The Underground History of American Education Volume 1

The Underground History of American Education, Volume I: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern SchoolingThe Underground History of American Education, Volume I: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have found that, as homeschoolers, many of my influences are not the same as my friends. They’re influenced by Susan Wise Bauer, Leigh Bortins, Charlotte Mason, and many other excellent Christians authors. I, on the other hand, came to homeschooling under the influences of authors such as Holt, Gatto and Gray. Although my friends and I both homeschool, there tend to be distinct differences between the way that our homeschooling looks and feels both to ourselves and the outside world.

However, despite being influenced by Gatto, I found that I have never read his largest and most subversive book. A large part of the reason that I have not read it is, even though the PDF was available on an author website, the actual book has been out of print for a while. So, when I was able to find that a first volume of a revised and expanded version of Gatto’s Underground History of American Education had been printed, I soon had ordered one and had it one its way to me.

This volume is a back-and-forth telling of Gatto’s experiences as a teacher, and his research into the history of American schools. It twists and meanders through both in a way that is interesting, and yet sometimes confusing, as you go back and forth through time. I actually did feel like I should takes notes and create a timeline of Gatto’s text to see if I was reconstructing the timeline of modern education correctly. That is something that is a hinderance as a reader.

Throughout the book Gatto raises some important questions. He raises the question of meaningful work, the question of interest-driven education, the psychological effects of forced schooling, the bureaucracy of education, and the replacement of home with institution. He raises questions of literacy, of methods of reading education, of changes in literature and the rise of the genre of children’s literature. He raises more questions than he truly is able to answer, but that is not a bad thing. I am interested in seeing what the other two volumes say.

Gatto is a man of forceful opinion, and at times his interpretations of the facts become more prevalent in his book that the facts themselves. I would have appreciated a book that was not quite so polemic at this point in my homeschooling journey. I also find that, while schools are not as good as most parents claim, they are also not as bad as Gatto’s text implies. Many students have thrived in traditional schooling, despite the horrific class and racial inequities to be found in many schools. I realize that if this was a parent’s first exposure to homeschooling that they would probably be driven away from the idea.

On a personal note, I felt like he bashed Calvinism several times, and I found it to be distasteful. I understand that he is lapsed Catholic, but I think that his history exposes how influenced he is by the American ideas of free will and self-determination, when public schools are ensuring that true self-determination is often not possible in our culture. It’s an interesting conundrum.

Despite my concerns, I found that this book was a provocative book of ideas. It is a book that is a reminder that education is not neutral. It raises many questions about how we educate our kids, and how we need to be aware of the schoolish influences that even tend to creep their way into homeschooling. This is a book that will remain on my shelf and one that I will turn to when I need support to remind me of my reasons why we homeschool the way that we do.

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