John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System

By Scott London — August 20, 2011

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto’s career as a school teacher began in 1965 when he borrowed his roommate’s teaching license and began working as a per diem substitute in New York City. He went on to become the city’s Teacher of the Year three years in a row and then New York State Teacher of the Year. But Gatto didn’t care for being in the public spotlight, and he ended his teaching career in 1991 with a now famous resignation letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

In the letter, he criticized the public school system for teaching what he called “a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency.”

Since then, Gatto has traveled across the country talking about the need to overhaul America’s public education system. He’s also written numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.

He’s a strong advocate of homeschooling. His books left a profound impression on me and were a key influence in my decision to homeschool my own kids.

On one of his visits to California, I sat down with him to talk about the trouble with America’s schools. We spoke at length about his experiences as a school teacher. I was especially curious to know how his students managed to win New York State’s essay contest year after year. His answer surprised me but also revealed an essential truth about our public education system.

“A girl came to me early on in my teaching career,” Gatto said. “She wanted to enter a congressman’s essay contest. I don’t know if she wanted to win a trip to Washington or a gold star. ‘Why are you wasting your time chasing these prizes?’ I asked her. ‘There are so many worthwhile things to do.’ But she pressed the point. So I said I would help her. I couldn’t promise that she would win, but I could guarantee that she would be in the finals.”

“How could you guarantee that?” I asked. “After all, there were some fifty schools in the running for the prize.”

“Here’s what I told her,” he continued. “‘You have to follow my instructions to the letter, and it’s going to be a lot of work for you. I want you to take a week off from school. I’ll cover for you. I want you to research the congressman’s career from the beginning. I want to know what college he went to, his earliest public speeches, and what he is famous for. He’s going to give this award to somebody who agrees with him. And no one your age will be able to agree with him other than in some generic fashion. But you are going to agree with everything he said at the time when he was class president in 3rd grade. You’re going to research this man and find out what his hot-buttons are.’”

The Trouble With America's Schools

“Isn’t that a rather cynical way to go about it,” I protested.

“If that sounds cynical, Scott, let me tell you that’s as idealistic an enterprise as I can think of,” he shot back. “It’s showing people how to pull the screen back and see for themselves how the system really works.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What happened?”

“Well, she did in fact win the trip to Washington (or whatever it was he was giving away). And a couple of her friends won second and third place. My students did this year after year. My kids were the valedictorians of the school. Our school gives the valedictorian prize not for the highest average but for the best speech.”

“What did you tell your kids about giving good speeches?” I asked.

“I said, first of all, that we would have to practice giving speeches in the auditorium, because they don’t want to pick someone for valedictorian who is going to embarrass them by freezing up on stage. So I got a key from the custodian — he was Irish, so it took three bottles of whiskey — and we made a master so that we could do all our practicing in the auditorium. Then I told them they had to know exactly what the committee believed. The committee was made up of a social studies teacher, a science teacher, and the principal. They had gone on record many times about who they were and what they believed. I said to the kids, “you’re going to say in your speech that who they are is the best of all, that’s how you’re going to be valedictorian.’”

Gatto registered the concerned look on my face. “Well,” he added, “you don’t actually believe that anyone in charge of giving a prize could give it to someone who contradicts their dearest, most cherished beliefs, do you? It would be madness.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with him. And, in fact, what he said opened my eyes to an essential truth about awards and honors — that oftentimes they are given to those who express or exemplify what the award-givers themselves most fervently believe.

What Gatto was telling me — and who can deny the truth of it? — is that awards say more about the people who give honors than it does about those who receive them. This is a subject I want to come back to in future post.

For more on John Taylor Gatto, go to Wikipedia or his official website.

Extraordinary Women

By Scott London — August 1, 2011

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

His question was not easy to answer. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights they lead you to. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they were all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  ”I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

Tweets and Retweets

By Scott London — July 23, 2011

Scott London on Twitter

Here’s a handful of recent Twitter entries on random subjects like kindness, grievances, consensus, and the limits of humility. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter here.

  • The trouble with opinions is that they drive wedges between people. Stories unite, opinions divide.
  • I look forward to the day when journalists, producers and filmmakers describe themselves not as independent but as interdependent.
  • Technological advances have to proceed in step with social advances or they lead to recklessness and misery.
  • I shudder every time I hear someone say that the iPad, and other devices like it, allow us “to consume content.”
  • Sooner or later we come to recognize that most of our problems in life are tied to grievances we simply refuse to let go.
  • The only change that matters in the end is the kind that starts with me.
  • Sometimes a loving act may be perceived as unloving — refusing to commiserate, for example.
  • I think consensus is better to strive for than to attain.
  • I used to say “I don’t know” a lot. Humility is good, right? Then a wise friend told me: “Stop pretending you don’t know and live your truth.”
  • Why do we know more at 25 than we do at 50? Because it takes half a lifetime to fully confront our own ignorance.
  • We don’t need our kindnesses returned, we need them passed on.
  • Gratitude is the highest form of devotion.

Becoming an Adult in Relationships

By Scott London — June 15, 2011

David Richo and Scott London

“New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything,” wrote Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient.

It’s a bittersweet fact of life — and a recurring theme in literature, film and the arts — that we start out reckless and clumsy in matters of the heart. Learning how to love and be loved takes time and the process is often a painstaking one.

For psychotherapist and author David Richo, the process can hold the key to inner healing and transformation. He makes this point in his bestselling book, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

Relationships are a journey, he says. They test us, they prod us, they give us a chance for self-reflection and growth. Approaching them with maturity, patience, and a sense of selflessness creates a new paradigm for embracing the inevitability of their ups and downs.

In the fall of 2010, I sat down with him to explore this idea and what it takes — in the most practical terms — to develop mature and lasting relationships. Filmmaker Russ Spencer has crafted our conversation into a standalone interview now available on DVD through Depth Video.

The interview is described as “a thoughtful and nuanced two-hour discussion rich with clarity and inspiration,” one that “offers couples, or anyone experiencing the difficulties that relationships inevitably bring, a trusted advisor through the turbulence.”

You can order a copy directly from the Depth Video website, or through Amazon.com. Here’s the trailer:

Things Are Not As They Seem

By Scott London — June 7, 2011

Huston SmithSome years ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Huston Smith, the distinguished philosopher of religion. Over a period of two months, we met for a series of interviews covering fascinating subjects like the troubled relationship between science and spirituality, the rise of fundamentalism, the common threads at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions, and some of the surprising insights about human consciousness coming out of psychedelic research. The interviews aired on public radio stations nationwide a while back, and I’m now editing them for print.

Huston Smith has had a profound influence on me. He introduced to me the idea that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He refers to it as the “primordial tradition” or “perennial philosophy.”

I had encountered the idea of the perennial philosophy from Aldous Huxley (his book by that name is one I keep at my bedside), but I never realized the extent to which people of various mystical traditions shared a common vision. I found that deeply thought-provoking, and more than a little inspiring.

This outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, Smith says, with a single notable exception: the modern West. Our contemporary Western worldview differs from what might otherwise be called “the human unanimity,” as he calls it, because of an unfortunate “misreading” of science.

In several of his books, he shows how science presumes to be the authoritative way of establishing truth, yet ultimately reveals only partial truths. Strictly speaking, Smith says, a scientific worldview is a contradiction in terms since the world science deals with is one limited to space, time, matter/energy, and mathematics. “Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen.”

The triumphs of modern science have blinded us to the fact that it is an inherently restricted form of knowing, that what can be measured empirically is not exhaustive of reality, that there are other higher domains that can be apprehended only through contemplation, intuition, and inner experience.

According to Smith, this latter idea stands at the center of all the great wisdom traditions, from Taoism to Vedanta, Zen to Sufism, Neoplatonism to Confucianism. The primordial tradition views reality as hierarchically ordered, consisting of at least three realms: earth, human, and celestial, correlated with body, mind, and spirit.

This suggests, in effect, that 1) things are not as they seem, 2) that the other-than-the-seeing represents infinitely “more,” 3) that this more cannot be known in ordinary ways, 4) that it can, however, be known in ways appropriate to it, 5) that these appropriate ways require cultivation, and 6) that they require tools or practices. (For more on this last point, please see my post on Spiritual Practice.)

Smith has helped me recognize that the best hope for Western culture is not to go back to some idealized past, but to retrieve a more expanded and timeless view of reality, to recover a lost dimension of human understanding. In his words, we need “to reknit the rich coherence of a fully human consciousness which the cramped and aggressive rationality of modernity has bruised so badly.”

For more on Huston Smith, please see my review of his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind

Living Cities

By Scott London — May 16, 2011

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, a city that is often ranked as one of the most pleasant and liveable places in the world. When I moved to the U.S. in my mid-20s, I was surprised to discover that the American city was a place of distress and decay. People seemed desperate to get out of their cities and into suburbs.

One survey I read showed that, given a choice, 9 out of 10 Americans would prefer to live outside the city.

It struck me as odd that in the world’s most powerful nation — a marvel of technological progress, industrial ingenuity, and economic strength — cities had become infested with crime, homelessness, and pollution.

So I began to look at urban areas elsewhere in the world to understand what makes a great living city. I talked with visionary architects and urban planners. And I studied some of the key features of thriving cities and towns.

I share some of what I learned in a recent six-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. I’m one of a number of talking heads on the program discussing the essential characteristics of a “living city.” Here are some highlights from the series: Living Cities.

Stay tuned for more on the subject in the weeks and months ahead.

Burning Man Photography

By Scott London — April 20, 2011

Burning Man 2010

One of my most rewarding creative projects has been photographing the Burning Man festival each year, something I’ve been doing since 2004. Over the years, I’ve built up a rather extensive portfolio of images from the event. Some of them appear in a new book, in several recent magazine spreads, and as part of an upcoming exhibit at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Rachel Bowditch’s book On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man, recently published by the University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books, includes several of my photos from the festival. Bowditch is a theater director, performer, and longtime Burning Man participant who teaches at Arizona State University.

In the book, she makes the case that Burning Man can be seen as a contemporary galaxy of happenings, a revival of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a site for rehearsals of utopia, and a secular pilgrimage. As the festival continues to grow, she says, it’s likely to create new paradigms for performance, installation art, community, and invented rituals that bridge ancient traditions to the twenty-first century.

A recent issue of the French magazine Folie Douce (published in both French and English) features ten of my photographs, along with an essay, on Burning Man. The festival is described as “an artistic utopia that is more than a little out there.” The text is a bit goofy, and not entirely accurate, but I was very happy with the selection and layout of the photos.

I also have two images from Burning Man in a recent issue of Vanity Fair and a double-spread in a forthcoming issue of Marie Claire. Other magazines featuring photos from the event include Elle Décor and Aïshti. In addition, my photos are included in a new 2011 calendar and commemorative photo book, recently published by the Burning Man organization. For more information, visit the Burning Man Marketplace.

You’ll find my image “Lovers” on the cover of the Summer 2010 issue of Common Ground. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with the magazine. The editors featured about a dozen of my photos in a retrospective from Burning Man 2009 last fall, as well as a portrait of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey in the Summer 2009 issue.

I’m excited to have a number of my photographs included in a special exhibition called “Living” opening next month at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. More details on the museum’s website: www.louisiana.dk

Finally, if you haven’t seen Creative Holly’s wonderful color blog, you’re in for a treat. Holly is a graphic designer with a great eye for color. For a recent post, she asked me to pick out five of my favorite shades of Burning Man and to say a few words about each one. I sampled the colors from some of my more popular Burning Man images. It was an honor and a kick to be a part of her project.

Creative Holly Color

Update, July 5, 2011:

My photo of the fabulous Jesster Canucklehead appears on the cover of Common Ground magazine this month. The summer issue features a preview of Burning Man 2011, along with a lovely photoessay from Ales Prikryl.

You can view the complete issue online at: http://www.sopdigitaledition.com/commonground/

More than a dozen of my photos also appear in the current issue of The Outlook Magazine, China’s leading culture and lifestyle publication. You won’t be able to glean much from the article unless you happen to read Chinese, but you can always enjoy the photos. Go to: http://www.theoutlookmagazine.com/3202/

Educating For Democracy

By Scott London — April 11, 2011

Does it make sense for higher education to be talking about questions of citizenship and democracy at a time when many colleges and universities are grappling with more pressing issues, such as soaring tuition rates, underpaid faculty, and steep budget cuts?

Some months ago, I put this question to a handful of academic leaders. In light of all the talk about community outreach, service learning, and civic engagement on our campuses, it seemed to me like a worthwhile line of inquiry.

I spoke with Thomas Ehrlich (a senior scholar the the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University), George Mehaffy (vice president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and director of their American Democracy Project), Beverly Hogan (president of Tougaloo College), Martín Carcasson (professor of communications and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation), and David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation, as well as former president of the University of Alabama).

What I learned surprised me. At a time when many colleges and universities are cutting back and shifting their priorities to presumably more pressing demands, a growing number of institutions are working to build and strengthen democracy from the ground up. As they explained to me, these schools are going beyond conventional definitions of civic engagement — civics courses, leadership development, service-learning programs, community-based research, etc. — by actually working directly with communities on hands-on, collaborative problem-solving. Students themselves are usually a key part of the equation.

As part of my research for a study on innovative academic centers, I also interviewed several educators who are doing this kind of community-building work, including Alberto Olivas (director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona), Larkin Dudley (assistant professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Center for Public Administration and Policy), and Joni Doherty (director of the New England Center for Civic Life at Franklin Pierce University).

With production help from Amy Lee, Derek Barker and others at the Kettering Foundation, my roundtable discussion and excerpts from the interviews have now been edited into a 30-minute program. You can listen to it here (link below). The show will be made available to public radio stations around the country in coming weeks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Power of Informal Networks

By Scott London — March 26, 2011

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

These words by anthropologist Margaret Mead are famous for good reason. They capture an essential truth about social change: it begins in the most unassuming contexts — in small groups of people who share a common passion, who come together after work, on weekends, or over lunch, and who devote their talents and energies to bringing about change.

I recently wrapped up a year-long research project for the Harwood Institute where I studied these informal networks at some depth. I looked at citizen groups in four communities across the country to learn how they come into being, the nature of their conversations, how they change and evolve over time, and the outcomes, both tangible and intangible, of their activities.

What I learned was both heartening and humbling — heartening because I found that informal circles can be powerful agents of change, just as Margaret Mead observed, and humbling because the dynamics of small groups challenge our conventional way of thinking about change.

I found that the purposes of informal groups were usually quite modest — to compare notes, share information, and explore ideas. But when they came together with passion and a sense of common purpose, they were able to do magnificent things.

A crucial finding of the study was that unlike formal organizations, informal networks are not instruments of action, at least not in the traditional sense. They serve a more basic function. They provide spaces for learning, sources of affirmation and support, and contexts for the emergence of new ideas and possibilities for action.

When groups that have been meeting informally are ready to mobilize and take action, they either adopt a formal structure or they take their ideas and plans back into existing organizations to make something happen.

In their efforts to create change, many groups rush too quickly to formalize their activities. While launching a new program or organization can give them an air of legitimacy, access to resources, and other tangible benefits, it can also choke off the innovation and creativity needed to really make a difference.

What people need in order to be effective are informal settings where they can find each other, share ideas, and discover common ground. They need spaces where they can receive support and be acknowledged as public actors. And they need contexts for imagining and acting from an awakened sense of possibility.

The trouble, of course, is there aren’t a lot of venues in public life where people can do that in an open and authentic way. All too often, community processes are organized around issues to be confronted and problems to be solved, not possibilities that can be lived into.

The research suggests that it’s time to engage in a different conversation, one about what we aspire to, what we imagine, and what we can create together. Strategizing about how to make change happen is important, but the conversations have to be rooted in something more basic — the animating purpose of the work.

Informal groups provide settings where people can openly explore that and connect with others who are treading the same path and working toward similar ends.

“Truthfulness, honor, is not something that springs ablaze of itself,” the poet Adrienne Rich once observed. “It has to be created between people.” The same might be said about work carried out on behalf of the common good. The impulse to innovate, to build, and to renew our communities does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be kindled through meaningful interactions and mutual discovery.

Please contact me for more information about the informal networks study or a copy of the report.

A Peace Prize for Julian Assange?

By Scott London — March 22, 2011

In late January, a few days before the nomination deadline for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, I was contacted by an AFP reporter asking if I had any idea who might be nominated this year. I told him I’d heard a few rumors and seen some buzz online about a few potential nominees. But none of them seemed especially noteworthy, I said. By way of speculation, I added that a nomination for Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, seemed likely.

When the story appeared a few days later I was quoted in it, saying that if Assange were to get the prize, it wouldn’t be the first time a whistleblower had been honored. Even so, I said, “the notion that his actions have in some way promoted ‘fraternity among nations’ (to invoke the famous line in Alfred Nobel’s will) would be far-fetched, if not altogether inaccurate. It might be truer to say that he has undermined that fraternity by creating a culture of anxiety and suspicion in international affairs, especially between countries in volatile regions like the Middle East.”

The story appeared in a few places here and there. (See “Nobel Peace Prize nomination for WikiLeaks founder?”) Then, some days later, news broke that Snorre Valen, a young member of the Norwegian parliament, had officially nominated Assange for the 2011 award. Suddenly news outlets the world over jumped on the story, saying that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were now officially in the running for the world’s most prestigious prize.

My line in the AFP story about WikiLeaks “undermining” fraternity among nations by stirring up anxiety and suspicion suddenly generated lots of attention. I must confess that it was more than a little strange to see my name cited in newspapers like the Financial Times and journals like Foreign Policy appearing to come out against Julian Assange, someone I happen to respect and admire.

What was perhaps most unsettling was how quickly WikiLeaks supporters tracked me down and unleashed verbal assaults via e-mail. I was taken to task for being in favor of censorship and state secrets, for failing to support freedom of information, and for being on the side of those who wish to attack and silence Julian Assange. Of course, none of those things are true, but never mind. It seems you can’t be too careful about what you say in the press or online, because not only is it on the record for the rest of time, but people may quote it whenever they wish, in or out of context.

Death Valley

By Scott London — March 1, 2011

I’m back from a short trip to Death Valley, a favorite getaway, a place I love to go to quiet the nerves and tame the ego. The place has that effect because it makes you feel inconsequential, helpless, and out of place. It also happens to be a place of spellbinding beauty. Here are a handful of photos from the trip.

Death Valley Road

In some parts of Death Valley, you feel as if you have the whole place all to yourself.

Zabriski Point in Death Valley

The play of sun and shadow at Zabriski Point is mesmerizing.

Palms at Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is an otherworldy oasis in the heart of Death Valley.

Badwater Under Stormy Skies

Badwater was bone dry this year.

Racetrack Playa

One of the curious moving rocks at Racetrack Playa.

Eureka Sand Dunes

It was my first time at the Eureka Sand Dunes, a magnificent place where time seems to stand still.

Scott

Here I am climbing one of the Eureka dunes. (Photo by D.H.)

Turning Outward

By Scott London — February 11, 2011

A few years ago, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant conducted an interesting survey of nonprofit organizations to understand what makes them successful. Unlike for-profit organizations, which measure their success according to the bottom line, nonprofits judge their effectiveness based largely on social impact. What can we learn from high-impact nonprofits?

Over the course of four years, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant looked at 12 organizations: Second Harvest, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, City Year, Environmental Defense, The Exploratorium, Habitat for Humanity, the Heritage Foundation, National Council of La Raza, Self-Help, Share Our Strength, Teach for America, and YouthBuild USA. Collectively, these nonprofits have influenced corporations to adopt sustainable business practices and mobilized citizens to act on a wide range of issues, including hunger, education reform, and the environment.

The authors found that becoming a high-impact nonprofit wasn’t simply a matter of building a successful organization and then scaling it up site by site. Rather, it was by working with and through organizations and individuals outside themselves that they were able to achieve real impact. Creating change and lasting impact could not be done just by focusing within, in other words. To have real impact, organizations had to turn outward.

In practical terms, this suggests that the best nonprofits are able to mobilize various sectors of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to become a “force for good.” Greatness, by this standard, is measured by how well an organization is able to work outside its own boundaries and focus its energies on catalyzing large-scale change.

The book is well-written and makes for fascinating reading. I have a fuller review of it here: