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.
“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.
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. 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 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.