Tag Archives: John Taylor Gatto

What Do Posh Schools Teach Their Kids?


There is a perennial debate that goes on in education circles about what education is for, is it about education for its own sake or is it about creating a workforce? Is it about teaching the best that has been thought and said or is this impossible to ascertain because certain knowledge has been privileged by class, gender, sexuality and colonial discourses in the past and therefore it has distorted our ability to see quality beyond its relationship to power? I think that this is a debate worth having. In a piece in the Times this week Dominic Maxwell suggested that a boy at Eton would see over thirty plays a year performed by his peers. Was old Etonian Eddie Redmaye a product of an elite education that enabled him to be one of the best actors in his generation?

  • What is the elite, do we have an elite, should we have an elite?
  • Does the elite use knowledge, skills and practices which can exclude others allowing it to retain an aura of cultural superiority?
  • Is some knowledge elitist or intrinsically middle/upper class or is it just given that tag by being valued by the elite?
  • Are the elite educated in a way that contributes to them and their families continuing to be the elite?
  • If they are, is the ‘elite’ method of education worth teaching to everyone?
  • If we teach it to everyone what effect would that have on the elite and on everyone else, in other words ‘will we all be members of ‘the elite” (sic)?
  • All of which needs to be framed by another question: does education reflect or shape society?

Cultural and social capital are interesting ideas and in societies, where class divisions are marked, differences can be seen easily. Do these differences have value, are some practices and products inherently superior to others or are they given the kudos of ‘high culture’ because they have been co-opted by a certain class? In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold awarded the aristocratic class the nomenclature: ‘barbarians’, the middle class he called: ‘philistines’ and the working class: ‘populace’. All three classes, Arnold suggested, were marked by their bathos, an inability to respond to judgement, facts and taste. Culture, if you will. This then becomes the reason to teach the best that has been thought and said, and to introduce sweetness and light allowing people to become their ‘best selves’. An idea of all of us trying to become our ‘best selves’ is an interesting one and perhaps education has a role to play in this? Becoming our best self is different to ‘social mobility’, to be mobile socially we might have to adopt the cultural practices of the class we wish to become. Being our best self might mean celebrating the class from which we are a part at its very best, or might it mean valuing culture beyond its class baggage and seeing it and enjoying it on its own terms, the beautiful, the difficult and the sublime. This baggage is not just about cultural product, it also encompasses behaviour, an idea of what a life well lived might encompass, and an intrinsic knowledge about what is valuable.

What is the most valuable education we can give our kids and is this the education they get in the ‘poshest’ schools? In order to explore this I would like to take an American perspective:

After teaching for thirty years in New York state schools John Taylor Gatto resigned and has since dedicated his time to writing about and talking about education. His bestselling book ‘Dumbing us Down‘ is an excoriating attack on public (i.e. state) schools. In the book he writes that these schools confuse children, make them accept their ‘class’, make them indifferent, encourage emotional and intellectual dependency, have a need for constant affirmation by experts, and accept they can never hide from surveillance. Politically Gatto is a libertarian and appeals to people of right and left in varying degrees, his work is interesting, challenging, maddening, bonkers and thoughtful in equal measure. One piece of work of his I particularly like is his survey of the elite boarding schools in America. What is in their DNA, what is it that they do that is not done in American public schools? Gatto says there are fourteen themes that are “universal” in these schools and whether he is right or wrong about this I do not know. However, this might be an interesting conversation to have in the context of our ‘elite’ schools either private or state, but I doubt it. More interesting would be a conversation about whether we should be teaching these things or some of these things and what else could we add to the list. Gatto’s fourteen themes are:

  1. A theory of human nature (as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law). He believes these schools teach a wealth of information on humanity, now and in the past in order to inform the future.
  2. Skill in the active literacies (writing, public speaking). Write and speak well. Rhetoric. He says this communicating well is not a God given gift and can be easily taught through regular opportunities to speak in front of strangers and constant practice by writing every day. He thinks these skills will be picked up by doing and that expert intervention can come at some point later.
  3. Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education). The ideas that drive them, with the crucial insight that argument is the way to truth and dissent is central to our way of life.
  4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go. Not just common sense, as he has been in many ‘public’ schools where coarseness is an everyday part of the experience.
  5. Independent work: Child does more on their own than directed by the teacher. Gatto puts a, probably random, ratio to this: 80%-20% independent work vs teacher directed work. I think we need to be aware that this ‘independent’ work is carried out within the institution of a boarding school.
  6. Energetic physical sports are not a luxury, or a way to “blow off steam,” but they are absolutely the only way to confer grace on the human presence.
  7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person. Get your kids to do this, he says, get them to think they can and work out how to access people and places they need to or want to.
  8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for. Washing dishes, care for a horse, do community service, leadership in clubs,
  9. Check regularly: Arrival at a personal code of standards (in production, behaviour and morality).
  10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts. (cultural capital) High culture, the best that has been thought and said and done. Transcending the animal materiality of our lives.
  11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately. The British upper classes used to think if you couldn’t draw something accurately you didn’t perceive it properly
  12. His favourite: The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts. Are we natural cowards until we have challenges, get knocked down and stand up again.
  13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions. Scepticism.
  14. Constant development and testing of judgements, with follow ups so that you can discriminate value and keep an eye on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

Is there any element of truth in this I wonder? If there is, does it equate to the education context in the UK? What should we do about it? Or if class is purely a function of economics do we allow the philistines and barbarians to dominate the cultural landscape, giving value to art purely in financial terms and allow them to feed the populace cheaper ‘mass’ entertainment whilst all bypass taste because either it doesn’t exist or because we are all so badly educated that we have no idea what it is?

I’m just throwing out the questions…