Ode talks with John Taylor Gatto, an ex-New York City schoolteacher and author of five anti-public schooling books, including Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling
, which you’ll find an exclusive excerpt in the October 2008 issue. Gatto now gives lectures and presentations to companies on the failures of the American school system.
Brigid Marshall | October 2008 issue
How did your teaching career get started?
“I was in between jobs as an advertisement copywriter at the time. Since I had no job and no way to pay my rent, I stole my friend’s teaching license, which fortunately had no picture on it. For a few days I illegally taught as a substitute teacher. Being there though, I became enraged at the American schooling system, so I stuck around for a bit longer to learn more about it. Then after a couple of weeks, I decided I would stay being a teacher until I wasn’t learning anymore. That happened to be almost 30 years later.”
That’s a long time to be in a profession that you say is detrimental to young people. What did you hate so much about the school system?
“The schooling system in the United States is intensely boring. No one wants it to be this way, but it’s built into the structure of the business. Students and teachers, superintendents and principles—they’re trapped inside this structure that’s subject driven, while nothing in life is subject driven. I absolutely hated and couldn’t believe this system where every 43 minutes a little bell rings and that’s that. No questions asked. Students had to stop the learning they finally were getting, so that they could move onto the next thing. It’s ridiculous.”
How did it become this way?
“It’s because school isn’t about intellectual development. It’s about obedience. Now I can say with full certainty that the idea of teaching as it is in the United States is appalling to me.”
What are other failures of the school system?
“Standardized testing. They lead to no real information about the student, and actually give them a false ranking. It says people are better or worse than others. Seriously, have you ever gone to a job interview and asked the person interviewing you, “What did you get on your standardized test?” They’d be floored. Parents don’t go up to the teachers who hand out these stupid things and ask what they got on their tests either, because they don’t matter.”
So why do standardized tests exist?
“They measure memory. If you want to learn how to load a gun blindfolded the best thing is schooling because it’s all about memorization and obeying. Obey. Obey. Obey. It’s drilled into their heads.”
Why did you finally leave?
“What pushed me over the edge was an event I’ve never talked about actually. The ghetto junior high I was teaching at in New York City was going to lose 12 teaching spots for some reason, and I successfully lobbied to get them back. But in the fall of 1991, when I came back to teach I found I had only one class to teach. I was offended, especially after I had won three [New York City] Teacher of the Year awards [in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and one New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991], that they would only give me one class. It’s kind of stupid to get up in the morning to do nothing all day except for teaching one class. A lot of people think having nothing to do is the pinnacle of the profession, a problem in itself. So, in all that free time that semester, I decided to write my letter of resignation. I sent it to the Wall Street Journal, and they sat on it until I actually quit. Then they printed it.”
Is there anything good about U.S. schools?
“School is good because it does aim to create good moral people. It aims to create good citizens arguing in the public marketplace of ideas. It works if each individual student has a shot to develop their personal gifts into their purpose.”
So that’s great! Do the public schools help students develop that gift into their individual purpose?
“That’s unfortunately not what public schools want. Teachers don’t want the student in their class asking ‘Why?’ all the time. That student becomes labeled a nuisance or problem child. American schools stay religiously away from dialectically thinking, which is what I’ve done my whole life with my family and in school teaching and learning. American schools don’t want any arguments. They want students to simply obey the management. It’s sad.”
How did U.S. schools get to be this way?
“In the 20th century Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller, the titans of steel and oil, successfully converted people from leading independent livelihoods into becoming consumers who cannot produce. Those titans were the producers, and they needed a fleet of unquestioning workers. After the need for factory workers was over, schools stayed the same because if schools stopped existing, there would be an economic catastrophe. There were so many jobs involved, not just teachers. Schools conditioned huge numbers of young people to develop habits and attitudes that were necessary for the economy this country used to run on. But the problem now is that they haven’t changed the system to reflect the changes in economics. When schools first came to be the producers of the day, Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, prevented people from becoming producers themselves because if there are too many producers the system doesn’t work.
Do you think that other countries have good school systems?
“The schools in the Netherlands are infinitely superior to our American schools because they are much more relaxed. The country is smaller in general, so there’s not this big push for a huge work force like in the states. The Scandinavian schools are also generally better, and one big reason is that the governments of these countries actually give their students a grant to go out and learn, live life, and learn through experience. If we were looking for solutions, I’d head to Scandinavia.”
How do we solve the schooling problem in the U.S.?
“There is no national solution to this. There are only community solutions. There are three million home-schooled students, and I think that’s a good thing because it gets them literally out of the traditional public school institution. If there are multiple kids in a family the different ages can help one another learn. The older kids can feel affirmed that they can teach, and the younger ones can feel validated by older students when they get it right. Not challenging students to become producers is a surefire way for them to go quietly insane.”
What can teachers do to change the system?
“The only thing your teacher can do is to stick their neck out and say something. Teachers often set out to make a difference, but they’re hunted down and gotten rid of. As a teacher you can’t change school policy, and you can’t refuse to administer those ridiculous standardized tests. You can acknowledge that they are useless though. And you can help individual students, be available to them after school or during lunch. Go outside the status quo. By letting students explore life on their own, giving them some direction, but letting them lead the way, those students will be the better for it.
John Taylor Gatto is author of “Weapons of Mass Instruction“, “The Underground History of American Education“, and “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.”