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How John Taylor Gatto Helped Parents And Children Regain Our Freedom To Think


John Taylor Gatto is worthy of a hero’s eulogy for his work as a true champion of children, as an insightful author on education, and as an award-winning New York public school teacher. Such heroic work and devotion are not always easy to detect in a society run as amok as ours.

I was deeply saddened to hear of his recent death. I don’t believe anybody else in our time has fought as hard to restore the right of children to learn and to think independently. Certainly no one else has been so courageously fierce in exposing an obstructive education establishment that has deprived children of their birthright.

Gatto took on a struggle that should not be daunting, because his vision was so simple and true. It’s a vision that was once universally accepted in America: that children learn when their natural curiosity is allowed to flourish in the joy of learning; that we should respect the mind of the child and encourage his ability to think independently; and that we should especially support loving bonds between children and their families, between children and their communities.

The Rise of the Educrat

Yet, as morally right as such things are, they are anathema to the machinery of public schooling. Various elitist forces––including teachers’ unions and corporate interests––actually work to squash the natural development of human beings as self-reliant and independent thinkers. They long ago discovered that in order to keep their power intact, a compulsory, factory model of schooling worked best for them.

If you think about it, you too will realize that powerful elites in our institutions are always trying to suppress human ingenuity and imagination. This happens constantly in the media, academia, the corporate world, and in the mind-numbing world of entertainment. In this way, children can be molded to comply with the status quo and know their place in the caste system devised for them.

Gatto soon realized that educrats expected him, as a teacher, to put children through “an animal training system.” In his book, “The Underground History of American Education,” he describes forced schooling as a means to bring the entire population into conformity so it would be regarded as a “human resource” and managed as a “workforce.” He wrote that this required a “massive psychological campaign…the ability of Americans to think as independent producers had to be curtailed.”

Battling such a state of affairs is all the more difficult in a culture that has grown increasingly hostile to the innocence and dignity of children. After studying and documenting this perverse connection, Gatto asks a question that may seem harsh to those who haven’t given it much thought: “How does a fellow human being come to regard ordinary people’s children as experimental animals? What impulse triggers the pornographic urge to deprive kids of volition, to fiddle with their lives?”

The utter contempt of this system for freewill short-circuits the right to choice. This is “a rapist’s tactic,” Gatto notes. For those of us who put our kids in public schools, this rings very harsh. It’s the passion of someone who has witnessed crimes against humanity.

Watch here as Gatto rhetorically asks: “What could be more crazy than agreeing to give your child over to total strangers for 12 years while they tinker with his mind?”

(You can watch more here.)

The priorities of such a system are to pigeonhole kids, use humiliation to enforce conformity, and feed them ignorance instead of knowledge. It’s no wonder that people like Professor Jordan Peterson have taken notice of Gatto’s brilliance and recommend reading his work.

A Public School Teacher Gone Rogue

No one can doubt the brilliance and effectiveness of Gatto when he taught public school in New York City. He was awarded New York City’s “Teacher of the Year” three years in a row in 1989, 1990, and 1991. He was declared New York state’s “Teacher of the Year” in 1991 as well. Shortly after receiving those accolades, however, he decided he’d had enough of a system that hurt children far more than it helped them.

On July 25, 1991, at age 55, Gatto wrote a public letter of resignation that was published as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. It was headlined, “I Quit, I Think.” Here’s an excerpt:

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. 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.

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. An exaggeration? Hardly. Parents aren’t meant to participate in our form of schooling, rhetoric to the contrary. My orders as schoolteacher are to make children fit an animal training system, not to help each find his or her personal path.

So after 26 years of teaching, Gatto decided to spend the rest of his life reversing the intellectual and emotional damage that compulsory, factory schooling does to children. From the inside, Gatto realized that there was a war going on, and he had to take up arms.

In fact, it’s been a sinister, generational war against the human mind. If allowed to continue without confrontation, it could end in the extinction of that spark of genius that I believe is in everyone. Gatto was the firebrand the American public needed in order to see how badly things had gone awry.

Connecting The Dots

Gatto was a compelling speaker and author of several books that shed light on the train wreck of schooling in America. Among them are “The Underground History of American Education,” “Dumbing Us Down,” and “Weapons of Mass Instruction.” He was relentless in pursuing his mission to expose the machinery of schooling. He soldiered on even after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2011. His Twitter page continues to promote his legacy.

Gatto was born in 1935 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, so he could recall getting a real education before the cancer of compulsory factory schooling metastasized. He remembered the joys of learning and the intact families and communities that played a major role in the development of children into responsible adults. He recalled the wisdom of his grandfather, who reminded him that to be bored is to be a boring person.

Gatto’s devotion to family is reflected in his half-century marriage to his wife, Janet. His extensive dedication to her in “Underground History” ends with the words: “until death do us part.” They raised two children.

For Gatto, Monongahela symbolized America at its finest. A major turning point in our history as a free people took place there, with a decisive battle of the French and Indian War in 1755. At the time, a young George Washington served as a volunteer officer in the British efforts to take Fort Duquesne in the Ohio River Valley. Thinking outside the box, Washington asked British Gen. Edward Braddock if he could engage the enemy in wilderness fashion; Braddock denied permission.

Instead, Braddock had his well-schooled British soldiers fight in the same old rote formations. It got the British disastrously routed, and Braddock killed. The young Washington took note, and the rest is history. If we hadn’t gotten rid of the British, writes Gatto, “the competence of ordinary people to educate themselves would never have had a fair test.” Perhaps it was divine providence that Gatto heralded from a place that provided a special lesson about true education and the independent mind.

Bait and Switch: Educrats’ Grand Theft of Childhood

As harsh as Gatto’s criticisms sound, the dehumanizing conditioning and programming of kids has a long history going back a couple of centuries. Gatto painstakingly provided documentation of it in his book “The Underground History of American Education.” (The latest edition includes a forward by former congressman Ron Paul.)

Gatto explains how today’s model of factory schooling is based on the Prussian model of sorting people for an efficient society in which a minority of elites rule over a vast majority of subjects who have been deliberately dumbed down. This may not be the only possible explanation for the schools putting the brakes on effective reading, but it surely is the most plausible one.

Take, for example, the crazy curriculum change starting in the ‘50s to replace the easy de-coding of phonics with the guessing game of  “look/say” whole word recognition. (To understand how idiotic such a program is, consider a piano teacher who never instructs beginners in how to read notes on the scale. Or how about we all just return to Egyptian hieroglyphics instead of an alphabet?) According to Gatto, the move away from phonics was probably responsible for the doubling of the illiteracy rate among black Americans from 1940 to 2000 and the quadrupling of whites’ illiteracy rate during that same period.

Get the Kids Away from Their Families

Chronologically, our current model of regimented, factory schooling begins more or less with industrialization in the mid-19th century, which triggered a decline of agriculture and deterioration of family life. People grew more dependent with urbanization. Pedagogues in Massachusetts, led by Horace Mann, saw opportunity in that crisis, and spoke about how the state could assert itself into a parental role. By 1852, schooling was made compulsory in Massachusetts. Gatto says:

After the Civil War, utopian speculative analysis regarding isolation of children in custodial compounds where they could be subjected to deliberate molding routines, began to be discussed seriously by the Northeastern policy elites of business, government, and university life…effective early indoctrination of all children would lead to an orderly scientific society, one controlled by the best people, now freed from the obsolete straitjacket of democratic traditions and historic American libertarian attitudes.

Again, this may all sound harsh—maybe almost unbelievable to children of the elites who have benefited from this system of social engineering. But here are several other excerpts that Gatto offers us to think about:

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a small group of soon-to-be-famous academics, symbolically led by John Dewey and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberly of Stanford, G. Stanley Hall of Clark and an ambitious handful of others, energized and financed by major corporate and financial allies like Morgan, Astor, Whitney, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, decided to bend government schooling to the service of business and the political state – as it had been done a century before in Prussia.

Ellwood P. Cubberley’s “Public Education in the United States” (1934) has a section entitled “A New Lengthening of the Period of Dependence.” Cubberly concedes that the forced nature of schooling was not what people wanted: “The history of compulsory attendance legislation in the states has been much the same everywhere and everywhere laws have been enacted only after overcoming strenuous opposition.”

Arthur Calhoun’s “Social History of the Family” (1919) declared that the fondest wish of utopian writers was coming true, the child was passing from its family “into the custody of community experts.” He offered a significant forecast, that in time we could expect to see public education “designed to check the mating of the unfit.”

The “Behavioral Science Teacher Education Project” identified the future as one “in which a small elite” will control all important matters, one where participatory democracy will largely disappear. Post-modern schooling, we are told is to focus on “pleasure cultivation” and on “other attitudes and skills compatible with a non-work world.”

With “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,” (1949-1953) school is “a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction.” Using methods of behavioral psychology, children would learn proper thoughts, feelings, and actions, and have their improper attitudes brought from home “remediated.” Today, such a utopian agenda goes by the name “Social and Emotional Learning,” and it is being pushed hard into all of the schools under the banner of Common Core.

From Rockefeller’s General Education Board’s 1906 document:

“in our dreams people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands…The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”

According to the work, “Social Control,” by Edward A. Ross in 1901:

“Plans are underway to replace community, family and church with propaganda, education and mass media…the State shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School…People are only little plastic lumps of human dough.”’

Gatto attests that when people are interested in learning, they can learn all of the basics of reading, math, and writing in about 100 hours of attentive study. The mind simply fires away at the connections, when allowed and encouraged to do so. Given that fact, why would public mass schooling demand approximately 25,000 hours of a person’s life?

The obvious answer is so that person’s life can be socially engineered, and children’s independent maturity can be retarded, or even stopped. Gatto doesn’t shrink from calling this psychic violence in the name of social efficiency, and humiliation is the tool it uses: “Something in the structure of schooling calls for violence…[schools] are state-of-the-art laboratories in humiliation.”

What are the final results of this massive bait-and-switch, divide-and-conquer program we call public schooling? Gatto sums it up here: “It’s as if government schooling made people dumber, not brighter; made families weaker, not stronger; ruined formal religion with its hard-sell exclusion of God; set the class structure in stone by dividing children into classes and setting them against one another.”

Reclaiming The Freedom To Think

The effects of Gatto’s work are yet to be measured. But his writing and speaking, throughout the United States (and internationally), sowed seeds far and wide. He may have felt like a voice crying in the wilderness, but many listened, including yours truly. His writing was a decisive factor in my decision to pull my fourth-grader and sixth-grader out of the supposedly desirable “blue ribbon” public schools in Potomac, Maryland. Home education was the best decision I ever made in raising my kids. I only wish I had done it from the beginning and more completely.

Compulsory public schooling as we know it does indeed deserve to die. It will no doubt continue to be propped up by the usual suspects––the elites who depend on cultivating ignorance while building a vast, dependent, and compliant underclass. But at some point, its bubble will burst. Its implosion is inevitable, as long as we retain a spark of humanity that resists succumbing to the automaton existence public schooling has designed for all of us.

When that happens, John Taylor Gatto will have had a big hand in it. What a beautiful legacy: to reclaim for our children their birthright of free thought.