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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

122. The Character Of A Village: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Chapter Ten 



The Character of a Village 

Each person in a village has a face and a name, even a nickname. Anonymity is 
impossible, for the villagers are not a mass... a village has its own language, its customs, 
its rhythms... its life is interior.... a village cannot be global. 

— Robert Vachon 

The Character Of A Village 

Before I went to first grade I could add, subtract, and multiply in my head. I knew my 
times tables not as work but as games Dad played on drives around Pittsburgh. Learning 
anything was easy when you felt like it. My father taught me that, not any school. 

When I went to first grade I could read fluently. I loved to read grown-up books I 
selected from the three-level glass-enclosed bookcase behind the front door in Swissvale. 
It held hundreds. I knew if I kept reading, things would eventually come. Mother taught 
me that and she was right. I remember taking down The Decameron time after time, only 
to find its deceptively simple language concealing meanings I couldn't fathom. Each time 
I put the book back I made a mental note to try again next month. And sure enough, one 
month it happened. I was ten. 

My father was a cookie salesman. Mother called him that anyway when she was angry, 
which was often. He had gone to work as a teenager to help support my widowed 
grandmother and to help brother Frank, the smart one, through the University of 
Pittsburgh. Dad never got to college, but he was a genius just the same. Mother went for 
one year, she was a genius, too. They were the kind of people who expose the malice of 
bell curves and rankings for what it is. I miss them both and think of them often with love 
and gratitude. 

Mother I called "Bootie" most of the time because that's what I heard her own mother 
say. Bootie read fairy tales to me in the cradle, she recited poems, she filled my ears and 
eyes with language even though she had little else in the way of things to give. One day 
she bought a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman that cost more than we 
could afford. I know because she and dad fought when he got home. From then on 
mother read from the encyclopedia every day. We read all the newspapers, too. In those 
days they only cost a couple of cents. I liked the Hearst Sun-Telegraph best because it 
used violent layouts, and on the upper corner of the Sunday edition, a little boy called 
Puck, dressed like a fop, said in a speech balloon, "What fools these mortals be." I didn't 
know what that meant, but I said the words out loud often to punctuate adult conversation 
and always got a smile when I did. 



As far as I can figure, any success I had as a schoolteacher came from what my mother, 
my father, my sister, my family, friends, and town taught, not from a single thing I 
remember about Cornell and Columbia, my two colleges, not from any findings of 
institutes of child study or directives from departments of education. If I'm correct, then 
this insight is more significant than it may appear. The immense edifice of teacher 
instruction and schooling in general rests on the shaky hypothesis that expert intervention 
in childhood produces better people than might otherwise occur. I've come to doubt that. 

A gigantic social investment rides on this hypothesis, one that might otherwise be spent 
on reducing stress on family life which interferes with happiness and the growth of 
intelligence. Had the small fortune spent on my own schooling been invested instead in 
my people and my place directly, I have a hunch I would have turned out better. 
Whatever the truth of this complex proposition, as long as you've spent your money and 
time to hear what I have to say, you have a right to know something about the 
fountainhead of my school-teaching practice, my growing up time on the green river 
Monongahela. 

I feel grateful for the luck to have been born in a tiny city with the character of a village 
on the river Monongahela in western Pennsylvania. People cared for each other there. 
Even the town wastrels had a history. But we minded our own business in Mon City, too. 
Both are important. Everyone seemed to understand that within broad limits there is no 
one best way to grow up. Rich or poor doesn't matter much if you know what's 
important. Poverty can 't make you miserable; only a bad character and a weak spirit can 
do that. 

In Monongahela, people seemed to know that children have a remarkable power to 
survive unfavorable environments as long as they have a part in a vital community. In the 
years I grew up, in the place I grew up, tales of social workers breaking up families "in 
the best interests of the child" weren't common, although on several occasions I heard 
Uncle Bud threaten to punch out this man's lights or that one's if the person didn't start 
treating his wife better. Or his kids. Bud was always punching someone in the interest of 
justice. 

Over the years any number of students found a way to tell me that what they appreciated 
most about my classes was that I didn't waste their time. I think I learned how not to do 
that through a bit of good luck — being born in Monongahela during the Depression when 
money was tight and people were forced to continue older traditions of making their own 
meanings instead of buying them. And they learned how many very different ways there 
were to grow strong. What the vast industry of professional child-rearing has told you 
about the right way to grow up matters less than you've been led to believe. Until you 
know that, you remain caught like a fly in the web of the great therapeutic community of 
modern life. That will make you sick quicker than anything. 

Singing And Fishing Were Free 

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