Masters of Their Own Souls: John Taylor Gatto

Published August 1, 2001

John Taylor Gatto was an award-winning junior high school teacher for 30 years in Manhattan’s public schools, and yet he gave it all up abruptly in 1991, resigning very publicly on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. He said he could no longer remain in a system that trained children merely to obey orders, where curiosity was stamped out, and where attempts at reform were fruitless because “[s]chool is too vital a jobs-project, contract-giver, and protector of the social order to allow itself to be ‘reformed.'”

Born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Gatto attended public schools and a private Catholic boarding school, all in western Pennsylvania. He did undergraduate college work at Cornell, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia, then served in the U.S. Army medical corps at Fort Knox, Kentucky and Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Following army service he did graduate work at the City University of New York, Hunter College, Yeshiva, the University of California, and Cornell.

After college, Gatto worked as a film scriptwriter, advertising copywriter, songwriter, taxi driver, jewelry designer, and hot dog vendor before becoming a schoolteacher. His prowess as teacher earned him numerous awards from a wide range of organizations, including the New York State Education Department, Encyclopedia Britannica, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the New York State Senate, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the New York Public School Alliance.

Gatto climaxed his teaching career as 1990 and 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year, after being named New York City Teacher of the Year for 1989, 1990, and 1991.

Since leaving teaching, Gatto has spoken widely on the subject of school reform and has written four books on the subject, including Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. His newest book is The Underground History of American Education. Gatto spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: From your perspective as a teacher for 30 years, what do you see government schools doing to children?

Gatto: People who are well-schooled in government schools have a low threshold of boredom. They need constant novelty to feel alive because they have only the flimsiest inner lives. They can’t sit still without their minds wandering off. Changing classes at short intervals is a drill to prepare them for changing associates and possessions in dizzying profusion.

Here’s how schools pull the trick off: They destroy the inner life. They do this by training poorly in history, philosophy, economics, literature, poetry, theology, music, art–anything that is known to develop a personal inner life. As a result, most people who have been through government schools need life-long tutelage, cradle-to-grave schooling to make any sense of their days. They’re not taught to have an independent livelihood.

It used to be common in American schools that you weren’t allowed to enter first grade unless you could read. Now most children are taught to read at school, but only a fraction escape able to read well–in a world in which, for the most part, people are penalized harshly for not being able to read well.

Clowes: What can be done to fix the public schools?

Gatto: There is no way to fix them. That’s the point of my latest book, which took me eight years to write. It’s an enormous system where no individual has very much influence, and the system has built-in protections against change. Even the current standards movement is certain to be only rhetorically realized because the system has its own structural logic, and that does not include excellence. To say that you’re going to produce high standards by putting money, or pressure, or tests at fourth through eighth grade–that is Pollyanna nonsense.

All systems are the same regardless of what particular ideology drives them. The integrity of the system is considerably more important to the system than the mission it nominally holds. The American education system is a Soviet-style system, and just because we live in the United States is no guarantee that it’s not a Soviet system. It destroys people wholesale while it provides for the world’s most reliable domestic economy. That was in the original design of the system back at the turn of the twentieth century, and it has achieved those purposes perfectly.

Clowes: What were those original purposes of the public education system?

Gatto: I’m about to give you the six purposes of government schooling. I didn’t invent them; they’re straight out of the mouth of the man for whom the honorary Lectureship in Secondary Education at Harvard University is named: Alexander James Inglis. He was Harvard’s first Professor of Secondary Education, and in 1918 he published a book called The Principles of Secondary Education. It took me a long time to find his book but I finally located a copy.

I came across Inglis’s name in a 1949 book by James Bryan Conant called The Child, the Parent, and the State, where Conant said flatly that American schooling was the result of a coup, and the best person to go to for the details of the coup was Alexander Inglis. Now, Conant had some fairly good bona fides–he was president of Harvard, High Commissioner of Germany after the second World War, and the father of the large, comprehensive high school–and so if he said that the system is the result of a coup, I think we can be sure that he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

Inglis also was the editor of Houghton Mifflin’s Secondary School Publishing Division, and so he decided what people who were entering the new field of secondary education were going to read at the teacher college level. I say “new field of secondary education” because right up to the first World War, an elementary school education was what the vast majority of the American population got.

Inglis’s book turned out to be 800 pages of tiny print. I spent about a week working my way through and it was just dull as dishwater until suddenly I realized that what he was describing was schools as they are today, not schools as they were in 1918, because they didn’t exist then. So this very, very dull book is a blueprint for today’s schools. And here’s what Inglis said were the six purposes of this new type of schooling.

Inglis said that the first function of schooling is adjustive, where “[s]chools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority.” I remember that from my military training. Fixed habits of reaction completely preclude critical judgement–you can’t have critical judgement and fixed habits of reaction.

The second purpose of secondary schools is the diagnostic function. School is to diagnose each student’s proper social role, logging the evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records for life-long inspection. The communist Chinese have been doing this from the beginning, and they call this kind of official file the Dangan.

The third purpose of school is the sorting function. School is to sort children by training individuals only so far as their likely destination in the social machine, and not one step beyond. Now, many teachers run smack into this when they make the uncomfortable discovery that their supposedly “stupid” children are capable of the same kind of work as their “bright” children. But when they essay some efforts in that direction, they’re slapped down by people who say, “This is child abuse, because these stupid kids can’t possibly learn that material.”

Clowes: It sounds like Tom Daschle and Bob Chase, who say “You can’t demand more from these children unless you give schools more resources.”

Gatto: I had no resources and I demanded of my students exactly what was demanded of me at Cornell and Columbia. I didn’t modify my language or my expectations. I expected college-level performance, and I got it much more often than I didn’t. I’m not saying that it wasn’t without a lot of grief and argument, but most of the grief and argument was with the school administration and with my fellow teachers. Because when you get students to understand what they’re capable of, they start asking questions in classes that have been dumbed down. “Why are you treating us like this?” they ask, “We’re not stupid.”

Back to Inglis. His fourth function is conformity, where children are to be made alike, regardless of their background. This is not done from any passion for egalitarian ideals, but so that their future behavior will be predictable. Inglis is talking about simplifying and leveling the people to make them more predictable participants in the economy.

The fifth function is called the hygienic function, but this has nothing to do with individual hygiene. It has to do with the health of the race. Hygiene is a polite way of saying that school is expected to accelerate natural selection by tagging the unfit so clearly that they will drop from the reproduction sweepstakes in self-disgust.

The last purpose that Inglis listed is the propaedeutic function. This is a fancy word meaning that a small fraction of lucky individuals will quietly be taught to take over management of this continuing project–guardians of a population deliberately dumbed down and rendered childlike in order that government and economic life can be managed with a minimum of hassle.

In that context, it’s interesting to note that in the Presidential election of 2000, four of the six final candidates were from private boarding schools that had a collective graduating class yearly of under 2,000 people: Al Gore, George Bush, Steve Forbes, and John McCain.

If you’re a Darwinian, the explanation is simple natural selection. On the other hand, if you’re trying to decipher some of the anomalies of systematic schooling, it’s wonderfully enlightening to look at the techniques that the nation’s top private boarding schools employ. The most amazing thing is that what these schools require of their student body doesn’t cost a penny. In other words, it wouldn’t cost anything to create identical consciousness for everybody.

When I lecture homeschooling groups, I suggest they select one or all of the techniques that are common to these schools. They’re simple, cost-free, time-tested, and they work. My personal bias is towards the classical schooling technique because the little bit of what I had has stuck with me and served me very, very well. But these techniques have been understood for a long time by people who wanted to do the best for themselves and their children. And the secret of all the successes I won as a school teacher was that I adopted those procedures.

Clowes: So you set the same high expectations for everyone?

Gatto: It’s more than that. Although I had gone to a Jesuit boarding school for one year in third grade, I didn’t have the same kind of intimacy with the techniques these top private schools use, except from reading about them. But I did have some awareness of how two Ivy League colleges functioned–Cornell and Columbia–and I said, “I will simply employ these procedures that were used on me and see what happens.”

What happened was a revelation of what’s possible. I certainly don’t attribute it to any personal magnetism on my part. But I took the boot off my students’ necks. Even though I come from a conservative background, I had too much evidence in front of me that what you and I call talent or even genius is as common as the air we breathe.

To develop that talent or genius, each child needs a tremendous amount of raw experience and a tremendous amount of responsibility. Think of young Ben Franklin, young Coke Stevenson, or young John D. Rockefeller as examples of what that can do. The child also needs an active inner life in order to be master of his or her own soul or spirit, and that inner life comes from studying history, philosophy, economics, literature, music, art, and theology.

It’s significant that when the British owned North America, they took steps to prevent the development of the active literacies of writing and public speaking in the colonial population. If you can read well, and fluently, you can get access to the best minds that ever lived. But you can’t change things unless you can convince others, and you do that only by writing and speaking. The British knew they could handle the odd fish that swam with a copy of Plato under its fin, but what they couldn’t handle were people who spoke like Demosthenes or wrote like Shakespeare.

Clowes: Someone like Thomas Jefferson.

Gatto: Right. I would absolutely concentrate on the rhetoric and debate stages of classical education. Incidentally, Jefferson said there were only five reasons that could theoretically justify a forced schooling system. He said one was to learn your rights. But the second reason is that it’s useless to know your rights unless you also learn how to defend your rights. Take that package as Siamese twins.

The third reason was to learn the ways of the human heart so well that you can neither be cheated nor fooled. Well, the age-old way to know the ways of the human heart–other than experience and counsel from your elders–is through literature. Great literature is a laboratory of the human heart in its different manifestations, and when you read it you come to terms with these laboratory situations.

The fourth reason was to learn enough of the common stock of knowledge so you cannot be intimidated or fooled by experts. And the final reason was to learn useful practical knowledge, such as building a house, growing your own food, or making your own clothes. Those were the only reasons Jefferson could muster to justify forced schooling.