The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher
The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher
By: John Taylor Gatto
Source: Gatto, John Taylor. "The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher." Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992.
About the Author: John Taylor Gatto taught in public schools for more than thirty years and received the New York State Teacher of the Year Award in 1991. "The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher" is a revised version of his acceptance speech for the award. Gatto writes on topics related to the history of compulsory education, homeschooling, and unschooling.
Unlike other industrialized nations such as Great Britain or France, the United States does not have a national curriculum for the fifty-four million children between the ages of five and seventeen who must, according to compulsory education laws, attend school or be homeschooled. State boards of education and local boards of education drive curriculum standards in the United States, creating a variety of schools with different class sizes, course offerings, extracurricular activities, special education services, and wide differences in funding.
In spite of these differences, public schools in the United States follow a remarkably similar pattern: government-funded schools generally have a local school board governing decisions, a superintendent in charge of school policy and personnel, a principal in each school with assorted administrators managing financial and regulatory issues, and teachers and para-professionals performing classroom and special services support. While class sizes, school sizes, bus availability, supplies, and curriculum materials may vary, most children who attend public schools in the United States experience similar social and educational experiences.
Classes are segregated by age, and at the middle-and high-school level students are often tracked within content areas, with higher achievers separated from lower achievers. In high school, college preparatory tracks are distinct from vocational tracks, and some school systems form compacts with others to create a central school for vocational studies such as auto mechanics, culinary arts, or electronics. In the mid–1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" created funding programs such as Title I, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Schools qualify for Title I funding when a certain percentage of the population comes from families below the federal poverty line. Title I helped to address funding disparities in education; because most American school districts receive funding from property taxes, schools in affluent neighborhoods can receive twice as much money per pupil than schools in districts with lower property values.
The 1983 report A Nation at Risk, published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, addressed the funding issue, low test scores, low teacher salaries, and an overall decrease in the quality of education in the United States. The report sparked changes in curriculum, as well as teacher literacy exams, graduation exams, smaller class sizes, and increases in teacher pay in some districts. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public schools in the United States were considered to be in a crisis state as gang violence, bullying, teenage pregnancy, and higher dropout rates all pointed to a failed system.
John Taylor Gatto taught in public schools from the 1960s through the 1990s. A thirty-year teaching veteran, Gatto won teaching awards in New York City and in 1991 was named New York State Teacher of the Year. Having experienced the "back to basics" movement of the 1970s, the changes brought about by A Nation at Risk, increased numbers of students who spoke English as a second or third language, and other systemic, social, and political processes affecting schools, Gatto chose to use his acceptance speech to reflect on the condition of public education as he experienced it.
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 other?
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 place.
In spite of the overall class blueprint which assumes 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 school teaching 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 the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.
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 them 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 worth.
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 in 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.
Gatto's speech shocked his audience, and later that year he announced that he was quitting teaching because he was "no longer willing to hurt children" by reinforcing the unwritten curriculum that he discussed in his speech. Gatto's analysis of American education was highly influenced by writers such as John Holt and Ivan Illich; Holt's 1964 book How Children Fail had detailed the dampening effect of traditional education on a child's intrinsic motivation to learn, while Illich's 1971 book Deschooling Society argued that schools are designed to train students to have needs that can be met only through societal institutions and that schools perpetuate social class distinctions.
Gatto's speech came on the heels of the publication of Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities, which examined public schools in the United States through the lens of funding. Kozol shed light on disparities between poor and wealthy public schools—a district on Long Island might spend more than $11,000 per pupil while a nearby district in New York City spends $5,500 per pupil. Local funding created conditions for suburban schools with largely white populations to provide new buildings, up-to-date textbooks, Advanced Placement courses, and new lab equipment, while inner city schools with largely minority populations experienced overcrowding, buildings in disrepair, decades-old textbooks, and underpaid staff. As Kozol, Gatto, and Illich stress, the institutional nature of public education, funding procedures, and compulsory laws enforcing it generated social conditions that perpetuated class inequities, discouraged critical thought, and reinforced Gatto's unspoken curriculum.
Gatto advocates a form of schooling called "unschooling," in which the child's innate interests direct learning. Schools such as Sudbury Valley School and the Albany Free School, called "democratic" or "free" schools because the students—not adults—create and enforce systems of justice, function as unschools. There is no curriculum, though these schools provide resources such as music rooms, libraries, woodshops, sewing rooms, commercial kitchens, art and pottery rooms, and so forth. According to Gatto, when children are neither age-segregated nor subject to forty-five- or fifty-minute divisions in the day, and are free to learn what they wish to learn, when they wish to learn it, applying critical thinking to questions and seeking experts when necessary, the seven lessons in his speech no longer dictate the child's educational experience. Experiential learning via unschooling, Gatto theorizes, allows the child to work within a social community and apply learning to the natural environment, a radically different approach from public institutions of education. Gatto promotes homeschooling as an alternative to sending children to private democratic schools.
As homeschooling increases at a rate of seven to fifteen percent in the United States, Gatto's theories have found fertile ground in the homeschooling movement, particularly among the thirty percent of homeschooling parents who choose to homeschool because of negative social conditions in schools. Gatto's speech hit a nerve among parents, educators, and students alike during his acceptance speech in 1991. As professional educators struggle in the twenty-first century to manage the requirements imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the United States, which places greater testing requirements on students, Gatto's call for a radically different curriculum—both written and unwritten— challenges educators and parents alike to explore a different vision of education.
Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 2005.
Holt, John C. How Children Fail. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 1995.
——— How Children Learn. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 1995.
National Center for Education Statistics. "1.1 Million Home-schooled Students in the United States in 2003." July 2004. <http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004115.pdf> (accessed June 13, 2006).
National Commission on Excellence in Education. "A Nation at Risk." April 1983. <http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatA-tRisk/index.html> (accessed June 13, 2006).
Sudbury Valley School. <http://www.sudval.org> (accessed June 13, 2006).
U.S. Census Bureau. "Home Schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics." August 2001. <http:// www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps 0053.html> (accessed June 13, 2006).