Weep for public education. A tribute to a great teacher

UPDATE. Sorry the link to the piece was missing in the original post. Thanks to Aussieute for the heads up!

UPDATE 2: Check out the link provided by Dot in the comments, I am as busy as the proverbial one legged tightrope walker but I am going to find time over the next week to take in the five hours of the interview with Gatto. It is prefaced with a great quote from Calvin Coolidge.

John Taylor Gatto (1935-2018) taught brilliantly in the toughest New York public schools but eventually he couldn’t take it any more. In his resignation letter he wrote.

I’ve come slowly to understand what it is I really teach: A curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency. I teach how to fit into a world I don’t want to live in.

I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t train children to wait to be told what to do; I can’t train people to drop what they are doing when a bell sounds; I can’t persuade children to feel some justice in their class placement when there isn’t any, and I can’t persuade children to believe teachers have valuable secrets they can acquire by becoming our disciples. That isn’t true.

He realised it was no accident that things got that way and he dedicated the rest of his life to repairing the damage done and telling the story. He wrote about his time in the classroom and he went further with The Underground History of American Education that is described as the most accurate and damning history of the American education system that has ever been written.

Above all, Gatto understood that his students were not mere underlings, but individuals with unique skills and talents to share with the rest of the world. They didn’t want to be talked down to but longed to be treated with respect and dignity. He recognized that their worth was not determined by the neighborhoods where they lived, their parents’ annual salaries, or the scores they received on standardized tests. He 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.”

Read the whole piece, it is only a two or three minute read. Compare with Jacques Barzun’s return to the public education scene 40 years after his first survey in 1947.

The once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States, especially its unique free high school for all—has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as battleground for vested interests, social, political, and economic. The new product of that debased system, the functional illiterate, is numbered in millions, while various forms of deceit have become accented as inevitable—”social promotion” or for those who fail the “minimum competency” test; and most lately, “bilingual education,” by which the rudiments are supposedly taught in over ninety languages other than English. The old plan and purpose of teaching the young what they truly need to know survives only in the private sector, itself hard-pressed and shrinking in size.

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32 Responses to Weep for public education. A tribute to a great teacher

  1. yarpos

    “The once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States, especially its unique free high school for all” unique? really? someone doesnt have a passport. Education is indeeed in trouble in many countries. Still there will always be another wave of left leaning academics that will tell us yet a new teaching model is required and that the basics really dont matter, especially if you want to get into teaching and nit STEM I guess.

  2. Buccaneer

    Can’t comment on the us system, but in Aus, education seems paralysed by endless focus on anything but education. The latest sjw issue always gets a go in front of any basic foundation knowledge, endless focus on the niceties of fluffy school events like diversity day.

    The most egregious issue being the extra funding and support provided to English second language students whose parents also send their child to tutors, sometimes several times a week, this is creating an arrogant and divisive attitude in certain racial groups that they are superior, when the system is weighted to their advantage. Instead of cohesion we have ethnic groups banding together in primary school and excluding those who don’t share an attitude of academic achievement at any cost. That’s my observation anyway, would like to see some genuine research into this. Unlikely in the current research culture in this country.

  3. Rafe

    We track the US and the lag used to be decades but now it is down to years for systems and for fashions and fads likeMeToo it is days.

  4. Aussieute

    Read the whole piece, it is only a two or three minute read.

    Rafe is there a link that’s referred to available?

  5. .

    John Taylor Gatto was a great, great man, and anyone doubtful of his achievements ought to read his books – they are totally mind-blowing and paradigm shifting.

    I’m not overstating the case either.

    Public(and compulsory) education is really about controlling the population. No conspiracy theories here – just facts. To some extent it is designed to dumb people down – a very social Darwinian idea that there “needs” to be university boffins and there “needs” to be “ditch diggers”.

    Possibly the greatest content ever published on You Tube:

    1) The Ultimate History Lesson: A Weekend with John Taylor Gatto (Intro + Hour 1 of 5)

  6. HGS

    Was Gatto at times part of the problem, believing every one a closet genius?

    Public education has never been efficient and has always been unproductive. It can never be anything else.

  7. .

    Read his books, or watch the video above.

    Ken Robinson has shown fairly comprehensively that schools kill of creativity and any genius most people may have.

    You are also attributing to Gatto what Barzun said.

  8. Rafe Champion

    The missing link is now in place.

  9. Muddy

    Put simplistically, it comes down to education vs. schooling.
    They are not the same.

    In Australia, we have a whole class of ‘education academic’ parasites that create work for themselves by experimenting on our children with ‘new paradigms.’ It’s an extra layer that to most taxpayers is invisible.

  10. Bushkid

    Public education has never been efficient and has always been unproductive. It can never be anything else.

    I don’t believe that was always so, HGS.

    My primary school years, at a one-teacher school in the Queensland bush in the 1960s, was remarkably broad-ranging and complete. I don’t consider it to have left me at any kind of disadvantage in any field, and in fact I know my primary education left me far better equipped in the necessary skills than even high school “education” does now.

    A friend of mine is a high school teacher at a Queensland public school in a regional city. She was told that despite the fact many of her year 10-12 students were functionally illiterate, she had to carry on as if they were literate. There is now no repeating of a year should a student fail, because there is no longer any yardstick by which they can fail. They are passed up through the “years” (no longer grades to be actually achieved), regardless of their actually level of competence.

    While ever the focus in the school curriculum is on “climate change”, “safe schools”, social justice rubbish and the feelz of everything, the product of schools will be, and can only be, brainwashed, compliant, helpless kids, essentially “junk” in a society they are actually inadequately equipped to survive as free-thinking, open-minded, reasoning, well-informed individuals.

    But then, isn’t that the intent?

  11. .

    My primary school years, at a one-teacher school in the Queensland bush in the 1960s, was remarkably broad-ranging and complete.

    Your teacher cared and wasn’t bound to a curriculum like they are now.

    While ever the focus in the school curriculum is on “climate change”, “safe schools”, social justice rubbish and the feelz of everything, the product of schools will be, and can only be, brainwashed, compliant, helpless kids, essentially “junk” in a society they are actually inadequately equipped to survive as free-thinking, open-minded, reasoning, well-informed individuals.

    Which goes hand in hand with the dumbing down of the plebs vs the classical education of the elites that Gatto talks about.

  12. Goanna

    During his junior year at Chippewa Valley High School—at a time when he was secretly conducting nuclear experiments in his back yard—David nearly failed state math and reading tests required for graduation (though he aced the test in science).

    The Radioactive Boy Scout

  13. Cumborah Kid

    I have a similar story to yours Bushkid. My dad attended a one teacher school at Bective in the late 1920’s to early 1930’s and left at the end of 6th class. In those 6 years he received a solid grounding in the basics which enabled him to lead a very successful life.

  14. I am bespoke

    She was told that despite the fact many of her year 10-12 students were functionally illiterate, she had to carry on as if they were literate

    I would have been better of legally allowed to leave school earlier instead of wasting years of boredom and humiliation.

  15. Roger

    I have a similar story to yours Bushkid. My dad attended a one teacher school at Bective in the late 1920’s to early 1930’s and left at the end of 6th class. In those 6 years he received a solid grounding in the basics which enabled him to lead a very successful life.

    That was the remarkable story of many of the generation born before WWI. They survived the Great Depression, fought WWII and afterwards built modern Australia while saving for their retirement.

    Then, in the 1960s, the wreckers showed up.

  16. Tintarella Di Luna

    Yep genius is as common as dirt until the public education poison takes hold Dr Ken Robinson has a couple of great Ted talks on exactly what’s wrong with public education

  17. Rafe

    The genius he talks about is not Newton or Feynman it is the ingenuity and innovative capacity of ordinary people who can follow their enthusiasms or are forced to work thing out with the traditional axe and fencing wire or baling twine.

  18. Yep genius is as common as dirt until the public education poison takes hold Dr Ken Robinson has a couple of great Ted talks on exactly what’s wrong with public education

    Very sorry to hear about John Gatto’s passing.

    Sir Ken has made a very good living about telling us what is wrong with schools – despite never actually having taught a day in one ! Lots of arm waving about no creativity, but I have not actually see him tell me anything I can use in the classroom, unlike Gatto I might add ! His first job was to promote Arts education a barrow he still pushes, and he often confuses “artiness” with “creativity” – I cannot do anything artistic to save my life, but I am pretty good at creatively solving problems with and in computer code. (Note I don’t have a problem with teaching the Arts & the push to amend STEM to STEAM is misguided – STEAM is just another way of saying education)

    When he can tell me how to ‘creativity’ with kids who show up zonked out with tiredness because they have been up playing games all night or because mum & dad or baby sister were up all night screaming at each other , or hyper on the 2 energy drinks they had for breakfast (and then the inevitable crash between recess & lunch) , or they are fighting/breaking up with boy/girlfriend (oh the humanity!), or the kid who has spent the last 2 months living under a bridge with dad(when a teacher heard him mention this, action was quickly taken and they were very quickly plugged into help) while mum has buggered off stealing/selling all their stuff) and when last heard of was working a corner at the Cross(later found out she died of a drug overdose) .I might pay more attention to him.

    I have just in come for lunch after stupidvising(deliberate spelling) year 10 HSIE (ie History & Geography) exams. I weep at the nonsense the kids are being filled with in those 2 subjects. I do my best filling their heads with facts and practical skills rather than opinions, as do my faculty mates,but our Technology subjects are starting to infected with sustainablity and that nonsense . I have some kids with really great ideas for Apps, but because their literacy level is so awful, they literally cannot see the mistakes(typos) they have made when coding them (the compiler is the hardest grammarian I know) .

    If you want to stop this crap from happening , and you are in NSW, keep an eye on the NESA site, and give feedback on any new draft syllabuses. Hell I know I do, even in syllabuses outside my teaching areas, ( I use my private email for those, work email for my syllabuses). Outside NSW watch the ACARA site !

  19. Let them manage themselves

    The four most terrifying words to the left, which is why nothing will change and kids cannot return to being educated properly until there is a total and complete purge, the Government getting out of education as far as possible, a voucher system, a return to teacher training colleges and abolishing the idea that education is a right when it is actually a responsibility.

  20. Rafe Champion

    Don’t miss the interview with Ross Tooley that Tel posted, Ross heads up the Ed West Centre for private education, one of my favourite sites, for example they have found that villagers in the third world will pay for genuine education that will help their children to advance while the free public schools do not.

  21. Tim Neilson

    Then, in the 1960s, the wreckers showed up.

    Correct.

    There were a few years in the ’70’s where primary school kids here were still getting taught properly while their contemporaries in the USA had fallen into the hands (quite literally sometimes) of the “progressives”.

    That’s the generation that went on to produce a number of Australians who in the ’80’s topped some of the elite US business schools and went on to leading positions in Wall Street.

    Not that leading in Wall Street is the be all and end all of success, but it’s indicative of the change that occurred.

    If you don’t believe me, take a look at a sample exam paper for the GMAT in the 80’s and compare that to Australian primary school textbooks from before “modernisation” of the education system.

  22. Bushkid

    Your teacher cared and wasn’t bound to a curriculum like they are now.

    My primary school teachers all cared, dot. To be a teacher then I think was definite vocation, and really only undertaken by the serious and dedicated ones who revered learning and were keen to teach children well. Those who took on the one-teacher bush schools were probably the best of a very good cohort. Interestingly, they were all male at the time too. The first female teachers I had were at boarding school, from years 8 onwards.

    As to the syllabus, it was a state primary school, and the syllabus was in fact broad, useful and sensible.

  23. Ellen of Tasmania

    Try to deregulate the school system and watch the teacher’s unions howl.

    Accreditation is their hold on power over both public and private schools. Listen to them on homeschooling. They hate it, big time. If you want to know who is controlling the non-education of our children – look to the unions. A quick, easy way to find the totalitarians in your midst is to ask their opinion on homeschooling.

    We first read Gatto over 30 years ago, and Dot is right, you’ll never think the same way again about education. We have never, ever regretted our decision to educate our own kids. Nor have they. The only thing they worry about now is that they won’t be allowed to do the same for their own kids.

  24. Bushkid

    Cumborah Kid and Roger, so true.

    Also Rafe, your comment about working things out. The thing is, you still need a basic understanding of the practicalities of things like physics to make a good fist of your experiments. Somehow, even as a kid, the basic understanding of things like balance, levers, forces etc., were gleaned, either from those early school years, or from observation of what happened on the farm. When your family have to make and make do with what’s to hand, I reckon you gain a greater understanding of what is and isn’t possible – and why.

    I’d hate to be a kid growing up now, and am so grateful I don’t have any of my own, or grandkids, trying to navigate their way through this minefield that’s been laid for them.

  25. JC

    Not that leading in Wall Street is the be all and end all of success

    Is there anything else in the world to aspire to? 🙂

  26. Tel

    Is there anything else in the world to aspire to?

    Knowing when to cash out and retire at the right moment.

  27. Mr Black

    I have little respect for anyone who claims genius is to be found everywhere. It devalues the term and elevates ordinary skills and interests to the level of high-achievement. There is ALWAYS a bottom half of every group, no matter how you slice it.

  28. .

    The empirical data says that you are (fortunately?) wrong, Mr Black.

    Robinson notes that the capacity for genius decreases as schooling continues.

  29. nilk

    I discovered Gatto years ago after reading John Holt and investigating modern “education” for my offspring. I’ve since become the bane of teachers at my girl’s schools (or the biggest fan of those who agree with me lol).

    I have seen the videos linked by Dot a couple of times and I regularly recommend them to friends who want to know more about what’s going on in the schools. There is a lot there that’s applicable to our system here in Oz.

    This news has ruined my day. What a loss. 🙁

  30. nilk

    We first read Gatto over 30 years ago, and Dot is right, you’ll never think the same way again about education. We have never, ever regretted our decision to educate our own kids. Nor have they. The only thing they worry about now is that they won’t be allowed to do the same for their own kids.

    Ellen your kids need to talk to the teachers. You’d be amazed at how many are on side with the parents but are not in a position to speak freely. Sure the younger ones tend to be brainwashed, but as they get older and as you explain things to them with logic they wake up and start thinking for themselves.

    As one teacher told me, “As a teacher I have no opinion. As a mother, I totally agree with you.” That was regarding our so-called “Respectful Relationships” program. I have kept my girl from those classes and have yet to have a complaint from the school about it.

    That’s going on 3 years now that I’ve been doing that. From what my daughter has said, plenty of other kids just skip those lessons.

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