29th Aug 2007

John Taylor Gatto on Libraries

As it turns out, it’s Gatto, not Holt, who has the library analogy.

by John Taylor Gatto

“Begin with the setting and social arrangement of a library. The ones
I’ve visited all over the country invariably are comfortable and
quiet, places where you can read rather than just pretend to read. How
important this silence is. Schools are never silent. People of all
ages work side by side in libraries, not just a pack of age-segregated
kids. For some reason, libraries do not segregate by age nor do they
presume to segregate readers by questionable tests of reading ability.
Just as the people who decoded the secrets of farming or of the
forests and oceans were not segregated by age or test scores, the
library seems to have intuited that common human judgment is adequate
to most learning decisions.

The librarian doesn’t tell me what to read, doesn’t tell me the
sequence of reading I have to follow, doesn’t grade my reading.
Librarians act as if they trust their customers. The librarian lets me
ask my own questions and helps me when I need help, not when the
library decides I need it. If I feel like reading in the same place
all day long, that seems to be OK with the library. It doesn’t tell me
to stop reading at regular 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 on how I should use my time spent
outside of the library.

The library doesn’t have a tracking system. Everyone is mixed together
there, and no private files exist detailing my past victories and
defeats as a patron. If the books I want are available, I get them by
requesting them – even if that deprives some more gifted reader, who
comes a minute later. The library doesn’t presume to determine which
of us is more qualified to read that book; it doesn’t play favorites.
It is a very class-blind, talent-blind place, appropriately reflecting
our historic political ideals in a way that puts schools to shame.

The public library isn’t into public humiliation the way schools seem
to be. It never posts ranked lists of good and bad readers for all to
see. Presumably it considers good reading its own reward, not
requiring additional accolades, and it has resisted the temptation to
hold up good reading as a moral goad to bad readers. One of the
strangest differences between libraries and schools, in New York City
at least, is that you almost never see a kid behaving badly in a
library or waving a gun there – even though bad kids have exactly the
same access to libraries as good kids do. Bad kids seem to respect
libraries, a curious phenomenon which may well be an unconscious
response to the automatic respect libraries bestow blindly on
everyone. Even people who don’t like to read like libraries from time
to time; in fact, they are such generally wonderful places I wonder
why we haven’t made them compulsory – and all alike, of course, too.

Here’s another angle to consider: the library never makes predictions
about my general future based on my past reading habits, nor does it
hint that my days will be happier if I read Shakespeare rather than
Barbara Cartland. The library tolerates eccentric reading habits
because it realizes that free men and women are often very eccentric.

And finally, the library has real books, not schoolbooks. Its volumes
are not written by collective pens or picked by politically correct
screening committees. Real books conform only to the private
curriculum of each writer, not to the invisible curriculum of some
German collective agenda. The one exception to this is children’s
books – but no sensible child ever reads those things, so the damage
from them is minimal.

Real books are deeply subversive of collectivization. They are the
best known way to escape herd behavior, because they are vehicles
transporting their reader into deep caverns of absolute solitude where
nobody else can visit: No two people ever read the same great book.
Real books disgust the totalitarian mind because they generate
uncontrollable mental growth – and it cannot be monitored!
Television has entered the classroom because it is a collective
mechanism and, as such, much superior to textbooks; similarly, slides,
audio tapes, group games, and so on meet the need to collectivize,
which is a central purpose of mass schooling. This is the famous
“socialization” that schools do so well. Schoolbooks, on the other
hand, are paper tools that reinforce school routines of close-order
drill, public mythology, endless surveillance, global ranking, and
constant intimidation.

That’s what the questions at the end of chapters are designed to do,
to bring you back to a reality in which you are subordinate. Nobody
really expects you to answer those questions, not even the teacher;
they work their harm solely by being there. That is their genius.
Schoolbooks are a crowd-control device. Only the very innocent and
well-schooled see any difference between good ones and bad ones; both
kinds do the same work. In that respect they are much like television
programming, the function of which, as a plug in narcotic, is
infinitely more powerful than any trivial differences between good
programs and bad.

Real books educate, schoolbooks school, and thus libraries and library
policies are a major clue to the reform of American schooling. When
you take the free will and solitude out of education it becomes
schooling. You can’t have it both ways.”

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