“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.”John Taylor Gatto
Note: This post is based on a radio segments on the Richard Syrett Show on Nov. 1st and Nov 8th, 2022 which you can listen to here.
John Taylor Gatto became best known for his books ‘Dumbing Us Down – The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling ‘ and ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction’. For those unfamiliar with this educator, who was John Taylor Gatto?
John Taylor Gatto was a teacher for 30 years in some of the worst, and some of the best schools in Manhattan. He was named New York City Teacher of the Year three consecutive years, from 1989 to 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. The same year, he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled I Quit, I Think, to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, saying that he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living.” Naturally one would think that someone who receives these awards is a grand supporter of the educational system. Yet Gatto received these awards not because he was a star within New York city school, but because he was a saboteur. He did not follow any of the standard curricula; he bent the rules wherever he could; he worked around the system to provide students with an education that recognized them as unique individuals, not conformists.
Cathy Duffy aptly summarizes Gatto’s central theme as this: “Compulsory schooling was instituted for political and social control. The result is a dumbed-down, compliant society that suits the needs of government and big business.” After Gatto retired, he started on a relentless crusade to build resistance to and rejection of compulsory schooling by effectively revealing how we have been fooled into believing in the necessity of compulsory, government-run schooling. This crusade is now of particular urgency, after the last two years of pandemic have demonstrated the effects of an obedient, unquestioning, and uncritical population. As one reviewer, Michael Ferris, noted, ” John Taylor Gatto has forcefully presented the case that…a people who believe in freedom will never emerge from a system that is based on coercion.”
John Taylor Gatto was a strong proponent of ‘open source’ learning – can you explain what that is?
Most of us have been trained quite effectively to believe that people without credentials or diplomas are doomed to failure. But are they really? Gatto encourages us to throw away this assumption and maintains that “degrees should not stand as proxis for education.” He maintained that the only basis of true knowledge lies in self-knowledge. This means giving children time. Time with independent study. Time to develop private uniqueness. Time to forge self-reliance.This is at the core of ‘open source’ learning. Gatto illustrates the concept of ‘open source’ learning most effectively through some real life examples. (I have adapted these briefly here)
- A young man begins independent life by selling fish from his bicycle. He is dyslexic and has no degrees. Any guess who he is now?
- Ingvar Kamprad – founder of IKEA and worth 31 billion
- A surfer bum, horrible student join forces with a homeschooled born-again Christian. What was their achievement? Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Mapping the human genome? Or the Dollarama Empire?
- You guessed right: they mapped the human genome.
- A four-year old learns his first lesson of independence when he gets dropped off in an unfamiliar London neighbourhood by his mother and is told to find his way home. Any guess who this high school drop out is now?
- Billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who just recently launched into space on his own Virgin Galactic rocket.
‘Open source’ learning accepts that anything under the sun might be a starting point of self-mastery. In open source learning anyone with something to offer can teach. Most importantly, it is the students who initiate learning. This free-form education is arguably of much higher quality than rule-driven, testable schooling which fills blackboards and workbooks, crams students with disconnected information. School maintains that there is a ‘right way’ to get educated. Open source learning maintains that there are as many ways as there are fingerprints.
‘Open source’ learning sounds ideal but it does not sound feasible in a school setting with 20 to 30 kids per class. How did Gatto approach this?
Gatto proved that open source learning was possible not just on a homeschool setting, but in a class full of students. With his ‘Guerilla Curriculum’ he created a personal formula that changed his students’ destiny. He assembled a rich biography of every student through school records, parents, grandparents, siblings, and the students themselves which allowed for the creation of a personal, custom-tailored course which included personal wishes/ weaknesses they wanted to overcome. This may sound impossible in a large urban school but he maintains that it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness and determination to scrap the rules. For Gatto enacting open source learning with his students meant, among many other things, helping a single eighth grade class perform thirty thousand hours of volunteer community service; securing more than a thousand apprenticeships; and sending students on expeditions across the state.
Free Downloads of John Taylor Gatto’s Work
I encourage you to take a little time to read through some of John Taylor Gatto’s essays (I usually read them over coffee at breakfast), if not his tome on the history of American education, as they are certain to turn your assumptions about schooling upside down.
- Here you can download a free pdf copy of Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education in which Gatto, reveals the inner circle secrets of the American school system.
The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition: the mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of; it isn’t real.From The Underground History of American Education
- The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher – This essay appeared in the Fall ’91 issue of Whole Earth Review by John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991
- Against School – How public education cripples our kids, and why By John Taylor Gatto
- Why Schools Don’t Educate by John Taylor Gatto