Reliable Answers
November 28, 2005


By John Taylor Gatto

Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better
to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as
an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn't what
I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.

Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to
schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in
more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they

Lesson Number One

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I
don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my
business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can
be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways
children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to
see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries.
Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what
the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the kids
like it -- being locked in together, I mean -- or at the minimum,
endure it. If things go well, the kids can't imagine themselves
anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt
for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good
marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like
school. You come to know your place.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to
urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual
transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the
day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test
scores, even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly)
indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see
that truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.

The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your
class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are

Lesson Number Two

The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light
switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons,
jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing
vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I
insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next
work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in
any other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care
too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime;
their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future,
converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes
every living mountain and river the same even though they are not.
Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

Lesson Number Three

The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a
predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by
authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many
personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or
initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my
control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is
trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a
curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of class

Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a
private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels;
they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds
that they need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me
in children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my ken.
Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only
privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.

Lesson Number Four

The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you
will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who
pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids
instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict
and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to
learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine.
Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to
make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we
allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are
procedures to break the will of those who resist.

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait
for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important
lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than
ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to
say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.
Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained in the
dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive,
including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial
entertainment of all sorts, along with television, would wither if
people remembered how to make their own fun; the food services,
restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people
returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers
to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would
go too -- the clothing business as well -- unless a guaranteed supply
of helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We've built a
way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because
they don't know any other way. For God's sake, let's not rock that

Lesson Number Five

In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an
observer's measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and
judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into
students' homes to spread approval or to mark exactly -- down to a
single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with their children
parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little
time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative
weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of
defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about
himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.

Self-evaluation -- the staple of every major philosophical system that
ever appeared on the planet -- is never a factor in these things. The
lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not
trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of
certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

Lesson Number Six

In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep
each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues.
There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time.
Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at
low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to
tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their
own child's waywardness, too.

I assign "homework" so that this surveillance extends into the
household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn
something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by
apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood.

The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted,
that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency
among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set
down by Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in the Republic, by Hobbes,
by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the
same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a
society under central control.

A Better Way?

It is the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of my
fellow teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a
small number who can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only a
very few lifetimes ago things were different in the United States:
originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from
regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class
boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was
marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things
independently, to think for themselves. We were something, all by
ourselves, as individuals.

It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and
math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on.
The cry for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which
schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach them
the six lessons I've just taught you.

Central Control

We've had a society increasingly under central control in the United
States since just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the clothes
we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from
coast to coast are the products of this central control. So, too, I
think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence,
cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the U.S., products
of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual and
family importance that central control imposes.

Without a fully active role in community life you cannot develop into
a complete human being. Aristotle taught that. Surely he was right;
look around you or look in the mirror: that is the demonstration.

"School" is an essential support system for a vision of social
engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a
pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. "School" is an
artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable
(although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American
Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the early
Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of
democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this
promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory
training in subordination for everybody. Compulsory schooling was the
secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the Republic when he laid down
the plans for total state control of human life.

The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum
is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I've told
you about and a few more I've spared you. This curriculum produces
moral and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be
sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is under discussion is a
great irrelevancy.

Parents have a choice

None of this is inevitable, you know. None of it is impregnable to
change. We do have a choice in how we bring up young people; there is
no right way. There is no "international competition" that compels our
existence, difficult as it is to even think about in the face of a
constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important
material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we gained a non-
material philosophy that found meaning where it is genuinely located
-- in families, friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple
ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and
service to others, in a decent independence and privacy -- then we
would be truly self-sufficient.

How did these awful places, these "schools", come about? As we know
them, they are a product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919,
when powerful interests feared a revolution among our industrial poor,
and partly they are the result of the revulsion with which old-line
families regarded the waves of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigration
-- and the Catholic religion -- after 1845. And certainly a third
contributing cause can be found in the revulsion with which these same
families regarded the free movement of Africans through the society
after the Civil War.

Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for
permanent underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of
finding the center of their own special genius. And it is training
shaken loose from its original logic: to regulate the poor. Since the
1920s the growth of the well-articulated school bureaucracy, and the
less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from
schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged schooling's original grasp
to seize the sons and daughters of the middle class.

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took
money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable
direction the professionalization of teaching would take, pre-empting
the teaching function that belongs to all in a healthy community;
belongs, indeed, most clearly to yourself, since nobody else cares as
much about your destiny. Professional teaching tends to another
serious error. It makes things that are inherently easy to learn, like
reading, writing, and arithmetic, difficult -- by insisting they be
taught by pedagogical procedures.

With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder we
have the national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent to
the adult world and to the future; indifferent to almost everything
except the diversion of toys and violence? Rich or poor,
schoolchildren cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They have
a poor sense of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of
intimacy (like the children of divorce they really are); they hate
solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid
in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a
grotesque extent by schooling, whose hidden curriculum prevents
effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the
fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children our schools
could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher.

Critical Thinking

"Critical thinking" is a term we hear frequently these days as a form
of training which will herald a new day in mass schooling. It
certainly will, if it ever happens. No common school that actually
dared teach the use of dialectic, heuristic, and other tools of free
minds could last a year without being torn to pieces.

Institutional schoolteachers are destructive to children's
development. Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not
even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-
educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of
human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools require would cost
so much less than we are spending now that it is not likely to happen.
First and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and a
contract-letting agency. We cannot afford to save money, not even to
help children.

At the pass we've come to historically, and after 26 years of
teaching, I must conclude that one of the only alternatives on the
horizon for most families is to teach their own children at home.
Small, de- institutionalized schools are another. Some form of free-
market system for public schooling is the likeliest place to look for
answers. But the near impossibility of these things for the shattered
families of the poor, and for too many on the fringes of the economic
middle class, foretell that the disaster of Six-Lesson Schools is
likely to continue.

After an adult lifetime spent in teaching school I believe the method
of schooling is the only real content it has. Don't be fooled into
thinking that good curricula or good equipment or good teachers are
the critical determinants of your son and daughter's schooltime. All
the pathologies we've considered come about in large measure because
the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important
appointments with themselves and their families, to learn lessons in
self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and
love -- and, of course, lessons in service to others, which are among
the key lessons of home life.

Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left
after school. But television has eaten most of that time, and a
combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or
single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be
family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and
only thin-soil wastelands to do it in.

A future is rushing down upon our culture which will insist that all
of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; this future will
demand, as the price of survival, that we follow a pace of natural
life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in
schools as they are. School is like starting life with a 12-year jail
sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I
teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.


* John Taylor Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the Year on
three separate occasions.

The climax of his career came when he shocked the country and publicly
announced, he was quitting in the OP ED section of the Wall Street
Journal in 1991.

All while still holding the title of "New York State Teacher of the
Year," stating he was "no longer willing to hurt children".

Mr. Gatto was named Secretary of Education in the Libertarian Party
Shadow Cabinet in 1992.

In 1997, Gatto was given the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for his
contributions to the cause of liberty, and was named to the Board of
Advisors of the National TV-Turnoff Week.

John Taylor Gatto has authored the following books: Dumbing Us Down:
The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992; ISBN
0865714487); The Exhausted School (1993; ISBN 1893163423); A
Different Kind of Teacher (2000; ISBN 1893163210); The Underground
History Of American Education (2001, ISBN 0-945-70004-0) which is
available online, and Educating Your Child in Modern Times: Raising
an Intelligent, Sovereign, & Ethical Human Being (ISBN 0974164100).

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