Discover more from Plant Your Flag with Trey Taylor
What you supposed to learn in School, p3
John Taylor Gatto and the American Education System
John Taylor Gatto was a famous iconoclast in the American Education system, but he didn’t start out that way. He actually conned his way into his first teaching job by stealing his roommate’s teacher ID for a substitute teaching position to earn money for rent in New York City. He fell in love with what he found there and set about becoming a legitimate teacher in his own right. He did the job with much love and caring, but having missed the indoctrination of what education was supposed to be, he just went with what he thought it should be.
Once when he noticed a student drawing comic books instead of listening to lectures, he snuck the kid to the New York Public library so that he could study the proper form of comics, how they should be drawn, and what other literature he could read to better inform his stories. Another time, he encouraged a kid who could think of nothing but becoming an Olympic swimmer as her way out of the grinding poverty of Harlem, to map all of the public pools with salient data points in the City. New York magazine tried to buy the data and use it under another’s byline. He encouraged her to take the money and she refused saying “You showed me how I could make what was mine be mine. Why would I sell that for something like money?”
The kids loved him, they loved his teaching style, they loved the dignity he imparted to them all the while ruthlessly departing from the assigned curriculum, for which he received much grief. He came up through the public system and began to see with growing unease the hidden structure behind that system. When he resigned, in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, he said he no longer wanted to be paid for hurting kids. Then he wrote the best-selling “Dumbing Us Down” in which he outlined the 7 lessons taught in the public school system in this country.
As with other parts of this series, this may trigger some readers because of the truth it points to. Other will say “I’m a product of the public school system and I turned out just fine.” That’s an argument against the general whereby you use yourself as proof against a general statement and it’s not logically valid. Just because you were lucky enough to escape these insidious lessons, doesn’t mean that they aren’t being taught.
Gatto saw them taught. He saw the result of them being learned and it anguished his soul. With each further year he began to see that these weren’t taught by accident, but they were taught by some sinister design in schools from Harlem to Honolulu. Then he broke out and exposed the lessons, and what he shows us is chilling, because we recognize them. We’ve heard them. We’ve been forced to accept them, as individuals and as a society. Many of the ideas are self-referencing, and the overlap serves to double the lesson.
Truth comes from authority. Students are taught upon matriculation to the educational establishment that truth is defined by those in authority. Any questioning of that truth that doesn’t eventually capitulate to the authority behind it will be ridiculed and shamed, and then punished, and eventually expunged. The authority — the textbook, the teacher, and the standardized test — and your conformity to its demands without question determines your success in school. The best grades are achieved by those who can discern what the teacher wants to hear, how she wants it presented, and how to fake the grade to get the grade. If this is your educational experience, you are being prepared for a life of compliance rather than being encouraged to grow your critical thinking skills.
The Importance of Conformity. Gatto argues that schools teach children to conform rather than to embrace individuality. This is done through rigid schedules, strict rules, and a focus on standardized testing, which stifles creativity and independent thought, and leads to reinforcing the first rule the the only way to an answer is the way the authority wants the answer. Thinking back on your own high-school years, you can instantly recall how many kids fell into the “go along to get along” group who succeeded if not excelled, and how many were ostracized as “non-conformists.” The importance of conformity was reinforced in every important social situation.
Conditional Self-Esteem. Schools encourage students to base their self-worth on external validation like grades and praise from authority figures, rather than developing intrinsic self-esteem. Little gold stars, who gets to lead the line to recess, which kid gets to knock the erasers after class — these are all subtle signs of self-esteem being bestowed by the ones assigning the work. Keep the boss happy and you’ll feel good about yourself. Don't forget that when you get a job, kids.
Emotional Dependency. Conditional self-esteem allows schools to go on to foster emotional dependency, as children learn to seek the approval and direction of teachers and peers. The lack of emotional independence — the idea that my feelings are something apart from me, and dependent on my reaction to outside stimuli, not something which comes from other people’s opinions of me — inhibit the development of emotional autonomy. It perfectly sets kids up to become adults who need constant external validation that what they are feeling is right and in step with others. This is one of the precursors for mass media to exist in its present form.
Intellectual Dependency. Learning new things is hard. In doing so, Students are taught to be dependent on teachers for knowledge and intellectual validation. If you think like I think, then you’ll get the emotional validation you crave. Discouraging independent thought and the pursuit of personal intellectual interests is a hallmark of the system. How many Valedictorians do you know who were paragons of intellectual independence?
Provisional Self-Worth. A student's worth is always conditional on performance, leading to a constant pursuit of external rewards and recognition. This works beautifully in training a class of workers for whom the provision of a salary, a meaningless job title, a small raise for work well done, a gold watch at the end of it all, become the constituents of Self-worth instead of Aristotle’s definition of success as life well lived.
Indifference. By being forced to learn about subjects in which they may have little interest and even less personal aptitude, students learn to be indifferent to their own education and the broader world around them. In doing this, kids are taught that there are things too big for their minds to worry about. Those subjects are better left to those — those others — who are better able to comprehend and manage them.
It’s harsh stuff, I know. Gatto's critique is not just an indictment of schools but a call for a fundamental rethinking of how society educates its young people. He advocates for educational approaches that respect individuality, foster curiosity, and encourage critical thinking and self-reliance. He thinks he finds many of those in the private school system, to which we turn next.