“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Chapter Five & Six

Welcome back to the fifth installment of my review of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. If you have missed any of the previous chapters, simply click on the Book Review page link and find the link you missed. 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 Five: Hector Isn’t the Problem

Mr. Gatto starts out this chapter with the words, “I Quit.” And quit he did, by first writing an essay titled “I Quit, I Think” to the Wall Street Journal. He quit on July 5th, 1991 and the essay was published on July 25th, 1991.

With that out of the way, he tackles the subject of dumbness, writing: “…mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.”

This really stuck with me, in no small part due to my upbringing. There was a certain elitism in my family, intentional or otherwise, that informed my younger years. I was told I was smart, and I knew both of my parents were quite smart, and there was a certain expectation from them for me to behave the part. Nothing was ever said outright, no judgments or all-encompassing assumptions of others’ lack of intelligence but still the inference was there. I was smart, they were smart, and as for others? Well, maybe not so much.

But I noticed something very interesting as I have moved through life and met scores of people…few, very few, are what I would consider ‘dumb.’ At least far less than I had been raised to expect were out there.

If this sounds elitist, fine, color me guilty, for I’m surely guilty of being in a family that at least inferred that we were better than others. As I grew up and became a mother, I did much of the same thing. Especially since I was still young, and still under the impression that a majority of the world were average thinkers at best.

Mr. Gatto points out in a stunning way how schools create and reinforce this belief system, and how mine and my family’s mirrors it. It makes me wonder, what it must be for those on the other side, the ones labeled dumb. The dumb ones from the dumb parents and the dumb families and the dumb parts of town. Those relegated to that dumb status long before they have had a chance to prove themselves.

Mr. Gatto brings up the example of Hector, rule-breaker, general malcontent – we all have known a Hector at one time or another in our lives. He posits that the problem is not with the Hector’s of the world, but with the schools who categorize and label them into “five strict categories: ‘gifted and talented honors;’ ‘gifted and talented;’ special progress;’ ‘mainstream;’ and ‘special ed.'” He points out that categorizing kids in this latter category gives administrators special incentive due to the additional money/funding their care engenders and “[provides] a genuine incentive to find fatal defects where none existed.”

Mr. Gatto ends this chapter by writing, “Important people believe, with the fervor of religious zealots, that civilization can survive only if the irrational, unpredictable impulses of human nature are continually beaten back and confined until their demonic vitality is sapped.”

I guess it comes down to the cold and simple fact that I don’t trust others to make judgment calls on whether my impulses (or those of my children) are irrational or unpredictable in their eyes. And so it follows that I also do not look forward to being continually beaten back or confined until my vitality (demonic or not) is sapped.

Chapter Six: The Camino de Santiago

It turns out that Mr. Gatto, at least at the time of the writing of this book, was on the board of advisors of an organization called TV-Free America. However he quickly found that warning kids of the negative effects of tv was just a drop in the bucket to the warnings and bad omens others had already filled their heads with. Instead, he realized a different approach was necessary, “a solution would have to be found in the natural proclivity of the young to move around physically.”

He went on later to add, “Sufficient activity, all by itself and aimed in any direction, would cause the kids to voluntarily cut back on time spent staring at lighted boxes.”

Mr. Gatto actually encouraged his students to escape for a day or two from school and walk about Manhattan, chronicling what they saw or learned. This included “extracting the hidden knowledge and points of view of old men and women, those confined to homes, and those who spent their time sitting on the benches in Riverside or Central Park.”

Reading his account of this I am struck with the clear vision of an intrepid, curious 13-year-old making their way through an heretofore unknown part of the city, exploring new cultures, meeting and learning from an elder. How envious I am of that child! How lucky they must have been to have the encouragement of a teacher to do such a thing!

Mr. Gatto goes on to point out that a great deal of the awards and accolades that came to him were not so much a matter of what he did as what he did not do. He writes, “Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and your get the same results I did. Maybe better.”

What he wrote next really struck a chord, because I swear he was describing ME:

“Some inner clock is ticking in every life, warning us we have appointments to keep with reality: real work to do, real skills to learn, real battles to fight, real risks to take, real ideas to wrestle with. And a desperate need to keep death present in your imagination, to never forget how short and inevitable is the arc of your life.”

Hot damn, amen, and yes, he is exactly right on.

Encouraging kids to get out and live life, to explore, to learn about life and nature and culture and history, without the crutch of television to inhibit them is probably one of the best concepts he has focused on in this book to date.

It is also a reminder too, that we need to step away from the screen (tv, computer, whatever) and LIVE life. He writes, “Since the advent of schoolrooms and electronic screens, many of us never grow up. Too much of our precious trial and error period is wasted sitting in the dark. Being a mature being means living with a purpose…it’s about welcoming responsibility as the nourishment a big life needs…finding ways to add value to the community in which you live…wrestling with your weaknesses and developing heart, mind and spirit – none of them properties of the spectator crowd.”

Mr. Gatto points out that for those who have become addicted to television or computers, the key to breaking the addiction is to show, not tell, them a different way. And as I wrap up this week’s book review with that thought, I pose to you this question…

How can you SHOW a child (or adult) something in the world that will pull them away from passive observation and into active participation in the world around them?

I’ll let you know how I managed it with my little one next week!

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