John Taylor Gatto is one of the most important figures in American education. After nearly three decades of working in the public school system, he decided enough was enough and dedicated his life to exposing the intentional dumbing down of American education.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Connor: Hi, Brittany.
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: So, today I wanna talk about a guy that has had a big influence on my life. He passed away about a couple of years ago. His name’s John Taylor Gatto. I, wanna get to the point in my life where I’m not Connor Boyack, I’m Connor Steven Boyack, right? Like, it just sounds so fancy to have your, unless you’re in trouble with your mom, right? And they’re like, right. Cool, Steve, boy, come up here.
Brittany: I have two middle names that would be Yeah. Be mouthful for me.
Connor: So, John Taylor Gatto is a really interesting guy. His story in a quick nutshell is that he was a public school teacher for about 30 years in New York, the city of New York, and the state of New York.
Brittany: His a disaster.
Connor: Right now, especially, it’s a disaster. But he, you know, the sixties and seventies and eighties he was teaching and he was trying to help kids. He was someone, one of those teachers that really cared, like really, really cared about his students and he was trying to get around the bureaucracy and all the issues to really help his kids learn. And so he was always trying to experiment with things. He was trying to, you know, not have to deal with standards. And what, like, he was trying to say, like, I wanna help you learn. I wanna inspire you, I wanna motivate you. And so he was always being like, flexible and innovative. Well, it got to the point, it was actually, it was really interesting. He won New York City Teacher of the Year, and so this is given out.
Brittany: So more than once too.
Connor: Well, so he, no, he won New York City Teacher of the Year, and then I think it was the following year he won New York State Teacher of the Year. And of course, this is an award given out by the education establishment, right? They’re saying, oh look, you know, this great teacher. And so he was trying to work within the system to not necessarily reform the system but still to help these kids. In the same year when he won New York State Teacher of the Year, he here’s the most successful teacher this year, the one we wanna point out as being, you know, the most impactful or whatever. In that same year, he wrote an op-ed, which just means like an article in the Wall Street Journal, National Newspaper. And the title of it was, I Quit. I think I love that. And he goes on in his article, in his op-ed to discuss how he was hurting. Like, he literally says, he’s like, I’m hurting kids more than I’m helping them. And, then he goes on to explain that the system that he was a part of was responsibility was the reason for which these kids, even despite his best efforts as a teacher we’re struggling, we’re having their curiosity just drained from them. And, so he said, I, quit. He wrote several books. He went on a public speaking tour, and this was kind of in the eighties right when homeschooling in America was finally legalized. Which sounds crazy to say.
Brittany: I did not know. That actually wasn’t until the eighties?
Connor: Yeah, it was, basically criminalized everywhere. You had this heavy compulsory education, all these laws homeschooled.
Brittany: Now you might know this more than me, when did it start becoming an outlaw? Cause in there the founding people used to homeschool all the time. When, when did that stop? Do you know?
Connor: Yeah, So I mean, it was in the mid to late 18 hundreds when you had a lot of these, new laws being passed saying kids have to be in school. And certainly, during the progressive era, that was very much reinforced because it was this collectivist idea, right? It’s like, we need to mold you into whatever. And so it was, I think this gradual thing that happened, it wasn’t necessarily like a nationwide ban or whatever, but these, as these states, these laws, the idea at the time was, well, kids need to be in school. I mean, you would have, and you still have some of these laws today, you’d have daytime curfews, right? That if cops see a kid out during the day, yeah. They can like, you know, go arrest them for violating a daytime curfew. And, that was born out of this idea that kids should be in school. So it’s almost this cultural thing that homeschooling wasn’t really a thing. It was, oh, you send your kids to school. That’s just what is done. And so these laws reflected the culture and, said, kids have to be in school. So it wasn’t until the eighties that a lot of that changed. There were court battles and all kinds of stuff where finally things shifted and quickly like most states really just opened up and said, okay, yeah, fine homeschooling. And so it coincided really well for John, to go out and, you know, do a lot of public speaking and to help educate families across the country about the problems. So he’s written several books. Have you ever read one of his books, Brittany?
Brittany: I’ve read three of them. So I’ve read, was it Deliberate Dumbing Down? my favorite is this name Weapons of Mass Instruction. Yeah, I thought that was very clever. And then he wrote one that’s just a history book, essentially. Yeah. What is it?
Connor: The Underground.
Brittany: The Underground, yes. Yep. And that one is my favorite because I think like you, I’m a history buff and that it didn’t miss anything that was just, yeah, that was a wild ride.
Connor: Well, and our listeners, our readers, rather, the listeners who are readers of the books will know that our 10th book in the children’s series, the Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, is based of John’s book, the Underground History of American Education. John himself is featured as a character in the book, which is, really fun to honor him and all of his work. And, Brittany, the first one you mentioned was the one most impactful on me. It’s called Dumbing Us Down. And I think the subtitle is like the hidden, the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education or something like that. Yes. And, we’ll link to these, by the way, on the show notes page. So Tuttletwins.com/podcast gives you a quick link to go find some of these resources. And, that was so impactful for me. I read it when I was dating my now wife and I had this, and I went through public school, right? And, high school and everything else. And I read this book and I was like, oh my gosh, this is why I didn’t like school. Like, all the, all these problems that he’s talking about are, are just the restriction of freedom. It’s like a prison, you know, you have to get permission even to go to the bathroom, at least in prison. You don’t have to get permission to go to the bathroom, you know? And, that’s so sad, and saying like, oh, 45 minutes are over, now you gotta go study something else. It’s like, well, wait a minute. I was just getting at the good part. I wanna be able to like, you know, read Nope, nope. We gotta, you know, segment everything into little bits that you never can spend a lot of time. And, anyways he kind of outlines all these problems. And, so reading that book, dumbing Us Down was for me, a big eye-opener. And so I gave it to my, I don’t think we were engaged yet. I think we were just dating, but maybe we were engaged. And I, had Jodi read it. And for me it was like, this is how, this is why I want my, my kids, maybe our kids you know, to be homeschooled and to not go through the system because it’s why I struggled so much and why I didn’t like it. And so that was such a big influence on me, where he was able to outline, you know, all, this kind of problems. What are your thoughts, having read these books, Brittany, what are you, how would you kind of characterize what he says about, you know, the government school system?
Brittany: Yeah, so that’s actually partially why I stopped being a teacher. Oh, yeah. So, and, I loved the private school. I taught I think it’s a great, you know, an alternative to the public schools in, I think it’s like Utah, Texas, Idaho, and Nevada, a bunch of states. But I did not, like, I felt really morally wrong having kids sit in desks for eight hours a day specifically because they only got 20 minutes of playtime. And, you know, before that I was like, okay, that’s fine. We all did it. You know? And, this school was very academically advanced. So these kids, we taught the Socratic method. Emma and I talked about that in another episode where you asked questions instead of, instead of these open-ended questions, how do you know? Why do you know this? And, we also taught them to question authority, which is something you and I have also talked about. So those were great things. But I saw my kids being very unhappy and miserable. And because of how advanced the curriculum was, I saw a lot of them start getting really sad and depressed and stressed out. And so I, had this kind of crisis of conscious, as they call it, where I was in my head thinking, okay, I really am passionate about education and when I have kids of my own, I want to be able to do this right? And that’s when I kind of discovered homeschooling. And I thought, and unschooling specifically, and I thought, you know, I don’t think kids are supposed to be chained to their desks. Not really chained, but kids need to be playing. They need to learn by being outside, you know, science could be gardening outside and learning about nature. So I started reading all of his books, and then I came to DC and I worked in education policy for a little bit. It was hard to do that since I didn’t have kids. So people tend to not take you seriously. And I understand that. In fact, Corey DeAngelis, who we’ve mentioned before, he runs into that problem too, where he’s great at education policy, but people are like, Hey, you don’t have kids. But I brought my experience as a teacher. And so when I found John Taylor Gatto, that was kind of like how he said, you know, I quit. I think I was ready to move on cuz I just couldn’t do that to my students anymore.
Connor: That’s interesting because you kind of see, like, I know a lot of teachers who are very well-intentioned and like John, they want to help their students, right? But, they find themselves trapped in this system that has so many restraints and creates all this busy bodywork and really SAPs the joy out of teaching and learning.
Brittany: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Connor: And, so I can see how, you know, someone after decades like John, who’s just like, it’s kinda like an atlas shrug, right? Like, I’m just gonna shrug it up. I’m gonna go to gold, I’m gonna, I’m gonna go do something else. And for him, it was, you know, public speaking and it is so interesting, right? I had the good fortune of a couple of things. So I wrote a book for parents called Passion-Driven Education, and John was kind enough to write the forward for that book. That book is all about how, and we’ll link to that on the show notes page as well. That book is all about how, how we actually learn as humans. And it’s not just for adults. We should provide this authentic learning experience for our kids. We, all learn better and more quickly and retain information better when it’s something we’re interested about. So we should afford that same freedom to kids and not say, well, this curriculum committee you’ve never met has dictated. You must learn all these things in the same way as everyone else.
Brittany: More than everyone. Everyone who’s seven has to learn this. Everyone who’s 11, it’s so silly.
Connor: It is silly. So, so John was very kind to write the forward for that book, which I was blown away by, just because I had looked up to this guy who was like this pioneer of, you know, alternative education. And then, as you know, Brittany, yes, you contributed to the Skip College book. We’ll link to this one as well that it’s got a provocative title. Ultimately, the book doesn’t necessarily say everyone should skip college. It’s more a book that says, if you’re gonna go to college, you better have your eyes wide open and understand first some of the alternatives that you should consider because chances are those alternatives are gonna be better for you. So, Brittany you and, several others contributed, chapters to that book that I edited and I did a chapter as well. But, I’m so enthralled by is that John Taylor Gatto also contributed a chapter, the history of, you know, college higher education and so forth. That was the last thing he wrote ever. Yep. And then he, you know, passed away shortly there thereafter. And so I just feel very fortunate that we could have his kind of last testament on education freedom because he was such a kind of a pioneer to many different people. And it’s fun too. We’ve talked about this with like Ron Paul and so many other people, right? Where like the legacy, the impact that you can have, I’m always intrigued by this, right? Because John was just doing his thing and trying to share this message, He was able to impact the lives of several people who then go on and have a bigger impact on different people. And like, it’s so cool in life to see that if you put yourself out there and you share these messages and you try and help other people, if you just influence like one person, right? They’re gonna go on and share that influence with other people. It’s a really cool kind of cascade effect.
Brittany: Well, and think of the kids whose parents like you know, chose to homeschool because they found John Taylor Gatto. I think when we interviewed Anna Martin, I think she said something similar that’s how she discovered, unschooling as well. And I think she told you and I that on the first date with her husband, she says, listen, we can go on a second date, but I’m unschooling, my kids. And I thought that was really, it was really funny and nice because think about that. She’s got two boys, I think, and those two boys have grown up and they’re doing tremendous things now. So think about if more parents did that and you know, they have four or five kids and they go off and do these great things, it’s, you know, what they call the domino effect. So I think that’s one thing that makes him so important is he really opens your eyes. And like, you said, he encourages other people. You know, I feel like I’m doing a better now than I was forcing those kids to be in a desk, you know? Right, right. And talking to people about unschooling. So, yeah, he’s a very inspirational man. Very much so.
Connor: There’s also this question of, you know, what does impact actually look like? And so for him to write these books like it’s had a massive impact, but to me the real benefit is kind of the practical, insights that are there when you really get into reading the book. Like I start to think, okay, I can incorporate this in how I teach my kids and it really resonates with me. So years later after I’ve read some of these books, it’s still, you know, great to be able to see that that’s playing an impact on my life, as you said, like on my kids’ lives. And, that’s something that you don’t really anticipate at the beginning. But what I also like about John is that you and I or others can be critical of, you know, the government school system, but John and people like him are much more authentic. It’s just like, you know, as you were pointing out with court, people kind of discount his ideas perhaps because he’s not a parent. Well, you know, people discount my ideas, criticisms of government schools sometimes, because, you know, I don’t send my kids there. Right? And so here’s John, a 30-year teacher, a veteran of the system. He was awarded, you know, time and again by the people in the system, no one can discount that this guy wasn’t trying, you know, his best from within the system to improve it and to help these kids. And so I really like that he’s the one to give voice to these ideas because he’s so authentic, right? Like he kind of earned that platform that he stands on to go shout to the masses. And so no one can really dispute that this guy, oh, you just hate public education. I said, well, no. Like I was a teacher for, I was in years. Yeah, right? Like, you can’t really get away from it. Parents, especially if you have not read any of John Taylor Gattos stuff, you’re gonna want to, I would recommend you start with that book dumbing us Down. but as Brittany said, there are several others. We’ll link to them all on the show notes, page Tuttletwins.com/podcast. John Taylor Gatto is someone worth listening to. He explains things you know really well, and it’s really insightful stuff. Even if your kids are in a government school or a charter school, which is also a government school or you know.
Brittany: Slightly better, but still a government school.
Connor: Government school with lipstick, or, you know, a private school or you know, if you homeschool whatever your situation, you’re gonna glean a lot, from just learning the history of a lot of this stuff. Some of which we share in our education vacation book, but also just kind of some of the issues with education more generally and why he was so concerned about what he was trying to do about it. So, head to the show notes page. Thanks as always for subscribing for listening. Share the podcast with another family that you think might enjoy. We really appreciate you guys listening, and Brittany, thanks to you. Until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.