Caris's Reviews > The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling

The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
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Nov 29, 11

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bookshelves: 2011
Recommended to Caris by: Bird Brian
Read in November, 2011

This one was really hard for me.

I am not happy with my public school education. It really bothers me that I was taught one thing in elementary school, only to learn that the truth was actually this other thing in junior high, but, wait, the real super truth was this thing they taught in high school. Only to find in college, of course, that I had been misinformed again.


Elementary school: Columbus discovered America, befriended the Indians
Junior high: Columbus didn’t “discover” America, other people did
High school: Columbus didn’t discover America and didn’t get along well with the Indians
College: Columbus decimates the Indian population. And didn’t discover America.

Repeat this situation ad nauseum to every subject under the sun and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

This is something that readers of my reviews will find that I come back to often. Every time I read something that challenges my worldview, I get kind of pissed off that I was ever lied to in the first place. A few months back, I was beating the shit out of this particular dead horse with a rusty nine iron, when Bird Brian offered me a shiny new pitching wedge, assuring me that its relative shortness would make my blows have a greater impact. Through the pieces of rancid horseflesh stuck in my teeth, I thanked him. He’s a good man.

A few days later, I took the time to examine my new wedge. Only now it looked more like a book. A big fucking book. Practically a textbook. In my head, I was all, Goddamnit Brian. What the hell are you trying to do to me? In the decade I spent going to college, I never read a textbook. Why are you making me start now?.

But, knowing that Brian is a clever fellow, I soldiered on. It took me...what?....2? 3 months? make it all the way through, but I did. I arrived at the other side. And you know how I felt about it?

I was not happy. And here’s why:

When I started the book, Mr. Gatto was cooing in my ear and buying me steak dinners. He started out talking about the inherent evils of sight reading, a topic I happen to have very strong opinions about. He was saying all the right things at all the right times. I took note of a lack of citations, but quickly pushed that concern from my mind. You don’t need to look up what you already agree with, afterall.

But then he started saying some things I didn’t agree with. He talked about the American Education system as it evolved along with the Industrial Revolution. I can get behind this, as it makes sense. Said revolution changed the way Americans work. It took people out of fields, out of trades, and put them into factories (whether this is a good or a bad thing is up for debate). Because of this change in commodity production, there was a change in family structure and, as a result, school. Specifically, children weren’t expected to work all day in the fields or milking cows or whatever. Childhood, suddenly, was elevated in importance. The education of children became a major focus.

What I don’t like is that Gatto seems to be of the impression that this is inherently bad. I disagree. Developmentally, children benefit from having free time, academic work, etc. There is nothing that convinces me children were better off harvesting wheat from dawn until dusk. The idea of childhood being a unique stage of development was a great one, I think. Follow that up with the better understanding of adolescence, and you have the makings of a people who can work to make a better society.

Of course, Gatto would call me a socialist for suggesting that. He’d also dismiss me outright, most likely, on the grounds of my educational background. The study of human development, he claims, was devised by charlatans making a science of nothing. Ditto for sociologists and psychologists. I don’t think of myself as a charlatan, so I cannot help but think he’s wrong.

Of course, he would call me a brainwashed sheep at that point. Because I am a product of this education system, I am a victim of their lies, their efforts at indoctrination. But who is the “they”?

“They” are businesses. Gatto suggests that modern schools churn out individuals who can easily fit into the working roles necessary for capitalism to stay afloat. For this, I call him a socialist. Boo ya.

That is all well and fine, I guess. It seems a bit lofty to me, but whatevs. This is intellectual masturbation. He gives no real fact to back up his assertions other than a few quotes that are cherry picked to support his theory. Give me half an hour and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and I can do the same. This is what I learned to do at the prestigious Arizona State University.

It actually gets more interesting as Gatto keeps coming back to the idea he set forth in the beginning: we need to return to our roots. He calls for a reform of education where children are not taught by formally trained educators. Anyine with relevant expoeriece and an interest should be able to lend his/her expertise to the good of shaping society’s young minds. Schools should not be government regulated and should be community-focused. And they should support what families are already teaching, as families are the key component to learning.

Let me heap some anecdotal shit on you now, Mr. Gatto. Have a seat.

My grandpa taught me at a young age that when a man has sex with a woman while drunk, a little bit of alcohol is present in his semen, which messes up the resulting baby’s brain function.

My dad had a trade that he practiced with unmatched zeal: he stole shit out of unlocked cars. Old ladders, tool boxes, groceries, whatever.

My grandma told me that adding salt to water makes it boil faster.

My mom told me that she invented electricity. Or maybe that was Bobby Boucher’s mom. I’m not sure.

Gatto, you want my primary source of education to be these people? You think life is all great and cheery when your family is guiding your future? Your little theory only works when there is someone qualified to teach. I am thankful for the fact that I have been educated at the hands of complete goddamned strangers.

You see what I did there? It’s convincing, isn’t it (all true, too)? This is how Gatto supports his points. He makes some sweeping statement, follows it with a well-chosen quote and drives it all home with some anecdotal crap that illustrates the point beautifully. Perhaps it’s just the brainwashed academic in me, but I find that particular method a bit hard to swallow.

Another thing I find hard to swallow is Gatto’s assertion that religion has a place in public education. It does not. He is willing to state factually that mankind experiences a metaphysical side of life that modern schooling has pushed out of the picture. Anecdotal admission: Jesus isn’t my savior.

It isn’t the content of that particular section that bothers me, but, rather, the fact that is is placed alongside everything else that the reader is expected to look at as fact, or, if not fact, serious intellectual argument. But once you toss the wisdom inherent in the worship of a giant bearded entity who lives somewhere between the clouds and space, you lose this reader’s support.

The last part of the book (say the last fifty or so pages), is a haphazard stitching together of near-random thoughts. All the claims that Gatto wants to make but can’t seem to fit in properly get thrown in here, alongside his explanation for a lack of sources and intentionally omitted bibliography. And the plug for his next book. This is where I call him a capitalist.

Here’s my take:

This book is great. It challenges convention, which is necessary. We need books like this.There are so many kids who are being failed by our educational system. In a word of standardized tests and bullshit legislation like No Child Left Behind, we’re doing a tremendous disservice to our nation’s youth at a time when we should be able to provide the best education ever heard of.

So why the fuck am I so critical of Gatto?

Because, simply put, he offers an all new doctrine that’s just as likely (if not more likely) to fail. He acknowledges this in the book’s final pages. He says, though, that his book isn’t meant to be taken as gospel. It’s supposed to reflect his personal opinions and journey. These are his thoughts he’s contributing to the world to do with them what it may.

But that’s not how things work, is it? No one is going to pick up this book for some perspective. They are going to pick this up, because, like the work of Howard Zinn, this is supposed to be a history, not a persuasive essay. And no matter how many disclaimers he slaps on it, Gatto presents every piece of information in this book as cold hard fact.

I don’t trust Gatto because, honestly, I don’t trust anyone trying to convince me of anything. The fact that I think he’s wrong on several topics suggests to me that he’s probably wrong about others that I’m not so well-versed in.

Why does it matter? Because in the wrong hands, this book is dangerous. If my parents had been influenced by these ideas, I’d have been fucked. and I’m willing to bet there are a few people out there who aren’t nearly as smart as they need to be teaching their kids right now. Gatto is just flat wrong when he suggests that families know the best ways to educate their children. Some families would do better than schools, but most definitely not all.

The parts of this work I agreed with, I agreed with emphatically. Gatto is a smart guy. He knows his shit. But I don’t know if the shit he knows is the same shit that exists on our planet in our time. He places a lot of stock in the way things used to be, and elevates fallible ideas and fallible human beings to idol status. That’s a mistake. George Washington may have had a hand in gaining the independence of our country, but that doesn’t mean I’d want my kids to grow up like he did.

Let us not forget that our forefathers worked to break away from the way things were done in the past. They didn’t strive to come full circle.

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Reading Progress

09/20/2011 page 10
2.0% "It gets a Howard Zinn endorsement? Okay, I'm in."
09/23/2011 page 51
12.0% "Yay libraries!!"
10/14/2011 page 163
40.0% "Still plodding along. Highly accessible, but very dense."
11/22/2011 page 298
73.0% ""The neglected genius of American Christianity"? That one's a bit hard to swallow, Mr. Gatto."

Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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message 1: by Jen (new)

Jen What does Gatto mean by that comment?

message 2: by Jen (last edited Nov 23, 2011 07:03AM) (new)

Jen I mean, how is it genius?

and neglected?

message 3: by Caris (last edited Nov 23, 2011 08:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Caris Well. He suggests that there's a metaphysical reality that religion understands but the education system is intentionally dismissing as a means of controlling the masses. Because religion is, you know, known for encouraging thinking. Christianity is just his preferred brand of thinking.

message 4: by Jen (new)

Jen I've read comment #3 a few times now and am no closer to understanding it than I was the first time I laid eyes on it. This must be due to my neglected Christian American genius.

message 5: by Jen (new)

Jen I get the metaphysical reality that religion understands thing, I just am not getting how religion intentionally dismisses it as a means of controlling the masses.

And...does this author mention unschooling? Because it fascinates and scares the hell out of me. I tried it a little bit- just a smidgen, really. It was alternately terrifying and gratifying.

message 6: by Michael (last edited Nov 29, 2011 10:58PM) (new)

Michael My grandpa taught me at a young age that when a man has sex with a woman while drunk, a little bit of alcohol is present in his semen, which messes up the resulting baby’s brain function.

Hey, this has been proven scientifically. My mom said so.

But once you toss the wisdom inherent in the worship of a giant bearded entity who lives somewhere between the clouds and space, you lose this reader’s support.

God, Caris, he's not between the clouds and space. He's IN space of course, where he can fly about, cast plagues upon us, and come up with other ways to test and torture us.

message 7: by Jen (new)

Jen This review was great!

(My mom told me to say that.)

(not really.)

message 8: by Jen (new)

Jen How much reading are you wanting to do about the modern educational system? Because I heard this woman speak on debunking Early Childhood Education myths and she was brilliant. (Although I must admit pretty much every other preschool teacher that went there with me said she was too "wordy" which I replied, "You mean verbose?" After that I heard whispers with "Jennifer" and "wordy.")

Here's the book I bought (and lent to one of the less wordy gals who never gave it back)

The Classrooms All Young Children Need: Lessons in Teaching from Vivian Paley

I also wrote this lady a letter because, well, I crush easily on women armed with research, I guess. And then she wrote back, politely attempting to answer my questions. I'm going to add it to the comment but make it a spoiler because I've already been rude enough by commandeering so much comment space.

(view spoiler)

message 9: by ~Geektastic~ (new)

 ~Geektastic~ (You don't know me, but I've been following your reviews for a while. So, hi.)

As to religion in education, I vote NO. I attended a Christian school for 10 years and I had to relearn EVERYTHING when I went to a public high school and college. Science, history, social studies, all of these things were incredibly under- and misrepresented. The example you gave of relearning from each educational stage is dead-on, and having religion be the foundation of my education simply increased the differences in the stages exponentially. I had to play catch-up and deal with the anger of having been mislead, as well as simply being unprepared for standardized testing (which is essentially useless but incredibly overvalued).

This is a great review, and I would be tempted to try to read this book if I wasn't afraid of throwing it through a window; I can't afford glass repairs. It is important that we address the mounting troubles of the current educational system, but I would like to think it isn't necessary to be a religious libertarian to do so (though I could be wrong in assuming this is the author's position, but he does seem to lean that way).

message 10: by Kaethe (new) - added it

Kaethe Thanks for the thorough review. Otherwise I might have read this book, and that would have been a tragic waste of my time.

message 11: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! TWSS tally:

1) "This one was really hard for me."

2) "Bird Brian offered me a shiny new pitching wedge, assuring me that its relative shortness would make my blows have a greater impact."

3) "but I find that particular method a bit hard to swallow."

4) "That one's a bit hard to swallow, Mr. Gatto."

School taught me to make lists!

message 12: by Jen (new)

Jen She hasn't fallen. She merely crossed a bridge when she came to it.

message 13: by Miriam (new)

Miriam My grandma told me that adding salt to water makes it boil faster.

Scientifically, your grandma was correct. But the amount of salt you'd have to add to get a measurable decrease in boiling time would be culinarily undesirable.

message 14: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Bird Brian wrote: "Oh, Eh!, how far you've fallen since we first met..."

*demure smile while making obscene hand gesture covered by lace handkerchief*

message 15: by Miriam (new)

Miriam ♥Eh!

message 16: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Knees together! Because I'm going commando.


Ahem. On the idea that educational reform should shift the duty from teachers to the home, I think that's kind of the foundation of certain social programs targeting poverty in high-density urban areas. Er, at least in NYC. This book was getting some publicity a few years back: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.

message 17: by Kaethe (new) - added it

Kaethe I haven't read Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, but I think the ideas here are way different. Canada's idea is that we can't improve the education of the underclass without also improving some of the many other elements of poverty and discrimination. Some of that may involve changing some parenting practices. Gatto, on the other hand, seems to be harking back to that golden age of education before the Industrial Revolution when the majority of people were illiterate and couldn't vote; back when blood was thicker than stupidity.

message 18: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Oh, certainly, the other book takes a broader approach than Mr. Gatto of which parental attention is just one piece, and as you say has an economic goal along with the educational one. Hah, I have trouble segueing away from crudity with grace so that was my ham-fisted attempt.

message 19: by Jen (new)

Jen very nice.

Caris Bird Brian wrote: "Is this the review you thought was harsh? I like it. Thanks for giving it a chance. I'm looking for the book...

Yeah. I still think it is. I didn't spend the entire experience hating on it, which is what it looks like when I read over what I've written. I don't think my review does the book justice. I don't agree with Gatto on several points, but I do agree with him on a hell of a lot more. I spent too much time thinking about the damage such ideas could do and not enough about how I could use them. This review could have gone in an entirely different direction. This book does deserve to be read.

I kind of took from it that the people should teach their kids/ kids in the community something they are expert at (i.e. maybe an engineer teaching math, or maybe somebody who works in a machine shop teaching their skills, maybe somebody who writes for a newspaper teaching English composition).

Initially, I thought that, too. And I was on board with that. But then he keeps going back to the idea that kids learned for the bulk of history from their parents. And then he combined it with the religious bullshit and I realized what he was saying. Because in Gatto's definition, there's no real way to determine who is an expert and who isn't. I mean, it's the employment of experts that he identifies as the problem, no? Of course, he definitely has a bigger problem with school administration than teachers, but he does seem to set them up for a fall, too. He actually vacillates on that point quite a bit; he wants to stand up for teachers in a way, but then he throws them under the bus a sentence later.

Religion? Meh. I know lots of people who went to schools with some element of religious instruction- results may vary, you know? I'm not sure what Gatto was getting at with the religion, exactly...

You know, I'm not sure, either. He does talk about the Amish, but not in that section. He uses them as an example of how old school education still works (and how it has continued to work in the face of an evolving system). The religious shit was weird. It's just a small section, but he talks about that "metaphysical reality." Religious schools, as they are often (always?) private schools, seem to offer a higher degree of prestige (generalizing here). And I understand that. But Gatto isn't just saying religion is okay, he's saying it's necessary. But only in that section. It seemed like a poorly thought out contribution. Especially when he spends all that time up front dissin' on the Hindu system. Specifically, it's American religion, which is what he's labeling Christianity. He was either tossing his own religious beliefs into the mix or was trying to pander to the religious home school parents who are probably big fans of this book. It would be interesting to compare editions to see just when that section made it in.

I at least appreciate Gatto for being a lone voice willing to say that just because there are some people who want to teach their kids some pretty odd things at home doesn't mean we all have to accept that the only alternative is sending all our kids to a public school, which is filled with a lot of its own problematic ideologies and indoctrinations, and which by the way isn't doing very well making our kids competitive with the rest of the world re: math, science, reading and other fundamentals.

Yes, yes, yes. I like that idea of freedom. I mean, his idea makes it so I can teach my kid what I think it right, not what some other asshole thinks is right. I, for example, will never give up on my kid and put her in remedial classes she'll never break free from. I'll never look at her as a standardized test score. My personal view is that religion shouldn't play a part in education, but at what cost? If a parent who is unusually brilliant in, say, every subject is going to give her kid an astoundingly well-rounded educational experience, who am I to say she shouldn't get Jesus during study hall? If only he wasn't suggesting bringing Jesus into the public school.

You've thought about some angles I hadn't so thank you for the great review! I'm basically just grateful when somebody takes a book I like seriously and comes away from it either thinking they got something out of it, or with some insight or opinion they can share with me, which might help me with my own understanding of the book.
Thanks. "

No, thank you. It was a trying and eye-opening experience. I really appreciate that you were kind enough to send me a copy. I'll definitely be recommending it to others, already did, in fact. And that first bit about sight reading- I don't know how much you know about that, but Gatto is the man there.

Caris Eh?Eh! wrote: "TWSS tally:

1) "This one was really hard for me."

2) "Bird Brian offered me a shiny new pitching wedge, assuring me that its relative shortness would make my blows have a greater impact."

3) ..."

I'm embarrassed that I said "hard to swallow" twice. I should amend one to say "taking it in the ass like a B&N employee."

Caris Amber ~Geektastic~ wrote: "(You don't know me, but I've been following your reviews for a while. So, hi.)

As to religion in education, I vote NO. I attended a Christian school for 10 years and I had to relearn EVERYTHING wh..."

Hey Amber!

It's most definitely libertarian, though I focused on the religious bit too much. That was just a small part. Of course, with your background, you might take as much offense to that part as I did.

I guess that I'm of the opinion that a broken school is a broken school, whether it's public or religious. Wasn't it easier to sort out the bullshit later? Like, were you able to identify something as wrong as soon as you remembered it was caused by the devil or the Bible or whatever? That sounds idiotic, but I'm leaving it. I never know when I was misinformed in school until I get hit with some hardcore truth (as Brian likes to say). Howard Zinn was a fucking experience for me.

Caris Jen wrote: "How much reading are you wanting to do about the modern educational system? Because I heard this woman speak on debunking Early Childhood Education myths and she was brilliant. (Although I must a..."

I'll be taking a break after this one, for sure. But I'll put that one on the ol' list. It's cool that you were able to share that email. he certainly sounds like she's got some interesting thoughts on the topic.

message 24: by Jen (new)

Jen Caris wrote: "Jen wrote: "How much reading are you wanting to do about the modern educational system? Because I heard this woman speak on debunking Early Childhood Education myths and she was brilliant. (Altho..."

I think she does. But I think on education, I'm a bit of a hobo- I can park my tent in one camp for a bit and then pull up my stakes and head somewhere else. I homeschooled as an experiment, and while I liked it, it was super hard to find anyone local homeschooling for non-religious reasons. I eventually had to leave one homeschooling co-op because they wanted me to sign a statement of faith and it was not very tolerant of any other faith or lack(and not just any strain of Christianity would do-only their own Protestant evangelical one)...basically, I was homeschooling for more freedom from structure and it felt like others around me were homeschooling for more structure, buying materials from one source for one reason that had nothing to do with tailoring to the student's educational needs. It wasn't easy, but my kids look back on that time with fondness already, and I call it their sabbatical from school.

Good luck on schooling your child (children?), however you go about it!

Caris Bingo. I've got friends with that very problem. They pulled their kids out of public school because of the pervasive, unofficial religious influence only to find that all the homeschooling associations were best friends with Jesus.

I'm going to put off educating my kids as long as possible. I'm thinking I'll wait until they're old enough to make an informed decision. Maybe when they turn sixteen and can drive themselves wherever they choose to get their learnin'.

message 26: by Jen (new)

Jen There are atheist homeschoolers...I googled it once after I moved. And one of the users on the Atheist Nexus is in "Satan's Armpit, Arizona"

Caris I live there!

message 28: by Jen (new)

Jen I knew it!

message 29: by Miriam (new)

Miriam A lot of the grad student where I went homeschooled, because the public school district was awful. Some of them had an official co-op and taught whatever their area was. I gave Latin lessons for them one year.

message 30: by Miriam (new)

Miriam They were mostly really nice kids, too, both to me and each other. I know people always say that homeschooling inhibits socialization, but I think school can socialize kids in pretty undesirable ways. The homeschool coop thing really seemed helpful in giving the children a slightly larger, less homogenous group while allowing parents to eliminate some of the negative aspects. Of course, this only works if you have parents with education and free time.

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