Education Is Bigger Than Schools

Enjoy this piece on educational philosophy by guest contributor, Joseph Preesh.

Growing up and going to school is such a ubiquitous part of Americana that we hardly even think about the subjects learned and the ultimate purpose for why we went yesteryear and send our kids today. It’s simply what is done. Education reformer and activist John Taylor Gatto encourages us to take a step back and refresh stale views of education. We know there’s reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but what gets missed and overlooked in today’s model of education?

A former teacher from New York, Gatto saw the problems in standard U.S. education. He then came up with a list he calls his “Awarenesses”: areas we ought to know ourselves and then pass down to our children to best preserve knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. Here is his list with descriptions. Who knows? Maybe you agree with Gatto and will choose to implement some of these yourself. Either way, it is welcoming to see a fresh look at education.


#1: The first awareness Gatto describes is a personal reality, by which he means “to know as much as you can about your relatives and ancestors and their cultures, situations, goals, and struggles.”  He then suggests inventorying by carefully testing your own limits, talents, and weaknesses which come from you own biological and cultural heritage—to get a profile of yourself.  He suggests asking the question: What part of myself can I feel in harmony with particular relatives?

This immediately threw me for a loop because I have a very small family and because I would say that I only feel in harmony with only one of them, and that would be my grandmother.  But someone like Gatto names 10 or 12 people and then which particular things those individual people imparted to him or maybe inspired within him.  And regardless of closeness, I can also gain a good grasp of the German, Norwegian, Danish, and Cherokee cultures from which my genetic makeup derives.

#2: The second awareness is an intimate knowledge of history, to know local, regional, national, and global history because it is the tapestry against which our life plays—a 3-dimensional tapestry which runs backwards in time.  People with an intimate knowledge of history have the ability to think in contexts, i.e. to figure out what the point of solving problems is and what ideas the problems grew out of.  Knowledge of history allows us to step back from our own lives and figure out what on earth is going on.

Gatto further emphasizes the need to understand political history, cultural history, the history of labor, the history of science and technology, and “other relevant forms.”

It seems to me that learning all of this could be as simple as creating lists for all these types of histories on Amazon and building a nice library book by book or visiting museums or listening to college lectures, and there are many other ways.

#3: The third awareness is knowledge of the physical world within your reach.

When Gatto was a schoolteacher, he supplied his children with a map of each of Manhattan’s ZIP code zones and had them personally and privately explore each zone and analyze the types of businesses, housing stock, the dress of the people, and many other impressions. (This in turn gave the children high-powered market research which they then were able to sell to marketing companies for quite a bit of money.) Regardless of their business transaction, the value of this exercise is in getting to know your immediate world.  What’s the ethnic make-up of your community? What types of cars do they drive, the amount of traffic, what the busiest streets are, what kinds of things are sold in the different shops, etc.

#4: The fourth awareness is enough knowledge of the world of work to have an intelligent selection of vocation, so that you can match up who you are privately with what variety of work exists.  You don’t want a job that pays well if you are miserable in it because the money is simply not a compensation for destroying yourself, or if it is antagonistic to your principles or the things that you hold valuable.  (I believe people who hate their jobs spend more of their money on vice, so just because you make more in those situations doesn’t necessarily mean you keep what you earn.)

A very useful tool in matching up your privately life with your job (as Gatto points out in other lectures) is the Department of Labor’s job dictionary which describes every job in the United States and the education and requirements necessary for acquiring these jobs.  It’s called the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

#5: The fifth awareness is knowledge of the philosophies and psychologies of human association, by which Gatto means a knowledge of the difference between families and friends; friends and companions; and companions and comrades.  He also suggested the need to understand the intricacies of networking, or as it used to be called, collegiality.  This awareness also includes a deep understanding of what love relationships ought to be, based on the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of human history and the accumulated wisdom of one’s own family.

#6: The sixth awareness is knowledge of the intricacies of making a home.  Gatto calls the home a “laboratory of everything.”  It is both real life and something that can engage the mind as far as you want to carry it.  He asks the question what is the difference between a home and just a place to sleep and eat? 

Gatto had in mind that home is where the heart is.  It is somewhere you want to be…a place that is safe, peaceful, comfortable, stimulating.  It is a place where a family cooks together, eats together, prays together, goes to sleep at the same time.  It is a place where a family can be as self-sufficient as possible.

#7: The seventh awareness is knowledge of the challenges of adulthood and all its ages.  What are the obligations and duties of a strong man or a strong woman?  What are they expected to shoulder?  With age-integrated communities, knowing your parents and grandparents is built into the culture.  I believe that it is the Hunzans (in northwest Pakistan) who use the phrase “you’re looking old today” as a compliment.  Many of them live well into their nineties and beyond.

#8: The eighth awareness is an understanding of the challenge of loss and the great challenge of aging and death.  Nothing would mean anything at all if you didn’t age and die.  If you lived 50 million years what would it matter what you did today or 40 years from now?  What would anything matter?  We have this wonderful chance to watch ourselves on this circuit and to adapt according to who we are.

You are never the same person two days in a row—you’re always a day older, which means a day wiser if you want to be. Wisdom is only valuable because of death.  Death teaches you to appreciate people before they die.

#9: The ninth awareness is to struggle constantly and lifelong to understand the metaphysical reality.  These are the things of the soul and the spirit—the things beyond the physical reality, which are not subject to scientific investigation.

In summary, we see things on this list that go far beyond what’s taught in school. That might be appropriate, but then I’d suggest not making the error of thinking that education ends when you or your child steps out of the school. 

-Joseph Preesh

1 Response

  1. Chris Tofur

    Though Gatto’s list of what makes an education can be expanded or collapsed depending on how much of his material you’ve covered, this article pretty much hits the essentials in a “collapsed” fashion.

    I just had a discussion regarding “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” this past weekend, and Gatto’s awarenesses #8 and #9 weighed heavily into the conversation. For example, making “progress” as humanity has less meaning when we don’t consider these spiritual issues. Living in a “scientific utopia” seems much more like a prison when one awakens from the coma induced by the cultural zeitgeist and realizes that much of what humanity has accomplished in the past two centuries (in particular) is not really progress if it cripples man’s spiritual growth.

    Following Gatto’s advice, we have a path to self-actualization.

What say you?