John Gatto On Education

I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I've known over the years who've struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones: men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word "education" should mean. A "Teacher of the Year" is not the best teacher around-those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered-but a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.

We live in a time of great social crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The world's narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of this commodity. If we didn't buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse-and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world-and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan seventy percent of all new marriages last less than five years.

Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity: Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge they'll also become self-teachers, and only self-teaching has any lasting value. We've got to give the kids independent time right away because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must reinvolve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than more abstractions. This is an emergency It requires drastic action to correct. Our children are dying like flies in our schools. Good schooling or bad schooling, it's all the same-irrelevant.

What else does a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. It is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility For five years I ran a guerrilla school program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later, and told me that this one experience changed their lives, taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values. it happened when they were thirteen in my Lab' School program-only made possible because my rich school district was in chaos. When "stability" returned, the Lab closed. It was too successful, at too small a cost, to be allowed to continue. We made the expensive, elite programs look bad.

There is no shortage of real problems in this city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the adult world. Good for kids, good for the rest of us.

Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thou- sand different apprenticeships-these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force the idea of "school" open-to include family as the main engine of education. The Swedes realized this in 1976, when they effectively abandoned the [national system] of adopting unwanted children and instead spent national time and treasure on reinforcing the original family so that children born to Swedes were wanted. They reduced the number of unwanted Swedish children from 6,000 in 1976 to fifteen in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired of paying for the social wreckage caused by [unwanted children] so they did something about it. We can, too.

Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents-and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650, and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850-we're going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.

The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life. We've gotten away from that curriculum-ifs time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life: to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief.

I have many ideas to make a family curriculum, and my guess is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grassroots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large, vested interests profiting from schooling just exactly as it is, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We've all had a bellyful of authorized voices on television and in the press. A decade-long free-for-all debate is called for now, not any more "expert" opinions. Experts in education have never been right; their "solutions" are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough. Time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family.

I've said my piece. Thank you.

Editor's note: We asked Mr. Gatto if he'd write a few words on what had transpired since he delivered the above speech. He wrote the following in reply. We should note that, when he decided to stop teaching in the school system, he had no idea how, exactly, he was going to generate an income.

All in all, since I quit teaching five years ago, I've given 522 talks and workshops in forty-nine states (missed Oklahoma) and six foreign countries. I don't advertise, but I go anywhere I'm invited as long as my hosts don't tell me what I have to say. Being in an airplane seat about one day in every two has added eighty-five pounds, so I expect to translate to the spirit world momentarily, if I don't come up with a strategy, but in the meantime, I've met an amazing cross section of fine and courageous ordinary people from every point on the political-social spectrum-enough to convince me an American renaissance is latent in the common folk of this country if we can figure out a way to restore the democratic promise. I think we will. I have faith, as well as hope, that we can do it.

John Taylor Gatto, a New York City public schoolteacher for r thirty years, was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1990 and 1991.
He is the author of Dumbing Us Down,
The Exhausted School,
and this year's The Empty Child.

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