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What You Are Supposed to Learn in School, p1
John Taylor Gatto and the American Education System
John Taylor Gatto was a controversial American author and educator, known for his critiques of compulsory schooling and his advocacy for reform in the education system. Born on December 15, 1935, in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Gatto pursued a career in teaching after a diverse range of jobs, including advertising and real estate.
Gatto's career in education spanned nearly 30 years, during which he worked in the New York City public school system. His experience as a teacher in some of the city's most challenging schools informed his perspective on the state of American education. Gatto became increasingly disillusioned with the compulsory school system, which he believed stifled creativity and independent thinking in favor of conformity and obedience.
His outspoken views and innovative teaching methods earned him recognition, including the New York City Teacher of the Year award, which he won multiple times, and the New York State Teacher of the Year award in 1991. However, these accolades did not deter him from his critical stance. In 1991, Gatto resigned from teaching in a public op-ed, declaring that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living."
Gatto then devoted himself to writing and speaking about educational reform. His most famous work, "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling," published in 1992, argues that the education system is designed to create a population of compliant and non-thinking individuals. He followed this with other influential books, including "The Underground History of American Education" and "Weapons of Mass Instruction," further elaborating on his critiques and offering alternatives to the traditional schooling model.
Gatto's work has been influential in homeschooling and unschooling movements, and he is often cited by advocates of alternative education methods. He believed in fostering an environment where children could pursue their interests and learn in a more natural and individualized manner.
John Taylor Gatto passed away on October 25, 2018, but his legacy continues to influence discussions around education reform and the role of schooling in society. His ideas challenge conventional views on education and encourage a reevaluation of how learning and knowledge are approached in modern society.
I’ve encountered snippets of his thought over the years especially with the work that I did in amending the Georgia Constitution to permit Charter Schools and then working to get a Charter School launched in my hometown. I didn’t have kids in school at that point, though, and so his ideas were novel and interesting but I didn’t internalize them.
I came across a series of YouTube interviews last month, though, and have been heads down on digesting his ideas on education and trying to apply them to the choices and challenges my kids face today. If you’d like to follow me on the deep dive, check out the interview (about 5 hours long) on YouTube here.
I won’t summarize the videos here, that’s the work you should do if you’re interested. I will, however, tease out some of the most important points he makes as I’m working them to my own framework of understanding.
It’s also important to note that his ideas will be vastly uncomfortable to many. First, his ultimate conclusion will hit you hard since you are a product of the system he lays bare. Second, as with any historian of intellectual thought, there is a tendency to associate the historian with the subject of his history, and the temptation is alive here. For example, Gatto’s analysis of Prussian educational influence and its culmination in Hitler’s Third Reich, the early industrial barons, and the American Academy can almost sound like an endorsement of the principles if you are hearing the message over the messenger. Finally, there are some of the Far Right that sees Gatto’s logic, assumes his allegiance to Far Right principles, and claims him as a intellectual standard-bearer for their beliefs, a claim without merit, in my opinion.
Bid ideas challenge small minds, and this work is no different.
“For the first twenty-five years of my life, I wanted freedom. For the next twenty-five years, I wanted order. For the next twenty-five years, I realized that order is freedom.”
As a historian of American education, Gatto traces the intellectual underpinnings that led American educators to make the decisions they did to produce the system they did. These decisions were not linear and constructed along a conspiracy theorist’s supposed template of world domination by the ruling class, but neither did they happen in vacuum. Our education system was designed in the 19th Century, the product of prevailing thoughts of why and how a populace should be education and more importantly what they should do with their education.
Let’s look the easiest evidence, in broad strokes. The world economy was overwhelmingly agrarian in the 19th century. The struggle of civilization was to feed itself and to do that you needed man hours at work on the farm. Without a high degree of mechanization, that meant using all hands, regardless of other pursuits to participate in the planting, maintenance and harvest of the crops. Why do our school bells ring at 8:00, because the sun comes up at 5:30 and that’s enough time to milk the cows before starting the day. Why do we let out at 3:00? Because that leaves enough time to do the chores before the sun sets. Why do we go to school 9 months a year? Because there are plantings and harvesting to be made during the summer months that require all hands on deck. Don’t you find it interesting that now, 2 centuries later, we are still clocking the same hours even though most of us have only ever visited a farm, not worked on one? Ideas persist where constraints no longer exist.
Other factors influence our schooling as well. When I attended St. Peters, Oxford, we didn’t have classes, we had individual tutorial sessions. You were assigned a tutor for a subject you were pursuing. He gave you an overwhelming amount of reading and asked you to make sense of it into a 3-4 page paper, which you would meet to discuss and critique, maybe with another student or two. In America, though, we couldn’t spare a large subset of the population to pursue solely intellectual pursuits, and so we built a system where one teacher would teach many students, regardless of the individual students abilities. It’s still that way, today, despite us having the ability to make the change to a more one-on-one system of education. Ideas persist where constraints no longer exist.
Finally, education is compulsory and free in this country. Americans assume this is the case everywhere. Ret and I went to Kenya this year and were suprised to find that the poorest people we had ever met dedicated the majority of their resources to “school fees” of about $800 per year per child. If you didn’t want to send your child to school, there was no law or agency that would force you to do so. In 19th Century America, in the urban centers, it was noted that children would be unsupervised during the day as their parents worked long hours and a place was needed to keep them out of the streets and focused on learning what it meant to be an American. Today people no longer work 14 hour days, and daycare isn’t needed in the same way. Ideas persist where constraints no longer exist.
Gatto saw (and reacted to) the challenges in an education system no longer tied to the exigencies of contemporary life. In seeing the product of that system, he began to seek its roots. Finding those roots and questioning them critically radicalized his thinking and led him to some unorthodox conclusions.
“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him and let him know that you trust him.”
—Booker T. Washington