John Taylor Gatto: Um, wow.

Try not to contract an acute case of self-loathing reading John Taylor Gatto’s Why Schools Don’t Educate, a speech in which we are all agents of a system which subjugates students emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

The products of schooling are, as I’ve said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on the telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves.

Yeah, I get it. This has kinda been the School 2.0 vector all along, right?

My reservations with Gatto’s preference for self-knowledge, internships, apprenticeships – an educational buffet line, essentially – over traditional teacher-led instruction have historically been, whither the kids years behind their peers in math, reading, and writing?

Rarely do those disciplines (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic) carry obvious value to the student in the present, only in hindsight to the future practitioner. I’ve always wondered what would compel those students to study fractions absent any compulsory institution like a school saying so.

This has gone unanswered (to my satisfaction) until Gatto’s essay. (And if I’ve missed anyone’s response, lemme know.)

“How will they learn to read?” you say and my answer is “Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.” When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them.

Of course he’s referring to Massachusetts in 1850. And, of course, he’s calling whole lives, whole families, and whole communities prerequisites for effective education. Which, I mean, yeah, I guess if we could only get our students’ lives, families, and communities on track then maybe we could fix education. But this isn’t the Massachusetts of 1850 and education is so often called to cure what John Taylor Gatto says must be cured in advance of any educating.

Anyway, I’m usually frustrated by the abundance of idealism and the dearth of pragmatism in this discussion so it was nice then to see them paired up, if only under 19th-century terms.

Finally, I just want to point out (’cause someone’s gotta) that Gatto gets it way wrong with television, which he indicts eleven times throughout the speech.

Either schools have caused these pathologies, or television, or both. It’s a simple matter [of] arithmetic, between schooling and television all the time the children have is eaten away. That’s what has destroyed the American family, it is no longer a factor in the education of its own children. Television and schooling, in those things the fault must lie.

What Gatto is really under no obligation to clarify, but what is a glaring deficiency of his speech nonetheless, is the difference between watching television and watching 55 hours of television. The consumption of t.v. isn’t what’s wrecking kids; it’s the indiscriminate consumption of t.v.

I realize my self-appointment as Television’s Ambassador to Education kinda makes me easy to write off here, but Gatto (and most teachers I’ve sparred with over the matter) advocate an extremist policy I couldn’t handle if it concerned movies, blogs, music, or any medium.

Still and all, it’s never been easier to dodge the 55-hour mark.

  1. Don’t own a television. Buy or watch your select stable of shows online. Or not at all. (But you are missing out.)
  2. Own one. Get a DVR. Let your kids record a select stable of shows and nothing more. Fast-forward the commercials.

Whether he means to or not, Eric points out how time has vindicated television:

I think we can now replace “television” in this speech with “entertainment” in general, meaning the constant barrage of on-demand entertainment through TV, film, music, and the internet.

Like if we smashed every t.v. in the world, the kids wouldn’t find another way to narcotize themselves?

[that cold bucket of water via Eric]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I started reading Dumbing Us Down last summer on recommendation from a friend. I felt many of the same reactions. Some of his general ideas are strong (there’s something wrong with compulsory education, a system set up to force kids into hating everything about it instead of giving kids what they want when they need it and fostering a love of learning), but Gatto seems to criticize nearly all the wrong things in a system full of things worth criticizing.

    Your bit about education carrying value to students in the present is something I argue with students about all day – it came up just today during 5th period. “You get paid, we don’t,” they drone. “You couldn’t be more wrong. I just get my paycheck sooner than you do.”

    I’m all for TV in the class. In fact, I don’t use it enough. Most teachers don’t. I’m still mentally preparing myself for a Winter Holiday spent on designing a character study unit based on Season One of Lost, one episode every other day. It should take less time than reading a novel, all told.

  2. We’ve been down this path before
    “Television and schooling, in those things the fault must lie.”

    …don’t you just love blanket statements? They’re so helpful. sheesh.

  3. For the record, I don’t agree with every idea in Gatto’s speech, but the quotes I pulled in my post are pretty right-on. Also, I use popular culture all the time in my classes, so I don’t believe TV, internet, film, etc. has to be negative. As you say, Dan, it’s the indiscriminate consumption … and I’d add “lacking critical reflection.”

    On the other hand, even a brief step outside the mainstream culture of this country will wake most people up to the constant barrage of consumerism pumped at us from every angle. It’s really hard to escape and can be literally “mind numbing” if we’re not careful.

    And though he may be speaking in ideal terms, that doesn’t discount everything. How can we argue with the claim that we must “force the idea of ‘school’ open – to include family as the main engine of education”? Do we give up in the meantime? No … but let’s not pretend that the role of family (and community) isn’t a huge factor, or that schools, on their own, can remedy this (which too much popular discourse on the issue certainly does).

    I do believe children need guidance (obviously), and that some things they need they won’t want and won’t see the benefits of for some time. However, the way we control their time, limit them to what is almost always unhealthy and uninspiring environments, and allow little room for personal interest is inexcusable. And those are systemic conditions that teachers can’t overcome themselves in their classroom, no matter how hard they work to offer relief to their students. (I mean, from what I can tell, Dan’s class is likely a mathematics oasis in comparison to some other math classes, but he only controls his class and his room …)

    It’s a tough issue, I think, and I’m not arguing for one side over the other because I think balance is what we have to find, not binaries. Discussion, of the type I often see on this blog, is a move in the right direction.

    I do argue, though, with great angry yells, with anyone who says there is no problem.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Dan.

  4. Can’t believe I’m doing this AGAIN.

    This has kinda been the School 2.0 vector all along, right?


    Check out the actual explanation of what School 2.0 is from its very own website,

    We believe that schools must transform in order to meet the multiple challenges of the 21st century: accountability, student engagement and achievement, and economic competitiveness. By encouraging a discussion of community-based ‘next generation’ schools, we hope communities will be inspired to think creatively about teaching, learning and management and then explore ways that technology can help meet those goals.

    Enough with the School 2.0 taunting. “School 2.0” itself is kind of a dumb term. Unfortunately, “An attempt to increase student engagement in both academics and the community, made easier/more convenient through the wonders of modern technology” just doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily.

  5. I wanted to add, before I hit “submit,” that Gatto got a lot of things right, including what Eric pulled in his post on the matter. But then Eric commented while I was writing mine, so now it’s redundant.

  6. Ick … I hate to double-post like this, and I apologize for using up your comment space. I re-read your post and wanted to make one more point (then I’ll try to shut up).

    You said: “Rarely do those disciplines (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic) carry obvious value to the student in the present, only in hindsight to the future practitioner. I’ve always wondered what would compel those students to study fractions absent any compulsory institution like a school saying so.”

    I think part of the problem is that the current educational system doesn’t know how to show students the relevance and usefulness of those skills because the skills tend to be taught in isolation of any practical application. (I think that’s one of the best features of your lessons, Dan … you connect them to the lives of your students.)

    This doesn’t apply to all skills at all levels, of course, but it seems that the disconnect between “school world” and “post-school world” is getting larger, and that’s a major source of the “why do I have to learn this” protest. Some of that is the school’s fault. Some of that is the way students view society. (When media, advertising, and adults’ wallets spend the majority of their time and resources on actors, athletes, and musicians, it’s understandable that kids don’t immediately see the value of deconstructionist criticsm or geometrical proofs. That doesn’t mean that some pretty-smart folks aren’t behind the scenes using the hell out of those skills … we need to help students see that.)

    I’ve wrestled a bit with this here, and with the problem of a completely student-driven curriculum here.

    Other thoughts, anyone?

    (Again … thanks and sorry.)

  7. i think very young children are intrigued by all manner of “play,” and if higher math (higher than counting!) were introduced at very young ages, then children would feel compelled to study fractions. mathwise, there is a huge chasm between the four basic operatives (add, subtract, multiply, divide) and anything higher. most kids are probably ready to move ahead, into algebra and geometry and theory, long before high school, even before middle school. it’s an incremental process, anyway. it’s okay to plunge ahead and then back up and then go forward again. nothing else in life is experienced just once, “sink or swim,” and yet that’s the way public high schools dish out subjects.

  8. Todd, a character study on Lost oughtta be interesting, especially since the showrunners have no idea who the characters are. (Maybe you oughtta patch the results of your kids’ effort over to ABC. Give ’em a few pointers.)

    I’m all about t.v. for education’s sake but, for the record, I’ve got nothing again t.v. for entertainment’s sake. Being told a story ain’t exactly a new pastime no matter the medium.

    Dean, yeah it’s a blanket, which is annoying, but understandable. He’s being really literal – arithmetic, actually – tallying up the hours in a kid’s day and finding it slanted heavily in favor of t.v. and school. So those have to be the problems. Duh, right?

    Problem, from my perspective, is that it neglects a lot of intangibles, mainly how a student is watching t.v. (Though, acknowledged, fifty-five hours is fifty-five hours is way too much of anything.)

    Eric, I appreciated your expansion and agree with most of it, particularly the bummer arrangement between schools and parents right now.

    It’s gotta be said that there are elements of mathematics which don’t pay off for years. There exists no project-based assignment (that I know of) for factoring equations, for example.

    I’m sure the same could be said of other disciplines. So unless we’re going to call off our national conviction that our students need to possess a (relatively) common body of knowledge upon graduation, compulsory those sections of the canon must remain.

    (For the record, I’m not entirely convinced they need to possess that common body of knowledge.)


    You’re mistaken. This isn’t the thing you think it is. Wasn’t in the last post and it wasn’t in the post before that either.

    School 2.0 (rather, the long-ass description of School 2.0 you cite) feels like a good-faith effort to cure the principle ills that Gatto describes.

    I’m kinda finding my place in all this, casting a cynical eye when one’s required, finding lots to learn in other instances. [viz: the update to Whatever I’m Getting Wrong]

  9. Dan,

    Dammit, you’re right again. The more I think about it the more I realize I shouldn’t comment before lunchtime (east coast time).

    But I still say that School 2.0 as immediate punching bag is kind of transparent. And I still can’t believe I’m doing something as lame as defending a movement that’s still being defined.

    I don’t know if I’m a School 2.0 guy. I do know that from where I am, a lot of the ideas that are contained in the School 2.0 bag seem right-on. And I also realize that even though you’re the pro-lecture, teach-basic-skills-first-so-help-me-Athena guy on my blogroll, you’re doing something valuable for all of us–showing up how old-school pedagogy can be remixed into something relevant to now.

    It’s just the tone, sometimes. Seriously.

  10. If I move to the UK, can I get my 53p to offset travel expenses?

    Seriously though, any method that causes more creative expression in any media is a good deal for any culture and revenue building.

    As a film composer the Internet has opened more digital venues for my art. Almost everybody wins.

  11. Have your students do tv diaries where they list vocabulary and important ideas that they learn from tv. I doubt you will get very much. I unplugged from that nonsense years ago and I am not missing anything significant. My suggestion is that any thinking skills you have did not come from tv. Once you have developed even moderate thinking skills by learning some kind art, reading strong texts, and being , then you thought how to think clearly, then you can go back and interpret tv. But the kids today are barely literate, much less capable of reading strong texts and are bombarded by essentially a culture that reflects back their own very narrow beliefs and ideas. Not what we would call fertile intellectual soil.