If you’re unfamiliar with the late John Taylor Gatto, and you have children, seek him out—his books, his videos, and his blog, at JohnTaylorGatto.com. You’ll want to hear what he had to say.
Gatto was a New York City school teacher. His 30-year career teaching in Manhattan, in both the most advantaged neighborhoods and the least, garnered him the city’s Teacher of the Year award not once but three times in 1989, 1990, and 1991. He was also named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.
That same year, he issued his resignation. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled, “I Quit, I Think,” he announced his intentions explaining, “I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.”
After that, Gatto devoted his energies to blowing the whistle on what he called “compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling” and empowering parents to take back control of their children’s education.
He wrote a number of books including: “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” “Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling,” and “The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling.” He traveled the world lecturing to thousands. Before his passing in 2018, he was working on a documentary film.
Gatto’s insights into what modern schooling is really like, the motives behind its strategies, and how children actually become educated drive a spear through the myth that public school exists for the good of students. What he describes of his personal experiences teaching middle school English, and what he reveals in his deep dives into how our modern school system came to be will make you rethink what you thought you knew about school. Indeed, what he came to realize was that the school system was harming the children it purportedly served.
As he put it in the prologue to “Weapons of Mass Instruction”: “After 30 years in a public school classroom serving this creature, when I quit teaching in 1991 I promised myself I would bear witness to what I had seen and, forgive me, done. This book is my way of keeping that promise.”
Schooling Versus Education
In his books and lectures, Gatto drew a stark distinction between “schooling” and “education.”
In a local television feature on Gatto entitled, “Classrooms of the Heart,” Gatto explained, “I don’t teach the kids that education is bad. I say that schooling’s bad. Education is a personal thing. You develop your powers of singularity to the utmost.”
“But schooling,” he continued, “is not an education. Schooling is an attempt to write the one right way for everybody. And in that sense, it’s an evil thing because there are infinite variations in humanity.”
“Dumbing Us Down” includes the text of Gatto’s acceptance remarks upon receiving the New York State Teacher of the Year award. He boldly began, “The license I have certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English; I teach school—and I win awards doing it.”
He went on to outline what teaching “school” entails, and it’s not at all the reading, writing, and arithmetic one might guess. Instead, Gatto said there are seven lessons that all schoolteachers impart, whether or not they realize it. To anyone who has gone through the public school system, they sound disturbingly familiar, even if never laid out in this way before. To anyone holding faith in the school system for their children, they are terrifying.
Some of the lessons of school, according to Gatto, are confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, and provisional self-esteem.
“The first lesson I teach is confusion,” Gatto said. He pointed to the disjointed array of subjects, irregular interruptions in the day, and the chaotic sequencing of information disseminated as if its purpose was to confuse rather than educate. “Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything,” he continued.
Real education, he argued, is a search for meaning. “Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning.”
“The second lesson I teach is class position. I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong.”
Here Gatto referred to the stifling labels students are given and the academic tracks they are assigned, such as gifted, remedial, or otherwise. Once given a label, it’s hard to shake. “If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes,” Gatto said.
“The third lesson I teach is indifference,” Gatto said. “I teach children not to care too much about anything.”
Gatto spoke of the effects of the school bell constantly cutting off any effort and forcing students to briskly move onto the next subject. “The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do.”
“The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency,” he said. “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command.”
The fifth lesson Gatto deemed the most important lesson of all. “The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.”
He spoke of the faceless “experts” who decree what is to be studied and how it is to be studied—in fact, what to make the children think.
“We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do,” he said.
Finally, Gatto highlighted the detrimental effects of the grading system students are subject to. Regarding this system, he said, “Some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records.”
The consequences for the child, however, are great. “A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into a student’s home to elicit approval or mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with the child a parent should be,” Gatto said.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he summed up his realization of what he has actually been teaching. Gatto lamented, “I’ve come slowly to understand what it is I really teach: A curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency. I teach how to fit into a world I don’t want to live in.”
Hope for Parents
While his revelations are disturbing, or perhaps a confirmation of what had been suspected all along, they are also enlightening for anyone who has gone through the public school system and felt cheated by it. What’s more, they offer hope and courage to parents who are hesitant to follow the status quo.
Gatto has inspired many parents to rescue their children from the inept school system he portrayed. Many have chosen to homeschool instead. In homeschool circles, he’s often viewed as a hero.
He offers hope for all parents, even if homeschooling is not an option for them, by empowering them with information and an understanding of how school and education truly work.
In “Dumbing Us Down,” he wrote:
“Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology—all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid.
“Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone; they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired, quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more important life, and they can.”
More Relevant Than Ever
Though it has been almost 30 years since Gatto penned his resignation announcement to the world, his message is more relevant than ever before.
The good news is that options for families are becoming increasingly abundant. While reforming the current school system may not be a realistic or worthwhile goal for most parents, reforming one’s family’s approach to school is easier than ever.
The key is seeing each child as the individual he or she is and allowing him or her to seek out the genius that lies within. Gatto said, “After a long life, and 30 years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”