'I'm a Saboteur'
Daniel H. Pink
The new economy
is awash in contradictions, but few are more troubling than this
one: At the very moment that brainpower is more important than ever,
education seems more backward than ever. We have a new economy but
Out of this
disconnect has emerged a quiet grassroots rebellion aimed at reinventing
both the form and the function of American education. Charter schools
publicly funded startup schools that operate mostly free
of regulation have boomed. In 1992, there was one charter
school in the United States. Today, there are more than 2,000. The
fastest-growing education movement is homeschooling. Today, roughly
1.5 million children learn at home. Just as Internet startups and
free agents rattled big business, charter schools and homeschooling
are shaking up "big schoolhouse."
is John Taylor Gatto, education's most original (and perhaps most
controversial) thinker. Gatto earned his reformer's credentials
the hard way. For 30 years, he taught English in some of New York
City's toughest schools and became the East Coast's answer
to Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles teacher immortalized in
the film Stand
and Deliver. Gatto was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime teacher
who changed lives (hundreds of former students remain in touch with
him), even as he outraged administrators. In 1991, he was New York
State's Teacher of the Year. Then he quit.
"When I left
school teaching, I was blind with rage. I didn't know whose throat
to grab first," growls Gatto, whose round face, white hair, and
bearish build make him look like the tough brother of TV's Captain
Kangaroo. "After a while, I could see that responsibility for education
had to be revested in ordinary people."
He began writing
essays and articles that recommended a systematic overhaul of learning
in America and soon attracted a nearly cultish following among homeschoolers,
charter-school advocates, and other education reformers. To many
members of that incipient movement, Gatto has become their philosopher
king. But Gatto, 65, gives himself a different job title. "I'm a
saboteur," he says. "I'm sabotaging the idea that you know best
what my family needs."
says, are irremediably broken. Built to supply a mass-production
economy with a docile workforce, they ask too little of children,
and thereby drain youngsters of curiosity and autonomy. Tougher
discipline, more standardized tests, longer days, and most other
conventional solutions are laughably short of the mark. "We need
to kill the poison plant we created," Gatto has written. "School
reform is not enough. The notion of schooling itself must be challenged."
His alternative: to get rid of institutional mass-production schools,
allow every imaginable experiment to blossom, make free public libraries
universal, and expand hands-on apprenticeships.
year, Gatto published a book, The
Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher's Intimate
Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling (Oxford
Village Press). Nearly a decade in the making, the enormous volume
is a sprawling work of history, political philosophy, and citizen
activism. Two major publishers liked the book enough to offer Gatto
sizable advances on the condition that he trim the pages
and mute the language. He refused. So he produced and distributed
the book himself, selling 5,000 copies the first week.
"This is the
Witch Project of books," says Roland Legiardi-Laura, 47,
an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a former eighth-grade
student of Gatto's. "It's been under the radar, but not for long."
Legiardi-Laura and his former teacher are now adapting the book
into a documentary that aims to do for education what Ken Burns's
series on the Civil War did for the War Between the States.
History of American Education is pointed and provocative. It's
hard to agree with everything Gatto has to say, but it's even harder
to come away from his searing critique unchanged. A single reading
of a single essay inevitably makes you start to question the purpose
and the premise of American education. "I had no intention of being
an author," says Gatto, who lives with his wife on Manhattan's Upper
West Side. "I hate being a product. But I feel that I have a responsibility
to bear witness to what I've seen." Fast Company met with Gatto
in Legiardi-Laura's loft apartment across from Tompkins Square Park
in New York City.
did you get started in teaching?
I never thought
I would be a teacher. The prevailing Ivy League ethic when I left
college in the late 1950s was that you would be a man in a gray
flannel suit. And if you had blood flowing through your veins, you
didn't want to be a banker or a businessman. You wanted to be an
ad man. So I became a copywriter at an ad agency. At first, it was
very exciting. But after a while, you say, "Is the rest of my life
going to be writing 50 words a month, holding my drink the correct
way, and knowing when people shift from martinis to Gibsons?"
in New York City at the time was a guy named Dick Boehm. He was
a waiter at the Waldorf-Astoria, but he also had a teaching license.
He'd taught for one day and said, "You have to be crazy to do this
for a living." And he threw his teaching license in a drawer. His
license didn't have a picture on it, so I took a few days off from
the ad agency, used Dick's license, and went around the city substitute
I was bored,
I guess. And I was tweaking the city's nose by teaching school as
Dick Boehm. But I ran into some genuinely horrifying experiences
in which kids were obviously being denied basic intellectual tools.
And the reason, at least the surface reason, that they were being
denied those tools was the belief that there were some things that
these kids couldn't do. People would tell me, "It would embarrass
the kids to try to do more." It's real easy, when you're a young
man, to buy that crap.
did you stop buying it?
two experiences that changed my life. One took place in a school
in Harlem on 120th Street. I tended to favor subbing in Harlem because
they were so desperate just to get bodies in there that I was pretty
sure that they wouldn't check the records. I was assigned to teach
a Spanish course. I knew a couple-hundred words of Spanish, so I
figured that I could fake it pretty well. I got in there and asked
the kids if they knew how to tell time. I assumed that they did,
and I thought we could review it. But they said no, they didn't
know how to tell time. I said, "I can teach you how to tell time
in this one class period, and you'll know it forever." So I did
that. You get five classes a day as a sub, and by the third class,
I got summoned to the principal's office. Some assistant principal
began to scream at me. Her face turned a deep purple red. "How dare
you do this! You have destroyed the entire curriculum for the month
of June. I have no idea how I will explain to the teacher when she
comes back," she said. "But I'll tell you this: You will never be
hired at this school again!" At first, I thought I was locked up
with a lunatic. Then, the more I reflected on this odd situation,
the more I realized that this was the attitude in all subject areas.
They expected so little of these kids that it was easy to communicate
the whole curriculum for the month of June in 15 minutes.
life-changing experience came at a school on 103rd or 104th Street
and Columbus Avenue. I was assigned as a sub in a third-grade remedial
reading class an easy assignment. You could write stuff on
the board, pass out worksheets, and then sit there and read the
Daily News. A little girl named Milagros Maldonado came up to the
desk and said, "I don't need to do this. I already know how to read."
All I wanted to do was finish the day, but I said to her, "Well,
you know, these things are done by people older than you who are
looking out for your own best interest, and they think you're better
off here." And she said, "No, I can read anything."
There was a
reader on the teacher's desk, and she grabbed the reader and said,
"Ask me to read anything." I cracked it open to a story called "The
Devil and Daniel Webster," which is an extremely difficult piece
of American Victorian prose. And she read it without batting an
eyelash. I said to her, "You know, sometimes, Milagros, mistakes
are made. I'll speak to the principal." I walked into the principal's
office and the woman began shrieking at me, saying, "I'm not in
the habit of taking instruction from a substitute teacher." I said,
"I'm not telling you what to do. It's just that this little girl
can read." And she said something to me that, at my dying moment,
I'll still remember. She said, "Mr. Gatto, you have no idea how
clever these low-achieving children are. They will memorize a story
so that it looks as if they know how to read it." Talk about an
Alice in Wonderland world! If that little girl had memorized "The
Devil and Daniel Webster," then we want her in national politics!
The principal said, "I will come in and show you." After school,
she came in and put Milagros through her paces. The little girl
did well. Then she told Milagros, "We will transfer you." And when
Milagros left, the principal said to me, "You will never be hired
at this school again."
made you want to teach?
Yes. The attitude
toward these children in liberal New York City wasn't remotely like
the attitude toward children in western Pennsylvania, where I grew
up. There the assumption was that if somebody couldn't do the work,
it was because they were lazy or defiant. In these schools, the
assumption was that some kids were permanently disabled, and everyone
had to settle into their assigned place.
So I told the
people at the ad agency that I was going to leave to teach full
time. I thought I'd be right back. I said to myself, I'm going to
do this for a year or two and I'm going to demonstrate, to my own
satisfaction, that these rules of classification are nonsense. Thirty
years later, I still hadn't found out how far it was possible to
push human beings to become big, self-directing, independent, and
able to write their own script. The trouble is, especially with
poor kids, they have such an indoctrinated belief that they can't
do it, and that belief is reflected in antagonism and anger that
they carry with them throughout life. But the truth is that genius
is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most
do you unlock that inborn genius?
When the mind
is tested against something unfamiliar, it grows in front of your
eyes. Adopted children have a horrible track record in adult life,
and yet they often measure on IQ tests about 20 points higher than
their equals in their biological family. For years, the medical
community tried to figure out what could account for this. Just
to transfer from your natural parent increases your intelligence?
Well, sure. You're in this desperate situation; you don't even have
enough language to find your way out. You're looking around a lot
more than you would if it was all Mother Goose.
the rest of the article
Taylor Gatto is the author of Weapons
of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark
World of Compulsory Schooling,
Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate
Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling, and
Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.
He was 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year.
© 2010 Fast Company