Main article
back to cybercadre homepage


by John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto was New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991. This is his thought provoking article on what we are actually teaching in the schools. It's been much reproduced in various underground journals.

(Reprinted with permission from, "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling," by John Taylor Gatto. New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19143.)

Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn't what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.

Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are:

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the kids like it -- being locked in together, I mean -- or at the minimum, endure it. If things go well, the kids can't imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores, even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see that truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.

The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.

The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of school time; their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom. Individuality is a curse to all systems of classification, a contradiction of class theory.

Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or exhilarated by things outside my ken. Rights in such things cannot exist for schoolteachers; only privileges, which can be withdrawn, exist.

The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study (rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

Bad kids fight against this, of course, trying openly or covertly to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist.

This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained in the dependency lesson: The social-service businesses could hardly survive, including the fast-growing counseling industry; commercial entertainment of all sorts, along with television, would wither if people remembered how to make their own fun; the food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too -- the clothing business as well -- unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year. We've built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don't know any other way. For God's sake, let's not rock that boat!

In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students' homes to spread approval or to mark exactly -- down to a single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective- seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at a certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.

Self-evaluation -- the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet -- is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child's waywardness, too.

I assign "homework" so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood.

The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by Calvin in the Institutes, by Plato in the Republic, by Hobbes, by Comte, by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control.


It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students' parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things. "The kids have to know how to read and write, don't they?" "They have to know how to add and subtract, don't they?" "They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job."

Only a few lifetimes ago things were very different in the United States. Originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social-class boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, able to do many things independently, and to think for themselves. We were something special, we Americans, all by our ourselves, without government sticking its nose into and measuring every aspect of our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel. We were something special, as individuals, as Americans.

But we've had a society essentially under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War, and such a society requires compulsory schooling, government monopoly schooling, to maintain itself. Before this development schooling wasn't very important anywhere. We had it, but not too much of it, and only as much as an individual wanted. People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic just fine anyway; there are some studies that suggest literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least for non-slaves on the Eastern seaboard, was close to total. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" sold 600,000 copies to a population of 3 million, 20 percent of whom were slaves, and 50 percent indentured servants. Were the colonists geniuses? No, the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things, it really isn't very hard. Pick up a fifth grade math or rhetoric textbook from 1850 and you'll see that the texts were pitched then on what would today be considered college level. The continuing cry for "basic skills" practice is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children for 12 years...

The society that has come increasingly under central control since just before the Civil War shows itself in the lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast, all of which are the products of this control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the United States, products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual, family, and community importance, a diminishment that proceeds from central control.

The character of large compulsory institutions is inevitable. They want more and more until there isn't any more to give. Schools take our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life -- in fact, they destroy communities by relegating the training of children to the hands of certified experts -- and by doing so ensure our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. Surely he was right. Look around you the next time you are near a school or an old people's reservation if you wish a demonstration.

School as it was built is an essential support system for a model of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control. School is an artifice that makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution. From Colonial days through the period of the Republic we had no schools to speak of -- read Benjamin Franklin's "Autobiography" for an example of a man who had no time to waste in school -- and yet the promise of democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient pharaonic dream of Egypt: compulsory subordination for all. That was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the "Republic," in which Glaucon and Adeimantus extort from Socrates the plan for total state control of human life, which would be necessary to maintain a society where some people take more than their share. "I will show you," says Socrates, "how to bring about such a feverish city, but you will not like what I am going to say." And so the blueprint of [modern education] was first sketched.

The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony. We already have a national curriculum... Such a curriculum produces physical, oral, and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is currently under discussion in our national hysteria about failing academic performance misses the point. Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach, and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.


None of this is inevitable. None of it is impossible to overthrow. We do have choices in how we bring up young people; there is no one right way. If we broke through the power of the pyramidal illusion, we would see that. There is no life and death international competition threatening our national existence, difficult as that is to believe in the face of a continual media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important material respect, our nation is self-sufficient, including in energy.

I realize that this idea runs counter to the most fashionable thinking of political economists, but the "profound transformation" of our economy these people talk about is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Global economics do not speak to the public need for meaningful work, affordable housing, fulfilling education, adequate medical care, a clean environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common human reality that I am convinced it is wrong, and that most people would agree with me if they could perceive an alternative.

We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found -- in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends and real communities are built -- then we would be so self-sufficient we would not need the material "sufficiency" which our global "experts" are so insistent we be concerned about.

How did these awful places, these "schools," come about? Casual schooling has always been with us in a variety of forms, a mildly useful adjunct to growing up. But "modern" schooling as we now know it is a by-product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor. Partly, too, total schooling came about because old-line "American" families were appalled by the native cultures of Celtic, Slavic and Latin immigrants of the 1840s and felt repugnance towards the Catholic religion they brought with them. Certainly a third contributing factor in creating a jail for children called school must have been the consternation with which these same Americans regarded the free movement of African-Americans through the society in the wake of the Civil War. the seven lessons of school teaching -- confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance -- all of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. And over this time the training has shaken loose from its own original logic: to regulate the poor. For since the 1920s, the growth of the school bureaucracy and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged this institution's original grasp to the point that it now seizes the sons and daughters of the middle class as well.

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, preempting the teaching function which belongs to everyone in a healthy community.

With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, it should be little wonder we have a national crisis, the nature of which is very different from that proclaimed by the national media. Young people are indifferent to the adult world and to the future, indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich or poor, school children who face the 21st century cannot concentrate on anything for very long. They have a poor sense of time past and to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they are (for we have divorced ourselves from significant parental attention). They hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected and addicted to distraction.

All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, which through its hidden curriculum, prevents effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness and inexperience of children, schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that dared to teach the use of critical thinking tools -- like the dialectic, the heuristic or other devices that free minds should employ -- would last very long before being torn to pieces. School has become the replacement for church in our secular society, and like church, it requires that its teachings must be taken on faith.

It is time we squarely face the fact that institutional school teaching is destructive to children. Nobody survives...completely unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking that schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen. First and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency for letting contracts. We cannot afford to save money by reducing the scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to help children grow up right. That is the iron law of institutional schooling -- it is a business, subject neither to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition.

Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools, small entrepreneurial schools, religious schools, crafts schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government education. I am trying to describe a free market in schooling exactly like the one the country had until the Civil War: one in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them, even if that means self-education. It didn't hurt Benjamin Franklin that I can see. These options exist now in miniature, wonderful survivals of a strong and vigorous past, but they are available only to the resourceful, the courageous, the lucky or the rich. The near impossibility of one of these better roads opening for the shattered families of the poor or for the bewildered host camped on the fringes of the urban middle class suggests that the going to grow unless we do something bold and decisive with the mess of government monopoly schooling.

After an adult lifetime spent teaching school, I believe the method of schooling is its only real content. Don't be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son or daughter's education. All the pathologies we've considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping an important appointment with themselves and their families to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love -- and lessons in service to others, too, which are among the key lessons of home and community life.

Thirty years ago, these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-soil wastelands to do it in.

A future is rushing down upon our culture that will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience, a future that will demand as the price of survival that we follow a path of natural life, economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.


For more on John Taylor Gatto click here.

  • return to index