“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto
I think that public education is a wonderful thing. I think that equal access to education can make the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency. But until I read “Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling” (2010) by 30-year New York educator and author John Taylor Gatto, I didn’t really think about what public education teaches children and how it influences us.
“Weapons of Mass Instruction” questions America’s need for compulsory schooling and provokes analysis of public education. Gatto discusses the history of public education in the US, which began in 1905-1915, heavily influenced by the Prussian education system. He points out that the literacy rate has declined since the 1930s; highlights successful people with “open source” education but a lack of “formal” schooling; and argues that despite “intense forced schooling” there has been a steep decline in common prosperity, and wealth is even more concentrated.
Gatto asks some simple questions and offers some surprising answers:
Do we really need school? There is a big difference between being “educated” and being “schooled.” “School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your children to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently” (page xxii), Gatto advises. We should celebrate drop-outs as brave and self-motivated. “Degrees should never stand as proxies for education” (page 35).
What is the purpose of our public schools? Ideally, education would make good people, good citizens, and his or her personal best (page xvi). But in reality, public schooling trains a standardized citizen to be obedient, to conform, and to be separated into classes. It dumbs people down. Students are taught memorization, not critical thinking. Parents are alienated from their children. Schools are a massive jobs program.
What does school really teach? It teaches children to wait their own turn, to fake enthusiasm, to know their place/rank in the social order, to follow rules, to be obedient, to be passive, to e afraid of looking bad or different. It teaches that everything is separated – nothing they learn is connected to other subjects or to the real world. It teaches that children and teachers are enemies. And school destroys uninterrupted, reflective time.
What if there is no “problem” with our schools? What if they are succeeding at their goals? Public education has social engineered an extended childhood, discouraging responsibility and independence. “We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults” (page xxi). At the same time, public education fosters an acceptance of hierarchy and subordination.
How can teachers engage students? As a schoolteacher, Gatto sent students on walkabouts around New York City, so they could write pamphlets and visitors keys by talking with residents and researching history. He had students wrote down three wishes (things they wanted to learn) and three weaknesses (things they wanted to overcome), which gave students “a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading” (page 102).
What do we need to do about public education? We need a long, loud national, regional, and local debate about how to define an educated person. New schools would eliminate centralized testing, would include the study of vocation (earning a living and contributing to the common good) and death (a natural part of life), and would take place outside of classrooms with flexible schedules.
Gatto concludes with an invitation to join an open conspiracy called the Bartleby Project, whose goal is to destroy the standardized testing industry. It encourages students to quietly refuse to take standardized tests by writing at the top of the page, “I would prefer not to take this test.” No group protests or meetings; Gatto encourages peaceful, independent opposition to the test.
“Weapons of Mass Instruction” is thought-provoking and passionate, presenting a scary and rational explanation for the outcomes and problems with our public schools. Whether you support public education or question its effectiveness, I urge you to think about how and what you were taught in school, and what it is teaching our children. Visit Gatto’s website to find out more about his books and essays, and to join the discussion about public education.