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Weapons of Mass Instruction, Part I

Images[1]John Taylor Gatto's book, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, has been on my reading list since its publication just over three years ago.  I recently downloaded the ebook version and devoured it in about three days.

Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year, has written a blistering indictment of modern schooling, its anti-democratic origins, and the way it strips children of their natural creativity and desire to learn.  While Gatto is often outrageous (and occasionally unfair) in some of his assertions, Weapons of Mass Instruction is nevertheless a powerful account of what's wrong with schooling as we know it.  The book is long on diagnosis and short on solutions, but still points toward alternative ways of thinking about education that America desperately needs to hear.

I'll discuss the book in two posts.  In this post, I'll give an overview of Gatto's basic arguments, and in a follow-up I'll describe some of my own reactions and implications for educators and parents.

Drawing on material laid out in his previous books Dumbing us Down and The Underground History of American Education, Gatto describes how the era of modern schooling emerged in part because of an enormous push by large corporation (and their "charitable" endowments) and by scientific planners in the federal government to centralize and unifying the business of schooling.  Largely, Gatto argues, their agenda was to create armies of factory-ready workers who had a minimal level of literacy and numeracy and who were largely compliant and easy to manage. 

This move toward standardization and compulsory attendance inevitably lead to a factory model for schooling itself, with all children being treated essentially the same in terms of curriculum (always watered down), learning (which favored rote memorization delivered by state-trained and certified professionals), and assessment (largely for the purposes of rank-ordering children, also to suit the needs of the industrial, educational, and military bureaucracies into whose service children would be pressed upon graduation).

Gatto contrasts this factory model of schooling (which, with only some minor variations, still reigns) with the "open-source" model of the early American republic.  In those days, Gatto argues, formal schooling for most was minimal, but the "education" young people received was far richer.  The average American, Gatto suggests, was far better versed in history, the arts, and classical literature, was knowledgeable on a range of practical matters like agriculture, architecture and mechanics, and tended to posses a much stronger set of values like industriousness, creativity, risk-taking, and honesty - all of which were necessary for survival in a world before our present culture of entitlement.   Moreover, the concept of adolescence was unknown in the pre-industrial world of American education, and consequently many young men and women became productive citizens at a much young age, striking out to start families, businesses, and otherwise be useful to themselves and the world.

Industrial schooling has destroyed all that, Gatto, says, by imprisoning children - especially "adolescents" - in a vast, bureaucratic, rigidly structured, uniform, infinitely boring experience of school that delivers little in the way of critical thinking, ingenuity, or problem-solving ability.  Coupled with our nationwide entitlement mentality, we now universally believe that we must compel every child to "stay in school" (even the President now wants to mandate attendance until age 18) so they won't be burdens on society, but meanwhile we have robbed children of the practical skills and knowledge they might need to ever actually survive on their own.

Gatto's assessment is grim but has a ring of deep authenticity to most professional educators and many parents.  On the other hand, his suggestions for fixing the problem will also disappoint many. Gatto points to the armies of parents who have opted to homeschool their children as an encouraging sign that more people now see through the illusion that formal schooling equates with a good education.  For those who must remain in the system, he calls on students (with the encouragement of their parents and secret encouragement of their teachers) to refuse to take the standardized tests that have become the backbone of the schooling experience. 

Gatto rightly argues that, if students did this in mass numbers, the consequences would be enormous.  But this strategy isn't likely to catch on, mainly because too many people logically believe schools should have some measure of accountability for student learning.  And while standardized tests may not be a perfect (or even the best) tool for ensuring accountability, as long as we maintain this system of educational delivery (which, to his credit, Gatto believes we should scrap in its entirety), just encouraging kids to opt out will likely have minimal effect.

Perhaps Gatto has despaired of any effort to really improve the system incrementally and formally.  Based on his argument, I can understand why he'd conclude that.  And I am definitely in favor of radically overhauling the system to create a far greater range of choices in educational options while maintaining schooling as a public good.  But in the meantime, there should be some way to bring Gatto's insights to bear in confronting the brokenness (or at least inadequacy) of the schooling experience.

Here, I believe Gatto's approach - if not his explicit suggestions - have much to offer, especially in terms of how he organized learning for students in his own classroom.  In a follow-up post, I'll describe more about Gatto's teaching philosophy, and the implications for those of us still committed to some kind of formal system of schooling.


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