“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Chapter Three & Four

Welcome back to the fourth installment of my review of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. If you have missed the Prologue or Chapter One or Chapter Two, simply click on 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 Three: Fat Stanley and the Lancaster Amish

Mr. Gatto begins the chapter by defining the difference between schooling and education. He writes, “…schooling is a matter of habit and attitude training. It takes place from the outside in. Education is a matter of self-mastery, first; then self-enlargement, even self-transcendence – as all possibilities of the human spirit open themselves into zones for exploration and understanding.”

I found that to be an excellent definition.

Mr. Gatto then turns us toward the story of fat Stanley, a boy who would show up to class only one or two days each month. When he took Stanley aside and talked to him he learned that Stanley “had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before the age of 21. His aim was to follow in their footsteps.”

Fat Stanley was never at school because he was working, for free, “bartering labor in exchange for learning the businesses – and a whole lot more – working in the company of men and women who cared for him much more than any professional stranger would have.”

Mr. Gatto, upon learning this and also speaking with fat Stanley’s mother, who supported Stanley in his endeavors, actually began to cover for him, logging him as ‘present’ during his many absences.

To some this may seem extreme, even wrong, but Mr. Gatto was struck by Stanley’s tenacity and drive to succeed. He recognized that the lessons Stanley was learning outside of the classroom were far more important than the ones he was learning inside it.

How many of us have left high school or even college and felt lost in the world? Have you felt unprepared and wondered at what to do when faced with decisions and challenges that school never provided you for?

Mr. Gatto draws another disturbing parallel between consumerism and modern education practices. He writes, “The official economy we have constructed demands constantly renewed supplies of leveled, spiritless, passive, anxious, friendless, family-less people who can be scrapped and replaced endlessly, and who will perform at maximum efficiency until their own time comes to be scrap; people who think the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or round hamburgers versus square ones, are subjects worthy of argument.”

It is strikingly familiar to the “Story of Stuff” which I talk about in my organizing class when advising attendees to step back from this runaway consuming, to use a tv or cell phone until it is well and truly dead, not just outdated five months after purchase.

In schools filled with corporate sponsored books, teams and soda machines, kids are surrounded by advertising – not just at home when watching tv, but at school as well. Is it any wonder they grow up to be rabid consumers? Trained to consume, encouraged to overextend their future in credit cards they cannot afford? Is it any wonder our nation is in economic free fall?

And with that rosy picture, Mr. Gatto pulls in the Lancaster Amish. He points out that the Amish “ask for a broad competence and  a spirit of self-reliance, for dependability, honesty, neighborliness, compassion, piety, and commitment to the common good. Were we to adopt Amish values wholesale,” Mr. Gatto asserts, “our economy would nosedive.”

In 1996, “Fat and Mean” reported that “while the American economy had grown massively through the 1960s, real spendable working class wages hadn’t grown at all for 30 years...purchasing power of a working couple in 1995 was only 8 percent greater than for a single man in 1905.”

Mr. Gatto turned back to the Amish to discuss the fight in 1976 of Yoder v. Wisconsin, where the state attempted to enforce compulsory schooling on the Amish. In the end, the Amish were able to secure the following codicils:

  1. Schools within walking distance of home;
  2. No school to be so large that pupils had to be sorted into different compartments and assigned different teachers every year;
  3. The school year would be no longer than eight months;
  4. Important decisions would be under parental control, not that of bureaucrats;
  5. Teachers hired were to be knowledgeable in, and sympathetic to, Amish values and rural ways;
  6. Children were to be taught that wisdom and academic knowledge were two different things;
  7. Every student would have practical internships and apprenticeships supervised by parents.

All of these were really amazing and hard-won concessions. The final two, however, really stood out to me.

I love how Mr. Gatto summed up the chapter when he wrote, “We need to realize what our fingerprints and our intuition actually proclaimed long before DNA: no two people are alike, all “averages” are lies, and nobody can be accurately contained by numbers and graphs.”

And this last quote hit especially close to home, “We need to abandon the notion – and punish those who retain it – that ordinary people are too stupid, irresponsible, and childish to look out for themselves.”

I noticed that the first few chapters are very long, and most of the rest are reasonably shorter, so I am combining chapters from here on out. Here is Chapter Four of Mr. Gatto’s book…

Chapter Four: David Sarnoff’s Classroom

This chapter is actually a letter that Mr. Gatto wrote to his Assistant Principal, Murray, in which he focuses, among other things, on the story of David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, who soon after immigrating here at age nine, lost his father. Suddenly, David was responsible for caring for his family. He learned to speak English and began to make a living as a newsboy in New York City. By fourteen, David had his own newsstand. He had taught himself English, and that included reading the papers he was selling. He ran across an ad for an office boy position at Marconi Wireless and, instead of politely waiting in line along with the other 500 boys jockeying for the job, barged into the office of the company president “unannounced and asked for the job.” He was hired on the spot.

By age 39, he had become president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

The streets were this kid’s school, and as Mr. Gatto points out, “Waiting your turn is often the worst way to get what you want.”

He points also to a famous alternative public school in East Harlem, well complimented, that fails in much of the same way that other public schools do – thanks to bureaucracy and ingrained thinking. He also brings up the idea of including community service as part of the curriculum and suggests that it shouldn’t stop at a couple of hours here or there or even two hours per week. Why? Because the paperwork, training and oversight involved in having a community volunteer for just two hours per week makes it more trouble than it is worth.

An interesting conclusion that certainly does cause me to think – how can I include community service into my own future homeschooling? I will need to keep in mind my goals for such endeavors – mainly that all involved benefit – the children AND the recipients.

It sets my mind to wandering, just thinking about it. I have visions of community and neighborhood gardens begun by kids and adults working together.

Okay, back to focus, back to focus!

As for the rest of this chapter, I didn’t get as much out of it as others. Not that there wasn’t plenty of information…

Where the money goes, blaming of teachers for behavioral issues, why the merit system doesn’t work, how gym and math teachers become school administrators, and more.

But all I kept thinking about was that this was an actual letter he had sent someone. The sheer size of it, combined with the ever-present vision of what the poor sod who had gotten this letter must have looked like, especially when Mr. Gatto announced he was going to circulate the letter to the entire school board. Which must have outed ‘Murray’ to some degree in his sympathy to the cause, which would have doomed his future with the schools as much as Mr. Gatto had done his.

And not to say that is bad. Sometimes it takes napalm to destroy the bridge, sever the ties, and start fresh. But I couldn’t help feeling a little bad for the guy who may have not wanted his name and his sympathy towards Gatto’s cause so well publicized. If someone were going to ‘out’ him, I think it should have been Murray himself.

Well, that wraps it up for this week’s review. Stay tuned, next Tuesday we will cover Chapters Five and Six.

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