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Interview with John Taylor Gatto

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #37, 2000.

See what John Taylor Gatto has to say about the educational system, and why he quit his job as a teacher.
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Mary Pride

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career via an essay printed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "I Quit, I Think." Since then, Gatto has become known as one of the most trenchant critics of today's educational system. The author of several popular books, including Dumbing Us Down and his newest work, The Underground History of American Education, Gatto is is heavy demand as a speaker to groups ranging from principals' associations to software companies to homeschool conferences. Practical Homeschooling publisher Mary Pride, who was hugely impressed by Gatto's latest book, caught up to him recently and managed to pick his brains for several hours.

John Taylor Gatto: Let me begin by characterizing where I'm coming from. I taught for thirty years in the Manhattan Public School. It was never my intention to teach. It happened by accident. I expected only to teach for a year or two. I got caught up in what seemed to me inexplicable problems that were so interesting that I would ask, "Would you mind if I stay an extra year?" When I woke up, thirty years had passed. After I got out, I still didn't have the answer to these puzzles. That was almost exactly nine years ago, and I set out to answer my questions. Had I known that it would take nine years to do that, I might very well have gotten a new set of questions. But as it was, one thing led to another, and I began to see that schools were functioning exactly as they had been designed to function, and that just puzzled the heck out of me. I said, "How could this happen? What purpose would explain schools being the way they are?" So I've been on a detective hunt for nine years. And what I'd like to say first of all to homeschoolers in particular - because they're right on the front lines, and they have to depend largely on themselves for courage and for inspiration - is that you made the right choice. You've made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best. But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose. People should understand that the local insanity that they think they're reacting against, if that's in fact their motive for homeschooling, is institution-wide, it's quite intentional, and it leads to an end that's useful to somebody.

MP: But not to parents or children.

JTG: Not to children. Not to me. (Small laugh.) I hope not to you. But it is useful to a certain idea of history. The hypothesis is that national states ceased to exist in reality just about a hundred years ago. That is - they exist in legal reality for most of their citizens, but for the guiding parts of the citizenry, they haven't existed for a full century.

MP: Yeah, they're citizens of the world.

JTG: So there is no United States, there is no China, there is no Saudi Arabia, there is no Germany. There's an international virtual nation made up of a small elite leadership, and this leadership guides the destiny of the masses. Now, the problem they run into, is that all sorts of traditional ways to live had created institutional forms. Christianity had created churches, the family structure was almost universal, tradition was a strong part of most parts of the world at most times. All of these things had to be overthrown, but they couldn't be overthrown by military force, it had to be done slowly, incrementally, and the most efficient way to do that was through children. So you have to isolate the children from those things for the better part of the day, for the better part of their youth, and you have to inculcate them with a different attitude. You have to make them antagonists of their parents, their religions, their own cultures, their local traditions. You have to get them to swear allegiance to some distant ideal, whose leaders they can't even see.

Is there a better factory to break down loyalty to local authority than a disruptive classroom? Think of it for a moment. Most of the children in a disruptive classroom are victims of the disruptors. If the authority has no power to offer relief to the people being victimized, a profound transformation takes place in relationships. Not only do the children write the teacher off as of no use, but after all, who confined them there in the first place but their own parents? So here you see a way to sever these parochial connections, for the good of a global principle. Which of course, is meant to result ultimately on a citizenry schooled in responding to external rewards and punishments, not in internal acts of conscience.

If any of your readers would like to have an official, professional, very high-level explanation of how this works, one is in existence, although they may have to work a little to get it. When Bill Clinton was nominated by the Democratic Party for the presidency in 1991, I think that was July 17th, the New York Times printed his acceptance speech for the nomination. The speech ended with the tribute to a college professor who had been Clinton's mentor at Georgetown. Clinton said that this professor had seen the future more clearly than anyone. His name was Caroll Quigley.

John Taylor Gatto and some of his students
Well, you could knock me over with a feather, Mary, because I read constantly and anybody who is worth knowing about I should at least have heard of. I never heard of this guy. So I went to the public library, and there was exactly one book in the files by Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. I ordered it; it was out. It never came back in. I travel constantly, so a few days later, I was in San Francisco, and I went to the San Francisco Library, and Quigley was in the files, book stolen. I went to Dallas, Quigley was in the files, book stolen. I made seven or eight other tries to get it, with the same result.

All of a sudden I'm beginning to smell a big rat. Here's the future president of the United States paying tribute to a man whose book is unavailable in the United States.

Some dentist out in California heard me on a radio show, saying that I was looking for the book. He called me up and said that he had a copy and I bought it from him.

Well, I saw why the book was unavailable. Quigley claims to be the only man ever allowed access to the private files of the group that has taken this project under their wing. We call it the Counsel on Foreign Relations in this country, but in fact there are 23 bases worldwide. Quigley said that he was allowed to read all their papers from its inception, and that the CFR had a clear, organized, rational plan to eliminate war and to make life - ah - efficient.

Quigley's book was printed in 1966 by Macmillan, hardly one of your conspiratorial publishing houses. In his book, Quigley said that he approved of the plan; what he didn't approve of was the secrecy.

But right before he died, about ten years ago, Quigley gave a series of lectures at Georgetown, called the Oscar Iden lectures. In the Iden lectures, Quigley said that he no longer accepted this as a moral or a decent thing to do, and that we had to take up arms against this plan.

So what we have is upper-level documentation by a major scholar, who in fact is paid tribute to by the current president of the United States in his acceptance speech. I was already started on the path of tracking down these players, but Quigley took me much, much farther than I could have gone alone. With Quigley's clues to what was happening, I was able myself to assemble from mainline scholarship, again, not from conspiracy books, a real outline of what had happened, and in particular what was happening in the schools. We're trying to make a film about this now... MP: Well, I don't probably need to teach you anything in this respect, but I would urge you to be wary of the syndrome where somebody buys your film in order to kill it. I've heard of this happening in the book world - the publisher coming out with the book, then just leaving it sitting in the warehouses, refusing to ship it, and it never goes out of print, because they're still in print, so the author can't ever get the rights back.

JTG: Absolutely! That's why I came out with the Limited Author's Edition of The Underground History of American Education, because I'm sure that when I finally accept a deal from a big publisher they'll want to X out lots of the names and facts as to who is behind what's going on today. I already had a deal like that and turned down what, for a junior high school teacher, was an astronomical amount of money, well into six figures. But I have to eat, and I'm not going to be able to keep turning down these deals forever, so I urge any of your readers who want to get the full story to get the Author's Edition of my book while it is still available.

MP: It used to be just like Marx said, whoever owned the means of production was the one who had the grip on the bottleneck. Nowadays, the means of production has become quite inexpensive and the problem is the means of distribution. For example, the technology exists for somebody to make a pretty nice film or animated feature, if the producer could get anyone anywhere to play it.

JTG: Yeah, I know, you're quite right! Let me make an analogy to what you said that'll tie right in to American history and schools. Obviously the beginnings of American history are British history. Britain had a state church, and unless you were a member of that state church, whose head was the king of England, you didn't get jobs and promotions, and military commissions, so the British elite really had a tight thing going. But what they feared wasn't reading so much as writing and public speaking. They called those things the active literacies. We're talking about a contest here between the active literacies and the inactive literacies. So inactive literacy would be a reading ability equal to reading instructions or lists, but not to deal with difficult ideas. Active literacies would involve the higher levels of reading, where you're actually entering someone else's mind and feeling the way it moves around an idea, but mainly writing and speaking, because writing and speaking gives access to people, whereas reading's a solitary thing.

MP: Tell us how your understanding of these two kinds of literacies affected your own teaching.

JTG: When I entered Manhattan in the early 1960s, the chaos was already beginning. Even though my school was a middle-class school, there was a level of chaos that was just beyond my power to comprehend. The level of performance in any classroom, including in the advanced classrooms, was really primitive, compared to what I had experienced in a poor area of Western Pennsylvania back in the 1940s, which just flabbergasted me. But instead of being a philosopher then, what I was was a guy trying to survive, so I tried to create exercises that would fully engage the kids and would also cause some positive change in their development. I started a public speaking program, and I started a daily writing program. If a kid was good at the daily writing program, I would send them around with what they had written, to give speeches at junior high schools. From my point of view, my discipline problems almost vanished right then and there. Well, when I would explain that to other teachers who would ask me for advice, they would say, "That wouldn't be allowed in my school." Now if you ask an assistant principal or a principal, "Why isn't public speaking allowed?" they would say, "It is allowed, but we have to concentrate on the reading examination." Does this have a familiar ring, Mary?

MP: OK, let's talk briefly about the implications, because if we, as homeschoolers, end up teaching to those same standardized tests, and doing the same kind of things they're doing in the public schools... JTG: It's madness. First of all, if you have a good education under way, you don't need to worry about standardized tests. They're really pitched on a fairly primitive level, and test after test of homeschoolers who never studied for standardized tests shows that they score better than schooled kids... MP: That's exactly the problem. See, if your kid is already scoring 95 percent on the standardized tests, you think, "Boy, this is great, right?"

JTG: No! The tests don't measure what they purport to measure. I guarantee you they don't do that. Let me give you an experiment you could run anywhere in this country and it will work. I used to take the kids who scored the very highest on the standardized tests. I would say, "I will demonstrate to you that you don't know how to read, even though your test score says that you know how to read better than anybody in the school." So I'd get these groups together, I mean, I'd do this year after year, and I would give them an extremely simple classic book to read, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. It's still in print, sells more copies in the year 2000 than it ever sold in 1928 when it was printed. It's a story of teenagers in the first world war. It's written in teenage language, with teenage concepts, and there are hardly any three-syllable words in the book, I mean it's mostly one- or two-syllable words, so it's extremely simple to read. I said, "I will give you an open book test on the first 20 pages of that book, and I will be very surprised if anyone in here passes the test."

See, standardized tests, even though all the questions look different, really arrange themselves in six, seven, or eight different patterns of extracting information from the reading selection. In actual fact there are about 168 separate ways to extract information from a reading selection. Most people who read a lot learn those things automatically; they don't have to be taught them. But when you're taught reading, and when you think the prize is getting a high score on a standardized test, what happens inside your mind (this is really diabolical) is, if you're efficient, you tend to concentrate harder on the things that you recognize will show up as questions and answers on the test. You may not be aware you're doing that, but it will happen inevitably. As a consequence, out of the 168, you miss about 160 types of information that are in the reading selection.

MP: So how did you convince your kids of this?

JTG: On the very first page of All Quiet on the Western Front, a German army unit is waiting to get lunch, and there's a certain amount of food set out for that unit and another unit's supposed to show up. But the other unit doesn't show up, and lunch is delayed and finally lunch is issued to this one unit. One of the guys in this unit that's eating lunch says, "Give us double rations, because these other people aren't going to come." He's going to learn that they've been killed; the whole unit's been wiped out. The cook says he can't do that, since it's against regulations, but they prevail on him and they get double rations. So you ask, "Why did the army unit get double rations as the book opens?" Let me tell you that, in 8 or 9 years of asking this, not a single kid, none of whom had less than a 12th-grade reading level, could answer the questions. That wasn't the type of question that ever was asked on a standardized test because it was asking you to make a deduction from a variety of facts.

MP: So would you say then, that reading a bunch of mystery books, in which all that you do is deduce and try to figure out what Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot, or any of these people are up to, would be good for exercising that?

JTG: Oh, yeah! You have to develop a kid's comprehensive imagination. And throughout history, although for most of human history this was legally reserved for elites, the way that's done is through literature, poetry, history, philosophy, and theology. All those disciplines require that your mind take in a complex comprehensive panorama and figure things out. It isn't the kind of primitive thinking that we call "problem-solving." Advanced thinking is, "Is that problem worth solving?" or, "If I solve that problem, and take my time and resources doing it, what exactly am I losing overall?" You're not supposed to be allowed to think that way. Policy makers are supposed to think that way. And in Germany, in Prussia precisely, in the early part of the 19th century, it was mathematically determined by high-level debate that only one kid out of every 200 should be allowed to think that way. Another ten or eleven should be allowed to learn partially to think that way. Those people would end up being the doctors, the lawyers, the college professors, the architects, and they would be the servants of the people trained in leadership thinking.

MP: Getting back to your kids, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Are you saying these kids had been learning how to take standardized tests, but they had not been reading widely before they came into your hands?

JTG: Oh, absolutely! Had I framed my questions the way questions are framed on the standardized tests, I have no doubt that every kid I gave the test to would have gotten 100 percent. You know, it was flabbergasting! Most of the kids couldn't get any of them right! It was astounding to me, because these were bright crackerjack kids from what we would call good families with good incomes. They were the most efficient at acing the standardized tests, because they shut out any other kind of information but the kind that was supposed to go in.

MP: For kids what you're saying so far is they should read everything beneficial in the world, and that would not include the mass-market pap that's designed to get them to think like everybody else.

JTG: If they can see the mechanism by which this mass-market pap does damage, there's actually some value in studying it. I don't think we can hide completely from this stuff. This has happened many, many times; you can have really a fine little community, with well mannered, nice people, who understand what community is, but when children are drawn away from that community through circumstances or whatever, they don't have any internal armament against the wiles of the opposition.

MP: Mmm hmm, I'm hearing what you're saying here.

JTG: So they need to be inoculated in some way. Mary, you have to understand. I'm confronted, whether they're rich or dirt-poor kids, with kids who go home, turn on the television set, watch the television set until 11:00, go to sleep, get up, go to school, come home, and watch the television set, so their minds are riddled with holes. It's true the rich kids have music lessons and things, but I don't think the difference is substantive. They're really consumers of someone else's point of view and they've lost all critical judgment. They've been debased in a literal sense, so to work with that, sometimes I would use the material they were starting with. First I would point out something to them that none of them had trouble understanding. I'd ask, "Why are these stories offered to you?" And we're talking right down on the nitty-gritty level, not on the abstract level. Why are these stories offered to you? Out of the goodness of somebody's heart? And they understood pretty clearly it was to sell cereal or whatever. It was to sell products. I said, well then, the people who commission these TV stories have a total interest in selling products, and they don't have any interest in you at all except as a customer for their product, although they know they have to hold your attention. Well, what's the easiest way to grab somebody's attention? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that punching people, shooting them, screams, monsters, and so on gets attention. Most people don't know, but I'd tell my kids, that in the contracts for Saturday TV it is written that there will be sixteen violent episodes per show! (This was about eight years ago; I don't know what the number is today.) Every show's a half an hour, so what do we end up with? One violent episode every two minutes. Nobody wants their ad to be shown on a peaceful note, with butterflies flying around. They want the monster to grab the girl and then cut to the ad, so you will transfer your attention to their ad. I found that kids had no difficulty with or resistance to immediately grasping how the game was played, and what it was played for.

Ahh, and then I would transfer that to the school environment. I'd say, "Why do we ring bells and you have to drop what you're doing?" Suppose you wanted to train somebody to be uninterested in the quality of their work. Wouldn't you stop their work in the middle and say, "You have to drop your work and leave," and then if they said to you, "Why?" you'd say, "Because you have to, because that's the rules, that's the law, and if you don't want to get into trouble, get moving... " Well, when you stop people constantly from finishing what they're doing, why should anybody be interested in starting something with enthusiasm? And now we have quite a mechanical explanation for this massive indifference to work on the part of rich and poor alike in government schools and to some extent in private schooling too! Now, am I the only one who discovered that? Hardly!

MP: No, Ivan Illich did... JTG: The word "psychology" exists in history as a minor subdivision of philosophy, and not a very interesting subdivision of philosophy. But the Germans changed that between 1860 and 1890. Every founder of a psychology department at America's prestige universities was directly trained in Germany or was the proteg© of somebody directly trained in Germany. That would describe John Dewey, who was the proteg© of G. Stanley Hall, who was trained in the German psychological web. By 1910, I mean, we're talking 90 years ago, the awareness that schools should be converted into psychological laboratories was widespread through both the American academic world and through the American corporate business world.

To have an efficient economy, what has to be trained are consumers. Our economy depends on the fact that, when you buy something, you become bored with it or dissatisfied with it almost immediately, long before it's used up its useful life. I sit back and say, "How would people get that way?" Because everyone has the memory as a child of being infinitely fascinated with a fishing line in the water, or a bug, or ants moving around. We don't need toys! Everyday animals and insects have our close attention, until someone trains us to have no attention span at all, because that makes us efficient consumers.

MP: What would be the things about which you'd say, "These are of prime importance, concentrate on these things, do these things?"

JTG: First of all, I think parents need to show their kids a vision. You have to have a plan or a purpose for being alive and getting up in the morning. It cannot be just to have a good meal, or fun, or a good experience, or get an A on the test. Your life's part of an arc, and each piece is part of a whole. They're not just disparate elements. One of the easiest ways to teach that is through the nonstop reading of biographies. Biographies let you see how decisions at each point affect not only the future, but they affect the way, looking back, you see your past. I don't think it would take too many of those, before somebody saw their own life as a coherent story that they're writing themselves. Then they can't ever say that somebody else wrote a bad story and they got a bum deal.

I would also say that, in my experience, nothing works as fast to give kids a leadership mindset, self-control, discipline, and a lot of good things, as work! Real work. Taking their share of the load, and that includes starting little businesses. My granddad gave me the formula when I was a kid, and I used it to good effect all my life. He said, if you find out something people need, and you give it to them cheaper or better, or you're just the only one offering it that's convenient, you've got a business! People don't care whether you're ten years old if you have what they want, or a hundred years old!

I had a boy who made $26,000 a year. That was 32 years ago. You can inflation-adjust that and say he may have even been making what some lawyers make today. He was walking dogs, also bird-sitting and fish-feeding. He had 58 customers, but he didn't do the work himself. He trained other kids to do it. He booked the business, and I think he took a 50 cent override per pet, so the kids were getting about $6 an hour, which they were delighted with, and he was banking his boxcar figures.

When kids have real responsibility, it makes major changes in their lives. I had a boy for example, who held the hand of poor people getting intravenous drips up at a hospital in Manhattan. He was not a very nice boy when he started, and furthermore he was not somebody I would trust very far, but he was willing to try that in exchange for being freed of the school. Well, it couldn't have been three months before I no longer knew the boy. He wasn't a boy any longer. He was a young male human being, taking on some of the pain of the world. He was extremely concerned about the people he was interacting with. He wanted to know more about the hospital business and about old people who are abandoned. It was an electric transformation, and it wasn't the only one.

For about ten years in public schools, to get into my program, I'd interview the parents, and I'd say, "Look, the only way I can give your kids significant responsibility under the law is by giving them a volunteer assignment, so I can't accept anyone into the program who won't do that. My main purpose in doing this is to give kids significant primary responsibility. So they will never be assigned in teams of 50 where they can hang out and perpetuate the culture of youth. They're going to be on their own, or at best, in teams of two or three, and they'll have something real to do, where if they fail in doing it, damage will occur. Once they pass that screen, I'm going to tell you that in ten years with the strangest eclectic group of children, I never had a single occasion when a kid's disappointed me." Now that's such an extreme statement that something must be at work other than John Gatto's design. It seemed to have a magical effect, especially on irresponsible kids, to give them a substantial solo responsibility.

There are also some experiences that can only be handled as a team. For example, three of my kids had the rare privilege of finding a church that had an outreach program to families that were burned out or flooded out of their homes. They'd deliver clothing and food, and help the people in that transition stage. The kids were part of the larger church team, and then, all of a sudden, the adult members of the church team left. The job still had to be done, but no one was around to do it but my kids. And my kids did it fine! That was just wonderful. If I think about it tears come to my eyes, tears of joy. I couldn't believe that my suspicion, that the Ten Commandments are engraved on our spirits, could be illustrated this well, because they were hardly kids that you would expect would immediately shoulder the whole burden and not feel oppressed by it, but they ended up electrified by it.

Substantial real experience, I've found, blots up the TV time. There's no time left. Given a choice between spending your weekend watching the cartoons all the way through the Sunday football games, versus going out and getting even more experience, kids wound up choosing real experiences. Television would go from a major item of conversation to really quite a minor thing by the end of the year, so I knew it wasn't me, that it was some principle that I had fortuitously stumbled upon that seemed to work in just every instance.

MP: Boy, this is great, John, I could talk to you forever. What else do you suggest homeschoolers ought to do that will open doors for our kids?

JTG: I think you need to learn a discipline when you're very young, even if you're not going to practice it as a life's work. You need to know something extremely well. Whether it's auto mechanics, or sculpting, or ice dancing, hardly matters, but what it has to involve is some intense interest...

MP: When you say very young, how young are we talking?

JTG: Certainly before you reach the consciousness of your teen years if possible. If it hasn't happened by then, then you've got one last window open to you, where learning is relatively easy, although it's much, much harder from 12-15 than it is from 4-9. Past age 17, it can be done through a phenomenal effort of will that's so difficult that most of us give up in despair. You know, we older people make feeble efforts in that direction. But it's so easy when you're young; it really is a gift from God. There isn't anything you can't learn.

In the airline magazine I was reading when coming back from Milan, Italy, a few days ago, there was a profile of this actor who just won the Academy Award, Kevin Spacey. Spacey says that he was quite a bad kid. He was terrible in school and a grief to his parents. In his early teens, he got involved in an acting class, and he became so gripped with the necessity to look closely at other people so that you could be an effective actor, you know, playing someone other than yourself, he said that he lost all need to be outrageous, or to take drugs, to do anything. His father was amazed about how disciplined he almost instantly became. Spacey said he's never lost that tremendous curiosity about the infinite range of human behavior and human motives, so that's always what his mind is working on, even when it seems he's doing something else.

Well, anyone who's had the experience of a discipline, whether it's gardening, or pottery, or dressmaking - or, auto mechanics! Give me the ten worst children on planet Earth, and let me open the hood of a car and have a skillful mechanic with tools working on it, and I'll tell you, the majority of those kids will be standing around watching. Just watching so intently, what's going on. I think that's a universal need, a yearning, an appetite, and learning a discipline's the best way to feed it. I wouldn't worry about it being exactly the right discipline, either. Once somebody gets the hang of a discipline, they're able to segue into another.

They need leadership training, and that involves giving them responsibility, giving them association with other people who are leaders, other than yourself.

Kids really need to know how to recognize and challenge the assumption that everyone who acts like an authority is an authority, because so many people masquerade as authorities around them. Not only television shows and newspapers and schoolteachers, but we get authoritarian statements from everywhere. That doesn't mean you have to be rude or ill-mannered, but you really need to be able to see what the assumption is behind what someone else wants you to do, and then how to challenge that assumption, how to test it.

Kids need to be able to take advantage of chance opportunities. I've come to the belief, Mary, that there aren't any lives that don't have, at odd moments, tremendous opportunities available to them, but these little windows open and close, and most people aren't even aware that the window ever was open for them. So you have to be on your toes.

You have to have a personal code of ethics, so you're always looking for principles, and to test those principles. It seems to me that if we're not useful to other people, that we live mean, crabbed lives. So you have to find ways to be useful to other people. It's fine for your teacher John Gatto to assign you to a hospital ward, and I don't mean that sarcastically. It is fine. But it's even finer for you to look around your world, and say, "This needs to be done. I'm going to do that." Isn't that the definition of good citizenship?

I think hard reading is really a magnificent shortcut to understanding other human beings and understanding the world. It's the only path to understanding history, obviously, since our own personal histories are just too short. This is not "reading for information." Schools sell you on reading for information, and now there are more efficient ways to get information. Now you can get it from the web, from videos, et cetera. But high-level reading puts you in touch with a major mind, to watch the way it swims through ideas, and to argue with those ideas, and to constantly check with yourself and say, "Did he leave something out that's important to me?" Or, "Yes, that gives voice to what I haven't

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