THE EMPTY CHILD: A Schoolteacher's Intuition

About the Problem of Modern Schooling,
An Essay in Twenty-two Parts
(and a precursor to the Underground
History of American Education)
by John Taylor Gatto
Reviewed by Mary M. Leue
Reprinted here with permission from Paths of Learning,
Options for Families and Communities, issue #3 for January, 2000
Click here to view Paths of Learning, issues 1-3.

John Taylor Gatto, whose name may might not be known to some Paths readers, is a name to conjure with and a towering figure in the lives of countless American families who are struggling with the issue of making educational choices for their children. "Gatto consciousness" burst into my life in 1991, when I read his acceptance speech for the award of Teacher of the Year for New York City for 1990, in the Summerhillian periodical A Voice for Children, and reprinted it in my quarterly, SKOLE in the Summer, 1991 issue.

John had been a public school teacher in New York City for twenty-seven years. In 1989, he was named New York City Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Executives and The National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 1990, New York City Teacher of the Year by a State Senate resolution. In 1991, he was named the New York State Teacher of the Year, a title awarded by the New York State Education Department. In addition, he was named New York City Teacher of the Year for that year also, by the New York Alliance for Public Education.

I said of him then, "But, you know, all this is merely data. The real thing about John is how you feel when you are with him. He makes you want to sing and write poems. He makes you want to surmount tall buildings in a single bound! He is an inspirer - and he writes like an angel!"

And then we get onto the extravaganza he called "The Exhausted School," which John master-minded, ably abetted by his stalwart wife Janet and his associates in The Odysseus Project, in hiring Carnegie Hall in New York in 1993. Your editor; Dan Greenberg [of Sudbury Valley School]; Dave Lehman [longtime principal of Alternative Community High School, a public alternative in Ithaca, NY]; Pat Farenga [of Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling]; Kathleen Young, headmistress of Hawthorn Valley School, a Waldorf school in the Hudson valley; Roland Legiardi-Laura, ex-student, founder of the Poets' Cafe in Manhattan and co-founder of The Odysseus Project; and a number of John's other remarkable ex-students all spoke. It was an astounding grass-roots event unabetted by anyone in either the press or the educational establishment!

Ever since he finally had to resign from his public-school teaching career post, John has been criss-crossing the entire country - and, in recent years, the faraway reaches of the earth - speaking his heart and his mind to and on behalf of beleaguered families! The Empty Child, his magnum opus, of which this is a review, is a brilliant summation, as yet unpublished, of his life's work.

[Note: since that time, John has published his great tome himself as The Underground History of American Schooling, has begun the making of a series of richly illustrated films to support its message, and now has a new montage for his message which he calls The Fourth Purpose! You really must go there!]

If one wished to attempt to sum up John's message to the human families who largely make up his passionately dedicated audiethe first two pages of the manuscript those passages on nce around the world, it could hardly be done better than by looking at the first two pages in which the author outlines his basic theme as follows:

I. The Behaviorist
II. The Scientific Humanist
III. The Human Being
Guess which one John favors!

The Empty Child, John Gatto's masterwork, ten years (or more) in the shaping, is an elaboration upon his thesis that the only sane, democratic, and human society we can hope to create (or recreate) is one which values the human being as an individual from whatever stratum of society he or she may arise, and under whatever circumstances of his birth and/or upbringing!she or he was born or brought up.

In his looking back at the history of America, Gatto clearly places the traditional values of "the common man" in America - which I would characterize as a belief in the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and The Declaration of Independence, plus a touch of the humor of Abe Lincoln and the wit of Will Rogers - higher on his scale than he does our currently fashionable emphasis on group labels based on seemingly anything and everything including prestige, culture, categories of classification, success/fail grading, and/or political correctness!

John believes that we have been tricked into accepting a model for learning superimposed on our natural human, developmentally-adaptable capacities, and reminds us that the leadership qualities of so many of our American heroes and institutional initiators came not from the classroom discipline offered by public schools, but, rather, from a childhood in which the love of learning for its own sake was accepted as a natural growth of the mind and heart of every human being, ó and was pursued as such.

Gatto believes our public school model of learning to be a kind of character training system not unlike army training, which is largely imposed upon children by a top-down power structure which that runs through the entire chain of command from the superintendent of schools down to teachers, who are judged primarily for their ability to administer school rules, to create disciplined and smoothly-functioning classrooms, and to report extensively on the attendance and behavior of their students. Successful teachers are those who can report successfully disciplined classes. Many studies have shown that most teachers view creativity among students as having a very low, or even negative, rating on the scale of student success. They measure "success" more in terms of successful self-discipline than of creativity or even intelligent learning.

Gatto describes in eloquent detail the historical significance of this model of education, which originated in nineteenth- century Prussia under Kaiser Frederick the Great and was primarily designed to fit Prussian youths for army service in a disciplined national state. Americans greatly admired the scientific, cultural, and entrepreneurial achievements of the Germans at that time. Sending our most promising young men over to Germany to study German philosophies, scientific advances, methods, and institutions was a popular practice.

Gatto surmises that, additionally, the "eugenics" movement, both here and abroad, which presents pseudo-scientific support for fostering the selection for biological reproduction of human beings who represent the best and brightest of the race - and the discouragement of the "inferior" races and types - gave incentive to our scientific, social, and political leaders for pursuing their own aims, not for the fostering of learning for all. To back up his claims, he offers many telling quotations from such leading opinion leaders of the time. The end result, as pictured by Gatto, is a system which operates as though learning is best achieved through imposed curricula, regular drills, rote memorization, enforced "discipline," and the substitution of group activity under teacher-direction for the individual initiatives of self-directed students. This result, he says, is particularly disastrous for our racial and ethnic minorities in the cities, as he discovered for himself as a teacher. He believes it is actually equally disastrous for all children in the long run, and that the American educational system, developed according to the Prussian model, has been and is turning out a nation of passive, incurious, rule-oriented, and dogmatic Americans! .

It has long been a shibboleth in American society that "a good education" is the keystone of a successful adult life, morally, culturally, intellectually, economically - even maritally. But there is a growing awareness that something is seriously amiss in our public education system for all too many of America's citizens - not just for a few "disadvantaged" ghetto dwellers who fail because of their lack of capacity for formal learning! The tragedy at Columbine High School happened not in the ghettos of New York or Chicago, but in a prosperous Colorado community. Common acceptance of the moral and intellectual inferiority of "the masses" in our ghettos is still widely held, however, and until recently, the idea that the origin of this belief might be the result of deliberate cultivation by our cultural and professional leaders has only been toyed with by the "misfits" in our midst - poets, artists, dreamers, political dissidents, failures.

This fact, says Gatto, stems from the appeal by our opinion leaders - echoed in the media - to the language of the religions of "gentility," often equated with "civilization." One might even say that the pursuit of this spurious "gentility", which mandates classless cultural uniformity hidden beneath the American fashion of jeans and T-shirts and held in place by the making of money, has become a way of life in America that often goes even deeper than our religious affiliations.

Tragedies like the Columbine shootings, which point to a far deeper and more mysterious origin for the outbreak of such appalling violence in an apparently successful school, may now create a space for Gatto's deeply-held belief that our cultural leaders were not acting out of an altruistic belief in universal education, but, in actuality, were pursuing a strategy, mainly for their own benefit, to tame the older, basically unregulated social structure of free individuals in a free society.

Gatto says that this strategy was promoted primarily by what he calls by the "four great coal powers of the twentieth century" - The United States, Great Britain, Germany, and France. "School as we know it," he adds, "was the creation of four great coal powers whose ingenious employment of the coal-fired steam engine shrank distance and crippled local integrity and the credibility of local elites." According to Gatto, our current educational situation represents the end result of a gradually accelerating upward curve curve beginning with the end of the Civil War, which has, with the turn of the century, been imposed on the society as a whole with increasingly systematic efficacy. Gatto sees this accelerating process as having been defined and ushered in - in effect, legitimized - by a series of scientific, religious, and corporate leaders who viewed the "lower orders" as a threat to their supremacy, who saw eugenics as a solution to the dangers of miscegenation, and who imported compatible ideas about education from Europe as the most effective means for accomplishing their own social and economic aims.

By contrast, Gatto sees the ordinary person, not as a member of a "mass" to be regulated and guided through a systematic approach to problem-solving, but, rather, as a sacred entity unto himself, to be respected and listened to by his peers and by our social and governmental leaders. He sees the entire historical period leading up to the present day as a process of denigrating the integrity of the individual in such a manner as to reduce his original status as a balanced, self-governing American to his current position as a relatively helpless, incompetent unit in a world governed by the illusion of social homogeneity and individuality. In actuality, money and privilege have divided the members of the social classes so totally that they no longer view each other as members of the same world, even though they pursue the same American goals and dreams.

Gatto views children both as supremely themselves and as the adults of the future they will become, and sees the task of the school and the teacher as offering inspiration to them through the teacher's own passion and know-how, supporting their individual genius or daemon, providing as much space as possible for experimentation and practice with their future adult roles, and as supporting and protecting them from the adults who have been assigned the job of indoctrinating them with the mores of the culture.

For Gatto, it is the personhood of the adults who shape children's primary environment that makes the crucial difference in the adults these fledglings will become. "We teach who we are," as the saying goes - and our children look to as their inspiration, whether positively or negatively!.

The five hundred and thirty-two pages of this as yet unpublished manuscript are Gatto's detailed and extensively documented argument in aid of his belief that we need to take back the control of our children's education. The scope of this work is enormous; and its style is eloquent and eminently readable. His writings stand virtually alone in his understanding of the need for (and of the obstacles to) educational reform and the devastating effects of our current power stalemate on the lives of children! As he says, the time is short. We are overdue for acting on our growing awareness that it is time to take back our power as ordinary human beings!

*Click here to view Paths of Learning, issues 1-3.
 Write me at maryskole@aol.com
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