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The Byrne Report

Witch Way


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MAY 1 BROUGHT CERULEAN sky, Elysian breeze, pistil-perfect flowers. It was a day for dancing naked in a meadow around a maypole. But parental duty called, so, along with several hundred serious-types, I wandered into the Sebastopol Community Center to hear a presentation by John Taylor Gatto, a guru of the homeschooling movement, and a reactionary in progressive clothing.

The septuagenarian Gatto taught in New York City public schools for 40 years. Upon retirement, he fashioned a career as an author and lecturer. His trademark is exposing our educational system as the creation of industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who needed an obedient, fear-filled, dumb work force to staff production lines. In his book Dumbing Us Down, Gatto claims that the 19th-century robber barons imported our soul-wrenching system of compulsory schooling from Prussia, the model military-bureaucratic state of the day.

The Sebastopol crowd was your typical set of hippie mamas and papas. We cheered predictably as Gatto regaled us with his patented indictment of "schooling," as opposed to "education." You could feel the outrage as he spoke about generations of learning-starved children traipsing from one confining room to another at the blast of a Klaxon. School, it is true, wastes the precious days of youth; most kids can learn reading, writing and arithmetic in about 100 hours. Twelve years of obedience training instills passivity and teaches unquestioning acceptance of our intellectually oppressive social order. Gatto wants to liberate our children from corporate-devised lessons, the tyranny of multiple answer tests, the memorization of useless information.

"Dumb people are well-informed about the opinions of Time magazine, the New York Times and the president," Gatto says. "Their job is to choose which prethought thoughts, which received opinions, they like best."

Gatto encourages students to work in the community, to learn at a personal pace, to aim for self-reliance. Youth thrive when given meaningful responsibilities and work. He showed a hilarious clip from a film he is making that portrays American schools as machine-society prisons for rebellious spirits. The system is robotic and irredeemable, he says. Mere money cannot fix the problem.

And then he actually shocked me. According to Gatto, Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, as rigorously laid out in The Origin of Species, "is only a theoretical construct with thin evidence to support it." Incredibly, Gatto conflated the evil of "social Darwinism," an ideological fallacy used by academics, journalists and despots to justify the harming of "inferior" humans, with Darwinian evolutionary science. Spewing nonsense, Gatto turned Darwin into a whipping boy for all that is wrong with modern education. But no one gasped audibly or rose to challenge his suddenly absurd statements. Our brains couldn't process what he was saying. It was that incongruous.

Scratching my head, I went home and read his book A Different Kind of Teacher. Much of it is the familiar anarchist critique of forced schooling. But the chapter "In Defense of Original Sin" exposes Gatto's frightening ideological roots and his true agenda. He says that "liberals" and "secularists," most especially Unitarians, historically conspired with capitalists to impose schooling on the masses and "suppress" the "amazing insights of American Christian spirituality." He upholds the Protestant doctrine of original sin which advises us to "embrace punishment" and "bend [our] head in obedience" to God.

Gatto extols "the Salem Procedure" as the best model for living, referring to the tradition of small, exclusive churches that sprang out of the Protestant reformation, particularly the independent churches in and around Salem, Mass., in the 1600s. Remember the Cotton Matherites who tortured and hanged alleged witches, heretics, unbelievers and adulteresses?

Turns out that Gatto believes the U.S. Constitution is based upon the Bible, that the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to separate religion from education in 1947, that working women hurt the traditional family. Amazingly, he writes that "due to the enormous political power of ordinary churchgoers . . . [America] became the only nation in history where ordinary citizens could take issue with authority without being beaten, jailed, or killed." Gee, I guess the Indians, slaves, suffragettes, Whiskey Rebellionists, Civil Rights martyrs and imprisoned antiwar protesters are from some other country.

Gatto dumps physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry and anthropology, replacing science with the myth of Adam and Eve. He advises folks to exclude persons and groups they don't like from communities and schools, so they can teach children to be truly Christian without state interference. No wonder Gatto is so popular among the fanatical Dominionists who believe a merciless God created white males to rule the planet. They are homeschoolers, after all, and they buy his books by the ton.

I invite my fellow witches and homeschoolers to frolic naked in the meadow around a bonfire of John Taylor Gatto books. We must become a Gatto-free community.

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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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