A Teacher’s Essay on the Public Education System

A few weeks ago an essay by John Taylor Gatto showed up on the del.icio.us popular page that reinforced my opinion of traditional education. With the authority of an award winning teacher, Mr. Gatto, explains the state of education in the form of seven lessons he taught students throughout his career.

1. Confusion – Mr. Gatto’s first point is that children are taught a mass of disconnected facts. He states, “The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon…than to leave with one genuine enthusiasm.�?

The memorization of facts only to repeat them on a test is dull and pointless. That is what school is for most kids. For the rest it is about getting good grades. Purpose of education (understanding and development) is ignored.

2. Class Position – “Everyone has a proper place in the pyramid…there is no way out of your class…you must stay where you are put.�?

This is definitely one of the lessons I took away from high school. As a student in high level classes I felt resentment from lower level students and was encouraged by teachers to consider them less intelligent. The division caused students to behave according to their level. The high level students become pretentious and the low level students misbehaved.

3. Indifference – “When the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station…They must turn on and off like a light switch.

In what purposeful system do people invest themselves for a short period, then drop everything because of an arbitrary bell and start doing something totally different. This makes no sense at all and it teaches children not to care about what they learning.

4. Emotional Dependency – “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.�?

Students are taught that their happiness is controlled by the teacher. Obey him, follow the crowd and you are rewarded, act independently and you are punished. This destroys individuality and prepares people for a life time of passive indifference

5. Intellectual Dependency – “Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.�?

This point gets me fired up. We are trained to believe our own thoughts are stupid. We must rely on “experts�? to show us the way. This puts us under the power of the “experts�? and preempts the development of ability. We are always surprised what we can do for ourselves.

6. Provisional Self-Esteem – “The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials.�?

This lesson falls in line with four and five to form the triumvirate of “expert�? dependence: emotional, intellectual, and self-esteem. This dependence extends past childhood into adult life. How greatly does your boss’s opinion effect your emotions? He/she praises and we feel great, he/she scolds and we are scared and upset. From childhood we are conditioned to submit to authority.

7. One Can’t Hide – “I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues.�?

Our superiors are always watching. I know this is true for me. We must stay always on our best behavior or we will be punished. Being constantly on edge creates passive individuals that lack the spontaneity and confidence to innovate.

The second part of the essay claims that education wasn’t always this way. It draws on American history, stating that regimental schooling began just after the Civil War when the central government assumed total control. “We were something special,�? Gatto says, “we Americans, all by ourselves, without government sticking its nose into our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel.�?

In the third section Gatto says, “We have a real 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.�? Do you see the truth of this statement? I am twenty-two years old. Among the people in my peer group, nearly all spend their free time in passive entertainment. Our conversations revolve around entertainment or consumer goods. There is a lack of free thought or intellectual curiosity. Many strong independent spirits are mired in vice and indifference.

When I first read this essay I imagined a great conspiracy to enslave the individual. After reflection I have come to a different conclusion: the majority of people like being told what to do. It makes them feel safe. It takes the pressure off them. As G. B. Shaw said, “Ninety-five percent of the population would rather die than think.�? So what does all this mean? Is American society destined to evolve into the dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World? I don’t think so. There will always be brilliant irrepressible people. It is essential to make these individuals aware that there is an alternative to the mainstream system.

Gatto brings to light a possible solution: “Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government education. I’m trying to describe a free market in schooling just 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.�?

The institution of education appears unassailable, but the fact that this essay was written and that it was selected for the del.icio.us popular page means that people are aware. Recognition is the first step to improvement. Do your part as a conscientious citizen and discuss it. What do you think about the public education system?

John Taylor Gatto’s books:

The Exhausted School: Bending the Bars of Traditional Education

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

2 Responses to A Teacher’s Essay on the Public Education System

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.