03 September 2014


Reading Diary: Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto

"It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy. For the more reasons you have to stand by something, the harder it is for you to sum all of them up. Which kind of explains why The Last Psychiatrist blog has been all over the place in the last year or so. Well, there's also the obvious fact that coherence is no longer a high priority for Alone, even when he's painstakingly spelling everything out. But I confess that I didn't get what he was saying about Randi Zuckerberg until I started reading John Taylor Gatto.

. . . seeing the connection between long-term legal confinement of children and the nation's business gives us an essential perspective in rethinking the role of mass schooling. Classical business values corrupt education, they have no place in education except as cultural artefacts to be examined.

For the first two centuries of [America's] existence, such an institution would have been unthinkable--the young were too valuable a part of economic and social reality. Indispensable, in fact. But when the young were assigned to consume, not produce; when they were ordered to be passive, not active, as part of the general society, the schools we have were the inevitable result of this transformation. As soon as you understand the functions it was given to perform in the new corporate economy, nothing about school at all should surprise you. Not even its Columbine moments.

Strong words, aye? Can you guess which part hit me in the face like one of Alone's brickbats? It was the line: ". . . when the young were assigned to consume, not produce . . ." Which is just another way of describing the very handicap that Alone observed in a child who "had been well trained to want things but not control things." And now everything is so amazingly obvious to me that I would be all over the place, too, if I tried to explain it. Consider me that "ordinary intelligent man" whom Chesterton says would be unable to come up with an impressive answer to the question "Why do you prefer civilisation to savagery?" if you dropped it on him without warning.

But I've obviously had some warning, or else this post wouldn't be so nicely formatted. =P So perhaps I am now an "ordinary intelligent woman" who just gets a little impatient at anyone who tuned in too late to hear all her stories about those two years as a high school teacher and the next three years as an after-school tutor, while they were happening, and who no longer cares to explain herself. I also have a personal bias against conversion-based apologetics, remember? (Trick question! Because if you've just tuned in, then you don't.)

Take the matter of personal production, as opposed to consumption; production of goods, values, ideas and marching orders. Colonial and early federal America held the ideal of self-sufficiency as the very pinnacle of achievement. The ideal household aimed to produce its own food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, transportation, medical care, education, child care, and social security. A large fraction of the population never got there, but as a City on the Hill to strive for it was an ennobling vision which some families, especially on the frontier, [succeeded] in making happen. It was this idea of being personally empowered, in contrast to the servile states of Europe and Asia, which acted as a magnet for the world's peoples--not the prospect of two cars, a house in the suburbs, and the latest computer junk.

Were that vision to have been maintained through forced schooling, it would have destroyed corporations in embryo . . .

No kidding. Something that honestly baffled me as a teacher was the number of parents who complained about the schooling their children received but never did anything about it except squabble with their children's teachers. Gatto's book is helping me to use Alone's words to answer this riddle. The reason those parents (and I daresay, the majority of parents who send their children to private school) were so hands-off about their children's education, was that they had been taught to want it but not to control it. Perhaps they had even been taught that attempting to control it would just handicap their children. Which is an evil lie, by the way. In my school, everyone in the faculty could tell which students had parents who were actively "meddling" in their intellectual lives: those children were simply more alive.

For the record, I don't think that everyone should just drop out of the institutions they happen to be part of at the moment. If you have only lived in a big city, you can't just dash off into the forest and become a master at wilderness survival overnight. But I do think that there are far too many things that we consider important and yet think that other people should do for us. Not because we find it more efficient to give everyone in a community a specialisation (which I can understand), but because we seem to take for granted that we can all only be specialists.

Reading Gatto makes me simultaneously glad that I'm no longer teaching and sad that I'm no longer teaching. I certainly don't miss knowing that my students felt trapped in a system--that they were doing the soul-sapping work only because the threat of not being accepted into a reputable university . . . and its sister threat of not being hired for a well-paying job . . . were guns pointed at their heads. We like to tell our teenagers not to cave into peer pressure, but what is modern schooling except institutionalised caving into peer pressure?

You know what I do miss, though? The times when learning actually happened and I had acted as an effective guide.

So my hope that more parents who read Weapons of Mass Instruction will take a more active role in their children's education (which doesn't necessarily mean homeschooling!) is rivaled only by my longing to return to the field of children's education myself. But is there even a local school I could apply to which would get what I'm saying here? Barring actually giving birth to students, I have no chance of starting my own private school and getting anyone to enroll.

Image Source: Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto


Sheila said...

"You know what I do miss, though? The times when learning actually happened and I had acted as an effective guide."

Me too! I loved teaching ... I just hated how seldom it worked.

I doubt you need more to read, but if you get a chance to look at John Holt's How Children Fail, you'll probably be nodding your head ... I never understood, till I read that book, WHY my efforts to teach were so ineffective.

And you probably *also* don't have time to read Peter Gray's blog Free to Learn, at Psychology Today, but it was where I learned about Sudbury Valley schools, which are like an unschool version of school. Sounds pretty awesome; if one were near me, I'd love to teach at it. Not sure how it would translate into your culture, though -- would parents accept a thing like that?

Enbrethiliel said...


The Sudbury Valley schools do sound great! I read one essay by a former student who says he wishes he knew how his teachers justified the fact that he spent most of an entire school year building a plasticine village with other children, if only because he now understands how that sort of unstructured learning appears to a parent. LOL!

Well, we already have a Waldorf School a few hours away . . . and all sorts of "progressive schools" have been mushrooming around the metro for over a decade . . . so I'd say that there's ample proof that Filipino parents are increasingly willing to be open-minded about the kind of education their children get. But unschooling is definitely a stretch.

As hinted in the post, I'm thinking very strongly of going back to school next year, to get everything I need to be accredited for teaching again. But before I do, I want to contact my former nursery school teacher, whom I know also likes to help parents pick the best next school for their children, and ask her to help me go over my options.

Sheila said...

I have heard good things about Waldorf schools! Much less high-pressure and structured than conventional schools.

Bob Wallace said...

Remember that scene in "The Cabin in the Woods" where the Fool was ranting about how his mind was his own?

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm sorry that I keep forgetting to answer your question, Bob! Yes, I remember that scene. Why did you bring it up?

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Ooh. I've ben away too long. I saw a link and thought: Wow! E's reading Gatto! This I gotta see. Not that I've read him extensively, just a couple of essays. But he's fun to tussle with.

I like the distinction between wanting and controlling. Going to have to think about that more.

I second the vote for John Holt. Both How Children Fail and How Children Learn. I read them years ago when I was first thinking of this homeschooling thing and they really clicked for me.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's nice to see you again, Melanie! =) I'll definitely look into John Holt when I have time. There's a free PDF copy of How Children Fail online. I hope that Holt is okay with that because that's most likely how I'm going to read it!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oh online works fine as far as i'm concerned. It's the reading that's important, not the medium, right? I have no idea what Holt would think about it, though.