Can You Get an Education in Spite of School?

A few weeks ago my family and I attended a large homeschooling conference in St. Charles, IL. This is the 13th year this conference has been held and it is attended by hundreds of homeschooling parents and children.

The featured speaker this year was John Taylor Gatto, a former New York state public school teacher who now speaks out against traditional schooling. The values he espouses are very much in line with Montessori philosophy; you can read my take on the Montessori/ Gatto connection in my previous post If John Taylor Gatto and Maria Montessori Could Meet.

Mr. Gatto is a hero of mine, and I was thrilled to hear him speak. I got to shake his hand and talk to him briefly afterward, which was very exciting. The topic of his talk was “How to Get an Education in Spite of School”, which immediately tells you where he’s at when it comes to education.

Mr. Gatto’s thoughts are radical and he makes no apology for that fact. I most appreciate that he calls us to question our long-held assumptions about education and learning. He finds interesting information from unlikely sources.

What’s Really Important for College?

Gatto has spent some time talking to the admissions directors for both Harvard and Princeton. They told him that every year they turn away hundreds of students who have perfect SAT scores and perfect GPAs. What are they looking for, then? The answer might surprise you.

At both schools, they are looking for evidence that the student in question made a difference to society (as one of the admissions directors put it, “Special people usually distinguish themselves before the age of 18”). They look at hobbies and special interests, because that’s where children make their own choices about what they do with their free time.

How can someone under the age of 18 make a meaningful contribution to society? Some ways include:

  • starting and running a successful business
  • serving in the community
  • founding an organization that serves others (especially those in need)
  • completing an apprenticeship

Mr. Gatto repeatedly says that there is no significant correlation between grades, test scores, and real life achievement. He listed many extremely successful people who dropped out of school at some point and didn’t attend college, including Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft; Michael Dell (founder of Dell Computers); and Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook).

Life Skills that Really Matter

He also suggests that we re-think what we teach children based on our own life experiences. He asked us to take a week or two to reflect on the skills that have served us best in life, and then make sure we are introducing children to those skills and giving them a chance to exercise them.

Some of his top life skills include:

1. Being able to successfully convey yourself through the written and (publicly) spoken word
2. Being able to spend time in solitude without feeling uncomfortable
3. Finding ways to be useful to others
4. Developing connections with other people that can be used for their benefit and your own
5. Being able to read at a high level (not just the skill of reading but being able to understand what you’re reading and internalize it)

As he points out, the things that serve us best in life are often not taught in school. Children often graduate without these life-skills, having instead spent dreary hours memorizing dates and filling in workbook pages.

Real Life Lessons

He also shared some remarkable examples of how he gave students a chance to really “stand out from the crowd” even within the confines of the New York public school system. For example, one girl in his class dropped a glass bottle with a note inside into the water off of Coney Island. The bottle was found by a New York police chief who read the note and contacted the girl.

With help from Mr. Gatto, the girl met with the police chief to discuss environmental issues like littering. Seeing where her bottle ended up was a practical lesson for her, and her meeting with the police chief was covered by a local newspaper which led to a meeting with the head of an environmental action group.

He had children running up and down New York state completing internships with politicians, businesspeople, newscasters, and all sorts of other accomplished people. Children in his classes influenced legislation, mobilized public opinion, wrote newspaper columns, and volunteered in their communities.

What Makes a Person Educated?

Mr. Gatto ended his presentation by talking about traits that a truly educated person possesses; they bear little resemblance to traditional school curriculums:

  • An educated person writes his/her own script in life; destiny is self-determined
  • An educated person is never at a loss for what to do with his/her time
  • An educated person has a blueprint for personal values, a philosophy
  • An educated person understands his/her own mortality and learns throughout life, right until the end
  • An educated person has the capacity to create new things, new experiences, and new ideas

Even as a Montessorian, I was inspired to re-think how I approach education. I never want my focus to be on “achievement” in things that are easily measurable. Real life skills are harder to measure, harder to pin down, but so much more beneficial.

Note: Since I wrote this post, Mr. Gatto has passed away. His wife and friends have kept his legacy alive at his website, John Taylor Gatto, where you can find his books and other information.

Helpful links:

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher
Things You Really Need to Learn
The College (and High School) Dropouts Hall of Fame