The Good Life and What Matters (What School Doesn’t Teach)

One book has left me speechless. Every time I read from it. A speechless soon met with an urgent compulsion to shout from the mountains. Every word.

A Different Kind of Teacher, by John Taylor Gatto, is not just about the devastation of schooling on America (the world?), but about humanity and what makes us strong and weak. (Go now and buy the book. It will change your life. I’m not making that up. Seriously. I’ll be here waiting.)

And since I can’t quote the whole book here, or even address many of his profound points (every paragraph), there’s this one:

“Owning a home is the foremost American dream but few schools bother with teaching you how to build one.

Why is that? Everyone thinks owning a home matters.

Last year at Southern Illinois University I gave a workshop in what the basic skills of a good life are as I understand them. Toward the end a young man rose in back and shouted, ‘I’m twenty-five and I don’t know how to do anything except pass tests! If the fan belt on my car broke on a lonely road in a snow storm I’d freeze to death. Why have you done this to me?’…

Does going to school matter if it uses up the time you need to learn to build a house? Or grow vegetables? Or make a dress? Or love your family hard enough you don’t need to switch them on and off like a TV set? Education matters, of course, but only flimflam artists try to convince you that school and education are the same thing.”

What should matter is so obvious and we still believe the lie that “grades” are what matter, or awards or test scores. Our kids grow up and marry but don’t know how to serve and love and commit. They have children but don’t know how to parent. They work but become financially shackled to things for which they don’t have the money. They have nice houses but don’t know anything about having a home. They drive nice cars and wear nice clothes and take nice vacations but they need medication to deal with what’s still missing.

But none of that scares us.How am I going to pay for my kids’ college?!” I just heard a Dad panic, as if college is the magic bullet that will give his kids the good life and he’ll sacrifice everything for the illusion.

In short, we tell them they need to “find the good life” then lie to them about what that is.

In a society that raises cumulative generations of children who grow up clawing for a prize for just the prize’s sake, we lose empathy, joy, purpose and love. And that is a society that will self-destruct.

What do we do? We understand how to set our children up for real success. We give them space to learn, time to think and discover, freedom to grow and stumble, and examples of what’s valuable–relationships, work, responsibility, service and productivity.

We give them the good life.

 



46 Responses to “The Good Life and What Matters (What School Doesn’t Teach)”

  1. Bambi says:

    Now THAT was classic Kelly!!! Thankful for that encouragement. Excellent.

  2. Hayley Ferguson says:

    Thank you Kelly. I soooo needed this.

  3. Kaylee says:

    Thank you for having this conversation and asking this questions. It gives us young parents a fighting chance. :)

  4. Kim M says:

    KEEP SHOUTING! ;-)

  5. Julie says:

    Amen!

  6. Ashleigh says:

    Oh Kelly, thank you for this beautiful post!

    My husband feels it is important for our children to attend school. I don’t want them to go. He is the Head though, so I must submit to him. They went to school last year, but I’m still so afraid for them! Can you help me find a way to convince my husband to let my children stay home where they are safe, rather than go to school, where they will learn nothing but how to become Worldly?

    • Natalie says:

      Dear Ashleigh,
      I am sorry, it would be very difficult to have to send my children away against my will and judgement. For your encouragement…I have seen many instances in which the husband thinks the children ought to be in school and after prayer and life circumstances, he has a heart change.
      If your husband is a reader, I would recommend:
      “When You Rise Up: A Covenantal Approach to Homeschooling”
      by R. C. Sproul Jr.
      I will pray for you!

  7. Claudia says:

    Going to get that book! Keep it up, Kelly!

  8. Sarah L says:

    Unfortunately many parents come to say how evil structured education is, because they do not give their children the education they deserve. Then when their children fall so far behind and frankly don’t know as much as they should, they seek to justify their education by saying how bad ‘the system’ is and they never needed it anyway. Lazy parenting should not use things like this as some kind of justification for neglect, and it’s so sad to see when it happens. A good home schooler can go far beyond anything a normal school can do, but the opposite can just as easily happen, it all depends on the parents.

    • There may be merit in your statement, Sarah, but Gatto, in the book I referenced, introduces a whole concept of education that we all, homeschooling advocates or formal school advocates, often miss.

      If a homeschooler is measuring his “success” by standardized test scores and similar measures, he’s missing the bigger picture that Gatto unravels in his book. You have to read it to comprehend the whole of what I’m trying to say, but it was a wake-up call to me just how brainwashed we are by what we *think* is a “good education.”

  9. Sarah L says:

    Don’t worry, I think what is said is right, I am just saying how it ends up being used and interpreted sometimes. Your post is very sharp, thanks

  10. Amanda says:

    I agree with Sarah’s comment–Kelly, your post is as always spot on. It think as homeschoolers who see our children’s education as stewardship of a profound gift from God, we do well to remember that as heinously flawed as our “education system” is, it was not always this way. I absolutely think it’s more important in the grand scheme that my kids grow to be great men of Godly character, with a genius for hard work and general ingenuity. But there was a time when boys (I have only boys at the moment so this is what’s on my mind these days) could do all those things…..AND read Latin and Greek and perform incredibly on advanced mathematics using only their heads. And at a very young age, while working in the family business. So I think it behooves us to remember even once we’ve recognized the fool’s gold of the public school’s “educational achievement”, Godly character development and say, chemistry? are not mutually exclusive. If anything, the first should bolster the second. I’m sure there are some who would say, Well, who says you “need” chemistry? Perhaps you don’t. BUT, sometimes I wonder if reality is that the home schooled student does need a basic foundation in chemistry (because, we all use chemistry, even if we’re just using soap) but the parent in the equation is intimidated by teaching a semester of chemistry–after all, their public school chemistry class in hs was poorly taught, they could never manage all that lab equipment, they “didn’t use” the chemistry they learned, most of what they did was irrelevant, and we don’t need to live under the tyranny of the public school paradigm, etc…. When what we homeschoolers NEED to do is take the final step of not living in reaction to the public education system and prayerfully considering, Lord, what does this child need to prepare him for the role You intend for him.
    Sorry for the long comment! I was home schooled until college and I’m now homeschooling my own children, so I’ve seen a very wide range of approaches over many years. This is something I’ve been mulling over myself lately.

    • Sarah L says:

      Indeed. An important part of homeschooling also is the parents ability to teach, to an extent. If parents can’t help with their children’s education enough, it’s the children who fall behind.

      • Sarah,

        It’s the comment, popular as it is, “the parents ability to teach” that reflects (in my opinion and Gatto’s) our flawed idea of what education is. Reading his book (which would make this discussion much easier) you would find that he explores the very real notion that people don’t need someone to teach them. Inspire them, lead them, show them, learn with them–yes, but they don’t need to be taught in the sense that we believe from our experience in school. This, he says, is one of the very problems–children who have had their own drive and curiosity removed from them by “experts” who tell them what they should do, when they should do it and how.

        You also allude to children who “fall behind” which is a phrase couched in a standardized mentality we would do well to lose. The idea is that for centuries, people learned to read and write and work with numbers quite on their own, and that basic knowledge allowed them to learn whatever it is they needed to, even if it was very different from what someone else needed to learn.

      • Amanda says:

        Regarding “parent’s ability to teach”, ABSOLUTELY could not disagree more. My mother had a degree in education, and left a public school teaching position to teach me and my siblings at home…where she will tell you, she very quickly had to ditch her public school teaching conventions. I graduated from high school with a tremendous education that, from the 7th grade on, she mostly just facilitated by providing me with materials. I spent two summers while still in high school, studying in Vienna Austria and speaking German, which NOBODY taught me. Nobody in my family speaks German. My parents’ teaching in this area consisted of spending money on materials. I read Latin, my mother does not. Now, if you want to state that the key to successful homeschool education is the parent’s facilitating of learning, then, yes. But the whole point of this post is the danger and WASTE that occur when we allow ourselves to be suckered in to the public school paradigm.

        • Parents as facilitators–yes, absolutely, amen. Just like they were when their babies started out learning the tremendously complex language of life around them. That ability to learn doesn’t stop.

    • I agree with your premise. But I think reading Gatto has made me come to believe that our idea of schooling and education, even as homeschoolers, is really off. He said this in another place:

      “It’s high time we looked backwards to regain an educational philosophy that works. One I like particularly well has been a favorite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching, as much, that is, as I can get away with given the present institution of compulsory schooling. I think it works just as well for poor children as for rich ones.

      At the core of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements to place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything?

      Right now we are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back, we need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance.”

  11. Marcia says:

    Here’s something to consider: my husband and I are both conventionally educated, and each possess undergraduate degrees, his from a public institution, mine from a Christian. Contrary to popular opinion here, we are not educated numbskulls! We are about to begin building our second home, and the first one hasn’t collapsed yet, either.
    As for vegetable gardening and dressmaking, those are wonderful skills to have and employ, if one so desires. They are not the benchmarks of holiness, however. I’m quite happy that as a senior engineer at a large firm (a position not to be had without a university degree and the proper qualifications) my husband makes enough for me to buy what we need.

    • Marcia,

      You are largely missing the meaning (and tone) of the post. Whenever an over-arching problem is discussed, it’s easy to have a reaction wherein we point to our individual successes as “proof” the point is null.

      I, too, have a college degree and while I don’t consider myself to be a numbskull either, I also see the wide problems of conventional schooling and the author’s concern.

      That doesn’t mean every person is incapable of doing important things. It means that *generally*, we incarcerate children far too many hours and too many years and keep them from pursuing lots of things that would better serve them, their families and the whole of society.

      It means well-rounded, life-efficient children growing up in today’s society and schools are the exception.

      • Guest says:

        I don’t know many highly paid engineers, like Marcia”s husband, who come from a relaxed homeschooling/no college background.

        I’ll bet most highly paid engineers, chemists, biologists, etc have had formal education starting at age six, in a classroom. There are exceptions , of course, but they are few.

        So there’s that to consider.

        • Again, the point is lost. A lot.

          There are several parts to your comment:

          First, “22 percent of the workers in science and engineering fields do not have a bachelor’s degree.”

          Also, for centuries, humanity has enjoyed and benefited from the inventions and designs of engineers who were autodidacts, before formal schooling. Formal schooling doesn’t create engineers.

          You can look here for a list of autodidacts in every field. (SUCH a fun, inspirational list.)

          Also, a person can most certainly pursue (successfully) a college degree if and when their career path requires it, as in the case of one interested in pursuing engineering or medicine. There are children all over the world who have been “unschooled” by their own definitions and gone on to college, some receiving very advanced degrees. Self-learning has demonstrated its strength for centuries, and continues to do so.

          I strongly encourage you and others who seem to be missing Gatto’s incredibly acute message, to read the book before commenting. These comments are even difficult to answer because they are but a sliver of the full picture.

          • Marcia says:

            “Workers in the science and engineering fields” is not the equivalent of “engineers.” At least half of those employed at my husband’s office fit into the first category, and are paid according to their skills. They are essential persons in the process, and I would never demean their contributions. However, only an engineer is an engineer, and the only way (at least here) to become an engineer is to attend an accredited university and pass the professional engineering exams.
            There have no doubt been autodidacts who made incredible discoveries and enriched our world. If you read the list to which you linked, you will see that the vast majority lived in a bygone era. Orville and Wilbur had a nifty invention, but with that alone, Boeing wouldn’t hire them to design today’s aircraft.

            • Guest says:

              And if there’s 22 percent don’t have a degree, that means 78 percent of them do have degrees. I want my kids on the right side of that equation.

              Even among those 22 percent, most probably studied advanced math in high school. I’d question how many were relaxed homeschoolers.

            • Rachel says:

              Perhaps the reason so many autodidacts were from a bygone era is because our current education system does not allow it. If students in our current school system try to learn on their own their efforts are squashed by teachers and administrators that “know better”. You can no longer have an original thought in education, you are told exactly what you must think, feel, and believe. If you do not agree with the teacher, you fail. College is no longer a place for intelligent discourse and discussion but instead a place to yo have your brain programmed to think just like your professor.

            • Marcia,

              You and “Guest” are assuming (a problem in part, having not read Gatto’s book and only seeing this one excerpt) that a whole approach to education eliminates the possibility of children becoming engineers or having careers in more specialized fields. It does not. With Gatto’s philosophy, a child excels in that which he is gifted, interested and motivated. For engineers, that’s about 5% of the workforce. But that 5%, rather than being inhibited by a more self-driven approach to education, will benefit from it.

              This concept is about allowing children to learn best how they learn best. For the engineering minds waiting to bloom, they will gravitate toward those interests and college will not be an obstacle. But most will not be engineers, so we make a grave mistake wasting their time in an attempt to rob them of pursuing the education they need.

              Your comments reveals much of the problem Gatto attempts to address: we can’t imagine education outside of the tiny box it’s in and we need to start.

        • Mrs. B says:

          Yes, college graduates like Steve Jobs–oh that’s right, he dropped out of college.
          Okay, how about Mark Zuckerberg–oh that’s right, he dropped out of college too.
          Sorry about that. Well, maybe Bill Gates–oh he didn’t finish either, did he?
          Well, I guess those guys just had to muddle through after they didn’t get their sheepskin from and accedited institution (at which they clearly found to be such a valuable experience that they couldn’t stand to continue their matriculation.)

          Oh, and note that there are a number of “millionaires” out there that really don’t “look the part.” (i.e. big house, fancy cars, designer clothes). In fact, that’s why their net worth can surpass $1million.

          • Mrs. B says:

            And yes, correction police, I meant to say “accredited.” As for any other mistakes, have at it. I’m too exhausted to do any more editing!

  12. Candace says:

    Just ordered the book. I put it on my wish list the last time you mentioned it, and then forgot about it. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks!

  13. Mrs. B says:

    Actually, Kelly, your point is not just valid, but frighteningly so.

    In the past few days CNN Mondy (yes, I know, CNN *ugh*) came out with a report showing that although the US average income is around $300K, the median income is actually around $45K. For all of our reputation of the American middle class as being wealthy, Austrailans actually do far better. You know why? Because of more widespread home OWNERSHIP “Down Under.”

    And—oh boy I’m about to get up on my soapbox about how if certain entities would allow Americans to keep more money in their pockets rather than “redistribute” it….oh boy! Let me stop before I end up typing all night long!!!

    • Mrs. B says:

      Before the correction police come along, let me edit the above. Where I said “income” I should have said “Net Worth” and the story was featured on the “CNN Money” site (and no, the “ugh” was not a typo!! :-) ).

  14. Erin says:

    I could identify with the 25 yr old in Mr. Gatto’s story. My entire skill set, which received much praise and awards in my youth, was truly limited to good grades, high standardized test scores and athletic success. The only thing during my high school and college years that really prepared me for life were my babysitting, waitressing and cleaning lady jobs! I am hoping to do better with my children.

  15. Patricia says:

    Appreciate the thought-provoking post. At the end of the day, it all comes down to balance. Learning one’s times tables is equally important as learning to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

    However, in our community academic achievement is emphasized at the expense of placing any value on basic life skills. The schools merely reflect what the community currently values, and have done away with all shop classes or anything else that is not strictly college prep. This model does not serve those who need another option.

    I have a son who is a three-dimensional thinker, and excels at that which will never be found on a standardized test. We homeschool him with sound academics, but also provide room to build boats, geocache, and just have some time to ponder the universe.

    I think Gatto is trying to point out that we would do well to evaluate our own preconceived notions of what education really means in order to develop an entire human being, not just a walking cerebrum.

    • Well said, Patricia.

      Some read this (the problem with only including an excerpt when Gatto gives us much broader picture in his book) and think he advocates only life skills with no learning. He’s urging us to see how easy and beneficial it is to learn within a “whole life” context, where times tables and lots of other important stuff comes naturally and connects to what matters in life, instead of being forced to memorize facts in a classroom one quickly forgets because he’s been snatched from the connection of real life.

  16. victoria says:

    The comments made here by some that you have to have a college degree to work at any of the top fields in science simply aren’t true. My father in-law has 80 patents to his name as a scientist for one of the top companies in the country. He never had a degree of any kind, but is a great inventor and able to think outside the box unlike many of the college boys in his field.

  17. Amanda says:

    I would propose that the the reason so many of those top-rung professional positions in the scientific community are perceived to “require” college degrees is simply that so many of them are being handed out. The fact that they are able, in this day and age, to find 22%’s worth of people who do NOT have these degrees–regardless of their worth or ability–actually surprises me in itself. People have these degrees NOT because they cannot have the profession without them, but because holding those degrees is just a typical stepping stone. TYPICAL, common, not the only route.

    Now, do I want the person operating on my brain to have a degree? YES. But let’s not deceive ourselves, we wouldn’t really want every person with a degree that says they’ve qualified to operate on our brain to do so.

  18. Carolina says:

    I believe that in Japan they teach some very practical things in school. I did not learn many of those except some sewing.

  19. love, LOVE, LOVE this post and, while I’m sure it’s frustrating, Kelly, I am so glad you have the platform (and are using it) to address the widely-believed myth that School – especially “higher education” is the key to success and happiness. We have been sold a bill of goods – a self-perpetuating bill of goods!

  20. Random google search for homeschooling+encouragement…
    Came across your blog and this post has spoken life to my heart!

    Thank you for posting and sharing this book, I am going to buy it immediately!!!

  21. Tiffany says:

    I needed this! And I am so happy I opened that email with this post in it. I have been tossing around the idea of homeschool and I am scared to death the my kids won’t be smart enough if I choose to. Any advice?

    • Tiffany,

      My advice is to first start reading all about homeschooling. On this side of the coin, I’m afraid my kids “won’t be smart enough” if I choose to put them in school. ;-) It’s all a matter of how we’ve been persuaded to think about schooling. My best, super-quick advice (from a Christian perspective of course) is that our main concern can not be with “how smart they are.” That’s secondary. Our main concern needs to be with discipling their hearts and building relationships with them and growing them in wisdom. The academics come easier after that and without those things first, the academics won’t even matter.

      But suffice it to say, many parents homeschool their children precisely because they have higher academic standards. (I strongly suggest you read the book I suggested in this post.)

    • Tiffany,

      I also found this article that I loved, “One Hour a Day Homeschooling”, from parents who have kids in top colleges (because that’s important to so many)…http://www.homeschool.com/advisors/james/default.asp

  22. MARY HUGHETT says:

    Hi I absolutely agree with this post! so many people think our children have to be formally educated and miss our children’s gifts and what the Father gave them to use for HIM! We are in a world where everything has to be done for us and including our children.They need to figure things out and have time to think and be who they are created to be instead of what society thinks they should be! That’s a reason why we homeschool to get them out of this pattern of thinking!
    blessings!
    mary

  23. Heidi says:

    I agree with what you have said in your post. I must admit that I am sometimes lazy in implementing these ideas in my own home. It is actually quite simpler to stay in the box and have my children do X-amount of pages in each subject and then send them off to play when they’ve completed what’s required. I often get caught up in teaching the books and by the time the “real life” learning comes around, I’m tired.
    We have recently joined Classical Conversations and it has been life changing in our home. We get our academic learning completed quite quickly and then we are free to explore and area of interest in more depth. (for example: last school year the children were quite enthralled with idea of the French aristocrats being beheaded which led to them learning quite a lot about the French Revolution and why it is important that we help those less fortunate than ourselves and not be wasteful with what we are given.)This has also allowed me to be less stressed with the workload that comes with homeschooling multiple young children and therefore generates more willingness to teach my children basic life skills.

    And really, if I’m being honest, the biggest reason I did not attend college was the fact that I knew I would be wasting a huge amount of time and money learning things that did not pertain to what I really wanted to do. But they were required because I’m sure that knowing things like geometry & algebra 2 had so much to do with childhood speech pathology.

  24. Carrie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. We’ve been looking for a more relaxed option in our homeschooling. Just so tricky to figure out how to change things sometimes. I definitely relate to the difficulty of having a degree in education and having to let go of the typical model to make things work in real life. The areas where we have just learned together in a more organic way have definitely been more long-lasting. The things they are interested in will come up in conversation over and over again. Their education builds spontaneously this way with very little effort on my part. We’ve homeschooled for 12 years, but it’s now becoming more obvious that the relaxed days where we “take a break” and go to the library, park, etc., seem to be MUCH BETTER education-wise than a lot of the other things we do.

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