John Taylor Gatto, Among America's Finest Educators,
Published : November 5, 2018
As an educator, Gatto was respected by everyone — even the government's own system. In fact, so successful was his teaching career that the Pennsylvania native was thrice honored as New York City Teacher of the Year, first in 1989, then in 1990, and again in 1991. Also in 1991, he became New York State Teacher of the Year. That same year, he quit. Instead, he decided to wage war on the system itself.
His resignation letter was published by the Wall Street Journal. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the public debate on government education was his exposure of the compulsory public school system as one that was seriously harming children. It was even worse that that, though. Gatto was forced to conclude that the system was deliberately designed to dumb down students, suppress their curiosity, smash their individuality, and mold them into cookie-cutter children ready to serve their “betters” without question. “We suppress genius because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women,” he explained.
Many of his findings and insights were published in a series of books he wrote that should be considered mandatory reading for everyone involved in education. These include Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.
His book The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling is often considered to be Gatto's magnum opus. In her excellent obituary of the educational hero at the Foundation for Economic Education, Brittany Hunter described it as “perhaps the most accurate and damning history of the American education system that has ever been written.”
Born in 1935, Gatto's approach to education was often described as “revolutionary.” He treated children with dignity and respect. He encouraged them to think critically and to question. And he allowed children to — nay, he urged them to — pursue their own interests, rather than just submitting as passive instruments to the “instruction” deemed necessary by government bureaucrats. He thought government schooling replaced community, which is one of the things that children truly need.
Ultimately, Gatto wanted to do away with the government's entire systematized indoctrination system known as public schooling. Instead, he believed the real solution was a decentralized, private, free-market model in which there would be true diversity and individual choice. He was a big fan of home education. But no matter what option parents and families choose, Gatto was perfectly clear on one thing: It should not be a system that is literally designed to dumb down and destroy children. Gatto was a great man and he will be greatly missed.