Against School

I’ve been aware of John Taylor Gatto since about 8 years now, and to me, he remains a beacon of clarity on the subject of the educational system. Joseph Zarr, one of our True Fans, just passed on this article. Since it has the proper deference to authority, ie., it was featured in Harper’s magazine, I felt that this is safe to present to our audience without getting out of line. I’m curious about your comments.

It’s important to share this article because few people really understand the sausage works of our education system, and understanding the situation is the first step to its correction. I bring this up because since about a year now we’ve been talking about creating immersion education from scratch, as one of the spinoffs of Factor e Farm. Furthermore, we have been finding that the index of possibilities is so reduced by eduction that most people don’t see any options beyond cookie cutter jobs – and it’s one of the bariers to people supporting development of the world’s first, replicable, open source, off-grid, Global Village.

We aim to create a veritable alternative to college education, including theory and practice, which we have already called a K through Ph.D. Renaissance Freeholder’s Education for Freedom, in Appendix B of our 2008 Proposal.


  1. Joseph

    How does this relate to the so called ‘real world’, and our dominant educational system? Here is a ‘real world’ account sent to me by a dear friend in NYC…I have changed names for the sake of anonymity:

    “Another semi-eerie example of being on the same wavelength with one
    another. Gatto’s approach to teaching profoundly altered my vision of
    what schools could be like. He indirectly led to my “arrest” back in
    January 2005. In the fall of 2004 I adopted his platform of “less time
    in school, more time in the real world” by taking my special ed.
    reading classes on weekly field trips to the local soup kitchen. The
    other teachers thought I was “rewarding bad behavior”. They’d say,
    “what kind of message does it send to Jesabell Blake that she can act
    like a retarded slut in our class and YOU take her out of the
    building.” I would counter that Jesabell acted like a retarded slut
    precisely because no one ever took her out of the building. Gatto
    himself used to cover for his kids on a weekly basis. Some kids would
    show up no more than once a month. The rest of the time they were out
    on the streets of NYC making connections, apprenticing, working, and
    learning. What I was doing was a watered down version.

    Anyway, the soup kitchen enforced a hairnet rule with the kids. For
    the boys they distributed paper hats. One of my boys in the class,
    Daryll, loved the kitchen and loved the hat. So much so that during
    his next class, with his next teacher—-the prickly, bossy Ms.
    Collard, the pride of Long Island—he refused to remove it. She
    exploded and told him he was off the basketball team. An typically
    thoughtless, impulsive punishment totally outside her jurisdiction and
    completely out of whack with the crime. The kind of bullshit loud
    mouthed teachers from Long Island were famous for. Not to mention it
    was a dig at me since I was the coach.

    After school, while practice was in session, the ineffectual,
    emasculated, oafish and all around turd of an Assistant Principal
    (picture Benny Hill) marches onto the court and yanks Daryll away. I
    threw a shit fit, complete with tossing of the clip board and a
    resignation of the job. I said, “if ms. collard is kicking players off
    the team, then I guess she’s the real coach.” Then I spied her
    walking in the lobby toward the exit for the parking lot. I called out
    to her. We got into it. Kids gathered around. Full on yelling, harsh
    words, angry accusations, repressed sexual tension. Ugly.

    The next morning the school secretary called my room to let me know
    Ms. Collard had called the cops to the school to file “a report.” I
    was hauled into the principal’s office. They wanted to arrest me!
    Crazy. I got off without charges being filed, but still. All because
    of John Taylor Gatto.”

    Thoughts? Comments…

  2. Jeremy

    Here’s a video on John Taylor Gatto:

    Here’s a great interview of John Taylor Gatto discussing many related things:

  3. Edward

    Dewey schools and Free Schools have long been good models of progressive education, and I think it is crucial for any community that aims to be self sufficient.

    That said, I’m not sure everyone who would run such a local school would be as enlightened as you fellas.

    I think that is the real benefit of mandatory public schooling. Because of things like confirmation bias, there has always been a balkanizing tendency in education.

    The internet and the vast quantities of information accessible nowadays allow for a great deal of “cyberbalkanization,” where people feel like they are debating people from different planets since they never read ideas outside their intellectual circle.

    The danger is fundamentalism of any stripe, and public schooling provides a way around that. Regulating local community schools with some basic rules might also work, if not taken too far.

    Just some thoughts.

  4. mb21

    Yeah, I agree with Edward. While learning/education is a complex topic, some more thoughts in favor of mandatory public school:

    Mandatory school was introduced to give everyone the same chances in life. Poor people didn’t want to send their kids to school because they’d rather have them at home helping with work (farming etc.) What good is reading and writing if all you do in your life is farming anyway? So poor children ended up with less education and thus worse jobs. While this is still true, the effect was lessened by everyone having principally the same education. The goal is to have an egalitarian society with everybody having equal opportunities. Obviously, if driven too far you’ll have everyone being not only ‘equal’, but ‘the same’ and people won’t be allowed to think for themselves (as outlined in the referenced article).

    The article says public schools “divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.” This is total rubbish. Public schools bring children from various backgrounds and different ‘classes’ together and they learn to understand each other and see how alike they all are. Think about how unified a class can be against a teacher…

    If you want to have an educated working force that innovates and improves you’ll want them to know what their predecessors did (standing on the shoulders of giants) and you’ll want them to collaborate and communicate for which it is crucial that they have a certain common base education and background. It helps to have a standardized curriculum. And this curriculum should include teaching Darwin’s theory on ‘evolution of species’ – with all emphasis on the fact that it is only a theory within the framework of the scientific method which states that everything is only a theory which cannot be proven, but only disproven. This encourages critical thinking while ‘home education’ might screen some children from such things entirely.

    While I’m not saying that the current school system is all dandy, it certainly has its advantages.

    With the rise of the internet more information is readily accessible to students directly and with the tendency of knowledge to become obsolete quicker every day, it is certainly a good idea to emphasize on more autonomy and self-learning. On the other hand, children often don’t understand why certain things they learn are important. Of course this is frustrating for them, but they’ll have to learn them nonetheless.

  5. Lost Chief

    Public School is/was a joke. I got my ged when i was 16 and dropped out. Not like i had a choice because i clashed with 90% of my teachers and was always in trouble at school. To be honest what do they teach that you use as an adult? Math before pre alg? Ok reading and spelling is a tool we use but thats learned by 4rd grade or so same with the math that can be used int he real world.

    Everything above 4-5th grade is to get you used to being a worker bee. Nothing to inspire kids to be more.

    All the solid things i have learned came from learning in real life. Being out there in the streets or at the pier fishing watching how the old asian lady with the cigerette uses dish racks to catch the same crabs i was using a $50 crab trap to catch. Learning is watching kids ride thier skateboard down the pier and knowing that about half of the kids who do it end up loosing thier boards off in the ocean because of the way the pier is set up. Learning is noticing how dungeness crabs love Garlic soaked rotten chicken but the red rock crabs dont so you can make sure to only get the large top price crabs in your trap instead of the half size red crabs.

    I guess my point is that if i have kids i will raise them myself. I will pass along all the basics liek reading and math but the main focus will be getting them to notice the teaching that are all around us every day that actually show us the productive way.

    Children need to be given more respect and shown the doorway but left to follow thier own path. I had to fight everyone down the line as a kid because everyone told me i was supposed to be like them. I chose as a child to deal with the punishments for going my own way because in my heart i knew that was what i was supposed to do..

    Maybe for some people public school made them who they are. For me i can only remember a couple things i learned in school that were positive and that i still reflect on today to be a better person..

  6. Antti Karttunen

    Please read also the essay
    “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”
    by Paul Graham:

    where he compares the American high school
    system to the “prisons run mostly by the inmates”.

    Some quotes:

    I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed
    up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.

    As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

    Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time.

    I think above also points to the direction which education should take
    in the Open Source Ecology: Apprenticeship, not mass education.

  7. Loretta

    I’m sorry mb21 you speak very dogmatically.

    Myth #1
    First, I would like to correct the prejudicial image of the “ignorant” backward rural farming hick. In the 18th Century colonial America was built on farming. Yet instead of poor destitute people who can’t read or write – we have an age of enlightenment? I wonder why Universities would even offer a PhD degree in agriculture; you would think that after 200 years of running agricultural programs these higher places of learning would have figured out; there is no complex scientific method for simpleton farm folk besides reading and writing is wasted on their children because all they do is farm.
    Cornell University: Core Historical Literature of Agriculture

    Oh, 1632 marked the first American “free” school; ordinances passed requiring every 50 families by for 1 school, plus the instructor salary. 1785 marked the first publicly funded school. 1852 was the first mandatory requirement for school attendance.

    Myth #2
    Children are united when divided by age-range and subject. Where is the comparable data? How do you know? Are you assuming that because this is the current practice it must be the best? As note the natural tendency of the same age group is to create an “us” against “them” mentality – the odd one out is the adult teacher. Such an environment is fundamentally different then that of a one room school house. Can you image how different a the writing skills of 9 year old would be just by being seated next to a 12 year old? How cool would it be as 9th grader to sit in on a 12th grade discussion about Greek history? No doubt there will be pecking orders, a natural one. Who needs a one-size fits all, vanilla, standardization? Who benefits? Not the students, America went from the top ranking country in education to what 26th.

    Darwin’s hypothesis on evolution is great, dandy, philosophic discussions are superb so long as students are exposed to a variety of ideas and thought to compare disseminate and draw conclusion from.

    Myth #3
    As for the scientific method, what are you talking about?

    “…fact that it is only a theory within the framework of the scientific method which states that everything is only a theory which cannot be proven, but only disproved.”

    Ok, so the scientific method is a theory that nothing can’t be proven and thus as the method itself is part of the scientific method, can not be proven. Mmmm…

    Back again to philosophy? Friedrich Nietzsche?

    Nihilism is the belief which:
    -Labels all values as worthless, therefore, nothing can be known or communicated.
    -Associates itself with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism, having no loyalties.

    That is a little different from Scientific Method, which takes great pains towards its method of determining the truth. You are correct if you say science is not a democratic process and consensus does not validate scientific truth. That is hardly Nihilistic circular thought vapor.

    Anyway, the key to critical thinking is to never accept anything as true that I did not know evidently to be so; that is, carefully to avoid precipitous judgment and prejudice; and to include nothing more in my judgments than what presented itself to my mind with such clarity and distinctness that I would have no occasion to doubt it.

  8. Leigh Blackall

    Hi Marcin, good to see the reference to Gatto. I just thought I’d add some historical reference in support, and widen the critique you are entering into.

    Ivan Illich became famous for his little book Deschooling Society. Chapter 6 is particularly interesting to read now we have the Internet to consider. But Illich became much more sophisticated after 1973, publishing many a great perspective on our propensity to institutionalise everything, leading ourselves to false measures and false senses of security.

    I think Illich’s work will inspire and inform your work on a deeper level than Gatto. Guard against institutionalising your work Marcin.

  9. Paulie

    John Stewart Mill would approve.

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