For sheer ignorance, perversity, and arrogance, John Taylor Gatto’s “Confederacy of Dunces” [December 1992] takes the prize.

  1. Why doesn’t Mr. Gatto realize that many people are dissatisfied with schooling and are trying to find new and better ways to teach? His notion that the only solution with any merit is the abolition of schooling altogether is a ridiculous oversimplification.
  2. Mr. Gatto’s notion of what constitutes education is deeply flawed. Apparently, for Mr. Gatto, education consists of learning some practical skills and browsing in a library; it is all intensely individualistic. There is no mention of common values, the need for children to learn to cooperate with others, the usefulness of a school environment in melding children from diverse social classes. In short, the notion of a common good is entirely absent from Mr. Gatto’s concept of education. The notion that kids should travel the Lonely Road to Enlightenment is a travesty.
  3. Mr. Gatto is entirely silent on how enormous inequalities of opportunity among children could be redressed. The best hope for young people, especially kids from poor families, is an enrichment of the school experience. For these children, abandonment of organized public education would be a disaster.
  4. Mr. Gatto’s article also raises issues of a personal nature: why did this exponent of individualism choose to remain for nearly thirty years “in a system for which I feel such disgust and loathing?” Instead of farming the land or building boats or, better yet, starting his own academy, Mr. Gatto persisted as an unhappy camper, and his efforts to sabotage “the system” really amounted to underhanded dealings with his colleagues, for which he deserves their enmity and contempt. His gleeful description of how “I asked my wife to run for school board. She got elected, fired the superintendent, and then punished his cronies in a host of imaginative ways” is a remedy one would expect from a political hack and is particularly contemptible.

That Mr. Gatto is in a classroom is disappointing; I would not allow him to teach my children. That he has accepted awards from the establishment he professes to loathe is hypocritical. I suppose he is their favorite angry pet.

Robert Wetmore
Oakland, California

John Taylor Gatto responds:

  1. I am aware that many people are dissatisfied with schooling, including many teachers. In the past ten years, 600,000 families across this country have removed their children from schools entirely and are educating them at home, as Thomas Jefferson and Margaret Mead were educated. What I have seen in these home schools is so inspirational that I’ve lost my arrogance about what “teaching” can do.

    One of the reasons I won awards in my classroom days was that I was always able, as Mr. Wetmore says, “to find new and better ways to teach.” Now I believe such solutions are beside the point. We have too much teaching; we spend far too much money on the enterprise; even “good” teaching too often makes it impossible to learn.

    I am at a loss as to how Mr. Wetmore decided my “solution” is the abolition of schooling altogether. However, if I amend his statement to read “the abolition of the government monopoly on schooling paid for out of taxes,” then that is my position.
  2. Once we dispel the myth that compulsory schools teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, we are left with the very shaky proposition that they are needed to “socialize” children, to teach them to “cooperate,” to “meld” them. Where I come from that is called indoctrination.

    Children in healthy communities, doing real work, learn to cooperate and to hold common values quite naturally; they don’t have to be taught. Lurking behind Mr. Wetmore’s plea for “common good” is the old suggestion that chaos will reign if the government school monopoly is broken. His argument is strongest if he just comes out and says, “Poor children need to be confined and taught discipline.” It was that very argument that the founders of American schooling used to win the cooperation of the wealthy and powerful in establishing a government monopoly on schooling.

    I never said kids should travel a “Lonely Road to Enlightenment,” just that they need large doses of private time to develop strength and integrity. Great private schools like Exeter provide this, while in even the “best” public schools, students are constantly watched, numbered, and kept moving.
  3. The reason I am silent about how the enormous inequalities of opportunity among children could be redressed is that schools not only are no place for that form of social engineering to be undertaken, but are themselves the greatest stabilizers of the social pyramid ever invented. With token exceptions, children never escape the numbered classes they are assigned early on in their school career. The social order is rigidly enforced with every weapon at the school’s command, including the scorn of schoolchildren for those in a lower class. Schools create a caste system that continues throughout life; they destroy poor children and poor families early on. The “best hope” for kids from poor families is to escape people with Mr. Wetmore’s benevolent attitude toward them and follow a road to useful knowledge. Three Gallup polls on the subject have shown that the poor overwhelmingly favor a voucher system so they can choose schools for themselves.
  4. I have a 134-acre farm in Oxford, New York, where I traded five acres of land with one of my students in exchange for him building me a “home” in an old barn; I have raised pumpkins, garlic, catfish and bass. I started my own academy inside the public school system in 1975 called the Lab School, which mixed the worst and the best students together indiscriminately. We garnered public commendations from Governor Cuomo, two mayors, and dozens of other notables. Films about the Lab School were made by the Norwegian government, the Christian Science Monitor, WOR-TV in New York, and an independent filmmaker. I was never an “unhappy camper,” but rather, a very angry camper who doesn’t avoid a fight. At the beginning of my teaching, I dedicated myself to bending the bars of government factory schools as far as I could. Later I realized the situation called not for heroics but sabotage. If every decent teacher and parent quietly decided to bring this system to an end, it would not last another decade.