You might expect that someone once voted New York State Teacher of the Year would be a supporter of the public-school system. If so, you have not encountered John Taylor Gatto. A vocal critic of compulsory schooling, Gatto spent his twenty-six-year teaching career subverting the system in order to better help his students learn. Education, according to Gatto, is but a nominal goal of the public schools, which are actually designed to prevent children from learning too much, thereby making them into unquestioning, dependent, and obedient citizens.

Gatto now tours the country speaking out against government schooling. He is the author of two books, Dumbing Us Down (New Society) and The Exhausted School (Oxford Village Press), and has a third, The Empty Child, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster.

— Andrew Snee


Most of us didn’t begin to notice modern schooling had created any particular problems (besides children complaining about being locked up — wasn’t that silly of them?) until the late sixties, when teen violence, a loss of civility, rampant ignorance, drug use, and a widening gulf between generations all became prominent in daily life. But the Defense Department knew something was wrong much earlier.

During the United States’ involvement in World War II, 18 million men were given low-level academic tests when drafted. Almost all had been schooled in the thirties. Ninety-six percent tested literate, compared to 98 percent literacy among military applicants in 1930, but a 2 percent drop didn’t worry anybody. Many factors could have accounted for it, and 96 percent literacy was impressive by itself, even though all that was needed to prove literacy was a fourth-grade reading proficiency, to ensure soldiers could read safety instructions, interpret road signs, decipher orders, and so on.

In 1950 another war began, this time in Korea. More than 3 million men were tested for military service, and six hundred thousand had to be rejected. In nine years, literacy among draftees had dropped to 81 percent. The Korean War soldiers received most of their schooling in the forties: they had more years in school, more hours per year, more professionally trained teachers, and more scientific textbooks than the World War II soldiers, but they could not read, write, count, speak, or think as well as the earlier, less-schooled contingent.

The war in Vietnam began in the midsixties, and by 1973, near the war’s end, the literacy rate among draftees had fallen to 73 percent. The Vietnam-era men had gone to school in the fifties and sixties, and were much better schooled than either of the two earlier groups. So 4 percent illiteracy in 1941 had become 19 percent illiteracy by 1950, and 27 percent illiteracy by 1973. Not only that, but a substantial chunk of those who passed had only barely adequate skills. They could not read well enough to learn independently; they could not keep abreast of developments by reading a newspaper; they could not read for pleasure; and they could not write well enough to manage their own affairs without assistance.

Army-admission tests, which must guarantee an absolute minimum of ability because lives are at stake, provide much more compelling statistics than college-admission scores and standardized reading tests, whose results can be altered by changing the way the tests are scored (and the test givers do just that at regular intervals).

In 1940, the literacy figure for all states (determined by tests other than the army-admission figures) was 96 percent for whites, 80 percent for blacks. For all the disadvantages the latter labored under, still, four out of five were literate. Now, nearly six decades later, the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress say 44 percent of blacks can’t read at all, nor can 17 percent of whites. Black illiteracy has doubled; white illiteracy has quadrupled. Half of our high-school students can’t read sixth-grade lessons or write a three-sentence memo; two-thirds can’t read ninth-grade assignments; and three-quarters of those over the age of sixteen can’t read high-school texts. Think about this: we are spending four times as much real money on schooling as we did sixty years ago, but sixty years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read and write.

What might be the cause of the problem? Well, according to Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the bestseller The Bell Curve, we are seeing selective breeding at work: smart people just naturally marry smart people, dumb people marry dumb people, and over generations the differences between the groups get larger and larger. The authors produce impressive mathematics to prove their case, but they make no mention of the military data available. The drop in literacy between World War II and the Korean War happened in one decade. Even the brashest “survival of the fittest” theorist couldn’t argue for evolutionary effects over such a short time. The Bell Curve authors go on to suggest that black illiteracy is genetically programmed, but again they ignore the inconvenient example of those World War II tests, on which Northern blacks scored higher than Southern whites. And, if more evidence is desired, we need only compare the current U. S. black literacy rate of 56 percent with the rate in the predominantly black island nation of Jamaica, where — measured by the same instruments — literacy is 98.5 percent, considerably higher than the U. S. white literacy rate of 83 percent.

If not heredity, then, what could be the explanation? Well, one indisputable, well-documented change did occur during World War II: U.S. public schools converted to nonphonetic ways of teaching reading. A few years later, in 1950, the army saw the results of this change and did not believe what was happening, so it quietly began hiring psychologists to find out how six hundred thousand high-school graduates had successfully faked illiteracy. Regna Wood from the National Right to Read Foundation sums up their findings:

After the psychologists told the officers that the graduates weren’t faking, Defense Department administrators knew that something terrible had happened in grade-school reading instruction. And they knew it had started in the thirties. Why they remained silent no one knows. The switch back to reading instruction that worked for everyone should have been made then. But it wasn’t.


When literacy was abandoned as a primary goal by schools, whites were in a much better position than blacks, because whites had a tradition of learning to read at home by matching spoken sounds with letters, and thus were more able to withstand the deficiencies of schools. But blacks, who had been forbidden to learn to read during slavery, had little such tradition. So many of them were helpless when schools suddenly stopped teaching their children to read — not because they were genetically inferior, but because they had to rely on school authorities to a much greater extent than whites did.


The changes in schools that produced the literacy crisis of today did not in fact begin in the thirties, as Wood proposes, but at the turn of the century. Modern schooling as we know it — compulsory, standardized, and nationalized in all but name — began the first time attendance laws were widely enforced by the use of police, courts, and low-grade bounty hunters (the social-work surveillance-and-intimidation network). Simultaneously, the government launched a public-relations campaign aimed at leading parents to believe their children would be disadvantaged without schooling. Note: I did not say “without education.” It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the general public was convinced schooling and education were one and the same.

The many groups that backed compulsory schooling did so for different reasons: some wanted a disciplined, highly trained workforce like that of Germany, whose industry was then considered the state of the art; some felt threatened by the potential effect of immigration on U.S. cohesion and wanted the newcomers rapidly “socialized”; some had a revolutionary Marxist agenda and looked upon schools as an easy way to indoctrinate the populace; some thought schools would create employment opportunities for women; some were genuine utopians who believed, like Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that you first had to wipe the slate clean before you could reprogram young minds; and some just wanted everyone to be able to read, write, add, and subtract. It’s important, though, to recognize that this last group didn’t trust Americans to continue doing what they had already been doing successfully for more than a hundred years — teaching themselves to read.

For me, the most frightening and effective of the special-interest groups that supported mass schooling were the academic and administrative progressives, who had a very specific agenda: the creation of a scientifically layered society and economy. These social scientists wanted a planned, programmed, and predictable society, perhaps as a forerunner of a planetary society arranged the same way. And they were able to attract backing from many wealthy families.

It would be silly to think of them as conspirators (although they thought of themselves as such often enough), but if you patiently examine the public statements of the in-group, you can determine their common goal. It’s easy to observe how their various projects always dovetailed into one another in a process of greater and greater centralization; how the key personnel of important foundations were interchangeable; how the same universities, think tanks, endowments, private clubs, and sources of finance turned up over and over. You can see both the players and the game board, and even keep score as, over the years, initiatives like the canonical Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives became “mastery learning,” which in turn became “outcome-based education,” which in turn has hatched Goals 2000 and various school-to-work schemes that prepare children to meet the needs of big corporations — in other words, you can watch the grand design of a fully managed, expert-driven society and economy emerge.

There is no real connection between twentieth-century schooling and what came before. Modern schooling is a kind of religion. Its goal is most certainly not to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and thinking, although sometimes learning happens because teachers — and even administrators — don’t realize the kind of enterprise in which they are engaged. But this does not happen too often. When it does, it is dangerous for the teachers and principals involved; they are not thanked for their successes; and, as we all know, swimming against the current wears you out pretty fast.

Think about this: we are spending four times as much real money on schooling as we did sixty years ago, but sixty years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read and write.

The purpose of modern schooling was clearly announced by influential University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward A. Ross in his 1906 book Social Control. In it Ross wrote, for his prominent academic and industrial audience: “Plans are underway to replace community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media. . . . People are only little plastic lumps of human dough.”

There you have it in a nutshell. Modern schooling rests on a false premise. People are not little plastic lumps of dough. They are not blank tablets, as John Locke said they were; not machines, as French Materialist Julien La Mettrie hoped; not vegetables, as Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, hypothesized; not organic mechanisms, as Wilhelm Wundt taught every psychology department in America at the turn of the century; nor are they collections of behaviors, as psychologists John Watson and B. F. Skinner believed. They are not even, as the new crop of systems thinkers would have it, mystically harmonious microsystems interlocking with grand macrosystems in a dance of atomic forces.

I don’t want to be paranoid about this; in the context of a lecture hall or a bull session, there’s probably no more harm in these theories than in reading too many Italian sonnets at one sitting. But as the foundation for school experiments, these suppositions resulted in frightfully oppressive practices. Replacing community, family, and church with propaganda, education, and mass media ruined countless lives, and promises to ruin many millions more. Such “empty child” thinking led directly to the notion that human breeding could be enhanced or retarded in the same way that plant and animal breeding was: by scientific gardening and husbandry. Naturally, the time scale over which the experiment was to take place was quite long — nobody expected it to be like breeding fruit flies — but it was a major academic, governmental, and even military topic of discussion until 1939, when the fact that Hitler was following America’s lead became so embarrassing that discussions became more discreet, and even went underground.

Anyone who doubts that our government would subject its unwitting citizens to scientific experimentation must never have heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or the deliberate nuclear pollution downwind of Hanford, Washington, or the CIA’s distribution of LSD; or, if a more recent example is needed, the massive Ritalin experiment in American public schools.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, renowned scholar Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College said that school would establish the conditions for selective breeding “before the masses take things into their own hands.” Thorndike — who was one of the earliest supporters of standardized testing — said that eventually the ranks and labels produced by schools could be used as a basis by which citizens would be deemed fit to get a job or a marriage license, to hold office, or to have children.

Thorndike was surrounded by many like-minded friends. H. H. Goddard, another major architect of standardized testing, said in his 1920 book Human Efficiency that government schooling was about “the perfect organization of the hive.” He said that standardized testing was a way to make the lower classes recognize their own inferiority, like a dunce cap. It would discourage them from breeding and having ambitions. And Goddard was no academic hack spouting some radical screed; he was the head of the psychology department at Princeton. Imagine the effect he had on the minds of the doctoral candidates he coached.

Such thoughts did not end back in the early years of the century. In 1989, Dr. Shirley McCune, senior director of a curious entity called the Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory, addressed the fifty U.S. governors assembled in Wichita, Kansas. She told them: “What we’re into is the total restructuring of society. What is happening in America today, in Kansas and in the Great Plains, is not a chance situation. What it amounts to is a total transformation of society.”


Something strange is going on in schools and has been for quite some time. As near as I can tell by the attitudes, practices, and stated goals of the shadowy crew who make a living skulking around laboratories, think tanks, and foundations, we are experiencing an attempt (successful, so far) to impose the strong state and class attitudes of England and Germany on the U.S.

This strange phenomenon, whatever its true nature, is reflected in the economy as well. According to Lester Thurow of MIT, as the U.S. prepares to enter the twenty-first century, 11 percent of its people live in walled-and-gated compounds, rather as the barons of Runnymede did back in 1215. Thurow, hardly a garden-variety radical, says that fraction is expected to rise to 20 percent by 2005. Think about that: one-fifth of the population will live in guarded sanctuaries in less than ten years. That means 80 percent won’t live that way, right?

Eighty percent is a figure that fascinates me. Back when government-forced schooling was still just a theory, Prussian government officials began to debate how many children should be allowed to learn to think like policy makers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and the like. They decided that 6 percent could be allowed to learn to think that way, and set about constructing a framework of schooling and other mechanisms that would lead to the desired result: a society where only one out of every sixteen people could dream, plan, argue, and lead, and the other fifteen could eat, drink, be merry, get along together, and take orders.

When British forced schooling very tardily got underway toward the end of the nineteenth century, England, being much more liberal than Prussia (and much more disorganized), decided that the Prussians were too severe. The British government determined that at least 8 percent could be let in on the big secret of intellectual development.

In the U.S., where freedom, self-reliance, and liberality were the watchwords, neither 6 nor 8 percent would do. The grand American experience of ordinary people doing extraordinary things led to a general consensus that the U.S. — were it ever to get its schooling act together — might allow as much as 20 percent of the population access to knowledge. The best of the remaining 80 percent would be allowed limited access to reading, independent work, and responsibility — enough to develop intelligence without intellect. As for the rest, a more severe dumbing-down discipline would be imposed.

In his book Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial Downsizing (The Free Press), David Gordon says, “The American economy has grown massively since the midsixties, but workers’ real spendable wages are no higher now than they were almost thirty years ago. The minimum wage is at a forty-year low.” He goes on to describe how, over the same period, real take-home pay for 20 percent of the population has gone up, while real take-home pay for 80 percent of all workers — the production and nonsupervisory class in the main — has declined about 13 percent.

If we go back to 1900, when only a quarter of our kids went beyond elementary school, the real median wage of a working man was only 8 percent less than the median wage of a working couple in 1990. So as schooling — and the wealth of the nation — has grown dramatically, wages have shrunk. Not to mention that, in the poorly schooled America of 1900, the majority of children had the luxury of a full-time parent, but in well-schooled end-of-the-century America, about 70 percent do not.

Now, if one believes the public-relations campaign, with the boom in schooling the wealth of the nation should be spread far more evenly than it was before we had this benefit. But exactly the reverse has occurred. Wealth is 250 percent more concentrated at century’s end than it was at the beginning. I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but it’s almost as if government schooling has made people dumber, not brighter; has made families weaker, not stronger; has replaced religion, lowered incomes, and set the class structure in stone by dividing all children on the basis of test scores (which correlate very closely with family income); and has been a handmaiden to an alarming concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a small fraction of the population. It’s as if Goddard’s belief that school could create a perfectly organized hive has come true, and our schooling is on the way to delivering on Thorndike’s promise of enhancing selective breeding.

Here’s another puzzle: The wealthiest country per capita in the world is Switzerland. So, if school is the key to personal income, we should expect to see schooling perfected there. Yet in 1994 only 23 percent of Switzerland’s population went beyond elementary school, and only 22 percent went to college; compare that to our 100 percent secondary-school enrollment and 50 percent college attendance. Even more puzzling is the fact that many Swiss corporate executives, bank presidents, government officials, and the like don’t have high-school diplomas. The difference is that Switzerland has never granted a monopoly to schools as an employment screen, as we have done — and are seeking to do in an ultimate way with our disastrous school-to-work legislation (as if being well schooled had anything to do with capability on the job).

These facts indicate that any true reform should be substantially disconnected from vocational considerations or any undue influence by global corporations, gargantuan government agencies like the Labor Department or the so-called Education Department, or vast institutional hierarchies like research universities. These major architects of the schools have had a blank check and a century to experiment, and, on the basis of their track records, have little of value to add to the transformation of schooling. In fact, all are riddled with structural conflicts of interest. The heavy hand of these players in school reform is a sign of business as usual, no matter how much the individuals who represent them might wish otherwise.


In his 1948 book The American Political Tradition, Richard Hofstadter recounts Abraham Lincoln’s trouble with what was called “mudsill theory,” an idea that originated among England’s banking fraternity and later circulated around the U.S. big-business class. Mudsill theory argued that it was useless and dangerous to educate working people to any great extent. According to mudsill theory, nobody would work unless intimidated, bribed, or tricked; and furthermore, anyone who labored should be held in that position for life. Lincoln condemned the theory as a self-serving distortion of human nature. Unfortunately for the theory’s proponents, he said, in America the large majority of people had independent livelihoods, and were neither “hirers nor hired.”

Anyone who doubts that our government would subject its unwitting citizens to scientific experimentation must never have heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment . . . or the CIA’s distribution of LSD.

To you and me, perched on the cusp of the twenty-first century, Lincoln’s world of economic independence seems just a daydream, but here and there I find evidence that it can be a reality for people who trust each other and believe it to be a worthy goal.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but what I learned from almost thirty years of teaching supposedly ignorant and debased ghetto children was that, given a chance and pushed to set aside their self-hatred, a very large number of them were capable of powerful and subtle thought. I learned what Chicago teacher Marva Collins learned: that ghetto kids have an appetite for Plato and Shakespeare undiluted, but no appetite at all for lifeless, scientifically selected reading materials. I learned what Jaime Escalante learned while teaching in one of the worst high schools in Los Angeles: that Mexican immigrant kids with no tradition of reading, numbers, or scholarship could score better on advanced-placement calculus tests than kids from every other high school in California. Naturally, both of these teachers had to be driven out of their schools for attacking the basis of modern schooling so successfully: people might have started asking questions.

In my opinion, we have to radically decentralize government-corporate schooling, return the power to design and assess programs to the local level, and ensure that every form of training for the young aims at producing independent, self-reliant minds; good characters; and individuals who get fighting mad when called a “human resource” or told their main function is to be part of “the workforce.” I imagine some of you are thinking, “What planet does this guy come from? We’re not smart enough to live our own lives. And anyway, it wouldn’t work in the global economy of the twenty-first century.” That’s why I want to give you three examples of success and economic independence without the benefit of modern schooling. First, a boy named Stanley.

Stanley started his own small business at age twenty, but when I taught him in eighth grade he stood out only because he almost never came to class. You see, Stanley had something better to do. He had five aunts and uncles who all went into business for themselves before they were twenty-one: a florist, an unfinished-furniture builder, a delicatessen owner, a taxicab owner, and a dry cleaner. All had been poor immigrants at one time. Stanley cut school to work for each of them. He wasn’t paid, but in exchange for sweat equity he got to learn their businesses. “Listen,” he said to me, “you tell me what books to read and I’ll read them, but I don’t have time to waste in class if I don’t want to end up like the rest of you people, working for someone else.”

After I heard that, I could not in good conscience lean on him to stay in school. In fact, I found ways to keep Stanley safe from the clutches of people who otherwise would have “helped” him stay in school and be socialized.

For my second example, I offer Dr. Francis S. Collins, who, at age forty-five, is director of the Human Genome Project, and at the top of the power-and-prestige scale in international science. To what does Collins attribute his success? According to the New York Times’s Gina Kolata:

Dr. Collins suggested it was his unusual upbringing that imparted such a thirst for knowledge. . . . Dr. Collins grew up on a sheep farm in rural western Virginia. “It was a hard life,” he said, and his mother, distrusting the education provided in Virginia schools and “not about to relegate the early learning of her sons to them,” decided to teach her children at home.

She must have been a masterful teacher, right? Obsessed with science herself? Wrong.

“It was a bit disorganized,” Dr. Collins said. “I’m sure it would not have been deemed appropriate [by authorities].” The Collins boys and their mother would explore a topic like the origin of words for a week or two, doing nothing else, then move on to another. . . . As a result, Dr. Collins said, he grew up with an unquenchable curiosity and love of learning.


What? No standardized testing? No socialization except with brothers and sheep? That’s right.

My last example is a community of 150,000 people where every single person is involved in an independent livelihood or is being trained to be so involved: the Amish settlement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here are nine facts that can be independently verified about the Lancaster Amish:

  1. Virtually every adult has an independent livelihood: 50 percent in farming, 50 percent as entrepreneurs. All are prosperous. They have 100 percent employment.
  2. Everyone, even the old and the sick, is guaranteed an intimate role in community life. No one is abandoned or lonely. People care for each other.
  3. Since 1900, in spite of all external pressures and the relentless secularization of the larger community around it, this religious community has grown 3,000 percent in size.
  4. Though given the freedom to choose and even urged to experience the outside world, 85 percent of all Amish children, when grown, prefer to remain in their traditional community, near parents, family, and friends.
  5. The Amish will not accept government health care, Social Security, welfare, or counseling, or take any form of government schooling beyond the eighth grade. (They would rather not take that, but they have been forced to by the Supreme Court.)
  6. There is virtually no crime, no violence, no alcoholism, and no drugs in the Amish community. Amish men do not beat their wives.
  7. According to a Johns Hopkins study, the success rate of the Amish in small businesses is 95 percent, compared to a national average of 15 percent among their better-schooled competitors.
  8. The Amish consume only small amounts of energy, and produce little pollution, yet there’s nothing primitive about their lives. They enjoy a complex culture full of beautiful homemade clothing, furniture, quilts, and noncommercial entertainments.
  9. The overwhelming majority of community members report full satisfaction with their lives, including the young.


Suppose we asked expensive government schooling to guarantee those nine outcomes to our children. Do you think even the best schools would be ready for that? Do you believe that all the insights of scientific pedagogy could deliver even a fraction of what the Amish possess?

Before they were willing to surrender their children to government schools, even for only eight years, the Amish laid the following ground rules:

  1. They required that schools be within walking distance of home wherever possible. They did not want their children bused.
  2. They refused to send their children to large consolidated schools, where pupils were compartmentalized and assigned different teachers each year.
  3. They believed an eight-month school year was long enough.
  4. They insisted the schools be totally under the local communities’ control.
  5. They demanded to know the background of every teacher given access to their kids, and the right to choose only those knowledgeable in and sympathetic to Amish values and folkways.


But surely, you say, the Amish are too inflexible to meet the demands of a new world order and global economy. The Amish not only teach that school is a dangerous concept; they vigorously discourage adaptability to the modern world, and treat technology the way you and I would treat a rattlesnake. The Amish contradict every one of the precepts of futurists like Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Robert Reich, and Newt Gingrich — yet they are rich and well satisfied. What gives?

For his new book Amish Enterprise: From Plough to Profits (Johns Hopkins Press), Donald Kraybill studied a thousand Amish businesses and found that the transformation from farming to business has been managed successfully without harming the core values of the community.

They’re challenging a lot of conventional assumptions about what it takes to enter business. They don’t have high-school educations, they don’t have specialized training, they’re not using computers, they’re not using electricity or automobiles, they don’t have training in how to create a marketing plan. [But] among the resources they’re transferring over from the farm are an entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to take risks, innovativeness, a strong work ethic, a cheap family labor pool, and craftsmanship. One of their values is smallness. They do not want their shops and industries to get large. This spreads entrepreneurship widely across the whole settlement.


The point I want to make is not that we should become Amish, but that hard-nosed, realistic alternatives to forced schooling and global economies are available. We’ve had a bellyful of experts, think tanks, and mandates from centralized control centers. That method doesn’t work. It will never work, because it makes life meaningless. It’s time we began the long, slow, painful road into a different world. People live better lives in small, decentralized places, where they learn love and duty in families and communities. People need choices and meaning in their lives. And they need to build those choices for themselves.