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“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Chapter One

As promised, I am continuing my report on John Taylor Gatto’s “Weapons of Mass Instruction” which you can find through all major booksellers including this one:

Tuesday will be Book Review day here at the Homeschool Advocate, so check in each week for a new installment. I doubt that most books will take a chapter a week to complete, but Mr. Gatto’s book is packed full of information.

As I finished reading Chapter 1 – “Everything You Know About Schools is Wrong” – I began to get angry…and resentful. The picture that Mr. Gatto paints of the origins of our educational system, from its creators’ own damning statements to the plummeting literacy rate that has followed, created an anger in me that I cannot properly convey.

Here are a few statistics on just how badly our literacy rate has fallen in comparison with rates from earlier in the 20th century:

1935 – overall literacy rate of 98%

1945 – overall literacy rate of 96%

1952 – overall literacy rate of 81%

And this was from the Army testing out soldiers for war drafts and refusing them on the basis of their being able to read at a 4th grade level.

There were racial divides as well…

1940 – 96% literacy for whites, 80% for blacks

2000 – 83% literacy for whites, 60% for blacks

The plummet in literacy rates is alarming. By 1952 it was so alarming to the Army (who were convinced people were cheating on the tests in order to get out of serving) that they hired a brigade of psychologists to expose the purported mass fraud.

The psychologists reported back, there was no mass cheating, the Defense Department said nothing, and life went on as usual, with literacy rates continuing to plummet.

What is particularly alarming are Mr. Gatto’s quotes from the coordinators and developers of our modern education system. To hear (well, read) what they thought and what their intentions for millions of future children were, was beyond upsetting. Here are just a few Mr. Gatto listed in his book:

1928’s book, “A Sociological Philosophy of Education” claimed, “It is the business of teachers to run not merely schools but the world.”

Edward Thorndike, creator of a new specialty called “Educational Psychology” said, “Academic subjects are of little value.”

And Mr. Gatto found this little gem in a 1906 document by Rockefeller’s General Education Board’s Occasional Letter Number One which states:

In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] face from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

I don’t know about you, but I’m neither grateful nor responsive. The thought of purposefully creating an curriculum to dumb me down does not encourage happy, thankful thoughts. And no one is going to parent my child for me, or ‘organize’ or ‘teach them the perfect way’ either.

The date on that document gave me hesitation. After all, it was 105 years ago, surely things have changed. But then I thought back to all of the experiences I have had in public schools, as well as some private ones, in which even the secretary’s demeanor is one of condescension and superiority. Almost an “Ah the great unwashed, uneducated and technically useless parent has arrived. I’m sure it is to interfere with their children’s education yet again.”

Perhaps I’ve just had bad experiences…over and over again…perhaps I’ve had truly bad luck in schools. But that condescension starts with the secretary and then moves up a notch, with every teacher and principal and counselor I have ever had to deal with. As if they knew, better than I ever will, about how I should be raising my own child and telling me with every uplifted nose and condescending look to just leave the education of my child to the experts.

And for those less strong, for those who suffer from crises of confidence, it makes schools especially difficult places to assert your rights and fight for the rights of your child and a good education.

Here is one more quote that Mr. Gatto found…

Andrew Carnegie, when writing “The Empire of Business,” declared that educational schooling, “gave working people bad attitudes, it taught what was useless, it imbued the future workforce with “false ideas” that gave it “a distaste for practical life.”

And if you think that big business is not heavily invested in the business of education, think again. What better incentive? You need a worker to know the basics, nothing special, so that they will happily stock shelves and serve coffee for the rest of their lives, without wondering if they could have been something more. Mr. Gatto advises in the book to “keep that uppermost in your mind as you read my book.”

Now here is a small step sideways…

In the late 80s and early 90s there were several rather public scandals about how our tax dollars were being used for the nation’s defense, $600 toilet seats, $50 wrenches, et cetera. Mr. Gatto points out that the school’s are doing much the same thing. When buying 100 copies of a particular book for his class, he learned that the bookseller only extended him a 25% discount, instead of the 40% discount offered to the general public. When he complained, the clerk pointed out that that was the discount the Board of Education had negotiated, so that is what he would get.

He also mentions the Har-Brace Handbook affair in which the school board voted to buy 5,000 copies of the Handbook for $11 a copy even when they knew that it was being remaindered for $1.00 a copy – a difference of $50,000. Imagine what they could have done with that extra $50,000? More computers? A bigger library?

And while others were buying blank paper at $1.50 a ream, the school instead paid $2.50.

My mother-in-law, who works for a school district in California, commented once to me when bemoaning state budget cuts, “We just need more funding.”

I am sure I did not win any points by pointing out to her that the United States has the highest per student funding in the world, and the worst literacy rates in the first world, and in many cases, less than some 3rd world countries.

Money isn’t the answer. A change in approach is.

Mr. Gatto ends this chapter speaking of how our youth are being trained to consume. It reminded me forcefully of The Story of Stuff, a short presentation that I point all of my organizing class attendees to, it really paints a clear picture of how we have all been trained to consume and the negative effects that it has had on us as individuals and as a nation.

As Mr. Gatto says in the last paragraph of Chapter One, “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 results 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.”

I can’t wait to get started on Chapter Two…

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