Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher by John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

Below is a powerful essay that several say is a touchstone piece for unschoolers taken from this site . Written a decade ago, the lessons in this essay are as important as ever.

Here is an overview of the lessons:

"The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong."
"The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch."
"The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command."
"The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study."
"In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth."
"In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched."

A seventh lesson was later added. The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher was published in 1992

Mr. Gatto urges parents to cut ties with the belief that going to public school enables mastery of a curriculum. Rather, he says that the public school experience enables mastery of mindless obedience to authority figures, and lifelong habits of dependency. This system is unlikely to produce brilliant, unconventional thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln – who were themselves almost completely the product of self-education.

I found this essay in the Fall '91 issue of Whole Earth Review. It finally clarified for me why American school is such a spirit-crushing experience, and suggested what to do about it.
Before reading, please set your irony detector to the on position. If you find yourself inclined to dismiss the below as paranoid, you should know that the design behind the current American school system is very well-documented historically, in published writings of dizzying cynicism by such well-known figures as Horace Mann and Andrew Carnegie.

The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher 

by John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I
tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of
English language and literature, but that isn't what I do at all. What I teach is
school, and I win awards doing it.

Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to
schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more
ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I don't know
who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children
are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class.
Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased
dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the
numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business,
though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the kids like it --
being locked in together, I mean -- or at the minimum, endure it. If things go well,
the kids can't imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better
classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps
itself in good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like
school. You come to know your place.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children to
higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from the lower-level
class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire
them on the basis of test scores, even though my own experience is that
employers are (rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've
come to see that truth and [school] teaching are incompatible.
The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except
by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.

The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand
that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their
seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But
when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to
the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any
other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply
about anything? Bells are the secret logic of school time; their argument is
inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a
sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same
even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of
command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a
schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I
deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that
threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is
trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all
systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory.

Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private
moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a
private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. Sometimes
free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or exhilarated
by things outside my ken. Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers;
only privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.

The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study
(rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power
lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I
appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the
millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The
choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions
for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as
schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a
teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we
must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings
of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon
this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained in
the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive,
including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of all
sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered how to make their
own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would
shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on
strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering
would go too -- the clothing business as well -- unless a guaranteed supply of
helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We've built a way of life
that depends on people doing what they are told because they don't know any
other way. For God's sake, let's not rock that boat!

In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's
measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly
report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students' homes to spread approval
or to mark exactly -- down to a single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with
their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how
little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight
of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which
compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and his future
based on the casual judgment of strangers.

Self-evaluation -- the staple of every major philosophical system that ever
appeared on the planet -- is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report
cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their
parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be
told what they are worth.

In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student
under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private
spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to
keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle
on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to
file their own child's waywardness, too.

I assign "homework" so that this surveillance extends into the household, where
students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps
from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the

The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is
not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential
thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by Calvin in the Institutes, by
Plato in the Republic, by Hobbes, by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these
childless men discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if
you want to keep a society under central control.

It is the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of my fellow
teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a small number who
can imagine a different way to do things. Yet only a very few lifetimes ago things
were different in the United States: originality and variety were common currency;
our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class
boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously
confident, inventive, and able to do many things independently, to think for
themselves. We were something, all by ourselves, as individuals.

It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well
enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for "basic skills"
practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for
twelve years and teach them the six lessons I've just taught you.

We've had a society increasingly under central control in the United States since
just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat,
and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast are the products of
this central control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce,
violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the U.S., products of
the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual and family importance
that central control imposes.

Without a fully active role in community life you cannot develop into a complete
human being. Aristotle taught that. Surely he was right; look around you or look
in the mirror: that is the demonstration.

"School" is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that
condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows to a
control point as it ascends. "School" is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal
social order seem inevitable (although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal
of the American Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the early
Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of democracy was
beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life
the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory training in subordination for everybody.
Compulsory schooling was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the
Republic when he laid down the plans for total state control of human life.
The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is
phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I've told you about and
a few more I've spared you. This curriculum produces moral and intellectual
paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects.
What is under discussion is a great irrelevancy.

None of this is inevitable, you know. None of it is impregnable to change. We do
have a choice in how we bring up young people; there is no right way. There is
no "international competition" that compels our existence, difficult as it is to even
think about in the face of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In
every important material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we gained a nonmaterial
philosophy that found meaning where it is genuinely located -- in
families, friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and
rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent
independence and privacy -- then we would be truly self-sufficient.
How did these awful places, these "schools", come about? As we know them,
they are a product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919, when powerful
interests feared a revolution among our industrial poor, and partly they are the
result of the revulsion with which old-line families regarded the waves of Celtic,
Slavic, and Latin immigration -- and the Catholic religion -- after 1845. And
certainly a third contributing cause can be found in the revulsion with which these
same families regarded the free movement of Africans through the society after
the Civil War.

Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for permanent
underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their
own special genius. And it is training shaken loose from its original logic: to
regulate the poor. Since the 1920s the growth of the well-articulated school
bureaucracy, and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from
schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged schooling's original grasp to seize the
sons and daughters of the middle class.

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to
teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the
professionalization of teaching would take, pre-empting the teaching function that
belongs to all in a healthy community; belongs, indeed, most clearly to yourself,
since nobody else cares as much about your destiny. Professional teaching
tends to another serious error. It makes things that are inherently easy to learn,
like reading, writing, and arithmetic, difficult -- by insisting they be taught by
pedagogical procedures.

With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, is it any wonder we have the
national crisis we face today? Young people indifferent to the adult world and to
the future; indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and
violence? Rich or poor, schoolchildren cannot concentrate on anything for very
long. They have a poor sense of time past and to come; they are mistrustful of
intimacy (like the children of divorce they really are); they hate solitude, are cruel,
materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected,
addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a grotesque extent by
schooling, whose hidden curriculum prevents effective personality development.
Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of
children our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified

"Critical thinking" is a term we hear frequently these days as a form of training
which will herald a new day in mass schooling. It certainly will, if it ever happens.
No common school that actually dared teach the use of dialectic, heuristic, and
other tools of free minds could last a year without being torn to pieces.
Institutional schoolteachers are destructive to children's development. Nobody
survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The
method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of
the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools require
would cost so much less than we are spending now that it is not likely to happen.
First and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and a contract-letting
agency. We cannot afford to save money, not even to help children.
At the pass we've come to historically, and after 26 years of teaching, I must
conclude that one of the only alternatives on the horizon for most families is to
teach their own children at home. Small, de- institutionalized schools are another.
Some form of free-market system for public schooling is the likeliest place to look
for answers. But the near impossibility of these things for the shattered families of
the poor, and for too many on the fringes of the economic middle class, foretell
that the disaster of Six-Lesson Schools is likely to continue.

After an adult lifetime spent in teaching school I believe the method of schooling
is the only real content it has. Don't be fooled into thinking that good curricula or
good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and
daughter's schooltime. All the pathologies we've considered come about in large
measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important
appointments with themselves and their families, to learn lessons in selfmotivation,
perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love -- and, of course, lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home life.

Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school.
But television has eaten most of that time, and a combination of television and
the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up
most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow

A 1997 interview on We The People radio has been transcribed here.
[The following is from a letter by Grace Llewellyn (author of the Teenage Liberation Handbook), printed in the Spring 1992 issue of the Whole Earth Review:]
.. Gatto has a new job. Having resigned, he continues to implement his unique "guerilla curriculum" at the Albany Free School, and also lectures nationwide. In his lectures and his writing Gatto not only adeptly denounces the public schools, but also makes radical suggestions for improving them. These suggestions are grounded not in hypothetical clouds but rather on his own innovative methods of teaching which involve community service projects, independent study, apprenticeships, and solitude. ... More of Gatto's writing can be found in a new collection of his essays entitled "Dumbing Us Down" (New Society Publishers, 1992) [excerpted in WER issue #81].
"Dumbing Us Down" is available from New Society Publishers (POB 189, Gabriola Island, BC, V0R 1X0 CANADA), or via Gatto's own online bookstore, or from your friendly neighborhood bookstore (ISBN 0-86571-448-7).
A more comprehensive book, newly available on-line as well as in print is "The Underground History of American Education", and may be found at John Taylor Gatto's own web site, You can buy a copy via his online bookstore, or from your friendly neighborhood bookstore (ISBN 0-945-70004-0). (Note: I have no financial relationship with him or the publisher.)
Harper's September 2003 issue had an essay, "Against School".
If you maintain a web page, you are encouraged to add a link to this one, as a short introduction to the problem of school. This page will be stable forever.

Return to The Cantrip Corpus.
© Copyright 1991 by Whole Earth Review & John Taylor Gatto. All Rights Reserved

Editor's note: I have been challenged as to why I copied/pasted this in full. I found this on a site that is not John Taylor Gatto's. The link to the magazine where it was originally published is no longer working. The place it currently exists is one created to generate advertising revenue. If Gatto had a site that contained this information, I would have it linked there, but I don't want to require my readers to have to click to another site to read this information. If there is a John Taylor Gatto site or Whole Earth Review site I should be linking two rather than reproducing here, please contact me to let me know.


  1. Love Gatto...have pretty much read all of his stuff.
    Saw his speak once also.

    By the way, both of my kids learned to read without instruction ;) Unschooling does work. Problem is most people can't even begin to wrap their heads around the fact that we do not need teachers or schools.

  2. @paul bogush, I'm on my way reading through and compiling his stuff. Stay tuned for hopefully a nice compilation that can be shared :-)

    BTW, I learned to read outside of school and after talking to folks found this is pretty common. I recently wrote "Learning to Read Without School" that explains why this is a skill best learned outside the classroom