An amazing educator died last week. John Taylor Gatto, for those of you who have not heard of him, was named Teacher of the Year in New York City’s Schools in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and also New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991. That’s quite a resume. Although this man taught in the classroom for 30 years, he was not your average teacher! Instead, he asked very tough questions–of the educational system and of his students. Once he retired from the school system, he turned to activism, speaking out against modern education. He authored several books on the subject: Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Modern Schooling, The Underground History of American Education, and one of my favorites, Weapons of Mass Instruction.
I remember first reading Dumbing Us Down soon after it first came out. So much of what went into that book resonated with me. I wanted more for my child. I didn’t know exactly what that “more” would entail, but I knew I wanted it. I have to credit the ladies from True Q, as my husband called the group of women who shaped my early mothering, for introducing me to these ideas. These were some crunchy moms! The actual title of our group was The Continuum Club. Some were homeschooling, some were unschooling, some had their kids in school. Of those, some chose Montessori, others chose Waldorf, some had their children in Yeshiva. Out of all of these women, I can’t think of any who chose the public schools. Within this group, there were several of us who were on our first baby and just learning all sorts of things about attachment parenting and similar offshoot ideas. Among my La Leche league friends from this same time period, a few of them went the public school route, but many of them had reservations about putting their children in “regular” school too. I only had one child and he was just a baby so “school” wasn’t yet a concern, but I wanted to be the very best mother I could for him, so I read the book and joined in the conversation. Surprisingly, at this point in my life, I still thought homeschoolers were a little too weird, and I certainly didn’t expect to end up doing it myself. When I look back now, there wasn’t as much wrong with the schools as there is today–after all, this was years before Columbine and the current political agenda–but back then it was still considered really strange to even entertain the idea of homeschooling. This was the environment into which Dumbing Us Down was published.
Nevertheless, Dumbing Us Down was eye opening to many people and its lessons were just the beginning. About a decade later, Gatto’s Magnum Opus hit bookseller’s shelves. The Underground History of American Education pulled no punches and spelled out exactly what had gone wrong. In between these two books, many parents were left wondering how to fix the problem, and especially, what to do about their own children. Gatto himself advocated homeschooling, and specifically unschooling, which was definitely seen as a fringe activity akin to living on a commune. Nowadays, things are different–not completely, but enough that unschoolers are not looked at like they are essentially truants. Gatto, in his various works, advocated that children want to learn and will do so if left to themselves. While I am not in complete agreement with that statement, there’s no doubt that kids are curious and will learn. Where I disagree is with leaving children completely to themselves! (It is a rare thing for people to rise above trouble, but a normal occurrence for folks to be pulled down. Children, being children, need good guidance–but can do without smothering, which I am too often guilty of doing!)
What I love about Gatto’s writings are how they make me think, and think deeply! As I said in the opening of this tribute, he asked tough questions. Those questions are the kind meant to stimulate deep thinking rather than flippant answers. Take for instance the questions, which originated with the German philosopher Kant, Gatto asks in Chapter 8 of Weapons of Mass Instruction:
- What can I know?
- What may I hope?
- What ought I to do?
- What is Man?
While I’m not a fan of Kant, there is no doubt that these questions are intriguing. In fact, Rosalie Slater, one of the ladies credited with founding the Principle Approach–which some might say is a direct opposite of the unschooling approach to homeschooling–postulated similar questions when contrasting the pagan vs. the Christian idea of man and government. In Miss Slater’s mind, everything came down to government–who or what was in charge of pretty much whatever, be it a person, a home, a school, a church, or a nation. Elizabeth Youmans, who penned the Noah Plan History and Geography Curriculum Guide for FACE, put the questions this way:
- Who made me?
- Why was I made?
- What is my duty?
The answers to these “Ultimate Questions” (as another speaker, Maureen Richards, called them at the Writing Educator’s Symposium in 2010) really do make up the presuppositions where we each begin. As such, they are the foundational pieces of all education, too. We need to answer them well if we are to have any hope of turning the tide against the problems we see in the world of education–in the public schools, private schools, and our personal schools. John Taylor Gatto advocated for REAL education long before anyone in the modern era realized there was a problem. For that, we should be grateful. I know I am.