John Taylor Gatto

Here’s someone I’m sure I’ll be talking about frequently on this blog. His name is John Taylor Gatto. I first came across him in a 2009 documentary by Cevin Soling called The War On Kids. I was showing it as source material for an essay about education in my argumentative writing class.

I liked him so much I looked him up online and found his book, The Underground History Of American Education. It’s a must read folks. It’s alarming. As part of the book’s prologue, he includes the resignation letter he wrote as an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

I’ve taught public school for 26 years but I just can’t do it anymore. For years I asked the local school board and superintendent to let me teach a curriculum that doesn’t hurt kids, but they had other fish to fry. So I’m going to quit, I think.

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.

I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t train children to wait to be told what to do; I can’t train people to drop what they are doing when a bell sounds; I can’t persuade children to feel some justice in their class placement when there isn’t any, and I can’t persuade children to believe teachers have valuable secrets they can acquire by becoming our disciples. That isn’t true.

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.

Any parent who’s ever gone to sign their child out of school early has experienced this disrespect. At least when I’d try to get my daughter early, I had to sign her out, show my driver’s license, and the person behind the counter would ask me why I was taking my kid out early. It didn’t take me long to start asking, “Why do you need to know?”

The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid.

That idea passed into American history through the Puritans. It found its “scientific” presentation in the bell curve, along which talent supposedly apportions itself by some Iron Law of Biology. It’s a religious notion, School is its church. I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid.

Socrates foresaw if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood.

This is exactly why I don’t use textbooks in any of my classes. I tell my Freshman Comp classes on the first day that anyone can write. That doesn’t mean we’ll all do it on the same level. Just like some people are better artists, athletes, musicians, and so on, some people are better writers. But anybody can learn the basics of any medium, sport, or instrument and improve with practice. Writing is no different.

But no matter how hard we work and how much we practice, we won’t all become Bruce Lee or Emily Dickinson or Van Gogh or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Vonnegut Jr. or Toni Morrison or Muhammad Ali or whoever else you want to put on this list.

School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be “re-formed.”

I’ve already talked about this at least once. The textbook industry alone has a massive vested interest in keeping schools the way they are, and in place like Florida it’s getting even sleazier. Scores of math texts were recently rejected in Florida pretty much on the basis of shit DeSantis doesn’t like. One of the ones they kept, however, is published by a company held by one of DeSantis’s Orange Cult buddies, the dingbat governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin.

And that’s just textbooks. Another sacred myth perpetuated in this case by the computer industry is that teachers need computers in the classroom. A lot of us don’t even want them in the classroom let alone need them. The only thing I use the big computer/media station for is when I show paintings for my humanities class. Funny thing is, what the students like exponentially more is when we meet at an actual museum instead of the classroom.

It has political allies to guard its marches, that’s why reforms come and go without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different.

David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can’t tell which one learned first—the five-year spread means no thing at all. But in school I label Rachel “learning disabled” and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me t o tell him when to go and stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, “special education” fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever.

In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.

That’s the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints.

Gatto talks about this extensively in Underground History. He cites Lincoln, Farragut, Franklin, and Washington all as examples of accomplished, intelligent men who spent precious little time in anything we’d currently consider a traditional classroom setting. In The War On Kids, homeschool advocate Pat Farenga points out that Shakespeare went to school about “12 weeks out of the year.”

We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen—that probably guarantees it won’t.

I mean, there is loads of stuff out there to support this, not the least of which is Rita Kramer’s book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation Of America’s Teachers. “Most teachers today,” again according to The War On Kids, “went to colleges that were not competitive, and even there did not do very well.”

How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it. 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. Come fall I’ll be looking for work.

And if anyone I work for figures out who’s writing this, I might be as well. So what does this have to do with teaching at a community college? Well, on one level, it could be argued that I’m basically teaching 13th grade. Kids who come here right out of high school don’t see it any differently. There are no dorms. There’s no campus life to speak of like you would get if you left home and lived where you’re going to school. It’s an extension of high school.

That means all the things wrong with public school as described by people like Gatto and in films like The War On Kids just continues. The big difference here is that we also get a good number of adults returning to school for numerous reasons, but that doesn’t help mature the kids up like you might think it would. In many cases, it brings the performance of the adults down. But that’s very much another discussion.

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