The World According To Gatto

By David Ruenzel — March 01, 2001 25 min read
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Gatto’s central message is that families should shake off their public school dependencies and take charge of their own educations.

Thanks to an old hip injury, John Taylor Gatto, age 65, walks with a slight limp. But, in many ways, he is still a big presence. Big is an adjective former students use to describe Gatto, who quit his profession—and explained his reasons for doing so in the Wall Street Journal—almost immediately after winning the New York State Teacher of the Year Award in 1991. And big is what I think as I watch him walk across a stage in a Boston auditorium to address an audience consisting largely of defectors from the public school system. (The event is part of the Growing Without Schooling magazine speaker series.) With closely cropped white hair, a round face, and a thick neck, Gatto looks like a retired football tackle who spent years in the trenches. This befits a man who hails from Monongahela, the same western Pennsylvania town as Joe Montana, and who devotes his Sundays to watching NFL football.

Always provocative, Gatto begins his talk this October evening by projecting on a screen a picture of a goofy-looking boy. Standing before a table cluttered with cereal, soups, and other packaged goods, the boy pulls absent-mindedly on his ears. The image, Gatto says, represents the typical American teenager; his emotional and intellectual growth have been stunted by video games, sitcoms, and American schools, which he calls “government reservations.”

“Does organized schooling have anything to do with an increase in childishness?” he asks, his megaphone of a voice booming. He soon answers his own question: “This is the thesis that I’ll be pursuing tonight—that enormous numbers of American children have been dumbed down and made morally incomplete. . . . School extends childhood far beyond natural bounds.”

It used to be, Gatto asserts, that American children flowered into adulthood at a very young age. He quotes de Tocqueville who, after visiting the United States in 1839, noted that “in America there is, strictly speaking, no adolescence. At the close of boyhood the man appears.” But now, Gatto continues, “childhood has been artificially extended into the 20s and beyond. No one finds that picture"—he gestures to the slide of the boy—"out of the norm. American teenage boys are goofy, daffy; they put funny things into their ears, and we all assume this is natural.”

Just how and why schools have stifled students, and corrupted many well-intentioned teachers in the process, are subjects Gatto has diligently addressed over the past 10 years in speeches, essays, and four books, including two that were just published: A Different Kind of Teacher, a collection of previously published writings; and The Underground History of American Education. Gatto is hoping the history book, which is as hefty as the Manhattan phone directory, will serve as the basis for a film project he’s planning with a former student. They envision a three-part, six-hour documentary series exploring everything from the role of big business in forging factory-style schools to the alternative and homeschooling movements.

Author and lecturer John Gatto.
—Donal Holway

Gatto’s books and ideas, like the man himself, are the source of both exaltation and exasperation. To many members of the burgeoning homeschooling movement, which is approximately 1.3 million strong, he is an icon; his mailbox is regularly stuffed with speaking requests and fan letters. He has delivered hundreds of lectures at colleges and alternative-education conferences across the country. And in recent years, he’s addressed educators and homeschoolers in foreign countries, including Singapore, China, England, and Italy. During a trip to Japan, educators asked him, much to his amusement, if there was a way to set up a homeschooling system. What they didn’t realize is that Gatto sees homeschooling as a way out of a system.

Pat Farenga, editor of Growing Without Schooling magazine, which is published by the John Holt Associates, told me that among alternative educators Gatto is widely regarded as a hero. “What John did for homeschoolers was to give them the imprimatur that it’s OK for them to do this,” he said. “A lot of them felt a nagging doubt about pulling their kids from public school. And then along comes this award-winning public school teacher who not only tells them that it’s OK but that it should be done.”

It used to be, Gatto asserts, that American children flowered into adulthood at a very young age. ‘Does organized schooling have anything to do with an increase in childishness?’ he asks.

But Gatto’s uncompromising views and combative nature sometimes annoy even those who agree with much of what he has to say. Farenga, an old friend, regrets that Gatto has portrayed the public school system as an evil empire; homeschoolers can work with public schools, Farenga said, and his daughter, who’s enrolled in a Spanish class at her local school, is a good example.

Other school reformers assert that Gatto simply goes too far in his damnation of the system. Tony Wagner, a former teacher who is now co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that, while Gatto has accurately diagnosed many public school ills, he’s overlooked the fact that many schools have successfully reinvented themselves. “He doesn’t give us any alternatives, either,” Wagner, author of How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities, added. “He talks about homeschooling, but that’s simply not a realistic alternative for everyone.”

After the lecture, Gatto, wearing a tie and a navy blue suit, signs copies of his books at a table in the back of the auditorium. Several ponytailed teenage boys, who say they left public schools to educate themselves, gather around. They strike me as the kind of independent-minded young people Gatto claims once sprouted regularly from American soil. One boy tells Gatto that he and his friends recently marched to the house of Alfie Kohn, a prominent critic of “drill and kill,” to challenge Kohn’s support of public schools. Another expresses anger over the standards- and-testing movement.

But then the conversation takes a turn. After one teenager smugly proclaims that overpopulation is threatening world civilization, Gatto looks incredulous for a moment and, then, making eye contact with the boy, says, “Now, why would you say something like that?” The boy looks stunned; it’s as if no one has ever challenged him before. “People like to congregate where other people are,” Gatto continues. “That’s why there are millions of people in Manhattan. I’ve been across China, and I tell you, it’s mostly a lot of empty space, though everyone says it’s overpopulated. So I really wonder if you’ve thought about the assertion you’re making.”

The teenager stammers a bit, then goes silent. Like me, he’s probably wondering why Gatto is being so antagonistic. But, as I discover later, the key to understanding the man is to look beyond his books and speeches. As thought- provoking and inspiring as they are, they don’t, as Wagner pointed out, demonstrate how to improve education. For that, you have to look at Gatto’s teaching career.

But, first, it helps to consider his way of thinking. Gatto’s central message— the one that runs throughout the books and speeches—is that families should shake off their public school dependencies and take charge of their own educations. And homeschooling, he argues, is not the only option. He also likes the idea of small schools created by communities. Some, located in homes, might teach cooking and sewing as well as reading and writing. Others, housed in storefronts, could call on local tradespeople to help students build their own schools.

Gatto agrees with the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child,” though not one dependent upon social programs, government projects, and, of course, public schools. His village is a genuine cluster of brick-and-mortar neighborhoods populated by people who look after and teach each other, even if some bicker along the way. In Underground History, he writes: “When we want better families, better neighbors, better friends, and better schools we shall turn our backs on national and global systems, on expert experts and specialist specialists and begin to make our own schools one by one, far from the reach of systems.”

Late in his career, Gatto allowed his students to pursue projects outside of school. A colleague says he was like a shepherd who lets his young flock go wherever it pleases.
—Donal Holway

What’s the foundation of Gatto’s thinking? During the Boston speech, he told his audience that, early in the 19th century, the spread of industrialization demanded that people become full-time factory workers; thus “the new utopian world of forced schooling” was created. The goal, Gatto said, was to instill obedience in future workers, to “convince people that they want what the machines want most.”

As it turns out, those doing the convincing—unwittingly or not—were teachers. And they continue to do it, as far as Gatto is concerned. In Dumbing Us Down—his first book, published 10 years ago—is a chapter titled “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher,” a reprint of his New York State Teacher of the Year acceptance speech. Gatto writes that, among the lessons “universally taught” in schools are: confusion (“Everything I teach is out of context”); indifference (“When the bell rings I insist that they drop whatever it is we have been doing and move on to the next station”); and emotional dependency (“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command”).

One of the reasons Gatto thinks he escaped these pitfalls is that he lived the kind of life he’d like others to experience. He grew up in a working-class river town 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, where his grandfather was a printer, his father a cookie salesman, and his mother a self-educated woman he describes as “resourceful, imaginative, generally optimistic.” Gatto roamed the town freely, learning from everyone he met. His best teachers, he recalls, were “the high-rolling car dealer,” “the druggist wiser than the doctor,” “the psychological haberdasher,” and “the fun-loving mayor.”

As educational as his hometown was, nowhere in his writings does Gatto suggest that he knew he’d grow up to be a teacher. So, on the day after his speech, I ask him how he came to spend 30 years teaching in a public school system for which he has expressed such deep contempt.

This is not our first meeting. The night before, we went to a Boston pub where we drank Guinness and talked football and education into the early morning hours. Prior to the speech, Gatto had driven all the way from New York City, where he and his wife, Janet, live half of the year. (The other half is spent in their farmhouse in upstate New York.)

Gatto’s uncompromising views and combative nature sometimes annoy even those who agree with much of what he has to say.

So, by all rights, he should be exhausted. But Gatto looks fresh in his crisp, white shirt and pressed tan pants and jacket. As the interview begins, he pulls his chair 15 feet away from me. He likes to deliberate on a question, to mull it over before answering, he explains, and the physical distance helps him do that.

“It baffles me, too, why I stayed so long in teaching,” he says, finally. “Look, I was between advertising jobs—that’s what it amounted to. I was bored out of my gourd in advertising and thought I’d step out for a couple years.”

In the late ‘50s, Gatto was a young New York City copywriter scripting commercials for shaving cream, washing down steaks with icy martinis, and occasionally heading upstate to skeet shoot with clients. He enjoyed his life of luxurious dissolution for a year or two but soon came to despise advertising as a great waste of human intelligence. So in the spring of 1960, he “borrowed” the teaching license of a roommate, who’d concluded, after one day on the job, that no sane person could be a teacher. Gatto went to Harlem, where he knew the desperate need for substitute teachers would spare him any embarrassing questions about his qualifications until he got a license of his own, which he received that summer.

He soon began to run into what he terms “violently bizarre scenarios, where if you did something slightly out of the routine you’d be called on the carpet by outraged people.” Once, after Gatto had spent a period teaching a class how to tell time in Spanish, an assistant principal told him he’d screwed up a month’s worth of lesson plans. In another incident, he came across a 3rd grader who was able to read the Victorian-era works of Daniel Webster, yet she’d been assigned to a remedial reading class. Gatto went to the principal, who scolded him in patronizing tones. “Mr. Gatto, you’re very naïve,” the principal said. “Children memorize stories, and they only seem able to read.”

Surreal as his early experiences were, something about teaching captivated Gatto. So, in 1963, he got a full-time job teaching 8th grade English at Intermediate School 44 on New York’s tony Upper West Side, just two blocks from his home. “I was intrigued,” he recalls. “When the door closed, I had godlike sovereignty. The classroom was my laboratory. I decided to test how far and how fast I could push the kids. Thirty years later, I had still not found the edge of the envelope. There’s no limit. I had presumptive evidence that human genius is abundant.”

Convinced that kids could handle even the most challenging material, Gatto decided in 1965 to teach a lesson on Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. He had only pretended to read the novel while an undergraduate at Cornell, skimming the Cliffs Notes so that he could pass the test. But now he would read it along with his students, unraveling sentences like thread from a spool. “The experience was a revelation,” he recalls. “Within 60 days, simply by using seminar techniques from Ivy League colleges, my discipline problems just about vanished as students engaged with the material.”

Before launching into Moby-Dick, Gatto had established a kind of esprit de corps by telling his students that they were about to read a book usually reserved for what were considered the finest minds and most elite social classes. Nevertheless, he was certain that they could handle it, fresh as they might be, as he put it, from Dick and Jane.

“We first worked on periodic sentences,” Gatto recalls. “I told them that we’re used to having the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence, but that Melville puts the important stuff at the end. I explained that this is how the Romans wrote because they thought it was the best way to make subtle points of mind. Rather than giving up, believing that only the most elite kids can do this, they simply had to hold in mind that key clauses come at the end. The minute you give kids the keys to unlock something difficult—in this case a classic text—they can enter the terrain of someone else’s mind.”

In essence, Gatto was telling his students that, by mastering the material, they could demonstrate that they, in fact, have “the finest minds.” This co-optive tactic has been used by many outstanding teachers, including Jaime Escalante, who told his students from the barrios of Los Angeles that they had ganas (desire, want) and could therefore master calculus. But, like Escalante, Gatto was not just employing a rhetorical tactic; he also had a deep faith in his students’ abilities to achieve at extraordinary levels.

“Essentially, I treated kids at 13 like fully grown human beings,” Gatto recalls. “I discovered that 12- and 13-year-olds could handle complex abstractions to the same extent my mind could. It got to the point where I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I was dying to get into school so that I could find out what the goddamn kids were going to teach me next.”

But why, I ask, did students respond so emphatically to his teaching and not the teaching of others? What was so unusual about his approach?

“It’s a question of responding to this young human life as if it’s of equal importance to yours,” he says without hesitation. “If you do that, kids will teach you all kinds of things because they’re not trapped in all these conventional patterns that you’re trapped in as an older person. The kids’ reflections were important to unlocking parts of myself that were conditioned. Even at 65, I still run into these conditioned places in myself—I didn’t see what was there.”

One of Gatto’s former students is Roland Legiardi-Laura, the filmmaker who is helping his mentor put together a documentary on education. Gatto considers Legiardi-Laura an embodiment of the self-made American. An orphan by the age of 16, he went on to manage the Nuyorican Poet’s Café into prominence, renovate a former 19th-century boys’ home in the East Village, and make two documentary films. Azul, his movie about the Nicaraguan passion for poetry, won several awards.

“The important thing about John is that he felt joy when he learned something from you,” Legiardi-Laura told me. “He grew excited if you had an idea of value that he hadn’t thought of before. He never condescended to us, and he always treated us as equals.”

Why did students respond so emphatically to his teaching and not the teaching of others? What was so unusual about his approach?

Legiardi-Laura was an 8th grader 35 years ago, but he still remembers Gatto’s class in detail. Aside from Moby-Dick, the students read 10 other books and produced book reports that were so comprehensive that he admits to recycling some of them in high school. The students also memorized soliloquies from Hamlet, tackled individual projects (Legiardi-Laura’s was on the Warsaw Ghetto), and analyzed several newspapers so they could see how stories were spun from one paper to the next.

“John was demanding of us but never nasty or bitter,” he recalled. “Even the laggards worked in his class.”

Speaking in a similar vein, other former students used many of the same adjectives to describe Gatto: passionate, intense, energetic, different, and kind among them. Wendy Ziegler, an artist in Petaluma, California, provided perhaps the most original characterization: “There was a spiritual as well as an intellectual side to John, so that it was like being around a prime mover.”

While Gatto was never a conventional teacher, he did in the early years of his career make up tests, give spot quizzes, and assign grades. Even then, though, his approach was not typical. Janet Griffin, who now lives in upstate New York, said that Gatto graded papers like no one else. “If you wrote a paper that had just one brilliant point, you’d get an A plus plus plus. This was just because you saw a gem, discovered something new,” she explained. “You see, what always counted with John is that you broke through somewhere. So he’d find something that came out of your brain, your soul, and grade you on that.”

Nevertheless, A pluses were not handed out liberally. Hannah Lamb, who was in Gatto’s English class during the 1983-84 school year, said that he gave her quite a few F’s. Yet somehow, she added, “he affected me more than any other teacher. I’m certain a lot of it had to do with his expectation that we, even as middle school students, would be able to function competently in the adult world.”

I asked Lamb what kind of career she ended up having.

“I’m a 5th grade teacher in New York City,” she said, “though I know I’m not as effective as John was. I wish I had his kind of forceful personality.”

If Gatto had spent his entire career at School 44 he might have been considered a gifted teacher but not necessarily a great one; after all, the students were mostly upper-middle-class Manhattanites. But, after more than 15 years, he left the school, in part because his wife was then on the local school board, and he didn’t want anyone suggesting he might use her position to get “a sweet teaching deal.”

So, in 1981, Gatto moved on to Lincoln Academy (now Horizons Middle School), then considered a dumping ground for kids with behavior problems. But a year or two later, the school began attracting “good” kids from stable families whom Gatto didn’t consider much of a challenge. After trying another middle school for a while, he took a job teaching 8th graders at Booker T. Washington Junior High in Spanish Harlem.

The school was predominantly African American and Hispanic, with more than half the students coming from families at or near the poverty level. It was at Booker T. Washington that Gatto became a celebrity, winning the New York City Teacher of the Year Award in 1990 and the New York City and New York State Teacher of the Year awards in 1991. Over the years, he’d infuriated many school administrators with his criticisms of the system, but his accomplishments—which were sometimes covered by the press—could not be denied. Some of his students at Booker T. Washington, for example, were finalists and winners in major essay competitions sponsored by the school district. Others made their marks in the “real world” by doing things such as founding a flea market, launching a letter-writing campaign to fund the building of the John Lennon Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park, and starting a food co-op.

Asked if teaching mostly poor, at-risk kids offered special challenges—and perhaps raised the level of his game—Gatto demurs, saying that, as he had in the past, he treated the kids at Booker T. Washington “like fully grown human beings.” He admits, however, that this wasn’t always his tack.

Early in his career, Gatto says, he was delivering a lecture on Calvinistic predestination—the belief that a select group of people are elected at birth to be saved—when an African American student fell asleep and slipped to the floor. “I kicked at the soles of his feet, like a cop waking a tramp,” he recalls. “I was angry about his inattention. The kid fights back, but not with his fists. He says: ‘I learned all this stuff in the 3rd grade. How the ladies who sew and clean houses were meant to do this. How your genes and chromosomes determine everything, and you can’t escape.’ This kid had written in his head a Ph.D. thesis that could be turned into a book.”

A few uninterested parties aside, many of Gatto’s students worshiped their teacher, who, trying to dispel any myths, told me at the beginning of our interview, “I have no intention of being turned into a guru.” But a former colleague who taught with Gatto on and off for 15 years, told me, “John was very much the Pied Piper.” His students literally followed him down corridors, peppering him with questions. In short, they considered him their fearless leader. But having young people look to him for validation amounted to a cardinal violation of Gatto’s principles.

So he made “anti-guruhood a conscious teaching, its examination part of my curriculum,” he tells me. Beginning in the late ‘70s, he established—first at School 44 and later at Lincoln Academy—an experimental school within a school. At Lincoln, more than 50 students participated by doing independent projects, with Gatto serving as guide.

‘The important thing about John is that he felt joy when he learned something from you.’

Roland Legiardi-Laura
Filmmaker, former student

By way of example, he explains how he handled any student who was so good at impersonating teachers, the kid would have his classmates in stitches. “I’d go up to him,” Gatto recalls, “and he’d probably say, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it anymore.’ And I would answer: ‘No, no, you’re good at it. There must be 500 actor studios in New York, and I can get you hooked up with one of them. But I’ll expect you to write something about it, to produce something of value to other people.’ When that’s the negotiation, you bat close to one thousand. You have nothing to lose.”

By fudging attendance records and encouraging students to exit quickly and quietly, Gatto also allowed his kids to venture outside of school, where many were involved in community service. Others polled New Yorkers on various subjects, interned with everyone from dressmakers to newspaper editors, and visited museums. One girl slipped past a security guard at the New Yorker magazine in an attempt to query William Shawn, the legendary and reclusive editor. She got the interview.

During his final years of teaching, Gatto stepped outside of tradition altogether. Jamaal Wilson, one of his students in 1991, wrote an article that year for Children’s Express Quarterly. Reprinted in A Different Kind of Teacher, it recounts a typical week for a Gatto class: one day each for independent study and apprenticeships; another day for community service, which had each student “helping others, not being a parasite,” Wilson writes; and the remaining two days for class, during which students “practiced dialectics, which is thinking where you automatically assume that anything an authority tells you is dead wrong.”

There’s no question that Gatto bent, and sometimes broke, the rules—a subject he refuses to discuss in detail. But in his writings, he refers to himself as a saboteur, a role he believes a teacher must play to be effective in public schools.

At least one former colleague at School 44, a retired math teacher and old poker buddy named Danny Kotok, does not agree. Speaking from his home in Florida, Kotok, who taught for 31 years, said he had great respect for Gatto and his teaching abilities. “If I were principal, I would have had him at the top of the staff, as my premier English teacher,” he added. But he didn’t share Gatto’s hostility toward the public school system.

“John would operate outside of the lines, and if he didn’t like something the administrators had done, he would let them know,” Kotok said. “But I had the attitude that if I did my job as well as I could, I could work through my frustrations with all the nonsense. I wasn’t going to get all worked up about it, because you had about as much of a chance of succeeding as getting the Arabs and Jews to love each other.”

Kotok also questioned the freedom Gatto gave his students. “John let the kids do pretty much what they wanted, and they soon realized that it was pretty much a matter of what they could get away with,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he allowed the kids to do some things they shouldn’t have done. He was the shepherd letting the flock go wherever it pleases.”

As my interview with Gatto winds down, I suggest that public education couldn’t be hopeless if he was able to positively influence so many students. He says, however, that he was one of only a few iconoclasts working inside a system that would never tolerate more than a handful of such teachers. It’s a system that has been devoted, since its inception, to managing, not educating, and it’s therefore incapable of change, he adds.

So, does Gatto have alternatives to offer? Eliminate forced schooling and a thousand flowers will bloom is the gist of his argument. There could then be schools in homes, businesses, churches-almost anything would be possible. And the poor, whose condition has, in part, been perpetuated by compulsory attendance in terrible schools, would finally be free to pursue alternatives of their own making. Gatto says: “Poor people are mostly poor, particularly poor in spirit, because the policy classes"—his trope for ruling classes—"and the cops and schoolteachers who do its bidding keep them poor. The system that pays for our schools could not survive without the poor, the desperate.”

Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration, agrees that American education, to some degree, practices social engineering—indeed, her recent book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, argues this point. “But 80 percent of American children will always be in public schools,” she told me. “It makes no more sense to do away with them than police departments; there are plenty of people who do not want to make their own arrangements for public safety and schools. I foresee a K-12 system that is a lot like the higher-ed landscape—an attractive mixture of private and public options.”

‘John imagines this world in which people will, through voluntary associations, create their own schools.”

Deborah Meier,
Mission Hill,
Charter School,

One of the few public school educators Gatto holds in high esteem is Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East School in Harlem and currently director of the Mission Hill Charter School in Boston. Gatto taught one of her children in the late ‘60s, and being an activist parent at the time, she served on a number of school-related committees with him. I asked Meier what she thought of Gatto’s idea to break up the public school system. Before answering, she praised him as a “gifted teacher, unpredictable and exciting.” She also said many of his criticisms of public schools were incisive. But she believes that eliminating the system would have dire consequences that Gatto perhaps hasn’t considered.

“John imagines this world in which people will, through voluntary associations, create their own schools,” she said. “And he’s right in some ways. The closer institutions are to the people, the more ‘mom and pop’ they are, the better. But I think these institutions should primarily be public, not private. I disagree with John in that I believe, in the absence of public schools, privately managed institutions will take over that are primarily interested in profit and even less accountable than public schools. Whereas John sees powerful community-based schools, I see a chain of Wal-Martlike schools.”

Gatto disagrees. After his speech before the John Holt Associates, when he was talking to some of the homeschooling teenagers, one said he respected Gatto but wanted to take issue with his call for an end to compulsory schooling. If every kid were allowed to drop out of school, he said, most would spend their time just hanging out, playing computer games.

“No!” Gatto bellowed. “Kids wouldn’t do that. The kids you’re talking about are like those who built America, and they will reinvent themselves if given the chance. Yes, there would be a period of chaos, during which people would be searching for alternatives, but in the end, it would all work out.”


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