“The Nonsense of My Ivy League Education” – Ask John #7

Hello John,

I have been interested in your work and ideas for almost 2 years and it has given me a different outlook on the schooling I’ve had since preschool.

This is less of a question of reform, but a more personal question that I want answered. I currently reside in a well known secondary school and, after two semesters of it, I feel that I’m wasting my time and my parents’ money. After partaking in orders and commands of memorization, people keep asking me “What’s next?” or “Do you have any aspirations after college?”

I can only answer with what 14 years of public schooling and a shocking wake-up call with practicals at a lesser known community college has truly taught me: I do not know.

Currently, I am in a state of apathy, burnout and frustration: after taking orders from experts, I have given myself little time to really do anything to guide myself to being something I can be proud of.

I never had true aspirations as a kid, besides making my parents happy by going to somewhere like Yale or Princeton and now that I am within one of those top universities, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m tired, I’m angry, unorganized, and I am something that is worse than any word censored by the FCC: bored.

I try to compensate this by having a wide variety of books to read: Commentaries of philosophies from Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, Leviathan, Locke’s Essays Concerning Human Understanding, books on advanced mathematics like determinants and calculus and many others.

Unfortunately, due to my lack of organization, my grades declined massively. However, the more I read, say Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s Republic, the less I care about the grading and participation (something I thought would be unimportant in college, but I was proven wrong).

I care about defining the individual, being able to prove the methods of integration, speaking languages at my own pace, reading thinkers like David Ricardo or the lesser known Charles Fourier. Not memorizing aspects of a language or the result of an integral for a piece of paper people see as important. I’ve done it for years, and it has produced nothing of value.

To put this simply, I am done with the nonsense: the memorization, the constant testing, the silence, the lack of true experience, the constant posting of pointless letters and percentages and the regret of not doing this stuff at an earlier age. I want to ask you how to end it: after several years of doing what I’m told, how do I become what Aristotle would call “Completely Human”?

Thank you,


P.S. I hope you get well and many hopes to a brighter, less compulsory, future.


Dear Tom,

What a monument of gloom your letter is!

Let me recapitulate the problem you seem to announce: 14 years of schooling––memorizing, testing, silences, denial of true experience, “the nonsense” as you summarize it, all the orders and commands, have left you: 1) apathetic, 2) burned out, and 3) frustrated––without a clear purpose as you sail through your post-institutional future.

I agree that’s a profoundly serious problem. And you seem to say also that you have experienced a “well-known” secondary school and (this confuses me) a “top” university, like Yale or Princeton and you say, by implication, these well-regarded places, and an impressive reading list of classics that have failed to stimulate aspirations in you––so you stagger forward, metaphorically speaking, disorganized and bored, your grades in “massive” decline.

But, Tom, why should grades matter when you list grades as part of the nonsense you hope to escape, part of the deadly package that has brought you to this tragic place?

Forgive the criticism, because I truly do feel sympathy for the obvious pain you are in, but the lack of clarity in your letter tells me that you missed the lesson of the “Matrix,” there is no spoon! Don’t try to bend it because it is not there.

You cannot change schooling by complaining––although your charges are eminently just––you can only change yourself.

Institutional schools––and Yale and Princeton are among those––do what they were established to do: they protect the already existing social and economic orders. If you read Hegel, Marx, Hobbes, Kant, and Plato accurately you would know that.

School exists, propaganda aside, as a tool of class warfare: rather than keep the underclasses subordinate with bayonets, it does its work as William Torrey Harris, America’s first national commissioner of education, told us, by alienating children against themselves. Your letter could serve as a prime example.

Read his The Philosophy of Education, 1906.

School never intended to be educational, your boredom is its intention; its structure should tell everyone that, even the historically unsophisticated like yourself.

Every detail you protest is correctible, but only by self-correction. Why should you expect society’s winners, who manage schooling, to help you compete successfully with their own children? Do you believe in Santa Claus?

Tom, you must find a purpose, and fortunately for you, millions of purposeless people have pioneered the main ways to do that before you.

There are a variety of themes that work, and what will work for you requires experimentation and risk-taking. Let’s explore a few major ways, in no particular order.

Perhaps commonest among the morally weak is to escape pain and self-loathing through alcohol, narcotic drugs, overeating and sexual indulgence. Equally common is to escape through work of some sort where the pursuit of excellence fully occupies one’s energies and attention. A third way to sidestep boredom is to transcend self-obsession (which you certainly suffer from) by practicing one of the arts: music, painting, dance, theatrical performance, sculpture, etc.––it hardly matters which––the principle is to get out of the prison of the self.

Adventures involving physical or psychological danger are another transformational expedient––take up parasailing and I guarantee your ennui will pass in a single day.

The principle here, Tom, is that any challenge you are compelled to meet or suffer will wonderfully focus your mind and exalt your spirit.

As I write, several hundred teenagers, as happens every year, are undertaking to walk across the United States alone, feeding themselves, arranging night lodgings, etc., without any help. Start to do that tomorrow, without excessive pre-planning, and day after tomorrow you will be a new man.

I once taught a rich girl who had a complaint very similar to yours who asked for my advice. She was scheduled to attend one of the city’s elite high schools and

asked my opinion of it. “Don’t,” I told her! “Everyone there is exactly like you” – rich, accomplished, self-satisfied, smug know-it-alls.

“What do you think I should do?” she asked. Go to your all-black ghetto neighborhood school––shock yourself awake in a place where every day you will feel out of place, in danger, I told her. She listened and did as I said––to the horror of her parents and friends.

Three years later she looked me up, grinning from ear to ear to tell me that her entire life and attitude had changed for the better, that the challenges were hard and unrelenting, but now she knew there was nothing on earth she could not adapt successfully to.

FIND YOUR OWN IMPOSSIBLE CHALLENGE, Tom, try it––what could be worse than the present you endure?

Here are a few other categorical ways to change yourself, Tom, find one of your own and start tomorrow: get a taxi license and drive the night shift in dangerous neighborhoods, that’s what worked for me when I was an arrogant, smug Ivy Leaguer.

Good luck, young fellow.

Or, become a breakfast waiter in a busy diner, or a dishwasher.

Escape the prison of self that suffocates your spirit today. And don’t look to school for help, that isn’t its job.

-John Taylor Gatto

State Teacher of the Year, New York, 1991


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Foreword by Ron Paul, M.D., Former U.S. Congressman & Candidate for President of the United States of America.

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