Taylor Gatto’s school of thought

John Taylor Gatto has been an inspiring figure for me in the world of education.

I have no idea how I first stumbled across John Taylor Gatto’s work.Was it on YouTube? Was it a quote somewhere that prompted me to find out more about him? I have no idea, but I’m fairly sure that one of the first things I heard him saying was something about schools are dumbing us down because there aren’t enough dumb people in the country to fill all the dumb jobs. That caught my attention and I found it so outrageous that I needed to find out how he could possibly back up that claim.

Surely there could be nothing more positive than education?

Ah, but schooling and education are two different things he argued. You need to look at the history of schooling! And why that was brought in (at the same time as when factories were created, hence the bells and strict time regimentation).

Well, if they’re dumbing us down, what about all the leaders and decision makers in society. They’re all very smart and competent. Ah, well, one of schooling’s other functions is called a propaedeutic function – i.e. to start selecting our leaders at a young age and start preparing them for leadership roles. This usually takes place in private schools. Taylor Gatto even listed the fourteen things that private schools teach their children that state schools don’t.

This propaedeutic function goes back to Roman times – hence the fancy Latin term but it was the British who refined it after they learned this from the Raj – the educational system keeps the class system in place.

So in Taylor Gatto’s eyes, there’s nothing less positive than schooling, particularly if you’re in a low performing school.

What was especially outrageous about this character was that he was previously awarded America’s teacher of the year prior to quitting the profession because, he argued, he could no longer support the damage being done to young children. He became a full time speaker.

I first listened to some of his talks on YouTube maybe ten years ago at and I was a bit unsure how much credence I could give to his thoughts. Was it really the case that schooling can be so damaging to children?

A few years later, I cahnged direction in my career and I trained as a teacher. In fact, I qualified as a ‘classroom practitioner’. During the teacher training, I became increasingly concerned about the the way schools are set up and the impact I was having in the classroom (if any).

The first alarm bell was when my mentoring teacher said the ‘kids have to learn this WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT’. How can that possibly be in line with the notion of education? I felt wary about what we were learning and why.

Another alarm bell was when a disillusioned teacher said don’t worry if your lesson was rubbish (he meant this in a supportive manner) because your impact is quite negligible. He challenged me to ask a pupil, during my own lesson, which lesson they had had previously. To my astonishment, they sturggled to remember.

Another alarm bell was one of the the schools I was training at had behavioural problems – lack of discipline, they said. Personally I think it was lack of vision and lack of engagement. The leadership team introduced a new behaviour policy. I thought it was incredulous. The children had to recite mantras and conform otherwise they were punished with isolation. It was appalling. I became concerned about how we were educating the kids – sorry, schooling them.

Towards the end of my training, I returned to Taylor Gatto’s works again and I started reading his work with first hand experience of having worked in a school.

I was prompted by question that Gatto quotes somewhere:

If we wanted a society with well-educated, independent and feisty citizens, what would an education look like to achieve this outcome?

It’s something I think about regularly now that I have my own child. I wonder what will be the best education for her?

Taylor Gatto is very encouraging in this respect because about half of his time is spent encouraging people to give children much more respect and responsibility from as early an age as possible. Children can be very responsible but too often we don’t allow ourselves to trust them. We inadvertently stunt their intellectual and spiritual growth. His works remind people about what is important in an education – drawing on material from a wide range of classics, literature, history, economics and, in the process, he is educating you too.