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John Taylor Gatto Challenged the Ideas Inherent in US Mass Schooling

Gatto envisioned an education system that placed freedom and justice above technology and efficiency.

Gatto envisioned an education system that placed freedom and justice above technology and efficiency.

Death anniversaries provide us an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of many great historical personalities, but rarely do we find a figure so recently passed yet so quickly forgotten as John Taylor Gatto.

Gatto was born in 1935 in the working-class Western Pennsylvania town of Monongahela. He passed away on October 25, 2018, in his adopted home of New York City. In his nearly 30 years of classroom teaching, Gatto witnessed first hand some of the most radical experiments in mass schooling that the world has ever seen. After being named New York City Teacher of the Year consecutively in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, Gatto rejected what he called the “school religion punishing the nation” and left his formal profession of teaching in search of a job where he “didn’t have to hurt kids to make a living.”

From that day in 1991 until his death one year ago, Gatto wrote and spoke about his experiences in U.S. public schools in an effort not just to critique a system which he saw as beyond reform, but also to envision what education could look like in a truly free and just society. While Gatto gained a readership among certain sections of the homeschooling and alternative education movements, his piercing criticism of U.S. schooling and its link to the crisis of Western civilization deserves a much wider audience.

Schooling Against Education: Gatto’s Underground History

“Traditional education can be seen as sculptural in nature, individual destiny is written somewhere within the human being, awaiting dross to be removed before a true image shines forth. Schooling, on the other hand, seeks a way to make mind and character blank, so others may chisel the destiny thereon,” —Gatto, The Underground History of American Education

Much of Gatto’s writing is focused on the basic yet often overlooked distinction between schooling and education. At the heart of his work is the simple yet radical suggestion that mass schooling, a 19th-century European import to the U.S., is not the modern manifestation of the ancient concept of education but, rather, its diametric opposite.

In his magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education, Gatto traces the material roots of mass schooling back to the economic and ideological demands of a burgeoning industrial capitalism in Europe. Against the narrative of mass schooling as a noble attempt to educate the starving, backward masses, he exposes its true motive as a glorified daycare system for the children of parents newly coerced into wage labor.

With the destruction of the commons in Europe, self-sustaining production systems and their accompanying home-based education practices were obliterated in the quest for profits derived from the labor of a new industrial proletariat. Children who used to learn practical skills by working alongside their families and communities were forced into monotonous factory work with the advent of the industrial revolution. After child labor laws were introduced in the 19th century and extended in the 20th, the state had to find something to do with these unoccupied working-class children.

The answer was mass schooling. In 1839, Prussia became the first country on the European continent to enact a national child labor law. It is no coincidence that this North German state subsequently became the most important country in the development of modern schooling. Often described as “an army with a country,” Prussia took the logic of the regimented factory shop floor and military training camp and applied it to the development of a national school system.

This “army with a country” demanded malleable subjects rather than educated citizens, and it was for the production of the former that a new national school system was created. One of the most important pedagogues in the development of the Prussian system, Heinrich Pestalozzi, touted his approach as one that would mold the poor “to accept all the exertions and efforts peculiar to their class.” As Gatto put it, Pestalozzi “offered them love in place of ambition. By employing psychological means in the training of the young, class warfare might be avoided.”

If modern schooling was born in the militaristic milieu of early 19th-century Prussia, it came of age in the rigid class system of England and reached maturity in the colonizing adventures of the British Empire. One need to look no further than Friedrich Engels’s 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, to understand the impact of the industrial revolution on England’s poor, whose living conditions dropped precipitously at the same time as mass schooling was being introduced in the country.

However, the English ruling class could not indefinitely exploit its workers on the basis of material coercion and physical force alone. In addition to building its factory system on the backs of slave labor in the Americas and the looting of resources in its Asian colonies, the British Empire used its vast dominion abroad to refine its psychological management of the young at home.

Gatto provides the example of wealthy Scottish Anglican chaplain, Andrew Bell, who lived in India in the late 18th century, where he took a keen interest in the caste system as a model for the modern English school. Bell admired what he saw as a rigid social hierarchy in Hindu village schools characterized by intellectual and religious instruction for a tiny minority at the top and caste-appropriate technical training for everyone else.

Bell devised the Madras System of Education based on his experiences in India. This system was subsequently deployed in Scotland in Bell’s own Madras College secondary school in St. Andrews, and later in England and the U.S. under a similar system known as “Lancaster schooling” based loosely on the ideas of English Quaker Joseph Lancaster.

The Madras and Lancaster systems, also known as the “monitorial system,” were characterized by large classrooms with students seated in rows overseen by a single schoolteacher. The teacher did not in fact teach, but, rather, served as a “bystander and inspector” who would form a hierarchy among the students and then let the so-called “brighter” ones teach the rest. It was the stratification of the new industrial system applied to the young.

By the 1830s, schools based on the Prussian and Lancaster models stretched from New York to Texas, with significant admirers such as Calvin Ellis Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband, who advocated for the adoption of a Prussian-style national education system in the United States.

The U.S.’s Thwarted Promise and Gatto’s Challenge to Whiteness

“The backdrop of my teaching debut … was a predicament without any possible solution, a deadly brew compounded from twelve hundred black teenagers penned inside a gloomy brick pile for six hours a day, with a white guard staff misnamed ‘faculty’ manning the light towers and machine-gun posts. This faculty was charged with dribbling out something called ‘curriculum’ to inmates, a gruel so thin [that this school] might rather have been a home for the feeble-minded than a place of education.” —Gatto, The Underground History of American Education

The story of the U.S.’s adoption of a European mass schooling system designed to foster a rigid class system while at the same time sublimating class warfare is a pivotal development in Gatto’s history of American schooling.

That mainstream abolitionists like the Stowes were early advocates of European mass schooling in the U.S. is telling. James Baldwin wrote in 1949 that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has, at its core, a “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality” which is “the mark of dishonesty” and the “inability to feel.” Stowe opposed slavery, but, as Baldwin put it, could only do so by “robbing” the Black man of his “humanity.” Only then could she mold him into the proper subject: docile, uneducated and forbearing.

As educator and writer Jerry Farber wrote in 1969, these qualities encouraged in the Black slave are nearly identical to those fostered in students in 20th-century American schools. Indeed, by understanding Calvin Ellis Stowe’s passion for the Prussian forced schooling system alongside his wife’s portrayal of Black people in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we can see a direct link: a schooling system that would control what students would learn was necessary to manage and mold potentially revolutionary Black youth after the abolition of slavery.

It is this connection between schooling and white supremacy which Gatto understood. He taught for years in working-class Black schools in Harlem, and observed that “black kids had caught on to the fact that their school was a liar’s world, a jobs project for seedy white folk.”

Instead of modifying the curriculum for these students in order to prepare them for their presumed subordinate social role, Gatto challenged “the scientific religion of schooling which believes [Black people] to be genetically challenged” and presented a rigorous education focused on strong reading skills and critical discussion of fundamental questions in history, philosophy and literature.

By refusing to lower expectations for Black youth in school and eventually rejecting the racist school system altogether in favor of autonomous institutions such as Marva Collins’s groundbreaking Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, Gatto provided a concrete example of what an educational program for the abolition of whiteness might look like.

A rapidly growing homeschooling movement is reviving a long tradition of family and community-based education, particularly among Black Americans who have been historically barred from or discriminated against in the school system.

Gatto’s Way Forward: Spiritual Revival as the Antidote to Scientism

“The net effect of holding children in confinement for twelve years without honor paid to the spirit is a compelling demonstration that the State considers the Western spiritual tradition dangerous, subversive. And of course it is. School is about creating loyalty to certain goals and habits, a vision of life, support for a class structure, an intricate system of human relationships cleverly designed to manufacture the continuous low level of discontent upon which mass production and finance rely.” —Gatto, The Underground History of American Education

Gatto’s challenge to modern schooling and white supremacy is made possible by his critique of scientism, or the ideology of science and the scientific method as the one way to truth. Just as racism crafted for itself a scientific justification, so did forced schooling make its case in scientific terms. By stripping these systems of their ideological basis through a critique of science itself, Gatto’s work opens up new ways to think about education, freedom and genius.

The cult of scientific schooling in the U.S. reached its apex around the beginning of the 20th century, when technocrats sought to apply the principles of Taylorism, or scientific management, to the public school classroom. Sociologist Edward A. Ross captured the turn of the century’s zeitgeist in his 1901 book, aptly titled Social Control, writing that, “Plans are underway to replace community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media…. The State shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School…. People are only little plastic lumps of human dough.” In other words, the student not only can, but should, be kneaded into the proper shape, and there is no better institution to complete this task than the school.

Gatto critiques what he calls “empty child theory,” or the idea that children lack human nature or individual spirit and can, thus, be molded to the needs of modern society. In this conception of the human, each individual is but a stand-in for a particular social category to be experimented on in the name of technological efficiency and scientific progress. As Gatto puts it, scientism “has no built-in moral brakes to restrain it other than legal jeopardy.”

Just as the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck was ruled legal by the Supreme Court in 1927, the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords threw their money behind “radical experiments in the transformation of human nature” in the first half of the 20th century. If the adult body was a legitimate subject for scientific experimentation, the child’s mind was even more appropriate: experiments on a developing psyche in school might even render bodily intervention in adulthood superfluous.

Twentieth-century scientific schooling is best described as the social experiment of inculcating into children what Gatto calls the “seven lessons of school teaching.” These lessons of mass forced schooling merit lengthy quotation:

It confuses the students. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials, this programming is similar to the television; it fills almost all the “free” time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.

It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.

It makes them indifferent.

It makes them emotionally dependent.

It makes them intellectually dependent.

It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).

It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.

Or, as Rockefeller’s General Education Board summed up in a 1906 document on scientific schooling:

In our dreams … people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk…. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…. We will organize children … and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

Such a sentiment is a natural byproduct of a scientistic worldview which rejects the spiritual aspect of the human. Gatto points out that this aspect can be repressed, but never destroyed. Those who cannot handle the dehumanization of the school system any longer often simply drop out, prepared to face the brutality of a labor market that is at least honest about its intentions to “teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.” Others quit early with great success, as the lives of high school drop-outs Thomas Edison, Thelonious Monk, Mark Twain, Aretha Franklin and many others demonstrate.

Each individual’s special genius cannot be accounted for by science, though scientific schooling has done an excellent job of leading students to believe that they do not have one. For Gatto, it is the “sacred narrative of modernity,” of which mass schooling is an essential (if often unquestioned) component, that has become a “substitute for the message of the Nazarene.” Indeed, the idea of a conflict between secular schooling and religious education is a false one: Modern schooling is a religion, and has merely supplanted the Church as the primary institution of education.

Gatto points out the irony that it was the churches, particularly those of the Anglican and Quaker variety, which laid the foundation for their own decline by encouraging the expansion of mass forced schooling. They failed to see — and still fail to see — that the logic of modern schooling is at odds not only with the revolutionary spirit of the Gospels, but also in contradiction with the teachings of all the world’s great spiritual traditions.

These traditions consistently affirm that the human is much more than a “little plastic lump of … dough,” something, to return to Baldwin’s essay, “resolutely indefinable, unpredictable.” It is in this indefinable and unpredictable nature of the human being that genius resides. As Gatto writes in his 2010 book, Weapons of Mass Instruction:

I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

The U.S. school system — like the capitalist system that made it necessary — has outworn any use it may have had in the past. It has reduced the human to a number, to a social category, to mere physical matter to be toyed with at the whims and fancies of “experts.” To challenge the assumptions of modern schooling is to remember and reaffirm the spiritual strivings of the human being.

John Taylor Gatto encouraged us to draw on both tradition and imagination as we work to envision education for a world in which freedom and justice are placed above technology and efficiency. With increasingly shrill calls for “universal preschool” leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Gatto’s history and analysis of the true motives of U.S. schooling could not be more relevant. Though he is no longer with us today, we would be remiss to neglect his insights a year after his death.

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