The Legacy of John Taylor Gatto

October 4, 2019Stacey Lynn


When you take the free will out of education, that makes it schooling. ~John Taylor Gatto

One of the most revolutionary educators in the American school system was none other than John Taylor Gatto. For almost 30 years, he dedicated his passion for teaching to the New York City public school system. He received the honor of being named “New York State Teacher of the Year” in 1991 and received the same honor in the city of New York three years in a row, in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

Everyone around him recognized the relationships he had with his students. He did not see them as simple subordinates, to be lorded over, and they, in turn, greatly enjoyed Gatto’s classes. They also participated in those classes with a great deal of excitement and loyalty. His motto for each of his students was actually quite simple: treat them just like you would treat anyone else.

But after nearly three decades in the system, he realized it was a toxic environment, and not by accident. It seemed to be specifically designed for the dumbing down of these children, a ritual in which he could no longer take part. He then spent the rest of his career speaking and writing in support of unschooling and open source learning.

His Early Life

Born in Monongahela, PA in 1935, Gatto was a very hardworking young man. Taking on jobs such as lawn mowing, comic book sales, snow shoveling, and working in his grandfather’s printing shop, he learned the value and rewards of hard work early.

He attended Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pittsburg for undergraduate study before serving in the United States Army. During his time in the service, he served in both Fort Sam Houston, Texas as well as Fort Knox, Kentucky in the medical corps.

After the Army, he attended five different colleges, including the University of California, Berkeley, and Yeshiva University, to complete his graduate work. From there, he continued to dabble in a variety of different jobs prior to taking an interest in becoming an educator. He wrote scripts for film, became a songwriter for ASCAP, drove a taxi, designed jewelry, and sold hot dogs, not to mention writing speeches for Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon.

Gatto Resigns From Public School

After much research on the educational system as a whole, Gatto concluded there was no repairing it. He decided to resign from his position after twenty-six years. But in lieu of a resignation letter, he posted “I Quit, I Think” which was published as an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on July 25, 1991.

In this piece, he speaks of understanding the actual curriculum set up for him to teach, how it created confusion, disrespect, and vulgarity, among other things. He actually petitioned the school board for permission to teach a curriculum that did not harm the children, but they refused to allow it. Thus began his search for the truth.

He also went on to liken public education to a religion, the school a church, and himself, a priest hired by New York City to create rituals and justification of the system as a whole. He pointed out that Socrates himself had warned against this very thing; that in such an environment what is easy to do is made to seem hard.

You can read that piece, in its entirety HERE, in his book titled, “An Underground History of American Education.”

Not long after resigning through the op-ed section of the WSJ, Gatto became the main feature of a Carnegie Hall presentation called, “An Evening With John Taylor Gatto.” The show launched his popularity as a public speaker on the topic of school reform, a subject that he did not take lightly. In fact, he took his message to each of the fifty states as well as seven overseas destinations, giving more than fifteen hundred speeches during that time.

Some of Gatto’s major accomplishments after his resignation include:

  • Named Secretary of Education in the Libertarian Party Shadow Cabinet - 1992
  • Named in Who’s Who in America - 1996, 1997
  • Received the Alexis de Tocqueville Award
  • Served on the Board of Advisors of the National TV-Turnoff Week

Gatto looked deeper into the educational processes of his own childhood in the 1940s and realized that in those times, there was a dedication to real work, adventures, charity, and mentors who taught essential real-life skills. He also spoke of a strong sense of community, including homemaking and other necessary aspects of life in general.

According to Gatto, the public school system as it stands today is impossible to reform. Because of this bold stance, he was viewed by many as a controversial radical. The fact that he called out institutional elites for their suppression of imagination and ingenuity was not an easy pill for some to swallow. Yet in the public school system, endless lines of children are molded to comply and assume their expected place in the system created for them.

Think of terms such as human resources and the workforce as just what they are: a title for a properly trained group of people who had completed the mandatory 12-year training system that creates strict conformity. Gatto said that in order to achieve this, there must be a massive campaign on the psychological front in order to curtail the human ability to think independently. In a very real sense, this is child abuse.

His Work & Message

Mr. Gatto worked toward the goal of showing that compulsory school attendance was nothing more than the effort to create a world of people who would be more than happy to serve both state and corporations. He also didn’t mind telling people exactly what he had done, and the methods he used, to help to empower his students and other youth. What’s more, these methods HAD WORKED! From there, he spent his time advocating for families and children in homeschooling, and most specifically, the Unschooling style.

There was no lack of achievement in his life after public school. Even having his teaching license suspended twice (for insubordination) and being secretly fired while on medical leave were not, by Gatto or those close to him, considered “failures.” Instead, he went on to dedicate himself to attempting to reverse the damage, both intellectual and emotional, that has been inflicted on children. He likened it to a “war” in which he had no choice but to fight.

He also likened the idea of “factory schooling” to a cancer that eventually metastasized, methodically removing any role that communities and family played in real education. According to his own experience, this completely ended the opportunity for children to grow into responsible adults.

Many think Gatto’s criticism too harsh, but the truth is, the conditions used for programming children is not only dehumanizing, but it goes back more than 200 years. In his book, The Underground History of American Education, he took the time to prove this with documentation that he had painstakingly gathered over the years. He shows that a Prussian model is used in which humans are actually sorted like animals by a minority of elites who practiced mass dumbing down of the extensive number of subjects beneath them.

To berate public education even more, Gatto links what was really going on when compulsory education turned into the law of the land in Massachusetts in 1852. Northeastern elites had started to discuss the possibility of a utopian setting after the Civil War that started with isolating children from their parents or guardians. Such indoctrination, they expected, would lead to a more orderly form of society in which democratic and libertarian traditions were thrown off.

For example, consider these thoughts from a work by Edward A Ross on “Social Control” in 1901. In that work, you will read that the “plan” was to use mass media, education, and propaganda (ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause) to replace family, community, and church. The plan was to break free from the church and embrace the school to help form these “plastic lumps of human dough” as Ross calls the children.

According to Gatto, who has all the experience necessary to make the claim, people can learn all the foundational math, reading, and writing information they need in roughly 100 hours of study. Public school, on the other hand, requires a whopping 25,000 hours for the same things. But why?

He teaches that the reason behind this mass schooling approach provides a means through which the general population can be socially engineered. Furthermore, he calls schools “laboratories” in which violence and humiliation are the tools used to bring about social efficiency.

Gatto made many remarks that could in no way be considered “sugar-coated.” For instance, he spoke of how the only thing grades measure is obedience. He said that schools blame families for their inability to be a family, all while taking away the time that could be used by families to do just that. If you want an education, he wrote, you have to be willing to take it, because no one is going to give you one. At least not a real one.

Yes, he probably could have been more diplomatic in his approach or his wording, but that certainly wasn’t his way of doing things. After all, to reveal the hard truths, diplomacy as most people see it, must be pushed to the side. A shaking sometimes has to occur before a light can penetrate the darkness. While “cracking the system” would have been a way to let light in, Gatto seemed to believe that those cracks were far more feasible as a means to let the light OUT.

More Links To Gatto’s Writings

To read Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, CLICK HERE. To purchase it, CLICK HERE.

In this book, removing your children from forced schooling and creating a foundation of lifelong learning is strongly encouraged. Mr. Gatto speaks about the roughly 100 years in which schooling has been mandatory, and the “progress” that has been made: lower literacy rates, a massive increase in the diagnosis of learning disabilities, fragmented families, and more. The blame, he says, is on government schooling.

He goes on to speak of how necessities such as the ability to problem-solve and natural curiosity were being crushed by public school doctrine. Instead, there was a fierce loyalty to teaching them to follow strict rules instead.

To read Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, CLICK HERE. To purchase it, CLICK HERE.

Here, Gatto tells how imagination and critical thinking are crippled. It is replaced with rote-memorization and a completely false idea of what learning actually is. This book seeks to solidify his evidence that public school literally inflicts harm on children, and that the harm is deliberate. Children are torn away from the idea that independence and self-reliance have any place in their lives while being taught instead that experts must be trusted and relied upon, and that the experiences they have lived through should not be connected to them in any way.

Gatto doesn’t leave the reader with bleak hopelessness, however. He speaks to a strategy by which parents can help their children escape the trap of public school. The ability to keep learning and life closely tied together, he calls “open-source learning” and in teaching there should be no difference between the two.

A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling

In this book, you’ll get to read from a collection of Mr. Gatto’s writings exposing the system for its promotion of economic interests through the forced education of children. Instead, he emphasizes the need to teach them better critical thinking skills as a good starting place.

The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling

A revelation of the inner workings of a system Gatto could no longer stomach being a part of, it truly changes the view of the public school system. Errors are exposed in the systems of grading, testing, standardization and so much more. Here, Gatto describes the public school as a religion that comes with Prussian connections.

In Closing

As you and your family embark on your own endeavor to homeschool your children, we invite you to take part in an amazing resource that could catapult you towards success in that venture. Our Great Homeschool Conventions are put together to be a massive resource for all homeschooling families by offering workshops, speakers, and vendors. You’ll get to connect with professionals and fellow homeschoolers alike, for a more personal involvement with the community.

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