A maverick takes on public schooling
Interview / John Taylor Gatto
By Amanda Paulson
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
John Taylor Gatto had just been named New York State Teacher of the Year
nine years ago when he made a shocking announcement. After teaching 26
years in New York City public schools, he was quitting, saying he could no
longer continue to "hurt kids."
Since then, Mr. Gatto has written and lectured extensively on the negative
effects of compulsory schooling. His newest book, "The Underground History
of Education" (Oxford Village Press), will be published in January.
Sections of the book are available online at www.johntaylorgatto.com
The following are excerpts from a recent Monitor interview:
On why he wrote the book:
I had a need after 30 years of fairly successful teaching, with all kinds
of kids, to understand why the business had evolved the way it had. The
first thing I learned was that the school world is not independent, but a
subordinate industry to government and industry and commerce.
On education before school became compulsory:
My own reading from the first 120 years of American national history is
exactly the same as Alexis de Tocqueville's reading. He says flatly this
the best-educated nation in the Western world, bar none.... It's just
dazzling what people can do for themselves when the boot of the government
is off their back.
Everybody understood what the homeschoolers understand today - [compulsory
school is] nonsense. It becomes a destructive activity to lock people up
and drill them and confine them with low-level abstractions.
There's no teacher worth his or her salt who, inside of a period at the
start of the year, doesn't know who's going to get the As, who's going to
get the Bs, who's going to cause trouble.... How do you know when you get
good haircut? You look in the mirror.
What we've allowed to happen is for normal good judgment and wisdom to be
set aside for some kind of mathematical wizardry.
There's nothing a standardized test measures other than your ability to
score well on the next standardized test.
Some assumptions he says are made in modern schooling:
*Government school is a central force for social cohesion ... and a
bureaucratized public order is our only defense against chaos and anarchy.
*The certifiable expertise of schoolteachers is superior to that of lay
*Compelling children to assemble in mandated groups, for mandated
intervals, with mandated texts ... does not interfere with academic
*Children will inevitably grow apart from parents in beliefs as they grow
older, and this process must be encouraged.
On the role of the teacher:
The balance of responsibility was [once] divided much differently. The
assumption was that the kid would do 90 percent of the work and the
10 percent. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, that assumption
was deliberately reversed. Each time you intervene in a kid's learning
an allowable minimum, you're actually impeding the process.
There's no scientific evidence justifying any particular subject
any sequence of subjects, any internal arrangements of time. There is no
body of knowledge inaccessible to a motivated elementary school student.
The rationing of learning by age - and usually it's by social class and
- is indefensible.
Delinquent behavior is a reaction to the structure of schooling. It's not
some innate characteristic of large groups of children. School makes
children angry because it's a consistently dishonest place and a visibly
On the future of schools:
I see great hope for educational advancement or spiritual advancement.
traveled 1.4 million miles in 50 states and seven foreign countries, and
while I've seen a lot less hope overseas, [here] I see effective reform
The most effective of all, bar none, is the homeschool revolution.
Approximately 2 million people from all social classes and all religious
and cultural backgrounds have, in effect, set up private labs of
What makes a good school?
That the school part is de-emphasized. Furthermore you have to believe
everybody wants the best. Everybody wants to learn. They'd like to have
worthwhile meaningful work to do.
On what kids are capable of:
I taught 13-year-olds from [the inner city] using the same text and
methodology that was used on me at Cornell and Columbia. I pushed them
harder than I was pushed. I never accepted second-rate work without taking
the kid aside and showing him why it was second-rate.
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"....teachers who conform to the traditional institutional mode are
out of place. They might find fulfillment as tap-dance instructers,
or guards in maximum security prisons or propreiters of reducing
salons, or agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - - but
they damage teaching, children, and themselves by staying in
(NEA book, Schools For the 70's And Beyond)