Friday, January 14, 2011

The 7-Lesson Schoolteacher by John Taylor Gatto

by John Taylor Gatto
New Society Publishers, 1992

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

      Teaching means different things in different places, but seven
lessons are universally taught Harlem to Hollywood Hills.  They
constitute a national curriculum you pay more for in more ways than you
can imagine, so you might as well know what it is.  You are at liberty,
of course, to regard these lessons any way you like, but believe me when
I say I intend no irony in this presentation.  These are the things I
teach, these are the things you pay me to teach.  Make of them what you


      A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana the other

      "What big ideas are important to little kids?  Well, the biggest
idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn't
idiosyncratic -- that this is some system to it all and it's not just
raining down on them as they  helplessly absorb.  That's the task, to
understand, to make coherent."

      Kathy has it wrong.  The first lesson I teach is confusion.
Everything I teach is out of context...  I teach the unrelating of
everything.  I teach disconnections.  I teach too much: the orbiting of
planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural
drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests,
fire drills, computer languages, parent's nights, staff-development
days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers you may never see
again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the
outside world...  what do any of these things have to do with each

      Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its
sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions.
Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger
they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed
off on them as quality in education.  The logic of the school-mind is
that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon
derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on than to
leave with one genuine enthusiasm.  But quality in education entails
learning about something in depth.  Confusion is thrust upon kids by too
many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest
relationship with each other, pretending for the most part, to an
expertise they do not possess.

      Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek,
and education is a set of codes for processing raw facts into meaning.
Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences, and the school obsession
with facts and theories the age-old human search lies well concealed.
This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school
experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple
relationship of "let's do this" and "let's do that now" is just assumed
to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned
how little substance is behind the play and pretense.

      Think of all the great natural sequences like learning to walk and
learning to talk, following the progression of light from sunrise to
sunset, witnessing the ancient procedures of a farm, a smithy, or a
shoemaker, watching your mother prepare a Thanksgiving feast -- all of
the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifies
itself and illuminates the past and future.  School sequences aren't
like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of
daily classes.  School sequences are crazy.  There is no particular
reason for any of them, nothing that bears close scrutiny.  Few teachers
would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher
could be criticized since everything must be accepted.  School subjects
are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism
or memorize the 39 articles of Anglicanism.  I teach the un-relating of
everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I
do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of
order.  In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work
or because too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition
or something else has left everybody too confused to stay in a family
relation I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.  That's
the first lesson I teach.

      The second lesson I teach is your class position.  I teach that
you must stay in 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 plainly
under the burden of numbers he carries.  Numbering children is a big and
very profitable business, though what the strategy is designed to
accomplish is elusive.  I don't even know why parents would allow it to
be done to their kid without a fight.

      In any case, again, that's not my business.  My job is to make
them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers
like their own.  Or at the least endure it like good sports.  If I do my
job well, the kids can't even imagine themselves somewhere else because
I've shown how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have
contempt for the dumb classes.  Under this efficient discipline the
class mostly polices itself into good marching order.  That's the real
lesson of any rigged competition like school.  You come to know your

      In spite of the overall class blueprint which assume that 99
percent of the kids are in their class to stay, I nevertheless make a
public effort to exhort children to higher levels of test success,
hinting at eventual transfer from the lower class as a reward.  I
frequently insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire
them on the basis of test scores and grades, 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 schoolteaching
are, at bottom, incompatible just as Socrates said they were thousands
of years ago.  The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a
proper place in they pyramid and that there is no way out of your class
except by number magic.  Until that happens you must stay where you are

      The third lesson I teach kids is indifference.  I teach children
not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it
appear that they do.  How I do this is very subtle.  I do it by
demanding 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.  It's heartwarming when they do that, it
impresses everyone, even me.  When I'm at my best I plan lessons very
carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm.  But when the
bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we've been
working on and proceed quickly to the next work station.  They must turn
on and off like a light switch.  Nothing important is ever finished in
my class, nor in any other class I know of.  Students never have a
complete experience except on the installment plan.

      Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth
finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?  Years of bells will
condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer
important work to do.  Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their
argument is inexorable.  Bells destroy the 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 fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency.  By stars and
red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach you
to surrender your will to the predestined chain of command.  Rights may
be granted or withheld by any authority, without appeal because rights
do not exist inside a school, not even the right of free speech, the
Supreme Court has so ruled, unless school authorities say they do.  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.  Individuality is constantly trying
to assert itself among children and teenagers so my judgments come thick
and fast.  Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to
all systems of classification.  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.  I know they don't but I
allow them to deceive me because this conditions they to depend on my
favors.  Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children
angry, depressed or happy by things outside my ken; rights in such
things cannot be recognized by schoolteachers, only privileges which can
be withdrawn, hostages to good behavior.

      The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency.  Good people
wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.  It is the most important
lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than
ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.  The expert makes all the
important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather,
only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce.  If
I'm told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as
ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been to think.

      This power to control what children will think lets me separate
successful students from failures very easily.  Successful children do
the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and decent show
of enthusiasm.  Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide
what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer.
The choices are his, why should I argue?  Curiosity has no important
place in my work, only conformity.

      Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts
to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for
themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it.  How
can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers?  Fortunately there are
procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult,
naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid, but
that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools.
Nobody in the middle class I ever met actually believes that their kid's
school is one of the bad ones.  Not a single parent in 26 years of
teaching.  That's amazing and probably the best testimony to what
happens to families when mother and father have been well-schooled
themselves, learning the seven lessons.

      Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do.  It is
hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this
lesson being learned.  Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't
trained to be dependent:

      The social-service businesses could hardly survive, they would
vanish I think, into the recent historical limbo out of which they
arose.  Counselors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply
of psychic invalids vanished.  Commercial entertainment of all sorts,
including television, would wither as people learned again how to make
their own fun.  Restaurants, prepared-food and a whole host of other
assorted food services would be drastically down-sized if people
returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to
plant, pick, chop and cook for them.  Much of modern law, medicine, and
engineering would go, too, the clothing business and schoolteaching as
well, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our
schools each year.

      The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem.  If you've
ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him
to believe they'll love him in spite of anything, you know how
impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform.  Our world
wouldn't survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that
your self-respect should depend on expert opinion.  My kids are
constantly evaluated and judged.  A monthly report, impressive in its
precision, is sent into students' homes to signal approval or to mark
exactly down to a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their
children parents should be.  The ecology of good schooling depends upon
perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as commercial economy depends
on the same fertilizer.  Although some people might be surprised how
little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical
records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents
establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at
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 need to rely on the
evaluation of certified officials.  People need to be told what they are

      The seventh lesson I teach is that you can't hide.  I teach
children they are always watched by keeping each student under constant
surveillance as 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.  A family
trained to snitch on each other isn't likely to be able to conceal any
dangerous secrets.  I assign a type of extended schooling called
"homework", too, so that the surveillance travels into private
households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn
something unauthorized from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to
some wise person in the neighborhood.  Disloyalty to the idea of
schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands.  The
meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one
can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.  Surveillance is an
ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers, a central
prescription set down Republic, in City of God, in Institutes of the
Christian Religion, in New Atlantis, in Leviathan and many other places.
All these childless men who wrote these books discovered the same thing:
children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under
tight central control.  Children will follow a private drummer if you
can't get them into a uniformed marching band.


      It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-
schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among the
best of my student's parents, only a small number can imagine a
different way to do things.  "The kids have to know how to read and
write, don't they?"  "They have to know how to add and subtract, don't
they?"  "They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep
a job."

      Only a few lifetimes ago things were very 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, we Americans, all by ourselves, without
government sticking its nose into our lives, without institutions and
social agencies telling us how to think and feel; no, all by ourselves
we were something, as individuals.

      We've had a society increasingly under central control in the
United States since just before the Civil War and such a society
requires compulsory schooling, government monopoly schooling to maintain
itself.  Before the society changed, schooling wasn't very important
anywhere.  We had it, but not too much of it and only as much as an
individual wanted.  People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic
just fine anyway, there are some studies which show literacy at the time
of the American Revolution, at least on the Eastern seaboard, as close
to total.  Tom Paine's Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population
of 2,500,000, 20 percent of which was slave and another 50 percent

      Were the colonists geniuses?  No, the truth is that reading,
writing and arithmetic only take about 100 hours to transmit as long as
the audience is eager and willing to learn.  The trick is to wait until
someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on him.  Millions of
people teach themselves these things; it really isn't very hard.  Pick
up a fifth grad textbook in math or rhetoric from 1850 and you'll see
that the texts were pitched then on what would today be college level.
The continuing cry for "basic skills" practice is a smoke screen behind
which schools preempt the time of children for 12 years and teach them
the seven 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.  The character of large
compulsory institutions is inevitable, they want more and until there
isn't any more to give.  School takes our children away from any
possibility of an active role in community life -- in fact it destroys
communities by reserving the training of children to the hands of
certified experts -- and by doing so it ensures that they cannot grow up
fully human.  Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in
community life you could not hope to become a healthy human being.
Surely he was right.  Look around you the next time you are near a
school or an old people's reservation, that will be the demonstration.

      School as it was built is an essential support system for a vision
of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones
in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control.
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 right through the period of the
early Republic we had no schools to speak of -- read Franklin's
Autobiography for a man who had no time to waste in school -- 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 subordination for all.  That was the secret Plato reluctantly
transmitted in The Republics when Glaucon and Adeimantus exhorted from
Socrates the plan for total state control of human life that would be
necessary to maintain a society where some people took more than their
share.  "I will show you," said Socrates, "how to bring about such a
feverish city, but you will not like what I am going to say."  And so
the blueprint of the seven lesson school was first sketched.

      The current debate about whether we should have a national
curriculum is phony -- we already have one, locked up in the seven
lessons I just taught you and a few more I decided to spare you.  Such a
curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis and no
curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its hideous effects.
What is currently under discussion in our national school hysteria about
failing academic performance is a great irrelevancy that misses the
point.  Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they
do it well -- How to be a good Egyptian and where your place is in the


      None of this is inevitable, you know.  None of it is impossible to
overthrow.  We do have a choice in how we bring up young people and
there is no one right way; if we broke the power of Egyptian illusion we
would see that.  There is no life and death international competition
threatening our national existence, difficult as that is to even think
about, let alone believe, in the face of a constant media barrage of
myth to the contrary.  In every important material respect our nation is
self-sufficient, including energy.  I realize that runs counter to the
most fashionable thinking of political economists, but the "profound
transformation" of our economy these people talk about is neither
inevitable nor irreversible.  Global economics does not speak to the
public need for jobs, affordable homes, adequate schools and medical
care, a clean environment, honest and accountable government, social and
cultural renewal, or simple justice.  All global ambitions are based on
a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common
human reality that I am convinced it is wrong and that most people would
agree with me if they had a choice.  We might be able to see that if we
regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is
genuinely to be found -- in families, in 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, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real
families, real friends and real communities are built.  Then we would be
truly self-sufficient.

      How did these awful places, these "schools", come about?  Well,
casual schooling has always been with us in a variety of forms, a mildly
useful adjunct to growing up.  But total-schooling as we know it is a
byproduct of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919, when powerful
interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor.  Partly,
too, total schooling came about because old-line American families were
revolted by the home cultures of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigrants --
and revolted by the Catholic religion they brought with them.  Certainly
a third contributing cause to making a jail for children called school
must be located in the prospect with which these same families regarded
the free movement of Africans through the society after the Civil War.

      Look again at the seven lessons of schoolteaching:  confusion,
class assignment, dulled responses, emotional and intellectual
dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance -- all of these things
are good training for permanent underclasses, people derived forever of
finding the center of their own special genius.  And in later years it
became the training shaken loose from even its own original logic -- to
regulate the poor; since the 1920s the growth of the school bureaucracy
and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from
schooling just exactly as it is, has enlarged this institution's
original grasp to where it began to seize the sons and daughters of the
middle classes.

      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, preempting the
teaching function that belongs to everybody in a healthy community.
Professional teaching tends to another serious error: It makes things
that are inherently easy to learn, like reading, writing, and
arithmetic, seem difficult by insisting they be taught through
pedagogical procedures.  With lessons like the ones I teach day after
day, it should be little wonder we have a national crisis the nature of
the one we have 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 who face the 21st
century 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 (for we have divorced them from
significant parental attention); 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 nourished and
magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, which prevents effective
personality development by its hidden curriculum.  Indeed, without
exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children
our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified
schoolteacher.  No common school that actually dared to teach the use of
dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ
would last very long without being torn to pieces.  School has become a
replacement for church in our secular society, and like church its
teachings must be taken on faith.

      It is time that we faced the fact squarely that institutional
schoolteaching is destructive to children.  Nobody survives the 7-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 schools
require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful
interests cannot afford to let it happen.  You must understand that
first and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency
for letting contracts.  We cannot afford to save money by reducing the
scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to
help children grow up right.  That is the Iron Law of institutional
schooling -- it is a business neither subject to normal accounting
procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition.

      Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the
likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools
and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts
schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government
education.  I'm trying to describe a free market in schooling just
exactly like the one the country had right up until the Civil War, one
in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them,
even if that means self-education.  It didn't hurt Benjamin Franklin
that I can see.

      These options now exist in miniature, wonderful survivals of a
strong and vigorous past, but they are unavailable only to the
resourceful, the courageous, the lucky, or the rich.  The near
impossibility of one of these better roads opening for the shattered
families of the poor or the bewildered host camped on the fringes of the
urban middle class foretells the disaster of 7-Lesson Schools is going
to grow unless we do something bold and decisive with the mess of
government monopoly schooling.

      After an adult lifetime spent teaching school I believe the method
of mass-schooling is the only real content it has, don't be fooled into
thinking that good curriculum 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 with their families, to learn lessons in self-
motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and
lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home

      Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time
left after school.  But television has eaten up 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 up fully human, and only thin-
soil wastelands to do it in.  A future is rushing down upon our culture
which will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material
experience; a future which will demand as the price of survival that we
follow a pace of natural life economical in material cost.  These
lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are.  School is like
starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the
only curriculum truly learned.  I teach school and win awards doing it.

I should know.

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