Despite doing reasonably well in school (I never gave it my best, but came out with a B average) I hated it. I hated the structure, the antiseptic, impersonal approach of it, and the social environment. If I’m quoted for anything after I die, I hope it’s “the environment least suited for learning is public school.” What I learned in school is that individuality is punished by both authority and peers.

At work we have big cages, into which books that are to be destroyed are thrown. We destroy an alarming amount of Harry Potter and Lonely Planet books. Those books have their covers torn off. Other miscellaneous returns retain their cover. I don’t know why they destroy books. It seems a waste. Every day I make a point of rescuing as many books as I can carry home. Yesterday one of the books I grabbed was “Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.” It’s written by a fellow who was a schoolteacher for 30 years, and who won awards for it in New York City. When I got home from Marlo’s this morning I sat down on the couch with Kodos and started to read it, since it was right in front of me. I have to stop now to get some work done, but I want to share this with you, because I think it’s important.

Reprinted without permission:

The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher

This speech was given on the occasion of the author being named “New York State Teacher of the Year” for 1991.

Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Thirty years ago, having nothing better to do with myself at the time, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. The license I have certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English; I teach school – and I win awards doing it.

Teaching means different things in different places, but seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. You are at liberty, of course, to regard these lessons any way you like, but believe me when I say I intend no irony in this presentations. These are the things I teach; these are the things you pay me to teach. Make of them what you will.


A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana, the other day:

What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn’t idiosyncratic – that there is some system to it all and it’s not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That’s the task, to understand, to make coherent.

Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world… What do any of these things have to do with each other?

Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, a host of internal contradictions. Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education. The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science, and so on than with one genuine enthusiasm. But quality in education entails learning about something in depth. Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship with each other,pretending, for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.

Meaning, not disconnected facts is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age old human search for meaning lies well concealed. This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple relationship between “let’s do this” and “let’s do that” is just assumed to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned how little substance is behind the play and pretense.

Think of the great natural sequences – like learning to walk and learning to talk; the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; the ancient procedures of a farmer, a smithy, or a shoemaker; or the preparation of a Thanksgiving feast. All of the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifying itself and illuminating the past and the future. School sequences aren’t like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes. School sequences are crazy. There is no particular reason for any of the, nothing that bears close scrutiny. Few teachers would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized, since everything must be accepted. School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism.

I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion: what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition, or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach students how to accept confusion as their destiny. That’s the first lesson I teach.

6 Replies to “A+”

  1. I was a graduate student in English Literature for a number of years, and taught for 3 of those years. I loved it. I never got my PhD, though, so I can’t really teach at a college level. My wife asks me repeatedly why I don’t get a teaching certificate and teach at a lower level. This sort of thing is my answer. Teachers in public school are not teaching — they are baby-sitting and showing students how important it is that they conform.

  2. Well, as the husband of a very dedicated and caring teacher I must disagree with Mr. Gatto and the commentor. Yeah, I know school does suck and its hard when you’re a kid but life demands we step up. It’s a shame we don’t realize this until well into adulthood. I’m just learning this now! That’s the real problem. Wrapping one’s head around this concept is what makes school suck not ‘this education concept or that teaching approach’. We’re playing a game as children that we don’t know the rules to. Maybe if they taught us about Darwin instead of the invisible man in the sky we might understand this (not applicable in Canada so much). Even then I’m sure it would go over our heads as kids.

    As for schools teaching a disonnected curriculum, I don’t buy it. School is just the same as the outside world. Life is thrown at us in a disconnected way and it’s our job to sort it all out. My wife always feels responsible when a child does poorly. I say to her that when we were kids it was OUR fault when we failed, not the teachers. As I age I realize that personal responsibility is a genuinely tangible concept. Again there’s no way we could know this when we’re eight. The real dragon is, as always, lack of money.

    I do live in Canada though, so what I have to say has no real bearing on the American school system. I have four nephews and a niece that go to Catholic school in Alabama because the public schools are so poor so that’s a whole different ball game.

    I’m ready for my Geritol now….

  3. Good answer, Sid. I was wondering what you guys would think of this. Sure life is a series of disconnected events, but I don’t think learning should be. Kids experience that outside of the classroom, why let it go uncurbed in the classroom. I wish they taught us more like that British series Connections with James Burke. I would have been far more interested in all the stuff I didn’t pay attention to if they told me how it related to ME ME ME. And also if it involved more robots. I feel that I tried, to some extent, to take personal responsibility for learning – in fact there were many aspects of learning that I enjoyed* — but the “system” often made me feel like I could only go so far.

    * and as I have said, even in school I was a fan of learning, I just wasn’t a fan of school.

    I look forward to your response on the other 6 universal lessons, which I will post in instalments.

  4. Yeah, you have a point about continuity in learning being a good idea. I.E. as an adult I have come to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, my worst subject in school. With the realization that it is more than a disembodied bunch of numbers jumping around for no reason, I understand it. I enjoy it even. I use basic math a lot in what I do and I can use it fluidly when it has a direct correlation to the task at hand. I’m still not sure I could have made the leap from abstract mathematics to applicable mathematics even if it was taught when I was a kid. Maybe those kind of links are just out or reach for a developing mind. Although the only 100% score I ever got on math test was a geometry one. Geometry; a field of mathematics where numbers have a relation to concrete visual concepts. Hmmmm…

  5. Speaking as someone who ended up going through junior high in an experimental program (it wasn’t a super-soldier program, as cool as that would have been), I have a lot of theories and observations regarding schooling in Canada. By me a beer and I’ll tell you all about them.

    I know anything I could apply, I understood and did well at, but that was the kicker, I had to apply it – I sucked at the theoretical side of chemistry, but I always got full marks in chemistry lab. Hands on electroplating was more like art, whereas explaining how it worked, that was a whole different story.

  6. re destroying books, it’s a matter of paying the authors, can’t have free books floating around, can we? I know it feels like a crime, I had to do it myself, and I also brought lots of books home, but you cannot put them into garage sales, or even put them into freebee libraries in Rv parks, etc., because it is a matter of supply and demand. Who would buys books if they were all free? Who would write books, if they didn’t get paid? Get it? Love, ps did you see Merrick, he has finished his last of the 4 yr. courses, heard he was going to see you, wish he would email me, I have text messaged him….wish you were here, and if Marlo dreams of sitting on a beach in Mexico, we have one right here. X’s, MOM

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