A maverick takes on public schooling

Interview / John Taylor Gatto

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

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 is 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.

On testing:

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 a 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 people.

•Compelling children to assemble in mandated groups, for mandated intervals, with mandated texts ... does not interfere with academic learning.

•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 teacher 10 percent. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, that assumption was deliberately reversed. Each time you intervene in a kid's learning past an allowable minimum, you're actually impeding the process.

On curriculum:

There's no scientific evidence justifying any particular subject selection, 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 age - 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 unfair place.

On the future of schools:

I see great hope for educational advancement or spiritual advancement. I've 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 and resistance everywhere.

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 education.

What makes a good school?

That the school part is de-emphasized. Furthermore you have to believe that 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.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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