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Thoughts on Gatto, pt. 4 – dependency September 12, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary, teaching, Uncategorized.
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At some point during my undergrad career, I contemplated switching to a math major. It’s a long story, but when I was considering it, I went to talk with my minor advisor. Thankfully, he talked me out of switching, but in the process, he made the comment that, “I was awfully dependent on my teachers for information.” He elaborated by saying that I will first go to a teacher to ask a question rather than trying to find the answer through other means, such as different books. I realized at that point that I was simply doing what had always been acceptable before, and it hadn’t really occurred to me to not rely on my teachers.

(I’m really glad he told me that, by the way.)

This is because of the lessons of emotional and intellectual dependency that are so common in schools. I think this one is probably the most pernicious. It takes the form of people assuming kids won’t learn anything unless they are being given grades. They also learn that everything important must come out of a textbook.

These are hard issues to fight. Helicopter parents are the same kind of problem: kids aren’t capable of doing things, kids need adults to make decisions for them. But what happens when those kids become adults without ever having made a decision for themselves?

They will depend on others to continue to tell them what to do, what’s right and wrong, what they should think.

The only real cure for this, in my opinion, is reading. Preferably voraciously. Get as many viewpoints as you can. Learn to study things on your own. Learn not to take everything at face value.

There’s the saying that one should only believe half of what they hear, and that wisdom is knowing which half to believe. I think it’s also important to understand one’s limitations as well as the fact that they are often more limited than they think. People who don’t know their limitations don’t have a healthy respect for intellectual authority, while people who operate far below their limits seem to give authority too much weight. (Wrap your opinion in an American flag, and someone is bound to believe it!)

On the other hand, this flies in the face of how the educational system works: teachers don’t like being questioned. When on my forays into literature on giftedness, one primary theme is that gifted children are often not recognized as such because they question authority or refuse to comply with teacher’s requests when they don’t see a logical reason for it. They are less likely to be compliant and more likely to question rules and assumptions about how classrooms operate. Because of this, they are also less likely to be recognized as intellectually gifted and more likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder.

I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. The public school system does not tolerate people who question rules, and this has pretty profound implications for how our society functions.

As a teacher, this one is almost impossible to get around. I know that one part of the problem is grades. But the system is designed to work for adults, so it must therefore evaluate children. It is not designed to give children a love of learning. There are undoubtedly teachers who have done that, and I would venture to guess that those teachers are also the ones who have children who progress far above expectations. (Thus I don’t see the two goals a mutually exclusive, but it definitely comes down in favor of adults.)

It also means encouraging kids to think for themselves, to question, and to basically do all the things that tend to make teachers feel threatened. Not many teachers are comfortable with that.



1. Chris Gammell - September 13, 2010

Ok, I know how obvious it is that I love Calvin and Hobbes, but your point about genius not being understood by teachers because they question authority made my mind immediately jump to this:

I teared up a little the first time I saw that.


2. Fluxor - September 13, 2010

I certainly agree with this. Although I think the system plays an important role, by far the largest influence on kids are the front line service deliverers — the teacher and the parents. Both must work in harmony for optimal results. This is also why I think there should be more choice than a one-size-fits all school system. I think it’s critical for parents to go and interview the teachers that will be influencing their children, to understand their points of view and then to decide whether it fits their philosophy and their child’s temperament/abilities. If not, move on.

So while I’m in full support of publicly funding education, I’m not in full support of a government monopoly in delivering this service.


3. FrauTech - September 13, 2010

Well a good teacher, same as a good parent, can get students to start thinking on their own. It’s natural to ask someone in authority because up until a certain age you don’t get to “research” things and there isn’t much nuance to what you are taught. I.e, there is a fixed way to spell words, you don’t get to develop your own spellings. Arithmetic works in a fixed way, answers are absolute. So at the time when we are teaching critical thinking, it’s important a teacher or parent says “how about you research/read/look into that and then we’ll talk about what you think” rather than giving a straight answer. I agree being a voracious reader is an EXCELLENT way to develop these skills.

When I chose my first major in college I went entirely on my own aspirations/interests. My parents and other people in my life might have expressed reservations but I did not listen to them. You are happy you listened to your advisor, so I’d still argue it’s important to go to and listen to “authority figures” in our lives, when that person is more experienced. It’s just important to distinguish who to go to and why professors/parents may not be a good choice for every question when there are many other intelligent people in our lives.


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