“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Chapter Eight & Nine

Welcome back to another installment of my review of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. If you have missed any of the earlier chapters, go to the Book Reviews page and simply click on any of the links to read those first. We will be returning to Mr. Gatto’s book each week for another chapter.

*Note: Typical book reviews are ONE post, but Mr. Gatto’s book was so chock full of information that I decided to take it one chapter at a time. Believe me, the wait each week is worth it, but if you grow tired of waiting, you can purchase this book through the link below.


Chapter 8: What is Education?

Gatto begins this question by introducing a great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant and Kath’s four questions that strike at the heart of any educational quest:

  • What can I know?
  • What may I hope?
  • What ought I to do?
  • What is Man?

I have to agree with Gatto that it is ironic that Germany, who revered Kant and his work, is the same country that created the basis for compulsory education that we use to this day – essentially turning its back on everything Kant held as important to an educated life.

Gatto’s list, too long to repeat here, described educated (instead of schooled) people and it was a list I sat down and copied out, to review and work through personally. Some of things he described I had down pat, others were worth careful consideration and possible change in order to achieve.

Gatto writes, “Without clear awareness of the short arc of a life, nothing means very much…We need to realize that the dying owe the oncoming generations a world at least as good as the one they experienced while fully alive; if possible a better one.”

p.151 “[School] leaches from the economy its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”

p.152 “You should begin with the attitude that nothing is wrong in the natural variation which finds one child reading at five and another at twelve. By the time both are fifteen nobody can tell which one learned to read first.”

I was self-taught by age three and proficient by age five. My husband, however, struggled with reading for years. In the 3rd grade a teacher attempted to have him moved to the special needs class. When my mother-in-law insisted they test his IQ first, they discovered he tested out at an incredibly high level – genius material. He struggled with reading, and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, although he did not manifest any of the classic symptoms.

Today he believes that he does NOT have dyslexia, instead he simply learns differently, so differently that learning to read in a public school was not just difficult, it was excruciating. To this day, Dave prefers audiobooks over the act of physically reading. He probably ‘reads’ as many, if not more, books than I do on an annual basis and has an amazing memory.

Gatto continues to paint a beautiful picture of what his vision of a school could be, adding, “What makes achieving that…particularly difficult is that the opponents to change are all too frequently our relatives or ourselves.” Our closest friends and family, even ourselves, stand in the way of this ideal education.

For some reason, this chapter and the previous one, have brought back stark memories of the teachers’ lounge – where teachers ran and hid before and after school and during the lunch hour – a place no student was ever welcome. I remember the exclusion hurt my feelings. That, when given the choice, they chose to separate themselves from us, to hide away and meet any intrusion with sharp, barked commands to remove our teenage selves from the premises post-haste.

In this picture that Gatto paints so beautifully, all I can see is me, there in the teacher’s lounge, spending my lunch time laughing and talking with a teacher. Perhaps it is a silly vision, but how I wanted (and continue to dream of) a place of learning where teachers are our friends and mentors, not refugees or prison guards.

Gatto finishes that beautiful picture with the economic advantage, “Any type of change which will produce new value for our society through schooling will involve less school time, less school personnel, less store-bought materials, less interference in the natural processes of learning. Any school reform that will work, academically and behaviorally, will cost much less money than we are currently spending.”

A 2008 article in The Washington Post puts a number on the cost of public school, Andrew Coulson wrote, “We’re often told that public schools are underfunded. In the District [District of Columbia], the spending figure cited most commonly is $8,322 per child, but total spending is close to $25,000 per child — on par with tuition at Sidwell Friends, the private school Chelsea Clinton attended in the 1990s.”

Hell, with a 1/10 of that amount I can give my child an amazing education, far in advance of anything the schools could possibly offer.

Gatto points to the advent of personal computing and asks, “How then did we learn to use [a] computer? By struggle…by  whining to friends, by watching others, by networking…reading books, pushing ourselves. We learned to compute the same way we learned to drive – without much professional help.”

At high school in the early to mid 80s, computers were still DOS-based, slow, non-end-user-friendly monstrosities. I say this from personal experience. I HATED them with a passion most people reserve for liver and onions or brussel sprouts or pelvic exams.

My dad insisted I take a computer science course, something I’m sure he regretted a thousand times over as I whined, cried and yes, even stomped my feet over. In the late 80’s early 90’s came Windows, and with a workable platform that I could understand and interact with, I jumped in feet first. I’ve been attached at the hip to computers ever since.

At several points in the past 21 years I have taken a computer course seeking understanding on a particular program, only to find I knew most if not all of the secrets by the time the class began. Computers are such a perfect example that you don’t need an instructor to tell you what to do, you just learn by asking, “Gee, what will this do?” and clicking a button. Sometimes all hell breaks loose, but most times, it is a learning experience and soon after, a new skill.

Gatto ends this chapter by addressing yet another burning question I had after reading his thoughts on tests and grades. He writes, “Draw a parallel with driving. It’s a dangerous ballet of hand/eye/foot coordination…Notice that everyone who does this actually learns to do it on their own…we don’t demand drivers be schooled, only that they be competent.”

“And think of this: none of these drivers is graded, they pass or they fail the driving test; if they fail they take it a second or third or tenth time until they pass.”

My burning question had arisen out of his concept of school without grades. My mind had immediately fixated on medical students and thought with horror of them sailing through medical school without so much as a sort of “A” in their work. But Gatto points out that with pass or fail, there are still some system of checks and balances.

He asks tongue in cheek, “Shouldn’t motorists have to mount illuminated signs indicating the grade of driver they are?” And while this might be an attractive idea, he continues, writing, “We expect one another, whatever our grades or test scores, to use good judgment in driving and for the most part, we aren’t disappointed.”

Gatto says, “Grades and test scores are a terrible measure of quality” and I can’t help but agree. I’ve goofed off in class, barely done the work, and still gotten an A. I’ve been in classes were I can honestly say I learned absolutely nothing, while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. There is something wrong with a world in which that happens.

Chapter 9: A Letter to My Granddaughter About Dartmouth

This entire chapter is devoted to Gatto’s granddaughter, Kristina. He starts it off by reminiscing over a news photo of Kristina, grinning and holding up the citation she received after riding her bike on a city street in defiance of a city ban.

Gatto then turns his sights on his family’s history, and of course, Kristina’s, listing a long line of rule-breaking, defiant men and women, who fought against injustice, or just simply…fought. He writes, “You’re a chip off the old block alright, Kristina.”

He moves on to question whether Dartmouth is necessarily a good choice for her, or any college for that matter. He writes, “That’s not to say education doesn’t matter. It does. You need finely tuned critical judgment to defend yourself in the dangerous house of mirrors America has become. It’s just that college won’t give you education. Only you can do that.”

That paragraph struck me on a couple of different levels. The “house of mirrors” is reminiscent to me of a discussion I just posted today on my other blog, The Deadly Nightshade, in which my neighbor asked about Cuba, saying “I thought Cuba was…well…bad.” The mirrors in America are very much like funhouse mirrors, they distort, present only one viewpoint, and ignore all others.

I believe the key to our survival, and more importantly, our thriving, is to educate ourselves to see through these distortions to the real world – with all of its varying shades of gray. Only then can we make decisions on a personal, local and even global level that are intelligent and well thought out.

The second part “college won’t give you education. Only you can do that” he clarifies, adding, “You will learn how to game the system at Dartmouth…you’ll learn how to conceal your pain and confusion. You’ll learn to think how and what the boss wants you to think, how to dress as the boss wants you to dress, and how to value what the boss wants you to value. and you’ll learn to believe that all those things were your own idea. It’s very subtle…you won’t even realize it’s happening.”

If a corporate future is your true hope and aspiration, then college is the place to get it. At least, that’s the message I walk away with. However, if you want to learn how to think for yourself, maybe not so much.

Gatto then gives his granddaughter “Grandpa John’s Real Learning Index” – which comprises of eight areas:

  1. Self knowledge – “By now you should have introspected enough to know your own character: its proclivities, strengths, weaknesses, blessings, curses.”
  2. Observation – “Your powers of observation in any situation should be razor sharp: at will you should be able to function like an objective camera/tape recorder sucking in accurate data for later analysis.”
  3. Feedback – “If you rely on test scores and teacher evaluations as stars to steer by you are in for a shock when you discover discrepancies between what you’ve been taught to think and reality.”
  4. Analysis – “Can you take a new problem, break it into structural and procedural elements, gauge the relationships among those, reckon major outside influences, and do all this without expert help?”
  5. Mirroring – “Can you fit into every group, even a group of your enemies, opting in and out as you please, yet remaining yourself?”
  6. Expression – “Do you have a voice that’s your own?”
  7. Judgment – “The society you are entering is a house of mirrors; little of what you see and few of those you meet will be what they appear.”
  8. Adding Value – “Do you add value to every encounter, to every group of which you are a part?”

All of these points, or indexes, are extremely important. The last one struck me as particularly poignant, however, because it is one of the main reasons I write this blog and others – to bring value, if possible, to change lives or empower others to change their own lives.

Gatto goes on to point out that “College was transformed into a training ground for work right after WWII, work that is as corporations and government bureaus and university departments define work, not as real people do.”

Gatto also pointed to the rising number of incarcerated people, we have 25% of all incarcerated people on this earth in our jails, 90% of them for non-violent crimes. Yet we only have 5% of the global population. How is it that we are “five times more eager than average to lock up our fellow citizens, six times more likely than China is to do the same thing.”

Are we being trained towards incarceration through compulsory schooling? Gatto quotes one of the well-known education leaders, writing, “Horace Mann himself called school ‘the best jail’ to his financial backers, by which he meant that the jail you sentence your mind to when you go to school is harder to escape than any iron bars.”

Gatto goes into great detail on the history of American education at his website. You can find the book ‘in toto’ here, or purchase a copy by clicking on the image below.




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