacked; given absolutely equal ability, a person has a better chance to succeed if he's male, white, and wealthy, and everyone knows it. The more that can be done to redress that balance, the better. People of certain classes or social groups don't attempt to succeed in certain careers because they assume they can't, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. So in the main I think I agree with you, but it's a complicated issue.
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-11 03:08 pm (UTC)
I disagree that the attitude of the less-successful is the only or even the primary cause of the disparity. People who have the luck to be born to rich parents get more for less effort: they don't need as fat a scholarship to go to a top school, and therefore don't need to do quite as well in high school; if their first attempt or three to live independently fails they can move back home for a year; they have, in short, more opportunities and more second chances. And the wider the gap between rich and poor gets, the greater the impact of real differences in opportunity over differences in attitude.
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[User Picture]From: ketsugami
2006-05-11 05:07 am (UTC)
An addition, having read a bit of the book: his lack of history bothers me. The Athens of which he is so fond did indeed distribute important positions by lottery; it succeeded in spite of rather than because of this. (They got screwed, big-time, by occasionally having an incompetent leader at a critical moment.) The leisured class, comprising roughly 1% of the population, could afford to lounge about and nurture the virtues of thought and conversation because there were slaves and sub-citizens to do all the actual work.

(Actually, Athenian society was more or less like the feudal system. The purpose of the upper class wasn't to think, although they liked doing that, but to fight; a citizen was someone who could afford a hoplite panoply and the slaves to maintain it. While it's common to think of the Athenian elite as the philosopher-kings, the truth is that they were the warrior caste of that society who turned to philosophy between battles, sort of like the samurai turned to poetry when they ran out of wars to fight.)

Sorry. I'm ranting at you instead of him. ^_^;; I'll stop now.
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[User Picture]From: siliconrose
2006-05-12 05:45 am (UTC)
No, that's one of my problems with this book. I feel like I'm going to have to go back and fact check the entire damn thing.
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-11 03:25 pm (UTC)
Well, I haven't read the book yet; I'll comment on it once I do. I did read the two essays. First, the Gatto "essay" seemed angry, full of assertions, and extremely short on factual data to back these assertions, and devoid of suggested alternatives to the public school system he so reviles; it was, in short, a rant, not an essay.

The nerd essay was much better. It broke down into two assertions: the first, extremely well-argued assertion, was that high schools represent a culture of idleness, with the inevitable empty social maneuvering that results. The solution is fairly obvious, and it mostly worked at our school: challenge the students, make them work to stay afloat.

The second assertion, that nerds are unpopular because they are smarter and therefore work on things other than popularity, rests on the assumption that nerds are smarter than other groups of high school students. There is no evidence that this is the case. If intelligence (which we will here assume, despite significant evidence to the contrary, is a scalar quantity that predicts academic achievement) correlated strongly with nerdiness, there would have been a significantly larger nerd population at TJ than at other schools. There wasn't. Remember Jee-ho Park? Alicia Sponholz? Laura Cunningham? Alex Gazzo? (I can only remember one male example, but I could list another dozen girls; this is probably not due to there being fewer males so much as because I didn't spend four years scheming to have sex with the guys). Intelligent, high-achieving students who weren't remotely near the nerd crowd. What was the difference?

They were confident in social situations, well-dressed, good-looking. In short, they were attractive, and we were not. We made up the myth of nerd intellect, and Hollywood perpetuated it (after all, most screenwriters are nerds), because in high school, attractiveness is everything, and we needed to feel superior.
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[User Picture]From: siliconrose
2006-05-12 06:06 am (UTC)
Well, if you read the book he's more or less arguing for the abolishment of the public school system entirely and a return to more 'natural' education in the forms of self-teaching, parentally guided learning, and apprenticeships, so I'm not surprised that The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher doesn't provide any answers - why provide constructive criticism when you believe the entire system is corrupt and needs to be torn up and tossed onto the compost heap?

However, you're right, it is VERY ranty.

As for the second assertion, I'd have to say that while at high school there were some incidents, they were far fewer than at my earlier schools. As far as I remember, after my freshman year, things calmed down almost entirely, and I don't remember a single incident after my sophomore year. I think using TJ as a counterexample to the essay isn't a good choice, because it really was a very different atmosphere. Almost everyone at TJ was there because they had their mind on the future. Just because we still seperated into different levels a little doesn't mean that the society was exactly the same as portrayed in the essay.

(I'm fairly sure that at least one of my tormentors at TJ was doing so because I wasn't geeky enough for him.)
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-11 04:28 pm (UTC)
Now, the other comment. You're my friend, and I owe you a lot, so I tried very, very hard to find a non-hostile, diplomatic way to say this, but I'm pretty sure I failed. At least this failure isn't as bad as my first attempt, which hopefully very few people saw.

You went to a magnet public high school in one of the wealthiest counties on the planet. Your parents had high salaries, one of them that I know of courtesy of the government. You started out privileged, with access to the best parts of the system. You went to a very good and very expensive college, and you got a job with a giant corporation, already making twice the average salary with a lifetime of promotions and raises ahead of you.

You have followed the system to the letter, and benefited from it every step of the way. What experience, exactly, are you drawing on when you criticize the less successful for a failure to step out of the system?
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[User Picture]From: siliconrose
2006-05-11 04:51 pm (UTC)
genedefect's, partially, and an awareness of human potential. Putting aside people who were failed already by not providing them the tools to succeed - primarily, basic literacy - I believe that a motivated person with a certain small amount of seed money can construct a business doing something that people will pay for, or can train themselves into a form where they could be accepted into the system. Someone who is already in poverty and debt is very likely to encounter obstacles that they cannot overcome because of their disadvantaged situation, but I think many of the people who are facing that situation don't see the ways out of it. And I don't blame them.

The first thing I realized when I got out of college and took up a job was that real life was nothing like school. In school you're given carefully constructed boundaries in which to build a precisely specified thing. The teachers tell you how to get the information - they write a how-to for almost every task you're given. When you're assigned a project in computer science, you get several lectures on the processes that you're supposed to be learning, and then you're supposed to follow the instructions to produce a product.

That's not how life works. Or, even if it is, it's a recipe for staying in a crappy job for the rest of your life.

In the real world, in your job, you have to look for problems, and solve them. Sometimes your boss will give you the problem, but they sure as hell don't give you the blueprint for the solution. But while solving the problems your boss gives you are important for keeping your job, advancement typically requires that you step outside of that and see other problems.

And in life, you have to look for problems and solve them too. But we don't have training in looking for problems. We don't have training in how to approach finding a good solution, either. That means that when someone is stuck on the street, no home, no money, no nothing, they don't have the ability to list their advantages and start tackling the solutions one by one. I don't think people on the street aren't motivated - I just don't think that they've been taught how to learn. And if you don't know how to learn, then you're fucked.

Yes, I might be speaking from the realm of perfection. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about. I probably don't. But I see people who also seem to have come from the realm of perfection that lack this basic, goddamn skill, and I think that they are successful just because of their advantages. I've been praised for being the sort of person that goes out and finds out what they need to know. How ridiculous is it that something so simple, and so critically basic to life, is something worthy of praise?
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[User Picture]From: cyfis
2006-05-11 08:05 pm (UTC)
Read the nerd essay some time ago. The schoolteacher one sounds rather bitter, though I would like to say that school, at whichever level, also fosters an interest in various subjects for kids who may be inspired to learn more about them as well as being a structure for learning social conventions. Many of his points about the rules that are enforced upon children are things which are necessary to become functional members of society. The positive way to look at it is that social consensus is required for society (corporations, for instance, wouldn't work very well if every entry-level employee constantly attempts to contradict his boss' directives. Sure you'd get innovation, but you'd also never get anything done on a larger scale). Negatively, modern society demands that there be people to take out the garbage and work at McDonalds, and until such a time arrives in which everyone can aspire to be a neurosurgeon, social structure will continuously be reinforced by people at the top because it's in their own best interests to do so.

One of the alternatives he suggests, home schooling, is missing the important factors of social interaction with peers (however "morally distasteful" one finds such interactions, they're necessary for the real world) and competition, which is a major driving force in providing the motivation.

From the nerd essay, however:

For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who "can draw" like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that's why they're good at it.

QFT.
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-11 09:37 pm (UTC)
Virtually all skills result from a combination of talent and training (or practice). A person with talent but no training has a hard limit on their skill (there is a level of skill they cannot exceed without training or practice), while a person with training but no talent has a "soft limit" (there is a level of skill beyond which they must work harder and harder to advance less and less). This is an oversimplification, of course, because talent is not a binary state, but it's still fairly close to reality, I think.
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-12 06:48 pm (UTC)
From early chapter one, where Gatto discusses 19th century America:

"Most revolutionary of all was the conviction that personal rights can only be honored when the political state is kept weak."

Then the Industrial Revolution happened. Suddenly, the population shifted from farmers to factory workers, and something changed: the greatest threat to liberty became not the state, but the corporation. Even today a corporation can mandate when its employees wake up, when they eat, and how they dress, for five days a week. Back then, it could also force them to shop in the company store, live in company housing, work six days a week twelve hours a day, and so on. The individual worker was too small and weak to fight the overwhelming economic power of a corporation, and had to band with his coworkers. Even then, the unions couldn't stand against the resources of the totalitarian plutocracies dividing America up among themselves, and so they brought in the only organization bigger, the government. Wisely, they decided they'd rather give power to elected officials limited by an official statement of the rights of man, than to self-declared plutocrats whose organizations were driven solely by profit.

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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-12 08:41 pm (UTC)
Another serious flaw in chapter one: he claims that the population of colonial America was largely classless, and overall well-educated, while utterly ignoring the fact that, out of a population of three million, half a million were slaves, virtually all of them illiterate.
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[User Picture]From: siliconrose
2006-05-13 01:31 am (UTC)
I guess, but how far has it really gotten us? I mean, most people consider it a matter of course that corporations have more voice in the government than the people - if that's an incorrect assumption, then so be it, but it seems to be something supported by the government's actions.
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[User Picture]From: froborr
2006-05-12 10:04 pm (UTC)

From a footnote in chapter three

"But in a larger sense the author urges every reader to trust personal judgment over "numerical" evidence, whatever the source."

That is the single most idiotic sentence I have read in years. It even beats the "feel it in your bones" line in chapter two. Is he honestly advocating that we simply ignore empirical data and go on such phenomenally stupid guides to action as knee-jerk emotion and referenceless word-juggling?

Any claim to "knowledge" in the absence of empirical data is nothing more or less than a statement of faith, and faith is not a valid source of information.
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[User Picture]From: ketsugami
2006-05-21 02:40 pm (UTC)
Wow there's a lot of comments here. I have a question: "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" seems to have been written by someone named Paul Graham, or at least it's on his site. Are you sure that's Gatto? Ditto "The Age of the Essay", another piece I loved.
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