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An American Affidavit

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

55. Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert 

I began to schoolteach as an engineer would, solving problems as they arose. Because of 
my upbringing and because of certain unresolved contradictions in my own character I 
had a great private need not just to have a job but to have work that would allow me to 
build the unbuilt parts of myself, to give me competence and let me feel my life was one 
being lived instead of it living me. I brought to those first years an intensity of 

watchfulness probably uncommon in those who grow up untroubled. My own 
deficiencies provided enough motivation to want to make something worthwhile happen. 

Had I remained a problem-solver I would have drowned in life for sure, but a habit of 
mind that demands things in context sensitized me to the culture of schooling as a major 
element in my work and that wariness eventually allowed me to surmount it. The highest 
school priorities are administrative coherence, student predictability, and institutional 
stability; children doing well or poorly are incidental to the main administrative mission. 
Hence teachers are often regarded as instruments which respond best if handled like 
servants made to account for the silverware. In order to give these vertical relationships 
strength, the horizontal relationships among teachers — collegiality — must be kept weak. 

This divide-and-conquer principle is true of any large system. The way it plays itself out 
in the culture of schooling is to bestow on some few individuals favor, on some few grief, 
and to approach the large middle with a carrot in one hand, a stick in the other with these 
dismal examples illuminating the discourse. In simple terms, some are bribed into 
loyalty, but seldom so securely they become complacent; others sent despairing, but 
seldom without hope since a crumb might eventually fall their way. Those whose 
loyalties are purchased function as spies to report staff defiance or as cheerleaders for 
new initiatives. 

I used to hear from Granddad that a man's price for surrendering shows you the dirt floor 
of his soul. A short list of customary teacher payoffs includes: 1) assignment to a room 
on the shady side of the building; 2) or one away from playground noise; 3) a parking 
permit; 4) the gift of a closet as a private office; 5) the tacit understanding that one can 
solicit administrative aid in disciplinary situations without being persecuted afterwards; 
6) first choice of textbooks from the available supply in the book room; 7) access to the 
administrators' private photocopy machine; 8) a set of black shades for your windows so 
the room can be sufficiently darkened to watch movies comfortably; 9) privileged access 
to media equipment so machines could be counted on to take over the teaching a few 
days each week; 10) assignment of a student teacher as a private clerk; 11) the right to go 
home on Friday a period or two early in order to beat the weekend rush; 12) a program 
with first period (or first and second) free so the giftee can sleep late while a friend or 
friendly administrator clocks them in. 

Many more "deals" than this are available, extra pay for certain cushy specialized jobs or 
paid after-school duty are major perks. Thus is the ancient game of divide and conquer 
played in school. How many times I remember hearing, "Wake up, Gatto. Why should I 
bother? This is all a big joke. Nobody cares. Keep the kids quiet, that's what a good 
teacher is. I have a life when I get home from this sewer." Deals have a lot to do with that 
attitude and the best deals of all go to those who establish themselves as experts. As did 
Dr. Caleb Gattegno. 

A now long-forgotten Egyptian intellectual, Caleb Gattegno enjoyed a brief vogue in the 
1960s as inventor of a reading system based on the use of nonverbal color cues to aid 
learning. He was brought to the middle school where I worked in 1969 to demonstrate 

how his new system solved seemingly intractable problems. This famous man's 
demonstration made such impact on me that thirty years later I could lead you 
blindfolded to the basement room on West 77th Street where twenty- five teachers and 
administrators crammed into the rear lane of a classroom in order to be touched by this 
magic. Keep in mind it was only the demonstration I recall, I can't remember the idea at 
all. It had something to do with color. 

Even now I applaud Gattegno's courage if nothing else. A stranger facing a new class is 
odds-on to be eaten alive, the customary example of this situation is the hapless 
substitute. But in his favor another classroom advantage worked besides his magical 
color technology, the presence of a crowd of adults virtually guaranteed a peaceful hour. 
Children are familiar with adult-swarming through the twice-a-year- visitation days of 
parents. Everyone knows by some unvoiced universal etiquette to be on best behavior 
when a concentration of strange adults appears in the back of the room. 

On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, we all assembled to watch the great man put 
children through their paces. An air of excitement filled the room. >From the publicity 
buildup a permanent revolution in our knowledge of reading was soon to be put on 
display. Finally, with a full retinue of foundation officers and big bureaucrats, Dr. Caleb 
Gattegno entered the arena. 

I can't precisely say why what happened next happened. The simple truth is I wasn't 
paying much attention. But suddenly a babble of shouting woke me. Looking up, I saw 
the visiting expert's face covered with blood! He was making a beeline through the mob 
for the door as if desperate to get there before he bled to death. 

As I later pieced together from eyewitness accounts, Dr. Gattegno had selected a student 
to cooperate with his demonstration, a girl with a mind of her own. She didn't want to be 
the center of attention at that moment. When Gattegno persisted her patience came to an 
end. What I learned in a Harlem typing class years earlier, the famous Egyptian 
intellectual now learned in a school in the middle of some of the most expensive real 
estate on earth. 

Almost immediately after she raked her long fingernails down his well-educated cheeks, 
the doctor was off to the races, exiting the room quickly, dashing up the staircase into 
Egyptian history. We were left milling about, unable to stifle cynical remarks. What I 
failed to hear, then or later, was a single word of sympathy for his travail. Word of the 
incident traveled quickly through the three-story building, the event was postmortemed 
for days. 

I should be ashamed to say it, but I felt traces of amusement at his plight, at the money 
wasted, at the temporary chagrin of important people. Not a word was ever said again 
about Gattegno again in my presence. I read a few pages of his slim volume and found 
them intelligent, but for some unaccountable reason I couldn't muster interest enough to 
read on. Probably because there isn't any trick to teaching children to read by very old- 
fashioned methods, which makes it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for novelty. 

Truth to tell, the reading world doesn't need a better mousetrap. If you look up his work 
in the library, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop me a postcard explaining what his colorful 
plan was all about. 


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