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

Welcome back to the newest 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 Seven: Weapons of Mass Instruction

Gatto begins this massive chapter by introducing the reader to Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French teenager who was the head of an underground resistance group of about 600 people during World War II. Gatto quotes Lusseyran from his autobiography And Then There Was Light – “A group of human beings that stay in one room by compulsion begin to smell.”

I’ve made a note to look up this book and read more about Lusseyran and his accomplishments.

Gatto also takes this opportunity to write, “school is not a good place for your kids,” in case you had any doubts on his feelings or beliefs on that score. He continues, “From the first month of my teaching career of 30 years, I realized that intellectual power, creative insight, and good character was being diminished in my classroom and that indeed I had been hired for precisely that purpose.”

The idea of scientific management, which Gatto calls “the high level cult created by efficiency engineer Frederick Taylor” promotes the concept of hierarchy. He writes, “The concept of hierarchy is especially important in bureaucracies…there everything is secondary to subordination. Better the ship should be blown to pieces than allow a common sailor to give the orders because he knows more than the captain.”

That really resonated with me. I’ve seen a couple of corporate disasters run themselves off a cliff that I and others could clearly see, but they seemed oblivious to. And honestly, I just sat back and openly laughed at them, wondering how they could be so blind. It didn’t do my career within their world any good – but I was only a lowly office worker, incapable of making decisions like they were. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic here)

Gatto uses the example of a talking choo-choo to illustrate how a school’s curriculum has been dumbed down, he refers again to the Prussian system of education that our own school system is based upon, “That’s why I call it the German disease – the artificial extension of childhood. Make no mistake, it works. Once sufficiently infected with the virus the disease is progressive. Its victims become inadequate to the challenges of their existence without help, and that relative helplessness makes them manageable.”

I suddenly thought of the seemingly overwhelming cultural expectation that parents have of the impending teen years. “Oh,” my parents and countless others would say, “Just wait until she becomes a teenager, then you are really in for it.” There is this overwhelming expectation that the teenage years are difficult and a torment for parents and teens alike. And it made me question why.

Is it possible that deep inside, they realize they have been lied to (think of the grade school lies of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and Indians) and that their lives are completely under other’s control, and that they are angry and resentful as a result? Could it be, following Gatto’s points of logic, that it is the last gasp of the independent creature within desperately struggling to be free to think for himself?

If so, is it any wonder the teen years can be hell?

I say can be, not are, because I refused to buy into that crap, and my eldest and I had (for the most part) a far healthier relationship than many parents and teens do.

Gatto admonishes parents to expunge talking choo-choos, and sweet smarmy stories and head straight for Beatrix Potter and others (unedited copies of Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson perhaps?) who are willing to write about things such as the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck “who asks Jemima to pick out the seasonings in which she is to be cooked.” He points out that children want to read about evil, cruelty, and malice; that they are cognizant that these things exist even before they can speak. To withhold this, Gatto seems to infer, will stunt your children and create for them a fake, saccharine-sweet world that simply does not exist.

Gatto points to compulsory schooling as a main culprit in this when he writes, “The genius lies in setting up a perverse hunger which defies eradication later on as the victim struggles to grow up. This implanted need for simplifications in everything makes self-discipline difficult, and for most of us, only indifferently possible.”

That quote right there, shook me. It made me take a good, hard look inside and wonder at my own implanted need for simplifications. How often have I stopped reading something (including this very book) because some of the concepts presented eluded me on their first reading, confused me, and I retreated to find something simpler to understand?

How broken am I? I shared this with my husband and could not help the tears that came to my eyes, as I wondered aloud, “Where would I be if someone had set me down with The Iliad in its full form and let me read it? Where would I be now?”

It is more than just reading one story, obviously. But I cannot help wondering where I would be today if I had believed enough in myself to start my own business twenty-five years ago, instead of working for two full decades for other people and despising every minute of it? With education and experience in dialectic thought, instead of schooling and conformity, a person’s self-esteem, belief in their own capabilities, and honest self-worth has got to be higher.

The absolute frosting on the cake was still to come. Gatto finally wrote his answer to the question that had been forefront in my thoughts since I began reading this book. Apparently I’m not the only one who wants to hear his suggestion for how to change the relationship between me and my children for the better…

Gatto wrote, “Don’t think of them as kids. Childhood exists, but it’s over long before we allow it to be. I’d start to worry if my kid were noticeably childish past the age of seven and if by twelve you aren’t dealing with young men and women anxious to take their turn, disgusted with training wheels on anything…and add enough value to the neighborhood that they have an independent income; if you don’t see this, you’re doing something seriously wrong.”

My placemarker in the book next to this quote says, “WOW.” As with most of Gatto’s writing, I can see a clear vision of such a child. It is a radical, outrageous thing he is recommending, at least according to the world in which we have been raised. It may seem far too outrageous for you to swallow right away. My husband stared at me in undisguised horror when I read it out loud, yet we both see a great deal of value in this vision. Value for our child and her future.

I can remember with my eldest, we could not get her a work permit until the age of fifteen, two years past the point when she would have liked to get one. At the time, I was still working in offices for other people. I didn’t think entrepreneurship or work-arounds…I only heard “no” and “wait” – and so that is what we did. But now I think of Aliyah F., a homeschooler I profiled a few weeks ago. She buys the feed for her chickens, cares for them, hires her brother to do part of the evening chores, and then is able to sell the excess eggs as part profit and also re-investment in more feed. Aliyah is eleven years old. She shouldn’t be the EXCEPTION to the rule, she should BE the rule.

I’m going to close this chapter review with one last thought…the cauldron of broken time. I was pleased to see one of my favorite authors (and personal heroines) Claire Wolfe mentioned by Mr. Gatto. He wrote, “We know that uninterrupted sleep time is essential for precision in thought, but as Claire Wolfe, a west coast writer once taught me, uninterrupted waking time is similarly essential. When you can’t concentrate, it’s hard to make sense of things. Rather than persist in trying, it’s easier to just quit.”

Gatto goes on to illustrate that the public school day, chunked up into bells, loudspeaker messages, toilet interruptions, and more, has the “psychological effect of being plunged into a cauldron of broken time.” With so many interruptions, with so little time to focus on a particular subject, we are incapable of giving it the attention it deserves for true and honest absorption. And perhaps this is why school has become a ‘swallow and regurgitate’ cycle for children. They are given the material to choke down and then a test is administered. After the test, what if anything will they actually remember?

Stay tuned for Chapters 8 & 9 next week.

Follow up from last week’s post:

Last week I asked you the reader how you can 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 also promised that I would let you know how I managed it with my little one. Here are two activities that we did that got my little one engaged…

Studs and shoe shelves -I wrote about this a few weeks ago in this blog, but it should be revisited as a learning and interesting lesson about carpentry, engaging our daughter actively in an activity, and laying the foundation for teaching her a new skill.

A play in a day – Forget watching videos or going to see a play. On Saturday, March 12th, Emily was in her first play. She beat me by one year, my first performance was as the Littlest Star when I was just five years old. She spent a day rehearsing, running around with a group of kids she had never met before, and ended it by performing in a silly play full of costumes, screams and lots of laughs.

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