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"Potholes in the Road & How to Avoid Them!"
Books: The Difference Between Library and School Editions
"I decided to teach Moby Dick to all my 8th grade classes including the dumb ones. But I discovered right away that white whale was just too big for 45-minute bell breaks. I couldn't divide it comfortably enough to fit. Melville's book was too vast to say just what the "right way" to teach it really was, it spoke to every reader a different way; to grapple with it demanded elastic time, not the fixed bell breaks of my junior high; indeed it offered so many choices of purpose -- some aesthetic, some historical, some social, some philosophical, some theological, some dramatic, some economic -- that compelling the attention of a room full of young people to any one aspect of it seemed willful and arbitrary.
Soon after I began teaching Moby Dick I realized that the school edition wasn't a real book at all but a kind of disguised indoctrination. It provided all the questions, an addition to the original text intended to make the book teacher-proof and student-proof, if you read those questions let alone answered them there would be no chance ever again for a private exchange between you and Melville.
The editors of the school edition had provided a package of prefabricated questions and over a hundred chapter-by-chapter abstracts and interpretations of their own. If I didn't assign them the kids wanted to know why, and unless everyone duly parroted the party line set down by the book editor those used to getting high marks became scared and angry.
There was no avoiding the conclusion that the school text of Moby Dick had been subtly denatured and was worse than useless -- it was dangerous. So I pitched it and bought a set of real Moby Dick's with my own money. The school edition of Moby Dick asked all the right questions so I had to throw it away. Real books don't do that. Real books demand that people actively participate, ask their own questions. Books that show you the best questions to ask aren't just stupid, they hurt the mind under the pretext of helping it just exactly the way standardized tests do. Real books, unlike school books, (but very like real homeschoolers) can't be standardized. They are so eccentric no one book fits everyone.
If you think about it, schooled people like school books are very much alike. Some interests find that desirable for accountant's reasons because the discipline which controls our economy and our politics derives from certain mathematical and interpretive exercises called market research -- whose accuracy depends upon customers being very much alike and very predictable. People who read too many real books get quirky. If schooling were not so standar-dized that it produces more or less standardized human lives varying across only a narrow range there would be a catastrophe in this particular component of our commercial economy. Market research depends on people behaving as if they were alike, it doesn't really matter whether they are alike or not.
One way to see the difference between school books and real books like Moby Dick is to examine the different procedures which separate librarians who are the custodians of real books from schoolteachers who are the custodians of school books.
To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean and quiet. They are orderly places where you can read instead of just pretending to read. People of all ages are found working there together, not just a pack of age-segregated kids. For some reason libraries are never age-segregated nor do they presume to segregate readers by questionable tests of ability any more than farms or forests or oceans do.
The librarian doesn't tell me what to read, doesn't tell me what sequence of reading I have to follow, doesn't grade my reading. The librarian trusts me to have a worthwhile purpose of my own. I appreciate that and trust the library in return because it trusts me.
Some other significant differences between libraries and schools are these: The librarian lets me ask my own questions and helps me when I want help, not when she decides I need it. If I feel like reading all day long, that's okay with the librarian who doesn't compel me to stop reading at intervals by ringing a bell in my ear. The library keeps its nose out of my home, too. It doesn't send letters to my mother reporting on my library behavior, it doesn't make recommendations or issue orders how I should use my time at home.
The library doesn't play favorites, it's a very democratic place as seems proper in a democracy. If the books I want are available I get them even if that democratic decision deprives someone even more gifted and talented than I am of the books.
The library never humiliates me by posting ranked lists of good readers for all to see; it presumes that good reading is its own reward and doesn't need to be held up as an object lesson to bad readers. One of the strangest differences between library and school is that you almost never see a kid behaving badly in a library even though bad kids have the same access to libraries as good ones do.
The library never makes predictions about my future based on my past reading habits, nor does it imply dishonestly that things will be rosy if I read sanitary prose and thorns if I read Barbara Cartland. It tolerates eccentric reading habits because it realizes free men and women are often very eccentric.
Finally, the library has real books, not school books. I know the Moby Dick I find in the library won't have questions at the end of the chapters or be scientifically bowdlerized. Library books are not written by collective pens or selected by committees for passing elaborate inoffensive standards. Real books conform only to the private curriculum of each author not to the invisible curriculum of a corporate bureaucracy.
Real books transport us into an inner realm of private solitude and unmonitored mental reflection in a way schoolbooks cannot because that would jeopardize school routines devised to control crowds through close-order drill and endless surveillance and intimidation.
When you take the free will out of education students lose power to see where their own best interest lies. Other people have to be the eyes for them. Like Seeing Eye dogs that works fairly well if the dog is entirely devoted to its job but it never works as well as not going blind in the first place."
Copyright 1996, John Taylor Gatto, all rights reserved.
Editor's Note: Mr. Gatto's generosity with permission to reprint his work is legendary. However, he has specifically requested that Homefires inform readers that this particular piece is copyrighted and is not to be further reproduced. Contact the author for more information via www.johntaylorgatto.com.