Story by Annie Nocenti
"The current school system is a diseased organism. The standard song about school, that it makes good people, good citizens, is easy to believe if you want to believe it, and if you don't look with your own eyes at the mangled, mutilated mess that schools turn out." JOHN TAYLOR GATTO, 2003
What would compel a three-time Teacher of the Year winner, education author and scholar, and 30-year veteran teacher to make such a statement? What kind of wall is this man up against? John Taylor Gatto is a self-styled saboteur at the forefront of a quiet little revolution of radical school reform. His call to arms requires teachers, parents, and students to unite in defiance of custom and law—in short, to engage in guerrilla warfare in the classroom.
"Just because your kids are being schooled doesn’t mean they’re being educated. Schooling is given or imposed," explains Gatto, "but an education is taken by the student. The kid is 90 percent sovereign in it. A kid should be the director of his life." When Gatto won the New York State Teacher of the Year award in 1991, his infamous response to the honor was to quit. He didn’t want to "hurt kids" anymore. In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal he wrote, "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."
In Gatto’s acceptance speech for that same award, he articulated some key problems: that teachers essentially teach confusion (they teach things out of context), indifference (the bell rings; drop what you’re doing and move on), and emotional dependency (reinforced with gold stars, smiles, frowns, tests, and grades). Students may like or hate school in equal number, but Gatto believes that what is learned in public school is not worth the ways in which the process can cripple a child.
Does such a crisis warrant pulling your child out of the system?
"There’s genius in every child," Gatto declares, "but it hardly ever regrows once it’s stomped out. Schools turn out incomplete people, people that have to be connected to some other source of meaning because they can’t generate meaning from the inside. Schooling as it exists isn’t nearly the most efficient way if you want mental development, and it’s a catastrophe if you want moral development."
COMPLETE STORY IN JANUARY 2004 HIGH TIMES