This is the first half of the Podcast: John Taylor Gatto, author Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.
Thanks to Tsara Shelton for helping with the transcript editing.
Rob: Tonight my guest is John Taylor Gatto. He's the author of Weapons of Mass Instruction, Dumbing Us Down, and he was awarded the best...how is that award described that you got from New York State?
JTG: It's the New York State Teacher of the Year, and I also got the New York City Teacher of the Year a number of times. They're different bodies that confer the title.
Rob: It's amazing that the system gave you such awards since you're so critical of the system.
JTG: It's an irony Rob. They essentially blocked out how I was producing the effects they gave me the award for, and they assumed that I was in earnest, loyal to the system schoolteacher using their familiar methods to produce unusual results. I made an honest attempt to say that I had violated laws, customs, and broken their apparatus in order to achieve these effects that had cost nothing to do -- I mean nothing at all -- and that it works with everybody; but they closed the mirror to that, so I'm laughing because it really is an irony to that....
Rob: Let's take a step back John...
JTG: ...because not only that I got the titles, I used them to get a public voice, not only all over the country but all over the planet.
Rob: John, let's take a step back and...I got excited about your work over 10 years ago because you really ripped into the school system and the huge problems we have with it. Could you give kind of an overview of what your message is in your books? And then we can get into some more in depth conversation about it.
JTG: Yes, let me be a little modest and tell you where my message comes from. I'll be glad to own it but certainly other people pioneered it. My method begins in the Scotch-Irish consciousness of western Pennsylvania during World War II. I'm an old fellow and the schools...the public schools in small towns in western Pennsylvania during World War II operated -- I do not exaggerate -- something on the order of undergraduate colleges...I mean all the way down into elementary school; so we're reading in 6th grade Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, and we're getting an opportunity in 9th grade -- in a coal mining town called Monongahela that no one ever heard of about 40 miles from Pittsburg -- we're getting an opportunity, if we choose, to read it in Latin in 9th grade -- I so chose. We're into algebra and advanced algebra, heavily, in what would amount to 7th grade today; and in all ways, young people were not considered incomplete human beings, but following the model set by Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Admiral Farragut, they were considered to be working members of the community at about the age of 12, give or take a year in individual cases. You were expected to make your own money or you were called openly a parasite if you were still on the dole. So in this raggedy, working class community, unknown to me a standard was being established.
Oddly enough I moved to a wealthy community after World War II and I went to two Ivy League colleges, and I never found this standard approached again. But when I came to New York City, having heard all my life that the standard of excellence in public education was in New York City, I expected that that alarming fall off would be restored -- how little I understood systematic schooling in those days. But what we were familiar with in 3rd or 4th grade in New York City was reserved for elite students in 8th or 9th grade -- it was stunning the extent to which we had been dumbed down using, apparently scientific, pedagogical research.
So when I became a schoolteacher, and I became a schoolteacher on a borrowed teaching license -- I wasn't who the license said I was, there were no photographs in those days -- I decided to restore the western Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish Monongahela belief that ordinary people have excellent minds and they will reach to learn difficult, nuanced ideas. And in very quick order -- I probably was the only teacher in the building...I'm not a very agreeable fellow with anybody let alone with young people -- but in a fairly short time I had no discipline problems at all, and the kids were operating -- there maybe a little hyperbole here but I don't know if there's any -- but they were operating just about on the level of Cornell University freshmen and sophomores there. I was delighted.
Then the school began...the district began to send around teams to observe what on earth I was doing and they were shocked, they were appalled -- I was forbidden to do that; it was a cruelty to 8th grade kids from Harlem, for example, to be specific...to read and analyze the toughest American novel every written, Moby Dick, Herman Melville. Well they were doing it with great facility, and when I retreated to Jack London, you know, they raised hell and swaying and swaying the chandeliers -- it was as if they had some inbuilt crap detector, and since they realized that they were being ground in crap in the rest...in the math classes, in the science classes, you know, they paid back the institution in kind. But they rather perceived, perhaps dimly, that I actually was feeding them something that they could use to sharpen their perceptions; as a consequence, they then plagued me. That did not make me popular -- although I hardly rubbed it in -- didn't make me popular with the institution.
It had been committed, as rule developed in this interview later I'm sure, the institution had been created in order to build a harmonious customer base for the new corporate society and what that did not include were people with sharp critical minds who didn't want their time wasted. So I began to be harassed -- the reason I got all these teaching titles isn't because I particularly have any regard for public honors...they're usually all phony, but I realized that I had to have some way to defend myself or I would be driven out of the business. So you have a bit of a background.