education Homeschooling John Taylor Gatto Uncategorized Unschooling

The rich, complex legacy of John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto has died. He was a brilliant, complicated man with a huge presence and heartfelt opinions. He won awards for teaching in the public schools of New York City, but those prizes mean little compared to the difference he made in the lives of scores of students.

He was also a monumental influence on many in the homeschooling world, including myself. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that Gatto changed my life. I had every intention of sending my children to public school, and had even moved to a city with a “good” school district for that purpose, but not long into my first child’s kindergarten year I began looking for alternatives. A friend handed me a packet of materials including a Gatto essay called The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling. His eloquence in outlining the problems with schools, their focus on obedience rather than critical thinking, the large amounts of time wasted there, and their inevitable undermining of family, resonated deeply with me.

He wrote:

“It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety…It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry…It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its “homework”.”

I felt I had been witnessing much of what he talked about, and I resolved then and there that I would not send my children to school.

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In the early years of my homeschooling I felt fortunate to be present at more than one Gatto speech. His booming voice, formidable stature, and infectious smile drew people in as he addressed the ways in which school encourages intellectual and emotional dependency, cements class position, robs children of privacy, and so much more. Most powerfully, he talked of the soul crushing experiences of his students. In Bianca You Animal, Shut Up, he related the story of a tiny six-year-old girl belittled by the adults charged with educating her. Far too many of us shuddered with recognition.

After one talk I approached Gatto to thank him for his work. I clearly remember the moment. He was sitting at a table signing books, I was standing behind it. When I told him of my choice to pull my daughter from school his already twinkling eyes lit up. “You’re a homeschooler?” he exclaimed. “You’re my inspiration!” Imagine that. My inspiration calling me his inspiration.

While Gatto was the impetus for me finding my way to homeschooling, mere dissatisfaction with schooling couldn’t sustain keeping it up. I continued to homeschool for decades not because school was so bad, but because homeschooling was so good. It restored to my children and family much of what Gatto lamented was erased by schools -time to play, to ponder, to build relationships, to get to know oneself, and to learn.

Gatto’s views were sometimes seen as radical and controversial, his scholarship shoddy and lacking in evidence. I understood why people might feel that way, but to me one of Gatto’s messages was open and even critical dialogue. I didn’t always agree with him, nor would I have been uncomfortable expressing that disagreement directly because in my interpretation of his writings and my experiences hearing and meeting him in person, he welcomed dissent as healthy and absolutely necessary for human beings to learn, grow, and evolve in their thinking.

In recent years, when he enthusiastically embraced Donald Trump, my admiration for Gatto was tested. A person who I had revered and who exercised a significant influence on my life embraced a candidate I found abhorrent. Whatever one thought of Trump’s policy proposals, his racism, sexism, disrespect for others, and overall dishonesty were (and are) despicable. Gatto’s enthusiasm led to him penning a series of letters to Trump which revealed some of the xenophobic, hateful attitudes we have seen increase in our nation in the years since Trump was elected.

All of these things, the good, the bad, and the ugly, are on my mind as I take in the news of Gatto’s death. I can’t deny the good he’s done for so many and the inspiration he provided for countless people including myself, nor can I ignore his backing of forces destructive to scores of people, especially women, people of color, LGTBQ+ people, immigrants, and the economically disadvantaged. I must somehow reconcile the two, respecting him for his contributions and gifts while speaking out about his views that I feel are profoundly wrongheaded and harmful. While it would be nice to say I was in agreement with Gatto about everything, that would represent a world more simplistic and flat than the one in which we live, and as I weigh the loss of a great yet flawed person, it feels entirely appropriate to be frank and thoughtful about his legacy. That is, after all, one of the gifts I feel he gave – the urgency to live authentically, to explore, be interested, and listen carefully, but always, above all, to make up your own mind.

Gatto is gone, may he rest in peace, but the rest of us can do what he encouraged. We can keep looking, listening, and learning. We can keep talking honestly and respectfully without fear of alienating each other, just as I do now, as I write about what Gatto meant to me, and how I utterly and passionately reject some of what he came to stand for. I think he would smile.

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7 comments on “The rich, complex legacy of John Taylor Gatto

  1. I think he would smile too. Thank you to John Taylor Gatto for the indirect, but profound influence he had on my life. And thanks to Milva for her bravery to move forward into unknown territory and create a culture of learning for her kids. I’m not sure I ever truly appreciated my homeschooling childhood until I became a mother. I am very grateful for the path Gatto and my mother helped to clear, and I’m lucky to know how to travel it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love that line- my inspiration calling me his inspiration. His books have greatly influenced me too ☺Didn’t know about his recent endeavors and involvement in political “stuff”. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wendy Priesnitz

    I share your spectrum of feelings about John. I knew him for 25 years and was always impressed by his influence in the school-free realm. We’re all flawed in some way, and I accept the disagreements I had with him, while I respect his tremendous legacy in helping families question their assumptions about schooling.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Landale

    Such a thoughtful representation and call for civil discourse, Milva. I did not realize Gatto was a Trump supporter. I knew he was a Libertarian as he spoke at one of their events that we went to. I especially like the idea that the reason to keep homeschooling isn’t because schools are so bad but because homeschooling is so good. Yes indeed. Homeschooling is so good.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Denny T Jackson

    What a loss. I’m so sorry. Your tribute is beautiful and raw. I’m sure he would have celebrated your honesty. Clearly you are exactly the student turned teacher that he sought to educate. Your reverence was not contingent upon your agreement with his every thought or perspective. I imagine he admired you and if he learned your differences he would still have held you in the same regard for the same reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You set a good example, Milva, of accepting the complexity and inconsistencies of a human being. A flawed person, a person with divergent views, does not mean a bad person or one that cannot also offer positive contributions. Giving the benefit of the doubt, weighing positive and negative, agreeing to disagree, avoiding over generalizations and name-calling, and seeing the whole person are acts we must model for our children.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. thetotalfemme

    Beautiful post, Milva! As my son recently gently reminded me in a conversation about Kanye West, another Trump supporter, we can never know the inner pain someone might be experiencing due to life experiences or trauma about which we know nothing, and how that might act on their emotions and thoughts. I am grateful to Gatto for his profound and influential work, and to you for introducing him to me, and for the all-too-brief time I was able to homeschool. xottf

    Liked by 1 person

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