Why Public Schools Failed You and How to Un-fail Yourself

14 elite traits and 5 compelling narratives to guide your self-education

Public school failed you. It failed you because in many ways it was never meant to make you succeed. Or rather its definition of success was something far different than your “education”.

You see, way back in the Robber Baron days of late 19th century America, a few nefarious folks were future-casting the problem of employment. How do we get a steady flow of workers to work the factories without getting to worked up over the working conditions? It was a mouthful for sure, but they had a simple monosyllabic solution: school.

In the words of Woodrow Wilson:

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

That’s a problem.

That problem offers up a few potential solution-trails to follow. We could go down the rabbit hole of social engineering and tweeze apart the players and motivations; we could engage in the slow incremental process of institutional change; or we could focus our time and resources into building alternative educational options (unschooling, homeschooling etc.).

We could do all those things.

Or we could opt for the gloriously selfish route.

The gloriously selfish route focuses on, you guessed it, the self (if you guessed “fish” you need to get your shit together). Self-education. Life long learning. Self-education through life-long learning. And, if you want to get fancy about it, autodidacticism.

In many ways we’re in a golden age of audodidactism. There is a growing demand for informal self-education, as seen in the popularity of intelligent podcasts and the “intellectual dark web”, and there is an unimaginably dense infrastructure to supply that, aka the internet with its sea of free online courses.

That sea can quickly become a tsunami if you don’t know how to surf the information waves. To make things a bit easy, I’ve focused on the critiques and solutions offered by two master educators: John Taylor Gatto and Neil Postman.

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto quit teaching public school the year he won the New York State Teacher of the Year award. The renegade educator, who had already won the New York City Teacher of the Year award three times, articulated some reasons in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal.

Basically, Gatto was exhausted with initiatives that “arise from ignorance of how people learn, or deliberate indifference to it” and chose to throw in the proverbial towel. Once the towel was in, he could focus his considerable intellect on expanding the op-ed piece and slow-thinking his way through the troubled history of American education.

The initial result came with the 1992 publication of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. In it he writes:

“The simple conclusion is: wealthy business owners needed a steady flow of docile workers to run the repetitive operations of a quota-conscious factory. Schooling was to provide this flow.”
“ That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.”

That simple, though troubling, conclusion was further expanded in books like The Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction. If you got 5 hours to spare (you don’t need to sleep, do you?), then give this a listen.

So from the Gatto standpoint, American public schools failed you because you were never much more than a future docile worker meant to “run the repetitive operations of a quota-conscious factory.” That was the metaphysical aim and all it took was a bit of day-to-day engineering (clocks, bells, grading rubrics etc.) to ensure that aim was met.

So instead of a grounded focus on active literacies and critical thinking, we got enough reading and writing skills to pass an arbitrary test. Instead of a comprehensive and integrated understandings, we got hyper-specialized subjects unrelated to one another. Instead of a robust and healthy sense of self-esteem, we got a sense of self-worth tied to the continuous evaluation of “experts”.

If that sounds preposterous, then it’s time to celebrate a few preposterous thinkers who resonate with it. This would have to include the great comedian George Carlin in his last HBO special and the influential marketer Seth Godin in this provacative piece. In it, Godin writes:

It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.
Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence — it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

14 Private School Traits

Although Gatto spilled a lot of ink and breath on describing the troubled history of American public schooling, he also paid attention to how the elite universities and private schools that encouraged students “to have a liberal education” were run. Luckily for us, we can save the cash and integrate the 14 traits below into our own self-education.

Here it is:

  1. Teach a theory of human nature (see “Spaceship Earth” below)
  2. Teach a strong sense of the active literacies
  3. Encourage insight into social and political institutions (see “American Experiment” below)
  4. Provide training in politeness and civility
  5. Encourage independent work
  6. Physical sports taught are to confer grace, not brutality
  7. Teach a theory of access to places and people
  8. Encourage personal responsibility
  9. Encourage individuals to develop a personal code of standards
  10. Encourage familiarity with masterpieces in art and music (see “Laws of Diversity” below)
  11. Teach accurate observation and recording of experiences
  12. Encourage the ability to deal with all sorts of challenges
  13. Teach a habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions (see “fallen angels” below)
  14. Encourage a constant development and testing of prior judgments.


The prolific author and educator Neil Postman was well known and respected for his careful critiques on everything from childhood to technology to media to education. It’s that last one that’s succinctly explored in his 1995 book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.

In it Postman writes:

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?
The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.

Rather than focusing on the uncomfortable origins of American public schooling, Postman focuses on the contemporary failure of schools to provide “shared narratives” and “an inspired reason for schooling.”

It’s not that we don’t have any narratives, we just have what Postman calls “false idols” — flimsy narratives that you can’t sink your teeth in. Things like economic utility, consumerism, and technology. Things that equate self-identity with job identity, or self-identity with what we own, or place too much uncritically cheerful faith in the ever-onwards march of technology.

Postman “rejected the growing emphasis on economic utility, training for consumership, and faith in technology that characterize modern education” because, as the Brittanica article says, he “held that the purpose of education is to forge a coherent unified culture out of the diversity within American society.”

5 Shared Narratives

Neil Postman taught at New York University for decades and much of his schooling critique seems focused on institutional reform in the context of American public schooling rather than the informal self-education route.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t drive down the self-education road with his map. We might hit a few potholes along the way, but it’ll be a worthwhile ride.

Here it is:

1. Spaceship Earth

This narrative is based on a study of humans, their place on earth, and earth’s place in the grander cosmos.

“The purpose of public education is to help the young transcend individual identity by finding inspiration in a story of humanity.”

It is based on a study of three subjects:

  1. Archeology: study the histories and origins of the crew on Spaceship Earth
  2. Anthropology: study the diversity of the crew of Spaceship Earth
  3. Astronomy: study the course of Spaceship Earth

2. Fallen Angel

This narrative is based on a study of the necessary mistakes that carry human knowledge along.

“That we may be mistaken, and probably are, is the meaning of the ‘fall’ in the fallen angel. The meaning of `angel’ is that we are capable of correcting our mistakes, provided we proceed without hubris, pride, or dogmatism; provided that we accept our cosmic status as the error-prone species”

It is based on a study of error:

  • Describe 5 of the most significant errors scholars have made in history? Why are they errors? Who made them? Who corrected them?

3. The American Experiment

This narrative is based on a study of the arguments for and against the foundations of the United States. (and could be easily adapted to other countries as well).

It is based on 4 questions:

1. Is it possible to have a coherent and stable culture while having religious and political freedom?

2. Is it possible to have a stable and coherent culture while having many traditions, races, and languages?

3. Is it possible to have free public education for all?

4. Is it possible to keep the best of American traditions while having uncontrolled technological development?

4. The Laws of Diversity

This narrative is based on a deeper study of the crew on spaceship earth.

“The point is that profound but contradictory ideas may exist side by side, if they are constructed from different materials and methods and have different purposes.”
“Each tells us something important about where we stand in the universe, and it is foolish to insist that they must despise each other.”

It is based on four things:

  1. Language: foreign languages are taught early on with a “map is not the territory” understanding
  2. Religion: an understanding of religions in their own right and in terms of what they say about our own
  3. Customs: an understanding of other customs in their own right and in terms of what they say of our own
  4. Arts: an understanding of art as a language of the heart

5. Word Weavers/World Makers

This narrative is based on the study of language.

“All subjects are forms of language education. Knowledge of the subject mostly means knowledge of the language of that subject.”

It is based on three things:

  1. Definitions: What does the process of defining look like and how do you do it?
  2. Questions: What are questions and how are they constructed?
  3. Metaphors: What are metaphors? How do they function?

Ethos for Self-Learners

John Taylor Gatto’s focus on how the historical need for a “steady flow of docile workers” shaped America’s public school education and Neil Postman’s focus on the failure of “false idols” to create compelling narratives to inspire learning both provide useful frames for understanding why school failed you.

Taken together they point to a powerful sentiment summed up in a famous line attributed to Mark Twain, a line that acts as a calling card for all self-learners: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”