Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 1)

This book is so good and I have so many thoughts floating in my head about it that I know it will take at least two posts to do it justice.  Much of what I want to write is just notes that I can refer to again and again as well as the ideas that they inspired.

First, of all, any time I read the writings of John Taylor Gatto I feel slightly queasy by the time I’m done.  Inspired; but queasy.  Gatto’s writing makes anyone who attended compulsory schooling (public or private) question themselves.  How much of the way I act and think is still due to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) indoctrination that takes place in schools (all schools)?  Am I as smart, as critical of a thinker, as I think I am or as I should be?  The writings of John Taylor Gatto are not for the faint of heart.  You can not read “I Quit, I Think“, Underground History of American Education,  or Weapons of Mass Instruction without having your entire worldview turned upside down.  School teachers should especially be warned that reading Gatto’s writings may lead you to considering changing professions.

If one does not feel slightly queasy while reading Gatto, then he or she has probably angrily dismissed him as a crazy conspiracy theorist.  Never mind that Gatto provides tons of documentation to back up his claims, and he encourages everyone to check primary sources whenever possible.  In fact, one of my tasks before I return the book is to go through the index and compile a list of all the books he mentions that I want to read for myself.  In fact, he would be perversely proud if people didn’t just take his word for it.

The first chapter of Weapons of Mass Instruction is basically a summary of his book Underground History of American Education. This is the background for the rest of the book which includes observations and anecdotes from his time as a teacher as well as biographical sketches of people who did amazing things with a limited amount of formal schooling.  Then he details the “weapons of mass instruction” used in schools to turn children into better worker bees and mass consumers.  In the afterword, he encourages open revolt against standardized testing in an attempt to tear down the entire school system.

My favorite chapter of the entire book is chapter 9:  “A Letter to my Granddaughter about Dartmouth”.  There are two major things in this chapter, and I am going to start with the second:

As I was reading this piece, the thin scrim of artificially extended childhood schools were invented to impose dropped away and I saw again as I often do, the different world we could create if we dropped the pretense that childhood goes on very long past the age of seven. [emphasis mine]

This quote sums up one of Gatto’s main premises that “adolescence” as we know it is an invention.  Basically, the only responsibility that most adolescents have is to go to school and work towards admission at a “good college”.  These are very hollow responsibilities, especially when one looks at the hollow goals of compulsory education.  Gatto contends that children need real responsibilities and real goals that have real meaning to them.

Actually, the reason I learned about this book was because a group of homeschooling moms on a forum I frequent were trying to discern what this looks like in practice.  Where is that fine line between looking out for your child’s safety/coddling and allowing them to attempt great things, risk great failures, and learn from both their failures and accomplishments?  Does treating your child like an adult mean throwing them in the deep end of adult responsibility to sink or swim on their own or does it mean giving them real adult work under the guidance of another adult?  (I believe Gatto means the latter.)

And does adult ability equal adult thinking?  Just because your child is capable of doing adult things does that mean that he/she is capable of adult decisions and comprehension?  I tend to think not.  I think one need look no farther than many child stars whose parents incorrectly assume that because their children are capable of working an adult job they are capable of critical thinking.  I think a lot of parents actually get the two mixed up.

As others on the forum noted, Gatto’s observation also ties in with the teachings of the Catholic Church with seven being considered the age of reason when a child can understand right from wrong and that Jesus is present in the forms of the Holy Eucharist and Precious Blood.  At the same time, though, Gatto recognizes that children may be developmentally ready to learn to read anywhere between age four and age twelve.  Therefore ability and understanding may vary depending on each individual child.  And the Church itself may allow children to receive their first Holy Eucharist before age seven or even if they do not demonstrate full understanding of its significance.

I think Gatto’s main point is that somewhere around the age of seven you have to stop coddling your child.  You have to stop giving over-simplified answers, using small words, and having small expectations about their abilities.  You have to start making them feel useful to the family.  Give them chores to do, explain the chores that you do, and pass some of the responsibility on to them.  Then you make them feel useful to the community.  You have to give them room to make mistakes and deal with problems and not hover over them all of the time trying to clear all obstacles out of their path.  (At the same time, I don’t think Gatto wants you to just throw your kids to the sharks with no back-up.)

Gatto does give some examples of things he did with his students (at times in defiance of school administrators).  For instance, he would ask each student to come up with three things they wanted to learn about and three weaknesses that they wanted to overcome.  Then he would look for opportunities to reach those goals.  He also wrangled it where each student could take a day off school to explore something specific of their own choosing within their community.  But what is a homeschooler to do with their teenager?

This is reminiscient of David H. Albert’s recommendation that teenagers find mentors outside of their family.  I think he and Gatto would both encourage lots of meaningful and active activity:  volunteer work, paid work, apprenticeships, leadership programs, travel, physical exploration.  Not just reading about something or watching something on television, but doing.  Kids want to be doing things.  We just have to have the courage to let them.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Books, Homeschooling/Education, Parenting

One Comment on “Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 1)”

  1. christinag503 Says:

    I know what you mean, about wondering how you might be different had you not been schooled. I think my experience as a straight A student at a prestigious prep school led me to minimum-wage jobs in the service industry, in that my main skill is that I am good at following instructions, I was afraid to fail (so I aimed low), and nobody ever told me how to find a real job. (All I knew how to do was look at the Classifieds on Craigslist).

    I am also a big fan of John Taylor Gatto’s work. You might be interested in checking out my blog. I enjoyed your review! He’s an electrifying writer.


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