The Character Of A Village

Before I went to first grade I could add, subtract, and multiply in my head. I knew my times tables not as work but as games Dad played on drives around Pittsburgh. Learning anything was easy when you felt like it. My father taught me that, not any school.

When I went to first grade I could read fluently. I loved to read grown-up books I selected from the three-level glass-enclosed bookcase behind the front door in Swissvale. It held hundreds. I knew if I kept reading, things would eventually come. Mother taught me that and she was right. I remember taking down The Decameron time after time, only to find its deceptively simple language concealing meanings I couldn’t fathom. Each time I put the book back I made a mental note to try again next month. And sure enough, one month it happened. I was ten.

My father was a cookie salesman. Mother called him that anyway when she was angry, which was often. He had gone to work as a teenager to help support my widowed grandmother and to help brother Frank, the smart one, through the University of Pittsburgh. Dad never got to college, but he was a genius just the same. Mother went for one year, she was a genius, too. They were the kind of people who expose the malice of bell curves and rankings for what it is. I miss them both and think of them often with love and gratitude.

Mother I called “Bootie” most of the time because that’s what I heard her own mother say. Bootie read fairy tales to me in the cradle, she recited poems, she filled my ears and eyes with language even though she had little else in the way of things to give. One day she bought a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman that cost more than we could afford. I know because she and dad fought when he got home. From then on mother read from the encyclopedia every day. We read all the newspapers, too. In those days they only cost a couple of cents. I liked the Hearst Sun-Telegraph best because it used violent layouts, and on the upper corner of the Sunday edition, a little boy called Puck, dressed like a fop, said in a speech balloon, “What fools these mortals be.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I said the words out loud often to punctuate adult conversation and always got a smile when I did.

As far as I can figure, any success I had as a schoolteacher came from what my mother, my father, my sister, my family, friends, and town taught, not from a single thing I remember about Cornell and Columbia, my two colleges, not from any findings of institutes of child study or directives from departments of education. If I’m correct, then this insight is more significant than it may appear. The immense edifice of teacher instruction and schooling in general rests on the shaky hypothesis that expert intervention in childhood produces better people than might otherwise occur. I’ve come to doubt that.

A gigantic social investment rides on this hypothesis, one that might otherwise be spent on reducing stress on family life which interferes with happiness and the growth of intelligence. Had the small fortune spent on my own schooling been invested instead in my people and my place directly, I have a hunch I would have turned out better. Whatever the truth of this complex proposition, as long as you’ve spent your money and time to hear what I have to say, you have a right to know something about the fountainhead of my school-teaching practice, my growing up time on the green river Monongahela.

I feel grateful for the luck to have been born in a tiny city with the character of a village on the river Monongahela in western Pennsylvania. People cared for each other there. Even the town wastrels had a history. But we minded our own business in Mon City, too. Both are important. Everyone seemed to understand that within broad limits there is no one best way to grow up. Rich or poor doesn’t matter much if you know what’s important. Poverty can’t make you miserable; only a bad character and a weak spirit can do that.

In Monongahela, people seemed to know that children have a remarkable power to survive unfavorable environments as long as they have a part in a vital community. In the years I grew up, in the place I grew up, tales of social workers breaking up families “in the best interests of the child” weren’t common, although on several occasions I heard Uncle Bud threaten to punch out this man’s lights or that one’s if the person didn’t start treating his wife better. Or his kids. Bud was always punching someone in the interest of justice.

Over the years any number of students found a way to tell me that what they appreciated most about my classes was that I didn’t waste their time. I think I learned how not to do that through a bit of good luck—being born in Monongahela during the Depression when money was tight and people were forced to continue older traditions of making their own meanings instead of buying them. And they learned how many very different ways there were to grow strong. What the vast industry of professional child-rearing has told you about the right way to grow up matters less than you’ve been led to believe. Until you know that, you remain caught like a fly in the web of the great therapeutic community of modern life. That will make you sick quicker than anything.

Taken from Chapter 10 in The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

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7 thoughts on “The Character Of A Village

  1. tausif says:

    Hi John. I’ve almost completed reading Weapons of Mass Instruction. It’s a massive relief that i’e come across a true educator who does see how schools in every way they can dictate and brain-wash children in assuming they are being ‘educated’.
    How do i go about creating a change since i work within a establishment as a assistant teacher but have many students on a one to one or small groups ill-equipped in literacy and for that matter in reading comprehension?

    I want to be part of a change not simply grind my way through each day every day until i retire. I want my income from work to be ‘pure’ and meaningful so that i can actually say ‘I have made a positive contribution to a child’s future’.



      • tausif says:

        Would the introduction to liberal arts be useful? I was also thinking to introduce sections from classical texts e.g Aristotle on false reasoning to make them ‘Think’ something which i feel most young people are struggling to cope with. Can you recommend any particular texts from which i can engage these young minds in becoming independent and not reliant upon the ‘school system’ to gain their education.




      • Justin Stewart says:


        I don’t intend to replace any advice that John gives, but you may be able to learn a lot from certain “homeschooling” communities. They vary a lot in their practices and not all that they do may be adaptable to your teaching situation but here are some possibly useful resources:
        The author has a good book with a huge number of recommended resources. The book itself is huge and I wouldn’t necessarily use everything she suggests, but it gives you excellent lists of references – especially for logical reasoning books. Her curriculum is based on the Trivium method of education.

        Two books (of numerous) books she recommends on critical thinking are “Building Thinking Skills” and “Mind Benders”. You can search these book series on or wherever.

        Some excellent free resources may be found here:
        I especially recommend: “42 Fallacies” and “the Lost Tools of Learning” mini books there.

        You can also search for work related to Charlotte Mason, whose views I think are quite compatible with Gatto’s views. There is a good website titled “Simply Charlotte Mason”, I can’t access it here in Korea for some reason, but search it out – it has good practical resources that you may be able to adapt.

        Best of wishes on your quest.


  2. Justin Stewart says:

    Fascinating. It made me wonder, more specifically, what kind of winning character traits did the village have? Extracting Gatto’s writings, here’s my theory of, at least some of, the positive winning elements that It/they had:

    1. They had respect for liberty – the defense of freedom, not pursuit of a planned social/economic goal (which inevitably violates someone’s liberty) – they didn’t look down on one type of life compared to another. Everyone had the right to his/her own path – one wasn’t encouraged to feel shame for his decisions, unless perhaps he/she violated rights of liberty. A side-effect of this would have been inventiveness and innovation because more people were free to do things differently and perhaps better than before.

    2. They cherished classical education, practical wisdom and entrepreneurial mindset. This allowed the growth of confident but prudent adults capable of making independent decisions.

    3. They encouraged children to become like adults with such above abilities/mindsets – by not wasting wasting their time, not talking down to them but also not damaging them. Children were respectfully given an idea of what was really important in life, regardless of their time, place and circumstances.

    4. They had a culture of Loving human presence and cohesion – people mostly having familiar people around from young age to adulthood. Not frequent changes as is so common today, especially in public school. This relates to the principles of non-interruption and cohesiveness in learning experience – under these conditions it was much easier to relate experiences of a day together and into a larger life experience and world view. Information is generally experienced as related, not fragmented or random (therefore to be quickly forgotten).

    5. They encouraged worthy activities. They promoted the seeking of worthy activities as a way of expanding self, self-directedness and ultimately finding purpose and joy. How could you evaluate if an activity is worthy or not? The following criteria/questions may help.
    a. Satisfying Engagement: Does it engage your wholeness of being and feel satisfying afterward?
    b. Will Exercise: Does it require great effort of will to accomplish, at least to get started? Therefore strengthening your “Will” – the ultimate creative force.
    c. Character Expansion: Does it give the sense of one’s character expanding (mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually) towards greater practical ability… beyond your previous limits?
    d. Constructiveness: Is the activity constructive or destructive?
    e. Practical Purpose: Does it practically get you closer to achieving your goals in life?
    f. Productive Purpose: Does it improve your production capacity for achieving your goals in life?
    g. Value Alignment: Is it a priority in terms of your values?
    h. Respect: Does it honor other people’s rights of liberty?

    Imagine the results of being always involved in activities that fulfill all or most or the
    above criteria.

    Often one may experience things that don’t easily seem to fit the above criteria. To get more from the experience, the following questions may be asked when an activity is uncertain are:
    i. What is the likely truth or fiction in this presentation. How do I know? If I don’t know,
    how can I know?
    ii. How can I relate this to my own values, life and success?

    If one cannot ask/answer such questions, and doesn’t fulfill the above criteria, then the activity may not be worthwhile.

    Perhaps such a “checklist approach” may be foolish for every human to solely base one’s life around such criteria, especially if misinterpreted. Perhaps it is fine to take “time out” on occasion, but as one’s character awakens to what is important in life, the resulting urgency that presses ever stronger on him motivates him to prioritize. At least that’s my experience. It is essential to seriously consider such things if one wants to be an active rather than passive force in the world.

    My extraction of elements in the village may seem very sanitized and idealized. However it seems reasonable to me that they existed to some degree more than is common today. I wonder what John Taylor Gatto himself would think. Any additional insights by anyone would be welcome. For myself, as a teacher (outside of the public system) and father, this is very important stuff.


  3. Justin Stewart says:

    That would be an honor. I, and I think a lot of others, wanting to become better teacher’s or parents, have wanted him to provide more direct practical “turn-key” advice from John… I have spend quite a bit of time viewing and listening to his work just to pick out little nuggets. Sometimes I have wondered if people think he focuses on the problem too much rather than the clear solution.

    BUT the irony is this, along the way I have come to realize that without understanding the amazing tapestry of the problem along with the solution… without the “long-windedness” (but wonderfully poetic) nature of his presentation of it, the message wouldn’t be near as comprehensible… any practical actions that one may employ from his advice would have greater danger of being misguided. Further, those taking the actions would risk lacking the “soul-level conviction” to persistently and effectively subvert the system in the face of inevitable opposition.

    Essentially I thank John for not being concise! A questions and answer forum would be excellent but consider this a cautionary note to any one seeking his “how-to” advice. A quick solution may not be possible because the forces controlling our minds, actions and assumptions are often deceptively difficult to see.


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