Saturday, March 5, 2011

Education and School

I just finished reading an eye opening book, “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher. Mr. Gatto takes the reader into the world of schooling; examines the origins of our modern system of compulsory schooling and classrooms and blows the lid off the vast industry that is “school”. His principal point is that all this schools has absolutely nothing to do with education.

An education is the process whereby an individual learns. Information is processed, retained and then applied to life situations, to better the individual and, at some point, better society. School is the compulsory incarceration of individuals for the purpose of forced indoctrination into a curriculum established by a panel of individuals with varied motivations; the education of students being nowhere near the top of the list.

Mr. Gatto’s thesis is that the United States, by the nature of its origin and its political and economic system was a great cauldron of imagination and innovation that flourished until the post Civil War era brought compulsory, regimented schools, modeled after the existing Prussian system, which led to the stifling of this innovative nature that had allowed the United States to achieve remarkable growth. Such a system was promoted by the fabulously wealthy and influential industrial leaders of the day in an attempt to provide a steady stream of workers for their factories and consumers of their products.

The book looks at some of our present day leaders in business, industry and politics, pointing out that the success of these leaders had nothing to do with school. As a matter of fact, school does far more to quash original thinking than to motivate.

I thought about what I read in this book and examined my own education. At this point in my life I would be considered to be a very successful surgeon and a marginally successful author. Neither of these endeavors has anything to do with school. Was school important? Of course, but not for my education. School was important as a means to an end; a necessary process that allowed me to become a surgeon. The education of a surgeon currently requires 12 years of elementary and secondary school, 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school and 5-6 or more years of surgical residency. Certain high achieving individuals probably could find a pathway that would knock off 3-4 years, but the path still is very long.

But, when I examine all these years of school and try to remember what I learned, it becomes apparent that most of the time spent was completely wasted. I remember going to elementary school, but I can’t remember anything that I actually learned in the hallowed halls of Lincoln School. What I do remember is a stream of teachers who appeared to alternat between boredom, anger and rare enthusiasm; teachers that often seemed to wish they were somewhere else or doing something else; teachers that spent far too much time trying to fit round pegs into square holes, berating, ridiculing and humiliating those unfortunate students that couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to their arbitrary set of rules.

I remember poor Ken, a classmate with obvious emotional issues, who struggled with the simplest tasks, and was made to suffer under the tyranny of a series of unsympathetic “teachers”. Cal who was always in trouble for being disruptive; always on the brink of being relegated to the oblivion of “special class”, but who could also create amazing drawings that revealed a talent that shined through his behavioral issues. Round pegs both of them; but both stifled and possibly irreparably harmed by their forced incarceration in “school”.

Later years weren’t much better. Of course, I was “smart” and sailed through school with minimal effort. But did I learn anything? I’m sure I did, but as I think back to those years there are two things I learned; information I can recall even today, neither of which had anything to do with school.

Away from school, one of my greatest interests was horse racing. I made my first bet at age nine and, unfortunately, it was a winner and I was hooked. At the time I thought that betting on horses could be a bonanza; actually making money from being smart. Being the inquisitive young man that I was, I set about learning everything I could about the subject. Tom Ainslie was the authority on horse racing at that time and I read his books cover to cover, along with several others. I learned the origins of thoroughbred and standardbred racing and even wrote my tenth grade term paper on the history of thoroughbred horse racing. To this day I can name the winners of important races, the origins of the sport and still use the unique style of thinking that goes into evaluating a horse race almost every day in my practice of surgery.

Shortly after I discovered the joys and frustrations of the track I discovered something else that only brought me laughter and good cheer: the Marx Brothers. My older brothers and friends talked about the antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo after attending the summer film festival held at Saratoga State Park. After a while I had to see what all the fuss was about. After seeing “Horse Feathers” I became an ardent fan.

Once the interest was kindled I was compelled to learn everything possible about the four boys. “The Marx Brothers Scrapbook”, “Groucho and Me” and, my favorite, Harpo Speaks” gave me a lesson in history, vaudeville, movies, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, from a bit of a biased perspective. In particular Harpo had special appeal for me, probably because, like Harpo, I wasn’t much of a talker. The silent Marx Brother made his presence known, however, managing to join the highest echelons of New York literary circles, as a listener. While I can remember almost every detail of Harpo’s life; I can’t recall one iota of information specific to any high school social studies class.

In college I discovered English literature and Charles Dickens has always been my favorite. I love almost all his work, but maintain a great disdain for “Great Expectations”. I suspect my strong negative feelings for this book are the result of being forced to read it in the ninth grade. It’s not that the reading was torture; rather it’s the way I was required to examine the book, with every bit of soul, humor and irony removed, the product of a school curriculum that eliminated anything that could possibly spark interest in a young mind.

School for me was playing within the system to advance, while, all the time, pursuing my own agenda outside of the rigid structure of the school building and syllabus. Finally, after twenty years in “school” I graduated medical school and started training in surgery. All the years of education came into play, while all the years in school became irrelevant.

Years of playing the horses taught me how to think and approach medical dilemmas in a unique and effective way; Harpo Marx demonstrated the importance of being a good listener, while literature gave me an outlet away from the rigors of surgery. It is unfortunate that school does so little to educate and serves merely as a necessary gauntlet to traverse on a journey to a specific goal. Education is what prepares us for life; school prepares us for nothing.

I would recommend that everyone pick up a copy of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. You won’t be disappointed and you will our schools in a way that will open your eyes and leave you more than a little angry.