John Taylor Gatto, an educational rebel and advocate of "unschooling," died last week. We lost a great and vigorous voice for liberty.
John had been a schoolteacher in New York City for 21 years; had been named the city's teacher of the year during his last three years of teaching, 1989-91; and was N.Y. State teacher of the year in 1991. He refused to divulge his great success as a teacher, keeping the doors of his classrooms closed as he stopped teaching the kids, letting them become "unschooled," which meant breaking the mold of being controlled. Instead, he let them do what they wanted – talk and ask any question. After six months of unschooling, almost all of them started asking questions about stuff that they wanted to know about and finding answers on their own, understanding for the first time their involvement in the gaining and enjoyment of learning.
In 1991, Gatto retired, writing a famous letter to the Wall Street Journal stating that he no longer wished "to hurt kids to make a living." Thereafter, he advocated homeschooling and spoke out against factory schools. John ran for state Senate in N.Y. as a conservative and served as the shadow minister for education with the Libertarian Party.
I spoke with him at some length about 25 years ago, when he appeared on a local talk radio show hosted by Bill, the progressive (of course) on the local NPR affiliate. Bill had invited John, either not knowing what he stood for or possibly fantasizing that he could belittle John to please his Michigan Education Association masters.
The first caller was one of our kids' English teachers, whom I will call Sally. She made claims about City Middle and High School in Grand Rapids that made it sound as though all the public schools ran at the same elevated level as that unique school.
I had read some of John's books and had a cassette tape of one of his lectures running continuously in my car, prepared to rumble. I got on next, informing the audience that City is a "pull out school" to which the brightest two or three percent of kids in Grand Rapids public schools are admitted. The lowest IQ was probably 115, and the students were mostly the children of professionals. My disparaging the test results was a kind of dog whistle for John, who started egging me on, basically interviewing me, knowing that I would use his language.
Poor Bill, our host, sputtered and could not cut in.
We rapped nonstop for the rest of the half-hour segment, covering all of John's themes: that the public schools and schooling in general evolved from the 1807 Prussian model designed to turn smart farm kids into factory workers, good soldiers, and obedient subjects of their rulers. Our public schooling was designed by social engineers like Horace Mann and John Dewey to destroy their young pupils' minds, to impose their depending on authority and stifle questioning and reasoning about the real world so that these well trained automatons could live in the wonderful world they envisioned. School routines and drills crowded out the time young people needed to wonder about stuff outside school and to find their own way in life – in other words, they didn't have time to educate themselves.
Gatto, citing Plato, talked about education as that inward look, a drawing out from some subconscious human reservoir that each of us has, to find the meaning of life, asking questions like, Is there a God? What do I want to do for a living? Is this good poetry?
What's the punchline of this reminiscence? Our host Bill was fired two weeks later. A technician at the station told me the MEA was unhappy about his inability or unwillingness to stop dissemination of the wrong kind of propaganda on its NPR station.
Erwin Haas was an Army flight surgeon in Vietnam, a Kentwood city commissioner, and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Michigan State. He is running as a Libertarian for Michigan's 26th state senate district. He blogs here.