06 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Seven!

Welcome to the Unschooling Challenge!

Although my theme for September is "Dystopia", the settings I have chosen for September's Saturdays are as anti-dystopian as can be. No, that doesn't mean they're utopian--not when every utopia is a dystopia waiting to happen. You could say they're real-world-ian, just as "unschooling" is real-world-ian.

Monongahela, Pennsylvania
Dumbing Us Down
by John Taylor Gatto

In Monongahela by that river everyone was my teacher. Daily, it seemed to a boy, one of the mile-long trains would stop in town to take on water and coal . . . the brakeman and engineer would step among snot-nosed kids and spin railroad yarns, let us run in and out of boxcars, over and under flatcars, tank cars, coal cars, and numbers of other specialty cars whose function we memorised as easily as we memorised enemy plane silhouettes . . . The anonymous men, lectured, advised, and inspired the boys of Monongahela--that was as much their job as driving the trains.

Sometimes a riverboat would stop in mid-channel and discharge a crew who would row to shore, tying their skiff to one of the willows. That was the excuse for every rickety skiff in the twelve-block-long town to fill up with kids, pulling like Vikings, sometimes with sticks instead of oars, to raid the "Belle of Pittsburgh" or "The Original River Queen." Some kind of natural etiquette was at work in Monongahela. The rules didn't need to be written down; if men had time, they showed boys how to grow up. We didn't whine when our time was up: men had work to do--we understood that and scampered away, grateful for the flash our own futures they had had time to reveal, however small it was.

The first time I read about John Taylor Gatto's childhood in the river town of Monongahela, I didn't quite understand why he called it a school. How can a place be a school when it doesn't have a proper syllabus? And how could the men who worked there be teachers when they didn't give grades? As you can see, I had a lot of social conditioning to crawl out from under. =P In fact, as I read further, I realised that "school" is a terribly limited--and limiting--word for the place where your entire perspective on life is shaped.

Back in the 1940s, Monongahela was a working class town where most of the adults worked in coal mines, in steel mills, on the railroad, or on river boats--and where all of the children were free to swarm around them. Many of them were "poor," but few of them knew it: their lives were too full and happy. I'm sure that the children went to school sometimes (or that some children went to school), but Gatto's silence on the subject seems to say that nothing of real importance happened there.

The problem is that it may not seem like much learning was taking place around the trains or on the boats or in the shops where the children eventually started doing part-time work. Indeed, the first time I read this part of his book Dumbing Us Down, it was all lost on me and I kept wondering when he'd get to a proper "teachable moment" that I or another teacher could try to replicate in a classroom. =P If Gatto could have read my mind and humoured me, he might have said that the key to doing that is to recreate something else that made Monongahela so special for him: his close relationship with his grandfather, the town printer, who also became his first employer. All the other children who lived there had similar bonds with older relatives, who not only cared about them but could also orient them in the world by orienting them in their extended families and their ethnic history. So now the question becomes whether a hired and licensed stranger could replicate a relationship like that within the ten or so months of the school year, before the children are passed on to someone else.

You know what? I'm actually not going to rule out that possibility! But I am going to point out, with the weight of my own experiences behind me, that if a teacher were to try and to succeed, it would be extremely unprofessional. Which brings us to another thing that the parents and teachers of my old school squabbled over: teachers having "inappropriate" relationships with students. The idea that we can replicate natural relationships in highly controlled conditions is the very reason modern education is such a mess.

This brings us right back to the idea of settings. If you're anything like me, you're wondering, "Where can I find a Monongahela of my own?" But if you're several steps ahead of me, you may instead be asking, "How can I make my town more like Monongahela?"

Question of the Week: Is there a place in your area where children can freely interact with adults at work?

(If you have a Locus Focus of your own this week, leave a link to it in the combox so that everyone can check it out as well!)

Image Source: Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto


Sheila said...

Oh, how I wish. It's so unacceptable here for kids to be at work -- you can't bring them into any place where menial work is done, because it's considered unsafe, and they can't get much out of offices even when they are allowed there. Marko did go with his dad to work once recently, for a special event, and had a BLAST, but did he see any adults doing actual work? Probably not.

I feel that the real cure for many of our social problems -- single mothers living in poverty, married mothers feeling they never accomplish anything visible, kids growing up with no sense of responsibility -- could be cured if workplaces just opened themselves up to employees' kids. Unfortunately that's pretty "out-there" for a lot of people. At least here, kids are considered a nuisance and one adults who aren't their parents shouldn't have to deal with. (Just read any comment thread about kids in restaurants or babies on airplanes. You would think children were a permanent kind of social outcast rather than what ALL OF US once were!)

Enbrethiliel said...


I will never forget one article I did read about babies on airplanes. The author insisted that unless the baby were being airlifted for emergency medical treatment or needed to get to a relative's funeral, there was simply no good reason for him to be on a plane! Since when did we let the quality of people's reasons for flying be the deciding factor in whether or not to allow them into the cabin? =P It was an extreme application of the idea that adults and children should live in separate compartments, with as little overlap as possible . . . but predictable enough for us to have seen it coming. Maybe it will just get worse in coming years. =S

Sheila said...

Unfortunately, once you accept the premise that childbearing is a choice, all of a sudden it's a choice one can be judged and punished for. I've never heard it in real life, where people have to be basically decent, but I've seen it online many times: "Why should I have to deal with your kids? No one made you have them! Deal with it yourself."

If everyone had that attitude, humanity would be dead within 100 years.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your comment reminds me of other things which people now think are a choice, like poverty and poor health. I don't think that this kind of thinking will lead to complete extinction of humanity, but I do see it leading to divisions in society, as those who made the "right" choices segregate themselves from those who made the "wrong" ones. And I'm afraid that I don't see an argument against that in principle--not if we accept that we are all free to choose whom we associate with.

Well, actually, I do see one argument against it, but only where families, churches, or other "organic" communities are concerned. But people who are neighbours merely because they all happened to move into convenient housing (or to buy tickets for the same flight) are not "one body" in the same sense. They might not be able to throw us out of where we live (or out of the plane!); but if they can leverage their money and reputation (acquired through having made the "right" choices) they can find a way to isolate themselves in a way that ends up inconveniencing others, even if it was not intended to. I recall the author of the article I mentioned recommending "adults only" flights or cabins. And you know, if there is enough demand for it, the airlines will supply it!