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14 Teaching Principles of Elite, Private Schools

John Taylor Gatto, widely known for his excellence in teaching, tells us what elite, private boarding schools have that public schools for the most part don't have.

1) Theory of human nature. No one should graduate without a theory of human nature. What makes people tick? What buttons do you press to get what you want from people? This knowledge comes from history, philosophy, theology, literature and law. These five “mighty agencies” have a wealth of information of what human beings are like now, have been like, and probably always will be like.

2) Skill in the active literacies. Every graduate should have strong experience with active literacies, which are writing and public speaking. It’s useless to convince anyone else of your point of view unless you can write well and speak well. Extremely easy to teach. Offer regular opportunities to speak to a group of strangers, from one to two to an auditorium full. The fact that they’re people that you’re not comfortable with is essential.

To write well, just write constantly and regularly, preferably every day.

3) Insight into the major institutional forms, such as courts, corporations, military and education, including details of the ideas which drive them. The only way to arrive at the approximation of truth is through argument. The more skillful the argument on all sides the better the proximity to truth. U.S. was world’s first laboratory of dissent on the part of everybody.

4) Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness. Politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances and access to places that you might want to go.

All public schools that Gatto has been to, and he’s been to hundreds, have been laboratories of rudeness, cruelty, sloppiness and coarseness.

5) Independent work. In public schools the teacher fills up 80-90 percent of the time. In private schools that ratio ideally is reversed.

6) Energetic physical sports are the only way to confer grace on the human presence. That grace transfers to power and money later on. [Really!? How?!] They teach you practice in handling pain and dealing with emergencies.

7) A complete theory of access to any workplace or any person. The child is better off with the challenge of getting a private meeting with the mayor of LA than reading a civics textbook. Let him work for a year on constructing access to the mayor, CEOs, or other people that he or she wants or needs to communicate with directly.

8) Responsibility. Includes washing dishes. In elite private boarding schools it includes such things as taking care of a horse, taking on some important community service, to go for leadership in clubs (much easier than you think because if the club is actually doing anything it’s a lot of hard work to be the leader and very few people want that). Always to grab for responsibility when it’s offered and always to deliver more than is asked for.

9) Arrival at a personal code of standards in behavior, production and morality. These must be checked regularly.

10) To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the master creations in music, painting, dance, sculpture, design, architecture, literature and drama. To be at ease with the arts because apart from religion, they are the only way to transcend the animal materiality [sic] of our lives.

11) The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately. It used to be an axiom among the British upper class that if you couldn’t draw something accurately from memory, then you didn’t see what was there. Drawing wasn’t a way to kill time, but a way to sharpen the perception.

12) The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts. (Gatto’s favorite) Don't give up when [figuratively] knocked down. Get back up, keep going in spite of what may be multiple setbacks.

13) A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions. Listening to a few hours of government propaganda about how Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is another Hitler as a reason to send in U.S. troops and start a war is not an intelligent way to come to a conclusion, even though that's what 80-90 percent of Americans do.

14) The constant development and testing of judgment: you make judgments, you discriminate value, and then you follow up and keep an eye on your predictions to see how far skewed from what actually occurs, or, on the other hand, how consistent with what transpires, things are.