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Notes from the Education Underground (An Education World e-Interview With John Taylor Gatto)


John Taylor Gatto proudly declares himself a saboteur, out to overturn our educational system. In his book, The Underground History of American Education, published by Oxford Village Press, Gatto labels the current system "a conspiracy against ourselves" and suggests ways of "breaking out of the trap." Always provocative and challenging, he talked with Education World about what's wrong with compulsory education, how the Prussian approach to education influenced U.S. education for the worse, and other compelling issues.

John Taylor Gatto attended public schools and a private boarding school in Pennsylvania before doing undergraduate work at Cornell, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia and graduate work at Cornell, Yeshiva, Hunter College, and the University of California. He worked as a scriptwriter for films; an advertising writer; a jewelry designer; a songwriter for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Songwriters; and a cab driver before he became a teacher, a job he held for 30 years. During his classroom career, he was honored as teacher of the year for New York City and New York state.

Along the way, Gatto became known as one of education's most original and controversial critics. His books include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Exhausted School (1993), and A Different Kind of Teacher (2000). Education World talked with Gatto about his book The Underground History of American Education.

Education World: After teaching for 30 years and being named teacher of the year, why did you leave teaching?

John Taylor Gatto: I left teaching for a combination of reasons, but principally there were two. [First,] the only way I could continue to be effective with kids was to ... break a great many rules (and even laws) on a regular basis. To get away with it meant I had to keep a low profile at school, to squeeze between the cracks left open by a management indifferent to its charges. That became impossible after the awards I'd won brought camera crews and many other kinds of attention to my classroom practices.

[Second,] over the last ten years of my teaching, I had become increasingly depressed about the possibility of any mass reform in government schooling. I concluded that school in its common form was doing precisely what it had been set up to do; rather than being a failure, it was a brilliant success -- from the perspective of its ultimate managers. Even the superficially promising reforms like charter schools and other forms of school choice ran smack into the brick wall of standardized testing and an economy highly centralized, one with little use for human parts which didn't fit. As soon as the first generation of dedicated staff who created the new forms passed on, it seemed inevitable that orthodox schooling would reimpose its yoke, however cosmetically. That was the one-two punch that caused me to quit.

EW: What impact on the schooling of children in the United States would you like your new book to have?

Gatto: I hope that by supplying a context against which the individual problems of mass schooling can be seen, people will abandon the wasteful task of "problem solving" about testing, discipline, curriculum, staffing, and all the other particles of institutional schooling and begin to see the institutionalizing of children itself is the problem without a solution. Once this happens, children are gradually reduced to become tiny miniatures of themselves; they are made incomplete.

The only real society-wide solution is to abandon mass schooling entirely. Until that happens, which may be never, each of us individually needs to withdraw his or her loyalty from the pronouncements of official policymakers, visible and invisible, and to become a school board/superintendent of one or two. To avoid being thrown in the clink, people need to see themselves partially as saboteurs of what is -- for their own children. As the numbers who do this increase, systematic schooling's stability will decrease.

My book is intended to provide courage to the saboteur class by affirming that what they suspected about unsavory motives being behind the forced schooling thing is completely accurate.

EW: In your book, you make a case for how the Prussian approach to teaching greatly influenced U.S. education. Why did that work for the worse in U.S. schools?

Gatto: Originally, there were three purposes for formal schooling. Call the first "the religious purpose," to make good people who acted out of principle and were fit to live beside; people who had an inner life and values which transcended the material. Call the second, "the public purpose," to make a citizen class whose individuals knew how to argue and work for the general civic good. Call the third, "the private purpose," to make self-directing individuals with insight into their own particular strengths and aspirations, and [give them] some help in developing personal powers.

You could clothe those purposes in different words to make them acceptable to one group or another, and still the central meanings of purposes one, two, and three would be in harmony with almost every American. But toward the end of the 19th century a fourth purpose arose here. It was inspired by the Prussian model, which held schooling to be a workshop where everyone was standardized according to his or her destination in the social order. In fourth-purpose schooling, school exists to serve corporate business in a corporate economy and to serve the managerial functions of government.

The United States was an experiment in common liberty, not corporate consensus. We are the result of the energy and dreams generated by the independent and dissenting religious traditions, a confluence of revolutionary ideas. To the extent we become good Germans or good English, we surrender what makes America unique, and we rob the planet of the ideal of personal sovereignty.

EW: Should schooling be compulsory? Why or why not?

Gatto: The idea of turning your son or daughter over to total strangers for a huge chunk of early, middle, and late youth is one of the craziest, most radical ideas in human history. Why should anybody sane find it appealing? Think hard about the assumptions behind such a notion, the degraded view of human beings, and from those degraded assumptions we get many of the horrors associated with modern life. From the point of view of a master class or a slave class, school should be compulsory, of course; for the rest of us it's a vampire, sucking away our real possibilities.

EW: What do you mean when you say that the current system of educating students is a "conspiracy against ourselves"?

Gatto: We need to understand the degree of our own complicity in this school trap and the hidden payoffs that allow it to happen so effortlessly. For instance, we are promised we needn't trouble ourselves with thinking about what having an "education" would mean; we are promised freedom from the weighty responsibility of rearing our own children; we are promised freedom from the responsibility of making ourselves really useful to others in our youthful years so that we can earn a living later being useful. (Instead, the promise says, "Get good grades by being obedient in school and jobs or professional licenses will be reserved for you later on.") When we accept these promises, we enter the conspiracy and conspire against our own best interests.

For most people the bribes listed above, and others, are lies. ... When the result is lifelong dependence on newspapers, radio, TV, or computer programs for direction, bad families whose members are indifferent or disloyal to one another, and workplace instability and lifelong scrambling to hold on to a rung of the overcrowded job ladder, we must pronounce ourselves "losers" in the great race -- as most of us eventually conclude.

The trick is to see that all overorganized systems, whatever their surface justifications, steal our possibilities to become whole people, and by leaving us permanently incomplete, as functions in the system, rob us of our lives.

EW: If we wanted to replace this, how could we go about doing that?

Gatto: If I want to replace it, or you want to replace it, the steps are straightforward and rather easy. Read Ben Franklin's Autobiography or Herbert Spencer's Education, or many others for models of the many alternatives. The difficulty rests in that "we" of your question, the invisible assumption that somehow if "we" took over, we'd build a better system. I would disagree; in short order, you and I would visit the same system on the planet although it might take a few generations to evolve there. System itself, beyond a modest point, is anti-life, theology's Satan, certain to corrupt. The real dilemma is how to see behind its wonderful logic, its neat solutions, its abundant payoffs, into its real heart of darkness.


  • John Taylor Gatto Gatto's new book, The Underground History of American Education, is available on the site in a special pre-publication edition. The site also previews a film project, The Fourth Purpose: The Enigma of Public Schools, due soon from Gatto and Roland Legiardi-Laura. Information about the Odysseus Group, an organization "with the mission of promoting debate and discussion on the subject of education," formed by Gatto and Legiardi-Laura, can be found on the site.
  • Choice in Education This site offers links to approximately 15 Gatto articles and speeches. Topics covered include the origins of compulsory education, the nine assumptions of modern schooling, and why we need less school, not more.
  • The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher This essay details the six basic lessons taught in school, and knowing readers suggest setting your "irony detector in the on position" before reading.
  • Fast Company: "I'm a Saboteur" A lengthy interview with Gatto reveals why he got into teaching, what experiences made him a kind of outlaw among teachers, and his opinion on why homeschooling is booming.