John Taylor Gatto Challenged the Ideas Inherent in US Mass Schooling
Death anniversaries provide us an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of many great historical personalities, but rarely do we find a figure so recently passed yet so quickly forgotten as John Taylor Gatto.
Gatto was born in 1935 in the working-class Western Pennsylvania town of Monongahela. He passed away on October 25, 2018, in his adopted home of New York City. In his nearly 30 years of classroom teaching, Gatto witnessed first hand some of the most radical experiments in mass schooling that the world has ever seen. After being named New York City Teacher of the Year consecutively in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, Gatto rejected
what he called the “school religion punishing the nation” and left his formal profession of teaching in search of a job where he “didn’t have to hurt kids to make a living.”
From that day in 1991 until his death one year ago, Gatto wrote and spoke about his experiences in U.S. public schools in an effort not just to critique a system which he saw as beyond reform, but also to envision what education could look like in a truly free and just society. While Gatto gained a readership among certain sections of the homeschooling and alternative education movements, his piercing criticism of U.S. schooling and its link to the crisis of Western civilization deserves a much wider audience.
Schooling Against Education: Gatto’s Underground History
“Traditional education can be seen as sculptural in nature, individual destiny is written somewhere within the human being, awaiting dross to be removed before a true image shines forth. Schooling, on the other hand, seeks a way to make mind and character blank, so others may chisel the destiny thereon,” —Gatto, The Underground History of American Education
Much of Gatto’s writing is focused on the basic yet often overlooked distinction between schooling and education. At the heart of his work is the simple yet radical suggestion that mass schooling, a 19th-century European import to the U.S., is not the modern manifestation of the ancient concept of education but, rather, its diametric opposite.
In his magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education
, Gatto traces the material roots of mass schooling back to the economic and ideological demands of a burgeoning industrial capitalism in Europe. Against the narrative of mass schooling as a noble attempt to educate the starving, backward masses, he exposes its true motive as a glorified daycare system for the children of parents newly coerced into wage labor.
With the destruction of the commons in Europe, self-sustaining production systems and their accompanying home-based education practices were obliterated
in the quest for profits derived from the labor of a new industrial proletariat. Children who used to learn practical skills by working alongside their families and communities were forced into monotonous factory work with the advent of the industrial revolution. After child labor laws were introduced in the 19th century and extended in the 20th, the state had to find something to do with these unoccupied working-class children.
The answer was mass schooling. In 1839, Prussia became the first country
on the European continent to enact a national child labor law. It is no coincidence that this North German state subsequently became the most important country in the development of modern schooling. Often described
as “an army with a country,” Prussia took the logic of the regimented factory shop floor and military training camp and applied it to the development of a national school system.
This “army with a country” demanded malleable subjects rather than educated citizens, and it was for the production of the former that a new national school system was created. One of the most important pedagogues in the development of the Prussian system, Heinrich Pestalozzi, touted his approach as one that would mold
the poor “to accept all the exertions and efforts peculiar to their class.” As Gatto put it
, Pestalozzi “offered them love in place of ambition. By employing psychological means in the training of the young, class warfare might be avoided.”
If modern schooling was born in the militaristic milieu of early 19th-century Prussia, it came of age in the rigid class system of England and reached maturity in the colonizing adventures of the British Empire. One need to look no further than Friedrich Engels’s 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England
, to understand the impact of the industrial revolution on England’s poor, whose living conditions dropped precipitously at the same time as mass schooling was being introduced in the country.
However, the English ruling class could not indefinitely exploit its workers on the basis of material coercion and physical force alone. In addition to building its factory system on the backs of slave labor in the Americas and the looting of resources in its Asian colonies, the British Empire used its vast dominion abroad to refine its psychological management of the young at home.
Gatto provides the example of wealthy Scottish Anglican chaplain, Andrew Bell, who lived in India in the late 18th century, where he took a keen interest in the caste system as a model for the modern English school. Bell admired what he saw as a rigid social hierarchy in Hindu village schools characterized by intellectual and religious instruction for a tiny minority at the top and caste-appropriate technical training for everyone else.
Bell devised the Madras System of Education based on his experiences
in India. This system was subsequently deployed in Scotland in Bell’s own Madras College secondary school in St. Andrews, and later in England and the U.S. under a similar system known as “Lancaster schooling” based loosely on the ideas of English Quaker Joseph Lancaster.
The Madras and Lancaster systems, also known as the “monitorial system,” were characterized by large classrooms with students seated in rows overseen by a single schoolteacher. The teacher did not in fact teach, but, rather, served as a “bystander and inspector” who would form a hierarchy among the students and then let the so-called “brighter” ones teach the rest. It was the stratification of the new industrial system applied to the young.
By the 1830s, schools based on the Prussian and Lancaster models stretched from New York to Texas, with significant admirers such as Calvin Ellis Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband, who advocated for the adoption of a Prussian-style national education system in the United States.