Star Teacher Fights to End Mass Schooling

John Taylor Gatto taught in the public schools for 26 years. New York City named him teacher of the year three times. New York state did in 1991. Then he did what no one expected. He quit.

The Wall Street Journal published Gatto’s anguished, open resignation as an op-ed piece. “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…If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.”

(Gatto achieved stunning success by following a teaching philosophy of “re-integrating students into a larger human reality.” He clashed with one school’s administration after another, upset at his refusal to bow to the standard curriculum.)

“There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints,” writes Gatto.

Gatto spent the next 20 years writing four books on education and traveling “over a million and a half miles in all fifty states and seven foreign countries” as a public speaker, until he suffered a stroke in 2011. He still actively blogs.

In his 1992 book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto identifies seven major consequences of schooling on children.

  1. It confuses the students. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information children need to memorize to stay in school. They soon forget information not needed to pass a test or class.
  2. It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.
  3. It makes them indifferent.
  4. It makes them emotionally dependent.
  5. It makes them intellectually dependent.
  6. It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).
  7. It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.

(A courageous high school valedictorian speaks out against mass schooling. She explains how she feels no smarter than her classmates, just more dutiful at obeying and more motivated to chase grades. She thanks a dissident teacher who inspired her to question everything, think for herself, learn and discover for their own sake.)

Yet many would argue that compulsory schooling is nevertheless essential for the sake of equality. Even the poorest and most disadvantaged deserve a minimum standard of education, after all.

Gatto disagrees. In his 2001 book, The Underground History of Modern Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling, he points to widespread literacy well before the advent of compulsory US schooling in the mid to late 1800s.

Twenty percent of the colonial population bought Thomas Paine’s 48 page essay on American independence from Britain, Common Sense, in the first year of its 1776 publication. That is the equivalent of a 60 million best seller today. While it’s true that many didn’t read it themselves, but simply heard it read aloud in taverns, the complexity of the writing and thought would make it accessable only for those with the highest levels of comprehension. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 13 percent of today’s adult Americans qualify as “proficient,” NAAL’s highest literacy standard.

It’s hard to imagine such readings in a typical American tavern in 2016.

An account from the January, 1828 Journal of Education, mentions how “a newspaper is the daily fare of almost every meal in almost every family” and that “there is no country, (it is often said), where the means of intelligence are so generally enjoyed by all ranks and where knowledge is so generally diffused among the lower orders of the community, as in our own.” Sheldon Richman quotes data showing a rise American male literacy from 60 to 90 percent between 1650 and 1795. He also provides evidence that Massachusetts was an amazing 98 percent literate when it mandated compulsory education in 1852. Literacy there is about 91 percent today.

Gatto also points out how education for American elites bears little resemblence to lower and middle class education.

(Gatto discusses the 14 principles his research shows all elite private boarding schools emphasize.)

While today’s American public school students increasingly memorize to pass standardized tests and then mostly forget, Gatto discovered elite boarding schools develop very different skills – broad cultural literacy, reasoning power, leadership and independence. Here are the 14 universal principles he discovered:

  1. A theory of human nature as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law. What makes people tick and how to effectively influence them.
  2. Skill in the active literacies of writing and public speaking.
  3. Insight into the major institutional forms – courts, corporations, military, education.
  4. Repeated exercises in good manners and politeness, since politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships and alliances.
  5. Independent work.
  6. Energetic physical sports as the only way to confer grace on the human presence. That this grace translates into power and money later on. And that sports teach how to handle pain and deal with emergencies.
  7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person.
  8. Responsibility as utterly essential. Always to grab responsibility when it is offered. And always to deliver more than is asked for.
  9. Arrival at a personal code of standards in production, behavior and morality.
  10. Cultural capital – to be familiar and at ease with the fine arts.
  11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, drawing accurately to sharpen perception.
  12. Coping effectively with challenges of all sorts.
  13. Caution when reasoning to conclusions.
  14. The constant development and testing of prior judgements.

Of course, most would agree that laws and social attitudes, common in previous centuries, discouraging literacy and education for certain classes of people – Blacks, women, immigrants – were appalling. Yet if compulsory education were intended as an egalitarian solution, why then the huge gulf between public education and what the very rich, powerful and influential teach their kids?

(Gatto explains the six functions of modern schooling, as written in 1918 by Harvard professor Alexander James Inglis. The goal was to create adults who thought like children and were thus easier for government and industry to manage.)

“School was to be a surgical incision by which the class-based management theories of England were to be inserted to interdict the liberty tradition.” – John Tayor Gatto

The Roots of Modern American Schooling Lie in Militarist 19th Century Prussia.

The foundation of modern schooling in the US and most other countries lies in early 19th century Prussia. In 1806, Napolean defeated Prussia, a state that took pride in its military’s discipline. Prussia’s ruling class was horrified and intent on never allowing such a humiliation again. In 1808, under French occupation, Prussian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte demanded a new form of education that molded students’ personalities.

“Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished.” – Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Such students would never run from a battle or disobey an order, he explained.

Fichte is considered the spiritual father of Nazism.

Fichte, the Brothers Grimm and others also saw education as a tool to create a unified, German national identity based on shared culture. A uniform education for all children might inculcate shared cultural values. At the time, there was no German cultural identity. Germans considered themselves Prussian, Austrian, Bavarian, or belonging to one of hundreds of other small principalities. Each had different laws, different traditions, different dialects.

Prussia imposed the new model. It was a stunning success. By 1870, it had helped unify Germany with a national identity under Prussian leadership.

For the first time in modern history, students were compelled by the force of law to attend school. They were segregated by age, put into rows of desks and forced to sit quietly as an instructor indoctrinated them with a uniform state-approved curriculum. They were there not to actively engage, much less question, but to memorize and regurgitate. They were told what to think about and when. They were isolated and set against each other in competition for the approval of the teacher in authority. Obedience was rewarded. Non-conformity of any kind met with ostracism and punishment. The model stratified the students into lifelong career courses – those who didn’t measure up were doomed to a life of exclusion from positions of any stature. It reinforced class identification. Only the wealthy could afford to move past eight years of basic schooling. And that was required for an elite career.

(An activist discusses the Prussian model and its dangers for America.)

Horace Mann, as head of the newly created Massachussetts Board of Education, visited Prussia in 1843 to investigate its educational model. He was so impressed he made it his life’s work to bring it to every corner of the United States. His first of many successes was in Massachussetts, 1852. Mann is considered the father of American education.

“The state is the father of the child.” – Horace Mann

Horace Mann.

Horace Mann.

Free, state-provided non-sectarian education had wide public appeal in the mid-1800s. Government subsidized schools already existed in many places. New York, for example, had instituted common schools before 1840. Yet non-sectarian really meant non-Catholic. The hope was that poor Catholic families would take advantage of the subsidized schools. According to professor Phillip Hamburger, “the ostensibly nonsectarian schools of (New York) had some broadly Protestant, even if not narrowly sectarian, characteristics …. (The) schools required children to read the King James Bible and to use textbooks in which Catholics were condemned as deceitful, bigoted and intolerant.” Catholics resisted the schools and established a parallel system of parochial schools in response.

Horace Mann’s ideal of “non-sectarianism,” in practice, meant non-sectarian Protestantism as well.

Factory Schooling: Guilded Age Industrialists Tailor the Prussian Model to Serve Industry.

John D. Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller.

(A history of the Rockefeller family, how they grew their wealth and, to a great extent, commandeered the course of American education in the 20th century and beyond.)

In 1902, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller established the General Education Board with a then staggering $180 million endowment. Its ostensibly “philanthropic” purpose was to conquer the minds of the American public. Not to develop thoughtful, critical, creative individuals capable of great accomplishments, but to turn them into compliant employees and consumers useful to industry. Lovingly, and for their own good, of course. And, more importantly, for the good of society. Other industrialists joined Rockefeller in showering their wealth into educational “philanthropy.”

A short tract from 1913, The Country School of Tomorrow, laid out Rockefeller’s plan for American education:

“In our dream, we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds; and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply.”

Public schooling still clings to this factory model. Bells ring at the beginning and end of classes much like a factory whistle. School buildings are typically designed to look like factories. Top down management, seperation from the community, standardized testing and efficiency are emphasized.

Is Unschooling the Solution? Some Final Thoughts from John Taylor Gatto.

(Gatto explores the ludicrous assumptions behind government schooling.)

“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.” – John Taylor Gatto

So what should parents do?

The system is broken and the reasons are clear. A dialogue needs to begin with the recognition of that basic fact. Gatto is one of many critical voices, not all in agreement, that need finally to be heard.

Gatto thinks the educational system cannot be reformed. Its goals are inimical to those of any loving parent who wants the best future for their children. Especially in the computer and internet age that values critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. He doesn’t subscribe to any one-size-fits-all solutions.

That’s why the unschooling movement, inspired largely by Gatto’s critiques, is a perfect fit. Parents offer support and guidance, but trust their kids to learn in their own unique way. Who is to say, argue unschoolers, that one particular age (or grade level) is appropriate for every child to learn a particular skill?

Unschooling is rooted in the idea that children are naturally inquisitive. “Why is the sky blue?” Why do birds fly?” Parents often tire of a young child’s endless questions. Schooling destroys that love of learning, according to unschooling advocates.

Gatto puts it well.

“If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only 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.”

(A half hour interview with John Taylor Gatto.)

Image sources:


Non-contextually linked sources:

I quit, I think

Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today?

Episode 310 – How Big Oil Conquered The World

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