Weapons of Mass Instruction:  A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 2009)

A pastor I know was fond of quoting Martin Luther, who, when asked why he preached on justification by faith every week, responded, "Because you forget it every week."  John Taylor Gatto has no love for Martin Luther, but I can imagine him giving a similar response when asked why his books, articles, and lectures include so much that he has said before.  He has a critically important message to deliver, and is clearly compelled to repeat it as many times and in as many ways as he can.

In his desperation to make people understand what he has learned, from his research and 30 years on the front lines of teaching, Gatto has become more pointed, strident and radical as time goes on.  It's an understandable reaction—I remember noting the same effect in John Holt's writings, and I fall prey to it all too often myself—but for this reason I hesitate a little to recommend Weapons of Mass Instruction to anyone who is not already convinced of the dangers inherent in our pubic school system.  And yet...I do recommend it, highly.  Why?  Let me digress.

Back in the 1980's, we attended a Christian Educators Association conference at which one of the speakers warned of the horrors being perpetrated against children in the public schools, largely under the guise of "affective education," "values clarification," "guidance classes," and the like.  I was appalled, not at the reported abuses, but at the nature of the presentation, which was inflammatory, not particularly helpful, and seemingly intended to induce panic in susceptible parents.  What was being reported was so much at odds with our own experiences—as public-schooled children ourselves, and as the parents of children in public elementary school at the time—to be believable.

But here's the thing:  It was true.  Even though I reacted badly to the presentation, the information stayed in the back of my mind and kept me alert to the problem.  Coming across information from my brother's elementary school days, I learned that he had been involved in some of the harmful programs.  (One notorious discussion was of the form, "You are in a lifeboat with seven other people:  a teacher, a doctor, a priest, etc....there isn't enough food for everyone to survive...whom do you throw overboard?")  I waded through pages of transcripts of U. S. Department of Education hearings, and heard parents testify over and over again about the abusive nature of the discussions their children were forced to participate in, and the intrusive questions they were asked.  Then I knew enough to examine the materials used in our children's school, and found one of the by now well-familiar programs.  Why hadn't I noticed the problems before?  Two reasons:  one, I didn't know to look, and two, their intelligent guidance counsellor had modified the program to eliminate the worse of the offenses.  I had been right:  what they had experienced was (thanks to that particular guidance counsellor) not all that bad.  But being alerted to the potential risk enabled me to forestall future problems.

This particular issue is not mentioned as part of Gatto's "dark world of compulsory schooling."  I present it as a cautionary tale, hoping that even the most enthusiastic supporter of modern American education will read, contemplate, and remember the information in Weapons of Mass Instruction.  Not to change your mind, but to raise your awareness, to forewarn and forearm you.  If you read this, or any of his other books, such as Dumbing Us Down, A Different Kind of Teacher, or The Underground History of American Education, you will be better prepared to navigate the course of your children's education, and may find some light shed on your own.

Weapons of Mass Instruction contains much of the shocking story of how we got our present educational system, in a shorter and more easily readable form than The Underground History of American Education, though the latter (available online in its entirety) has more details, examples, and references.  Follow the twisted path of compulsory education from militaristic Prussia to the industrial United States; check out its dark relationship with the eugenics movement; face the question of whether great philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were helping people or preparing an easily-exploitable labor force; and wonder why a self-described lapsed Catholic, libertarian New York State Teacher of the Year (Gatto, born 1935, writing about education), tells much the same story of that era as a distributist, English, Catholic convert journalist (G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, writing about eugenics), and a conservative, Evangelical Protestant theologian living in Switzerland (Francis Schaeffer, 1912-1984, writing about philosophy).  When people that diverse agree on something, I say it's worth listening.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, you can listen to many of the ideas and stories from Weapons of Mass Instruction on this C-Span program from last March.
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Edit
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kenny and i are trying to see John Gatto speak at Geneva college on Thursday evening. Your review made me even MORE excited to hear him speak. i'm slowly making my way through the online version of UHoAE that you reference above.

Posted by ~liz on Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 8:14 am

Wow, that's great that you have the opportunity to see Gatto in person! As you'll see in the video, he's a much better writer than speaker (I can relate!), but it would be very cool to meet him, anyway.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I knew about Lifeboat, but only from the Steve Taylor song...

Posted by Stephan on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 3:35 am

That's pretty funny—and sadly true. I'd never heard of the song (nor Steve Taylor) before, but it sure captures the essence of the game.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:33 am

I should probably mention, though my regular readers know this, that I don't agree with everything Gatto says, and certainly not with some of his approbations. Note to Faith: Don't expect your grandparents to be thrilled if you get arrested.

But I've written so much about (my own) proverb, The wise man recognizes truth in the words of his enemies, that it should probably have a blog of its own. John Taylor Gatto is not my enemy; I respect him a great deal, appreciate his work very much, and indeed we agree on a lot. But his extremism can make people reject his wisdom, and I hope to encourage those who might be tempted to do so to read/listen with an open mind and not miss the gold in rejecting the dross. Whatever your schooling experiences and convictions, knowledge is power.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, May 05, 2019 at 11:27 pm

I suppose I should also forestall the obviousóbut wrongóconclusion that our concern over Value Clarification-type exercises was why we later decided to homeschool. That didn't even make the the top 50 of our reasons for homeschooling. Being informed, we had been able to make our peace with the situation.

(The link takes you to the list I made while our kids were still in school; were I to make such a list now, 20 years later, there would be significant differences, but it stands as evidence that effective education was the issue, not affective education.)

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, May 05, 2019 at 11:27 pm
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