John Gatto has talked about his new book — his work in progress — for
years. And we’ve all waited for it patiently. It was delayed by the
original publisher who apparently had second thoughts about it. But
finally, it’s done and about to hit American culture with an incredible
John sent me a pre-publication edition in May, and it has taken me weeks
to read all of it. And you have to read it all, because you just don’t want
to miss a word. That’s the way John writes, as if he’s standing next to you
and talking into your ear. And then, I shall probably read it over and over
again. It’s a breathtaking, sweeping view of what compulsory schooling has
done to America.
And it’s more. John Taylor Gatto is much more than New York State’s
former Teacher of the Year. He is a philosopher who is probing into the
depths of our American civilization and finding answers that no one else
could have possibly dreamed of. And it is obvious that he loves America
because he writes with such passion and humor, especially when he writes
about growing up in Western Pennsylvania on the banks of the Monongahela or
about his adventures in the classrooms of Manhattan. The title of his book
is “The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s
Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling.”
What makes the occasion of this book so special is the knowledge that
only an American could have written it. George Santayana wrote in 1920, “To
be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a
career.” John is so thoroughly American in his ability to analyze and
understand what has happened to this country. His knowledge is intimate,
profound and accurate.
He understands fully the anatomy of our educational-industrial complex,
which is far more dangerous than the military-industrial complex, which
President Eisenhower warned us about. After all, what does the
military-industrial complex produce? Guns, tanks, airplanes, battleships,
bombs. All inanimate objects, which the government is supposed to use only
when we are threatened. Most Americans are quite content to have all of
this stuff as insurance against our enemies but not have to use it. But Mad
Madeleine “Halfbright,” eager to bomb Belgrade, told the generals: “What
good is having all this stuff if you never use it?” What she didn’t
understand is that not using it is the whole point about having it. So she
and her NATO colleagues invented a war so that they could use it.
But with the educational-industrial complex, we are dealing with an
entirely different animal, one that eats children alive, destroys minds,
destroys families, undermines our culture, provides neither protection from
our enemies nor academic learning for our kids. It’s an expensive monster
that Gatto knows all too well and wants us to know it as thoroughly as he
does. I kept notes while reading the book and here are a few sample quotes
to whet your appetite:
- School is the first impression children get of organized society.
Like most first impressions it is the lasting one. Life is dull and
stupid, and only Coke provides relief. And other products, too, of
- Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct.
Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying
privacy — these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up
to prevent, on one pretext or another.
- The strongest meshes of the school net are invisible. Constant
bidding for a stranger’s attention creates a chemistry producing the common
characteristics of modern schoolchildren: whining, dishonesty, malice,
treachery, cruelty. Unceasing competition for official favor in the dramatic
fish bowl of a classroom delivers cowardly children, little people sunk in
chronic boredom, little people with no apparent purpose for being alive.
- Much of the weird behavior kids display is a function of the periodic
reinforcement schedule. And the endless confinement and inactivity slowly
drives children out of their minds. Trapped children, like trapped rats,
need close management. Any rat psychologist will tell you that.
- The cries of true believers are all around the history of schooling,
thick as gulls at a garbage dump.
- The very clear connection between all the zones of the emerging
American hive-world are a sign of some organized intelligence at work, with
some organized end in mind.
- What should make you suspicious about School is its relentless
- 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.
- Who besides a degraded rabble would voluntarily present itself to be
graded and classified like meat? No wonder school is compulsory.
- The crime of mass forced schooling: it amputates the full argument
and replaces it with engineered consensus.
These are the kind of quotes that ought to be in the next Bartlett’s
book of quotable quotes. They are easily understood out of context. But
the book is thick with argument and history and marvelous insights that are
not as easy to sum up in quotable quotes. They have to be read and savored
for their unalloyed wisdom. Gatto is wise, and I think the
educational-industrial complex will do nothing to promote his wisdom. But
it will be very hard to contain John Taylor Gatto.
He is one of the most sought-after speakers in America, and he speaks to
everyone: homeschoolers, Christians, humanists, corporate executives, and
they all laugh at his jokes and listen carefully and closely to what he says
because they know that no one in America can tell the truth the way he does.
The truth is irresistible, even to those who would rather avoid it. Some
people listen to the truth as a way of testing their ability to stand up to
it. In any case, it will be interesting to read what the educators have to
say about the book. But I suspect that few professional educators will want
to stick their necks out. John has his own little portable guillotine
waiting for the right occasion.
Meanwhile, the accolades are pouring in from readers. Mary Pride calls
it “The most important book on education I have ever read.” Eric Schultes
writes, “How does he probe so deeply the complex issues surrounding our
schools when so many experts can hardly penetrate the surface at all?”
Cathy Duffy writes, “Here is the whole story, the hidden agendas, the true
believers, the dumbing down. If you care at all about children, you’ll be
livid as you read.”
If we ever needed a battering ram to pull down the evil structure of
compulsory public schooling, this book should be able to do the job. The
book calls for a revolution. But not a violent one. It can be won easily
and peaceably by merely taking the kids out of the public schools. It’s
still legal to do so. That would change America radically. But the
pessimists will say that most parents are too brain-dead to care what goes
on in the public schools. Those parents who do care have already gotten
their kids out and are homeschooling them. But we know that every day more
and more parents are beginning to see the light. That’s encouraging.
If you want to get the pre-publication edition of the book, send $30.00
plus $4.00 shipping to: Odysseus Group, 295 East 8th Street, New York, NY
10009. In a letter to me, John wrote, “The official edition will be out
next January, probably severely shortened, and likely by then to be picked
up by a mainstream publisher. But this one is the way I wrote it.” So get
this uncut version in all its brilliance.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education, including
“NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education,” “The Whole Language/OBE Fraud,”
and “How to Tutor.” He is also the author of a popular intensive phonics
reading program, “Alpha-Phonics,” which can be obtained by calling the
publisher at 208-322-4440.