TheSunMagazine.org | Laments about our schools are nothing new; everyone is an expert, it seems, when it comes to education. While most critics point to the lack of funding or the shortage of teachers, John Taylor Gatto insists the problem goes deeper; we’ve turned our schools, he says, into “torture chambers.”
If that sounds abrasively radical, consider this: Gatto, with almost thirty years’ experience as a public-school teacher, has just been named New York City’s Teacher of the Year for 1989.
Gatto teaches seventh grade at Junior High School 54 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Something of a local legend, he’s a chess player and a songwriter — and he grows garlic. He was once named Citizen of the Week for coming to the aid of a woman who had been robbed. He has lectured on James Joyce’s Ulysses at Cornell University and has taught philosophy at California State College. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s been approached by a film company interested in making a movie of his life.
Gatto once ran for the New York State Senate on the Conservative Party ticket, and some of his ideas are quite traditional: he stresses “family values” and questions increased funds for education. But he’s too much of a maverick to be easily labeled. At a recent hearing in New York, he castigated the school system for “the murder of 1 million black and Latino children,” and was met with a standing ovation.
What follows is the text of the speech he gave upon being named Teacher of the Year.
I ACCEPT THIS award on behalf of all the fine teachers I’ve known over the years who’ve struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones: men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word education should mean. A “Teacher of the Year” is not the best teacher around — those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered — but a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.
We live in a time of great social crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of this commodity. If we didn’t buy so many powdered dreams, the business would collapse — and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage-suicide rate is the highest in the world — and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not poor. In Manhattan, 70 percent of all new marriages last less than five years.
Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way, school is a major actor in this tragedy, just as it is a major actor in the widening gulfs among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism, we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.
I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-nine years of teaching — that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes, or politicians in civics classes, or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me, because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic; it has no conscience. It rings a bell, and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell, where he learns that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.
OUR FORM of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts, from around 1850. It was resisted — sometimes with guns — by an estimated 80 percent of the Massachusetts population, with the last outpost, in Barnstable on Cape Cod, not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by the militia and the children marched to school under guard.
Now, here is a curious idea to ponder: Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was 98 percent, and after it the figure never again climbed above 91 percent, where it stands in 1990. I hope that interests you.
Here is another curiosity to think about: The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size where 1.5 million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents. Last month the education press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem to be five, or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.
I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we’re going to change what’s rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance, we need to realize that the institution “schools” very well, but it does not “educate”; that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent. It’s just impossible for education and schooling to be the same thing.
Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnas Sears and W.R. Harper of the University of Chicago and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College and other to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.
To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic — because the community life that protects the dependent and weak is dead. The products of schooling are, as I’ve said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are useless — useless to others and useless to themselves.
The daily misery around us is, I think, in large measure caused by the fact that — as social critic Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago — we force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with school’s absurdities.
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with only people of exactly the same age and social class. The system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety. It cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present, much the same way television does.
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.
It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your youth, in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home, demanding that you do its “homework.”
“How will they learn to read?” you say, and my answer is: “Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.” When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks, they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease, if those things make sense in the life that unfolds around them.
But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most, and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach “the basics” anymore, because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.
TWO INSTITUTIONS at present control our children’s lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of a child or adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventure, and the real search for mentors who might teach what he or she really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to becoming a whole man or woman.
But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with:
Out of the one hundred sixty-eight hours in each week, my children sleep fifty-six. That leaves them one hundred twelve hours a week out of which to fashion a self.
My children watch fifty-five hours of television a week, according to recent reports. That leaves them fifty-seven hours a week in which to grow up.
My children attend school thirty hours a week, use about eight hours getting ready, going, and coming home, and spend an average of seven hours a week on homework — a total of forty-five hours. During that time they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves twelve hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course my kids eat, too, and that takes some time — not much, though, because we’ve lost the tradition of family dining. If we allot three hours a week to evening meals, we arrive at a net amount of private time for each child of nine hours.
It’s not enough. It’s not enough, is it? The richer the kid, of course, the less television he or she watches, but the rich kid’s time is just as narrowly circumscribed by a broader catalog of commercial entertainments and his or her inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of the child’s own choice.
And these things are, oddly enough, just a more cosmetic way to create dependent human beings, unable to fill their own hours, unable to give substance and pleasure to their existence. It’s a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, and I think schooling and television and lessons have a lot to do with it.
Think of the things that are killing us as a nation: drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, gambling, alcohol, the pornography of violence, and the worst pornography of all: lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy. All are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.
I WANT TO tell you what the effect is on children of taking all their time — time they need to grow up — and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. No reform that doesn’t attack these specific pathologies will be anything more than a facade.
1. 1. The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up these days, and who can blame them? Toys are us.
2. 2. The children I teach have almost no curiosity, and what little they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose to do. Can you see a connection between the bells ringing again and again to change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent attention?
3. 3. The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. They live in a continuous present; the exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness.
4. 4. The children I teach are ahistorical; they have no sense of how the past has predestined their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values and lives.
5. 5. The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, and they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly.
6. 6. The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret self inside an outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy, so intimate relationships have to be avoided.
7. 7. The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who materialistically “grade” everything — and television mentors who offer everything in the world for sale.
8. 8. The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This timidity is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness, but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.
I could name a few other conditions that school reform will have to tackle if our national decline is to be arrested, but by now you will have grasped my thesis, whether you agree with it or not. Either schools, television, or both have caused these pathologies. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic: between schooling and television, all the time children have is eaten up. That’s what has destroyed the American family; it is no longer a factor in the education of its own children.
WHAT CAN be done?
First, we need a ferocious national debate that doesn’t quit, day after day, year after year, the kind of continuous emphasis that journalism finds boring. We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair — one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of home schooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money back into family education might kill two birds with one stone, repairing families as it repairs children.
Genuine reform is possible, but it shouldn’t cost anything. We need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want all children to learn, and why. For 140 years this nation has tried to impose objectives from a lofty command center made up of “experts,” a central elite of social engineers. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. It is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise that once made this nation a noble experiment. The Russian attempt to control Eastern Europe has exploded before our eyes. Our own attempt to impose the same sort of central orthodoxy, using the schools as an instrument, is also coming apart at the seams, albeit more slowly and painfully. It doesn’t work because its fundamental premises are mechanical, antihuman, and hostile to family life. Lives can be controlled by machine education, but they will always fight back with weapons of social pathology — drugs, violence, self-destruction, indifference, and the symptoms I see in the children I teach.
It’s high time we looked backward to regain an educational philosophy that works. One I like particularly well has been a favorite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I think it works just as well for poor children as for rich ones. I use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching — as much, that is, as I can get away with, given the present institution of compulsory schooling.
At the core of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements that place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of getting a horse to gallop or making it jump. But that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who has mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his or her ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is that of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customshouse.
One of my former students, Roland Legiardi-Laura, though both his parents were dead and he had no inheritance, rode a bicycle across the U.S. alone when he was hardly out of boyhood. Is it any wonder that in manhood he made a film about Nicaragua, although he had no money and no prior experience with filmmaking, and that it was an international award winner — even though his regular work was as a carpenter?
Right now we are taking from our children the time they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back. We need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school, but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent a curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop uniqueness and self-reliance.
A short time ago, I paid seventy dollars and sent a twelve-year-old girl with her non-English-speaking mother on a bus down the New Jersey coast. She took the police chief of Sea Bright to lunch and apologized for polluting his beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology, I had arranged for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small-town police procedures. A few days later, two more of my twelve-year-old kids traveled alone from Harlem to West Thirty first Street, where they began apprenticeships with a newspaper editor. Next week, three of my kids will find themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at six in the morning studying the mind of a trucking-company president as he dispatches eighteen-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Are these “special” children in a “special” program? No, they’re just nice kids from central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of them couldn’t add or subtract with any fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New York City, or how far it is from New York to California.
Does that worry me? Of course. But I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge, they’ll also become self-teachers — and only self-teaching has any lasting value.
We’ve got to give kids independent time right away, because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must reinvolve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than mere abstractions. This is an emergency. It requires drastic action to correct. Our children are dying like flies in our schools. Good schooling or bad schooling, it’s all the same: irrelevant.
WHAT ELSE DOES a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. It is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility.
For five years I ran a guerrilla school program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later and told me that this one experience had changed their lives, had taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values. It happened when they were thirteen, in my Lab School program — made possible only because my rich school district was in chaos. When “stability” returned, the lab closed. It was too successful, at too small a cost, to be allowed to continue; we made the expensive, elite programs look bad.
There is no shortage of real problems in this city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the adult world. Good for kids, good for the rest of us.
Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force the idea of “school” open — to include family as the main engine of education. The Swedes realized this in 1976, when they effectively abandoned state adoption of unwanted children and instead spent national time and treasure on reinforcing the family so that children born to Swedes were wanted. They reduced the number of unwanted Swedish children from six thousand in 1976 to fifteen in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired of paying for the social wreckage caused by children not being raised by their natural parents, so they did something about it. We can, too.
Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.
The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life. We’ve gotten away from that curriculum — it’s time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief.
I have many ideas on how to make a family curriculum, and my guess is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large, vested interests profiting from schooling just exactly as it is, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We’ve all had a bellyful of authorized voices on television and in the press. A decade-long, free-for-all debate is called for now, not more “expert” opinions. Experts in education have never been right; their “solutions” are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough.
Time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family.
I’ve said my piece. Thank you.
By John Taylor Gatto