John Taylor Gatto, 65
Author, The Underground History of American Education
New York, NY
The new economy is awash in contradictions, but few are more troubling than this one: At the very moment that brainpower is more important than ever, education seems more backward than ever. We have a new economy but outdated schools.
Out of this disconnect has emerged a quiet grassroots rebellion aimed at reinventing both the form and the function of American education. Charter schools — publicly funded startup schools that operate mostly free of regulation — have boomed. In 1992, there was one charter school in the United States. Today, there are more than 2,000. The fastest-growing education movement is homeschooling. Today, roughly 1.5 million children learn at home. Just as Internet startups and free agents rattled big business, charter schools and homeschooling are shaking up “big schoolhouse.”
Leading them is John Taylor Gatto, education’s most original (and perhaps most controversial) thinker. Gatto earned his reformer’s credentials the hard way. For 30 years, he taught English in some of New York City’s toughest schools — and became the East Coast’s answer to Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles teacher immortalized in the film Stand and Deliver. Gatto was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime teacher who changed lives (hundreds of former students remain in touch with him), even as he outraged administrators. In 1991, he was New York State’s Teacher of the Year. Then he quit.
“When I left school teaching, I was blind with rage. I didn’t know whose throat to grab first,” growls Gatto, whose round face, white hair, and bearish build make him look like the tough brother of TV’s Captain Kangaroo. “After a while, I could see that responsibility for education had to be revested in ordinary people.”
He began writing essays and articles that recommended a systematic overhaul of learning in America and soon attracted a nearly cultish following among homeschoolers, charter-school advocates, and other education reformers. To many members of that incipient movement, Gatto has become their philosopher king. But Gatto, 65, gives himself a different job title. “I’m a saboteur,” he says. “I’m sabotaging the idea that you know best what my family needs.”
Schools, he says, are irremediably broken. Built to supply a mass-production economy with a docile workforce, they ask too little of children, and thereby drain youngsters of curiosity and autonomy. Tougher discipline, more standardized tests, longer days, and most other conventional solutions are laughably short of the mark. “We need to kill the poison plant we created,” Gatto has written. “School reform is not enough. The notion of schooling itself must be challenged.” His alternative: to get rid of institutional mass-production schools, allow every imaginable experiment to blossom, make free public libraries universal, and expand hands-on apprenticeships.
Earlier this year, Gatto published a book, The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling (Oxford Village Press). Nearly a decade in the making, the enormous volume is a sprawling work of history, political philosophy, and citizen activism. Two major publishers liked the book enough to offer Gatto sizable advances — on the condition that he trim the pages and mute the language. He refused. So he produced and distributed the book himself, selling 5,000 copies the first week.
“This is the Blair Witch Project of books,” says Roland Legiardi-Laura, 47, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a former eighth-grade student of Gatto’s. “It’s been under the radar, but not for long.” Legiardi-Laura and his former teacher are now adapting the book into a documentary that aims to do for education what Ken Burns’s series on the Civil War did for the War Between the States.
The Underground History of American Education is pointed and provocative. It’s hard to agree with everything Gatto has to say, but it’s even harder to come away from his searing critique unchanged. A single reading of a single essay inevitably makes you start to question the purpose and the premise of American education. “I had no intention of being an author,” says Gatto, who lives with his wife on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I hate being a product. But I feel that I have a responsibility to bear witness to what I’ve seen.” Fast Company met with Gatto in Legiardi-Laura’s loft apartment across from Tompkins Square Park in New York City.
How did you get started in teaching?
I never thought I would be a teacher. The prevailing Ivy League ethic when I left college in the late 1950s was that you would be a man in a gray flannel suit. And if you had blood flowing through your veins, you didn’t want to be a banker or a businessman. You wanted to be an ad man. So I became a copywriter at an ad agency. At first, it was very exciting. But after a while, you say, “Is the rest of my life going to be writing 50 words a month, holding my drink the correct way, and knowing when people shift from martinis to Gibsons?”
My roommate in New York City at the time was a guy named Dick Boehm. He was a waiter at the Waldorf-Astoria, but he also had a teaching license. He’d taught for one day and said, “You have to be crazy to do this for a living.” And he threw his teaching license in a drawer. His license didn’t have a picture on it, so I took a few days off from the ad agency, used Dick’s license, and went around the city substitute teaching.
I was bored, I guess. And I was tweaking the city’s nose by teaching school as Dick Boehm. But I ran into some genuinely horrifying experiences in which kids were obviously being denied basic intellectual tools. And the reason, at least the surface reason, that they were being denied those tools was the belief that there were some things that these kids couldn’t do. People would tell me, “It would embarrass the kids to try to do more.” It’s real easy, when you’re a young man, to buy that crap.
When did you stop buying it?
There were two experiences that changed my life. One took place in a school in Harlem on 120th Street. I tended to favor subbing in Harlem because they were so desperate just to get bodies in there that I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t check the records. I was assigned to teach a Spanish course. I knew a couple-hundred words of Spanish, so I figured that I could fake it pretty well. I got in there and asked the kids if they knew how to tell time. I assumed that they did, and I thought we could review it. But they said no, they didn’t know how to tell time. I said, “I can teach you how to tell time in this one class period, and you’ll know it forever.” So I did that. You get five classes a day as a sub, and by the third class, I got summoned to the principal’s office. Some assistant principal began to scream at me. Her face turned a deep purple red. “How dare you do this! You have destroyed the entire curriculum for the month of June. I have no idea how I will explain to the teacher when she comes back,” she said. “But I’ll tell you this: You will never be hired at this school again!” At first, I thought I was locked up with a lunatic. Then, the more I reflected on this odd situation, the more I realized that this was the attitude in all subject areas. They expected so little of these kids that it was easy to communicate the whole curriculum for the month of June in 15 minutes.
The second life-changing experience came at a school on 103rd or 104th Street and Columbus Avenue. I was assigned as a sub in a third-grade remedial reading class — an easy assignment. You could write stuff on the board, pass out worksheets, and then sit there and read the Daily News. A little girl named Milagros Maldonado came up to the desk and said, “I don’t need to do this. I already know how to read.” All I wanted to do was finish the day, but I said to her, “Well, you know, these things are done by people older than you who are looking out for your own best interest, and they think you’re better off here.” And she said, “No, I can read anything.”
There was a reader on the teacher’s desk, and she grabbed the reader and said, “Ask me to read anything.” I cracked it open to a story called “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which is an extremely difficult piece of American Victorian prose. And she read it without batting an eyelash. I said to her, “You know, sometimes, Milagros, mistakes are made. I’ll speak to the principal.” I walked into the principal’s office and the woman began shrieking at me, saying, “I’m not in the habit of taking instruction from a substitute teacher.” I said, “I’m not telling you what to do. It’s just that this little girl can read.” And she said something to me that, at my dying moment, I’ll still remember. She said, “Mr. Gatto, you have no idea how clever these low-achieving children are. They will memorize a story so that it looks as if they know how to read it.” Talk about an Alice in Wonderland world! If that little girl had memorized “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” then we want her in national politics! The principal said, “I will come in and show you.” After school, she came in and put Milagros through her paces. The little girl did well. Then she told Milagros, “We will transfer you.” And when Milagros left, the principal said to me, “You will never be hired at this school again.”
That made you want to teach?
Yes. The attitude toward these children in liberal New York City wasn’t remotely like the attitude toward children in western Pennsylvania, where I grew up. There the assumption was that if somebody couldn’t do the work, it was because they were lazy or defiant. In these schools, the assumption was that some kids were permanently disabled, and everyone had to settle into their assigned place.
So I told the people at the ad agency that I was going to leave to teach full time. I thought I’d be right back. I said to myself, I’m going to do this for a year or two and I’m going to demonstrate, to my own satisfaction, that these rules of classification are nonsense. Thirty years later, I still hadn’t found out how far it was possible to push human beings to become big, self-directing, independent, and able to write their own script. The trouble is, especially with poor kids, they have such an indoctrinated belief that they can’t do it, and that belief is reflected in antagonism and anger that they carry with them throughout life. But the truth is that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.
How do you unlock that inborn genius?
When the mind is tested against something unfamiliar, it grows in front of your eyes. Adopted children have a horrible track record in adult life, and yet they often measure on IQ tests about 20 points higher than their equals in their biological family. For years, the medical community tried to figure out what could account for this. Just to transfer from your natural parent increases your intelligence? Well, sure. You’re in this desperate situation; you don’t even have enough language to find your way out. You’re looking around a lot more than you would if it was all Mother Goose.
Does this mean getting kids out of the classroom?
Yes, often it does. I had a standing contract with the kids. I said, If there’s something that you want to know how to do, you can pick my brain privately, and I will help you see the best way to do it, even if I don’t approve. At one school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, seven girls came to me indignant that a local planning board had voted down Yoko Ono’s request to have a John Lennon memorial in Central Park. I agreed with the board. Parks are for trees. But I told the girls that if they wanted to take on the commission to overturn the decision, that could be their project. I warned them that the odds were 10,000 to 1 against them. But they were intent. They researched the commissioners, targeted the ones whose votes they could get, and drummed up press. You know what? They did it. The memorial is called “Strawberry Fields” and it’s in Central Park.
At every school where I taught, I told kids that as long as they would do 90% of the work, and as long as the idea was there, and as long as they’d sit still for my lectures about the nuances of the idea, then I was willing to be their assistant. The major access road to self-development is raw experience, but schools often deny that to students. Memorizing notes off the board is not real work. Overthrowing a political dynasty that doesn’t want a horrible monument to the horrible Lennon in Central Park is real work.
Why don’t schools adopt that ethic? What’s standing in the way?
It’s a managerial mania, a managerial pathology that shows no signs of having reached a conclusion. For reasons that are both fair and foul — but mostly for fair reasons — we have come under the domain of a scientific-management system whose ambitions are endless. They want to manage every second of our lives, every expenditure that we make. And the schools are the training ground to create a population that’s easy to manage.
In a society that’s going to be scientifically managed, what are the things that interfere with the smooth administration of that form of management? Well, for one thing, it’s the managers’ subordinates saying, “I don’t think we should do it that way.” A managed life extends your childhood from birth to death. You’re never really responsible for your decisions, and you can never really take credit for your successes either.
Let’s shift to the world of business and work for a moment. Grades and gold stars in school prepare people for pay raises and promotions on the job, don’t they?
They’re BS. I’m against those things. But don’t make me look like one of those romantic people who are against them because I don’t want to see kids compete with one another. Grades don’t measure anything other than your relevant obedience to a manager.
So what are some lessons for someone who is running a business?
Look at Silicon Valley. Everybody there is working much harder than you could legally require them to work. Why? Because they are working for themselves. It’s exciting; the work itself is exciting. To teach people that we work to get money to buy stuff is insane. We work because work is thrilling.
What would turn this country on its head is a commitment by schools to make room for independent livelihoods of all sorts. I mean that, by and large, you set the terms of your own employment, you decide the relative value of the goals that you’re after, you stick your neck out, and you take all of the reward or your neck gets chopped off. That would be a dazzling society. It would be like some of my classes were — just dazzling.
Is that why homeschooling is booming?
Homeschooling returns the most important responsibility right back to where it belongs: the parent. Do all parents do it better than anyone else? Some do, some don’t. But are there any experts whom you can point to who do it better than any homeschooler picked at random? No. What we have is a long succession of expert failures everywhere. Now we have homeschoolers, charter schools, and “unschoolers” — who mostly let their kids direct their own learning — doing it however they want. It’s the classic contradiction of the principle that interventions are the way to improve a kid’s life. Home schools have proven that two hours a day is enough for intense academic work, because the kid’s involvement as a principal player is seen as the most important determinant of his future. In a home school, the kid does 95% of the work. But in a school system, since it’s an indoctrination system, a teacher has to do 95% of the work.
But the reality is that most Americans lack the time or the gumption to homeschool their children. What’s the broader remedy for conventional American schools?
There is no simple formula, but fortunately a crude formula will work to get started. If you cut the guaranteed river of revenue that flows into the monopoly, the problem will solve itself — quicker in some places than in others. But over time, it will happen. We should break up institutional schools, decertify teaching, and let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers. Trust the customers to know if they’re being cheated, and then give them a way to try something different.
We would have a much better teaching staff if we waived the requirement of having a college degree and opened the jobs to anyone. We’d have a much better teaching staff if we simply didn’t allow anyone under the age of 40 to teach. I would also say that we could draw workers from the retired population of the country much more than we do today.
And you have to trust children more. What if we started from exactly the opposite premise of the Viking conquerors who’ve now become the Fortune 500? Suppose we began with the idea that almost everyone has superhuman powers to see into a grain of sand and say, “Why, I can scratch little lines on this piece of silicon.” I mean, is that an unlikely idea? Is that counterintuitive? “And the pieces of sand can talk to each other across the world, and we can drive Bell Telephone out of business.” You’d lock someone up who said that! But that’s the thinking that changes the world. We need to start from the cold-blooded premise that almost everyone is a genius — not that almost everyone is worthless.
Daniel H. Pink (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company contributing editor and author of the forthcoming book Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way We Live (Warner Books). To learn more about John Taylor Gatto, visit him on the Web (www.johntaylorgatto.com). For information on the film documentary “The Fourth Purpose,” contact Roland Legiardi-Laura by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: What’s Fast
John Taylor Gatto’s most famous essay may well be “The Seven-Lesson School Teacher” (New Society Publishers, 1992). In the essay, he describes — with considerable irony — the real lessons that he and other teachers impart to their students.
Confusion. Schools attempt to teach too many things. And they present most of those things out of context, unrelated to everything else that’s being taught.
Class position. Students must stay in whatever class they’re assigned to and must “endure it like good sports.” From that, they learn how “to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes.”
Indifference. Children learn not to care about anything too much. When the bell rings, they stop whatever they’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next workstation. “They must turn on and off like a light switch…. [T]he lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing.”
Emotional dependency. “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces,” kids learn to surrender their will and to depend on authority. Intellectual dependency. “Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.” Conformity triumphs, while curiosity has no place of importance.
Provisional self-esteem. Self-respect depends on expert opinion, measured down to a single percentage point on tests, grades, and report cards. Parents would be “surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records,” but the system teaches children to measure themselves based on “the casual judgment of strangers.”
Conspicuousness. Children are always under surveillance, in the classroom and even beyond. There are no private spaces for children and no private time for them. “Changing classes lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels.” Teachers assign “a type of extended schooling called ‘homework,’ too, so that the surveillance travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or a mother or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”