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An American Affidavit

Saturday, February 23, 2019

55. Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

55. Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert  

     I began to schoolteach as an engineer would, solving problems as they arose. Because of  my upbringing and because of certain unresolved contradictions in my own character I  had a great private need not just to have a job but to have work that would allow me to  build the unbuilt parts of myself, to give me competence
and let me feel my life was one  being lived instead of it living me. I brought to those first years an intensity of     watchfulness probably uncommon in those who grow up untroubled. My own  deficiencies provided enough motivation to want to make something worthwhile happen.  

     Had I remained a problem-solver I would have drowned in life for sure, but a habit of  mind that demands things in context sensitized me to the culture of schooling as a major  element in my work and that wariness eventually allowed me to surmount it. The highest  school priorities are administrative coherence, student predictability, and institutional  stability; children doing well or poorly are incidental to the main administrative mission.  Hence teachers are often regarded as instruments which respond best if handled like  servants made to account for the silverware. In order to give these vertical relationships  strength, the horizontal relationships among teachers — collegiality — must be kept weak.  

     This divide-and-conquer principle is true of any large system. The way it plays itself out  in the culture of schooling is to bestow on some few individuals favor, on some few grief,  and to approach the large middle with a carrot in one hand, a stick in the other with these  dismal examples illuminating the discourse. In simple terms, some are bribed into  loyalty, but seldom so securely they become complacent; others sent despairing, but  seldom without hope since a crumb might eventually fall their way. Those whose  loyalties are purchased function as spies to report staff defiance or as cheerleaders for  new initiatives.  

     I used to hear from Granddad that a man's price for surrendering shows you the dirt floor  of his soul. A short list of customary teacher payoffs includes: 1) assignment to a room  on the shady side of the building; 2) or one away from playground noise; 3) a parking  permit; 4) the gift of a closet as a private office; 5) the tacit understanding that one can  solicit administrative aid in disciplinary situations without being persecuted afterwards;  6) first choice of textbooks from the available supply in the book room; 7) access to the  administrators' private photocopy machine; 8) a set of black shades for your windows so  the room can be sufficiently darkened to watch movies comfortably; 9) privileged access  to media equipment so machines could be counted on to take over the teaching a few  days each week; 10) assignment of a student teacher as a private clerk; 11) the right to go  home on Friday a period or two early in order to beat the weekend rush; 12) a program  with first period (or first and second) free so the giftee can sleep late while a friend or  friendly administrator clocks them in.  

     Many more "deals" than this are available, extra pay for certain cushy specialized jobs or  paid after-school duty are major perks. Thus is the ancient game of divide and conquer  played in school. How many times I remember hearing, "Wake up, Gatto. Why should I  bother? This is all a big joke. Nobody cares. Keep the kids quiet, that's what a good  teacher is. I have a life when I get home from this sewer." Deals have a lot to do with that  attitude and the best deals of all go to those who establish themselves as experts. As did  Dr. Caleb Gattegno.  

     A now long-forgotten Egyptian intellectual, Caleb Gattegno enjoyed a brief vogue in the  1960s as inventor of a reading system based on the use of nonverbal color cues to aid  learning. He was brought to the middle school where I worked in 1969 to demonstrate     how his new system solved seemingly intractable problems. This famous man's  demonstration made such impact on me that thirty years later I could lead you  blindfolded to the basement room on West 77th Street where twenty- five teachers and  administrators crammed into the rear lane of a classroom in order to be touched by this  magic. Keep in mind it was only the demonstration I recall, I can't remember the idea at  all. It had something to do with color.  

     Even now I applaud Gattegno's courage if nothing else. A stranger facing a new class is  odds-on to be eaten alive, the customary example of this situation is the hapless  substitute. But in his favor another classroom advantage worked besides his magical  color technology, the presence of a crowd of adults virtually guaranteed a peaceful hour.  Children are familiar with adult-swarming through the twice-a-year- visitation days of  parents. Everyone knows by some unvoiced universal etiquette to be on best behavior  when a concentration of strange adults appears in the back of the room.  

     On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, we all assembled to watch the great man put  children through their paces. An air of excitement filled the room. >From the publicity  buildup a permanent revolution in our knowledge of reading was soon to be put on  display. Finally, with a full retinue of foundation officers and big bureaucrats, Dr. Caleb  Gattegno entered the arena.  

     I can't precisely say why what happened next happened. The simple truth is I wasn't  paying much attention. But suddenly a babble of shouting woke me. Looking up, I saw  the visiting expert's face covered with blood! He was making a beeline through the mob  for the door as if desperate to get there before he bled to death.  

     As I later pieced together from eyewitness accounts, Dr. Gattegno had selected a student  to cooperate with his demonstration, a girl with a mind of her own. She didn't want to be  the center of attention at that moment. When Gattegno persisted her patience came to an  end. What I learned in a Harlem typing class years earlier, the famous Egyptian  intellectual now learned in a school in the middle of some of the most expensive real  estate on earth.  

     Almost immediately after she raked her long fingernails down his well-educated cheeks,  the doctor was off to the races, exiting the room quickly, dashing up the staircase into  Egyptian history. We were left milling about, unable to stifle cynical remarks. What I  failed to hear, then or later, was a single word of sympathy for his travail. Word of the  incident traveled quickly through the three-story building, the event was postmortemed  for days.  

     I should be ashamed to say it, but I felt traces of amusement at his plight, at the money  wasted, at the temporary chagrin of important people. Not a word was ever said again  about Gattegno again in my presence. I read a few pages of his slim volume and found  them intelligent, but for some unaccountable reason I couldn't muster interest enough to  read on. Probably because there isn't any trick to teaching children to read by very old-  fashioned methods, which makes it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for novelty.     Truth to tell, the reading world doesn't need a better mousetrap. If you look up his work  in the library, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop me a postcard explaining what his colorful  plan was all about.  

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