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We Need Experience More Than We Need Algebra
By John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto invented his “guerilla curriculum” in order to help his students in the New York City public school system get an education in spite of school. After he quit teaching, he used it to encourage kids and everyone else to learn by experience.

We Need Experience More Than We Need Algebra

The most profound structural change you must prepare for from conventional schooling to a guerrilla curriculum is the changeover from memory-driven classroom/blackboard instruction, the type customarily evaluated by grades and tests, into performance-driven instruction that can be evaluated concretely through practical demonstrations of skill.

Modern schooling is virtually experience-free. Its victims are widely known for their inability to do anything practical, or to possess even fundamental useful knowledge such as food production skills, or distances between major population centers, or the relation of principal nations to one another, or the history and nature of important institutions.

Experience-light individuals have been avoided throughout history for dangerous innocence and awful lack of self-insight; it appears impossible to comprehend large abstractions like “democracy” and “justice” without the feedback of actual experience with their counterparts in operation.

What we are as individuals – and the fascination we hold for other people as friends and even as employees – depends upon our stock of experiences. When you reflect on how much of our learning comes from emulation, from imitating people we watch, it’s easy to see how popular wisdom like “you are known by the company you keep” has developed. It also isn’t hard to see how limited opportunities for emulation are for the inexperienced. Google the locution “mirror neurons” to discover a possible physiological mechanism for its value.

Think about these parameters of education:

  • Educated people have the ability to use time to good purpose.
  • Educated people come to terms with their own mortality; they understand and accept death.
  • Educated people reflect upon the past, including and, especially, the personal past – mining it lifelong for insights.
  • Educated people possess healthy self-esteem based on reality, not wish.
  • Educated people are broadly knowledgeable about many different cultures, eschewing stereotypes.
  • Educated people are actively curious about new ideas.
  • Educated people discover truth by analyzing and judging evidence, not by accepting the unanalyzed conclusions of others, even experts; learning to argue with statements of authorities is, historically, a famous mark to recognize the educated from the ignorant.
  • Educated people know how to make a living by meeting the needs of others as employees and entrepreneurs and associates.
  • Educated people don’t confuse money with happiness, but recognize that curiosity, courage, empathy, and love provide much of the satisfactions in good lives…and they are free, too.
  • Educated people identify themselves by actively seeking variety in their lives.

It’s easier to get to these places through action than by being lectured; indeed, the quest to do so can be exciting and rewarding, even creating some thrilling moments in your life, as it did in mine.

Here is a resource list of experiences that I required in my own guerrilla curriculum. Treat them as a real assignment. Do them in any order that suits – each has equal value as a vehicle for skill-learning. Trust your judgment in deciding which skills to use. They are action exercises as motivators as you measure progress toward traditional academic aims (which you shall achieve this way, don’t doubt it). Our over-reliance on experts for this in the past hasn’t helped much, has it?

The gulf, worldwide in all periods of history, between elite education for the children of important people and common schooling for ordinary kids hinges on the degree and quality of experience that is available. Elites have always built children’s upbringing around communicating practical skills and significant awarenesses instead of memorizing lists of data – a past we need to reclaim.

In light of a near-universal realization that this is so, the consistency with which experience is denied poor children approaches the shocking – to me it seems a type of class warfare! Global elites have generally scorned childishness for their own; the more important the family, usually, the more certain it will be to discover grown-up competencies and attitudes/interests among its young, while the touchstone among common clay is exactly the reverse. Be advised in your own interests.

So examine this partial list of action-curriculum with great care. Then do it! Do it all!

  1. Visit the wholesale food markets for your city/region. Find out procedures to shop there as a customer. Do you need licenses?
  2. Interview somebody over ninety years old about their life and opinions about topics of current interest. Ask them to discuss the greatest differences.
  3. Interview someone under seven in the same fashion.
  4. Plant a little tree; care for it for three years; keep notes on its progress and setbacks.
  5. Attend someone else’s place of worship. Make comparisons to your own.
  6. Follow the trash from your home, step by step, from its origin to its final resting place.
  7. Track your water supply to its source; diagram its route.
  8. Sleep out-of-doors under the stars all by yourself for two consecutive nights.
  9. Follow your electricity to its source.
  10. Apprentice yourself for one day to your mother.
  11. Do the same for your father.
  12. And for a neighbor or a stranger.
  13. Grow enough vegetables for one meal. Cook and eat it.
  14. Do some research, then visit the five most prosperous businesses in your area; observe them externally for a day, then attempt to be given an internal tour. Take notes.
  15. Ask ten strangers of all backgrounds to recommend one book. With help from others, collect these in one place and read them.
  16. Spend a full day all by yourself in a wild place.
  17. Research/take lessons in method acting. Spend a day as a different sex.
  18. Kill and clean a small animal. Cook and eat it. Don’t skip this one!
  19. Catch and clean/cook a fish. Eat it the same hour.
  20. Remain silent, unspeaking, for a full day.
  21. Select a book on a topic for which you have no interest. Read it in a single sitting cover to cover.
  22. Watch three TV shows for which you have no interest. Take notes.
  23. Pick a daily newspaper. Read every single word. Underline as you read.
  24. At your supermarket, select twenty packaged food items at random. Calculate how many miles they traveled from point-of-origin to reach you.
  25. Analyze the components of friendship. Write three hundred words on the subject. Read your essay aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to yourself; figure out how to improve your performance. Do so.
  26. Volunteer to tutor reading or math in elementary school, first grade.
  27. Sell home-made fudge on the street. Create advertising signs for your table.
  28. Walk ten full miles to a place you never were.
  29. Bicycle fifty miles, at least, to a new place.
  30. Struggle to repair a damaged relationship.
  31. Build something from the beginning – a wall, a box, a simple shelter.
  32. Change the motor oil in the family car; also the fan belt and windshield wipers.

© John Taylor Gatto 2012. John Taylor Gatto was New York State Teacher of the Year prior to resigning from teaching because he didn’t want to do any more harm to children. He is the author of a number of books, including the best-selling “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” “The Underground History of American Education” and “Weapons of Mass Instruction.”  He died in 2018.

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