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August 12, 2015 - Wrecking Ball Education: John Taylor Gatto

Having received New York City’s Teacher of the Year award for three consecutive years, and after just being named New York State’s 1991 Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto walked away from his job. He didn’t go without a very public apologia. In a Wall Street Journal op ed, he noted that, after nearly 30 years in the classroom, he no longer wanted to “hurt kids to make a living.”

That’s quite a statement from someone repeatedly recognized for finding ways to extend the greatest possible educational opportunities to his students. Even a teacher as engaged, committed, and ingenuitive as Gatto flatly admitted that he couldn’t find a way to prevent the educational “system” from having a negative impact on his students.

In leaving his teaching career behind him, Gatto began to publish books that expressed not only his personal experiences with education—what worked and what clearly didn’t—but also his observations about the non-academic and deeply detrimental lessons that kids coming through the educational system appeared to be absorbing. Gatto noted, for example, that the system:

  1. confuses students, presenting an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school but forgets quickly.
  2. teaches students to accept their class affiliation.
  3. makes students indifferent.
  4. facilitates emotional dependence.
  5. fosters intellectual dependence.
  6. assigns to students a sort of provisional self-esteem that requires constant confirmation by authority figures or experts.
  7. conveys a sense of constant surveillance.

Some of these items are echoed by blogger Mark Manson in a post that inspired, this, the first full installment of Wrecking Ball Education (series introduction here). 

Any ideology and educational preferences aside, I suspect we would all agree that we wouldn’t want kids absorbing even one item on the above list. I’ll wager we’d also all concur that the delivery of any such lessons, even if unwitting, would place children directly in the path of the wrecking ball, potentially hindering them all through adulthood. 

Published in 2003 and now essentially out of print (though rumors of an upcoming revised edition abound), Gatto’s Underground History of American Education explores various threads that have come to make up the American education system of today, threads of which most people remain entirely unaware. Says the author in the introduction to the book:

Underground History isn’t a history proper, but a collection of materials toward a history, embedded in a personal essay…The history I have unearthed is important to our understanding; it’s a good start, I believe, but much remains undone.

Whether you ultimately end up agreeing with all of Gatto’s own conclusions, here’s just one of many reasons why what he has to say matters—and why it’s important to spend some time evaluating it: One of Gatto’s central contentions is that compulsory public education has been, for the last century a tool for managing economic and social outcomes—for managing people. He gives us a sense of how groundwork was laid. He even points us toward the innovators and perfectors of educational managerialism. 

There is a strong primary literature to support Gatto’s claims. Moreover, he is not the only author to broach the subject. In fact, both Jeffrey D. Horn and Marsha Familaro Enright, in their essays in Common Ground on Common Core, cover different angles of the relationship between education and managerialism. In a recent interview, public education advocate Anthony Cody similarly wondered aloud whether accountability measures and high-stakes assessment, were intended to rank and sort people for the purpose of justifying the coming unemployment of large numbers of people. Gatto, too, has discussed this very real possibility. Managerialism, of course, involves not just getting people to do what you want them to do, but also to accept the fate determined for them.

Many on today’s political “Right” express concern about what they view as indoctrination in the classroom. On the political “Left,” there is a decided focus on the disturbing corporatization of education. In both cases, the anxieties actually center around three disturbing managerialist trends that are already unfolding: 1) a relatively small number of people with an enormous amount of control over what and how children will learn, 2) an amassing of tremendous political and economic control at the expense of the educational opportunities and futures of children, and 3) a citizenry that increasingly lacks the, education, understanding, and tools needed to govern themselves, to push back against those who would use and rule over them, or even to know that there is a reason to push back. 

If Gatto is right about the relationship of compulsory public schooling to managed socioeconomics, in a large sense, education activists on both the “Left” and the “Right” have entirely legitimate concerns…that actually fit together quite neatly. The only way we can bear such a theory out is to take the time to consider what Gatto is telling us…to pursue his line of inquiry and see where it leads.

Gatto’s description of Underground History is, in fact, an invitation—not so unlike the one I extended to readers last week when I announced this series of blog posts. He’s made a beginning, he tells us, not an end. He urges us on in an important investigative endeavor. 

For those of us who accept the generosity of Gatto’s challenge—regardless of the direction in which our efforts carry us or the conclusions to which we come—Gatto has already done us a great service in two senses. First, he has helped us to understand that we, too, are students, and that learning about things that matter to us is a great adventure worthy of pursuit. Second, he both implicitly and explicitly shows us that, in taking on the role of student, we position ourselves to become the expert—not merely to rely passively on the information doled out to us by others, who may or may not be truthful. 

It is up to us to dig and to learn in order that we might set children free rather than permitting their destruction and enslavement.

So, let’s begin at the beginning, with some materials in which Gatto has laid out some of the ideas and initiatives that have coalesced to create a system within which even heroic teachers find it difficult to prevent damage to students…

A note: Gatto’s vocal patterns take a little getting used. He sounds intoxicated to some who hear him. He’s not. His sometimes slow and drawling speech results from health issues he has experienced in recent years, including stroke. In any event, his erudition and engagement make it well worth the effort to listen to him. His ability to weave history together with current events, philosophy, teaching techniques, personal anecdotes, and current events is astonishing. Anyone taking the time to listen to him will not only learn much, but find themselves with an array of ideas, people, and events to explore further.