“Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Prologue

I’ve begun reading John Taylor Gatto’s “Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling” and would like to invite you along for the ride.

I’ll be taking this bite by bite, starting with the Prologue and posting on it every other, or every third day or so, as time allows. Order the book and read along with me if you like.

But first, a small introduction. For those of you who have not heard of him, John Taylor Gatto, as the title indicates, was a schoolteacher in New York for nearly 30 years. He was highly recognized, yet controversial, and has written several books about (and against) the public school system since his retirement from teaching.

In WMI’s Prologue, Mr. Gatto jumps in, touching only slightly on his struggles within the school system (in which they at one time deliberately tried to fire him by covering up all evidence of a medically approved leave) and goes straight to the nitty gritty.

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary?

Mr. Gatto doesn’t hold back when he points to George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as examples of individuals who did not spend 6-7 hours a day, five days a week, for twelve years studying away. In fact, all of these individuals were essentially homeschooled.

He goes on to introduce, for those who do not already know, that our American system of education is based on the Prussian model of the early 1800s, in which he writes:

But what shocks is that we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens – all in order to render the populace “manageable.”

Scary stuff. Look around you, at the complacency, the eagerness to ‘go with the flow’ and the lack of innovation and willingness to take chances – this is what public education (among other things) is doing to us.

What I found interesting was the connection Mr. Gatto later makes between consumer consumption (and runaway consumption, which our country’s citizens still do whenever possible) and public education when he writes,

…mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all.


I teach a class locally, Get Organized, Stay Organized, based on my book by the same name. You can find a Kindle edition by clicking on the link below or contact me if you are interested in taking the class or buying the book.

One of the main points I cover is to avoid over-consumption, this runaway trend of spending, collecting, keeping, and overfilling our homes and lives with STUFF. So Mr. Gatto really touched a nerve there!

He finishes off the prologue with a very important point…

…wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands…[mandatory education’s] real purpose is to turn [children] into servants

And with this closing quote, I will leave you to think about what thoughts and challenges Chapter One will bring:

After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt.

Look for a review of Chapter One in a few days…

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4 Responses to “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto – Prologue

  1. Danielle says:

    I think that the major reason public school came into existence is because, before that, education was lain in the hands of the rich. It was extremely difficult to gain an education if you came from an impoverished or working class family. The reason that George Washington and other founding fathers were able to gain such a great education was because their parents came from a line of wealthy and educated individuals, and were able to pass down that knowledge onto their children.

    Now, this isn’t the case these days for the most part. With public libraries, literary websites and magazines, there is a saturation of information that was previously unheard of.

    It is a difficult case, however, to transition from a federally-mandated education system into a individual education system. We’re taught that the state will take care of the education of our children, that all we need to do in our busy schedule is drop them off at the local center and go off to work. Most people do not have the time, the energy or the drive to educate their own children even if they /have/ that education to share with them.

    This is a very complicated situation, with many variables to consider. I look forward to the write up of the chapters as you read them, and I’m looking into getting the book “Dumbing us Down” from the same author at my local library. Still, a historical context should be addressed when we look at the issue of public mandatory education. I agree that home schooling is the way to go, I plan on doing it with my children when I have them, but I don’t know if the great “masses” are interested or ready to take that leap themselves. It’s a very difficult transition.

    • I think that Mr. Gatto will touch more on the reasons that public school came into existence (perhaps as soon as chapter 1), however, Benjamin Franklin was working class (and 15th of 17 children!), and Abraham Lincoln, while not a founding father, was dirt poor.

      I do agree with you that financial aspects can definitely intercede and affect all facets of family life, which can include putting a damper on, or restricting, a child’s home education.

      Thanks for commenting and I’ll post more soon!

  2. terrymac says:

    @Danielle, Before speculating on what education was like for the not-rich, it is well to do some research. Authors E.G. West (Education and the State) and Andrew J. Coulson (Market Education: The Unknown History) have done that research, and found that mass education began before governments got involved.

    Benjamin Franklin, who had a long and distinguished career, makes it plain in his autobiography that he was one of thirteen children, his father was unable to pay for more than a few years of schooling, and it was economically imperative that Benjamin began to work at the age of twelve. This is not the description of a boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

    In the present day, James Tooley has written about his experiences with parent-funded education in the poorest places in China, India, and Africa. One of his books is The Beautiful Tree. He found a multitude of private parent-funded schools in the slums, where parents were only able to pay a dollar or two per month. He also documents that he was steered away from knowledge or study of these schools by apparatchiks and gatekeepers.

    One of the main problems raised by John Taylor Gatto is the assumption that school must take six hours per day, five days per week, times twelve years. This is the root of your belief that schooling must be too expensive for the poor. But what if that belief is not merely wrong, but wrong by orders of magnitude? What if children can learn to read, write, and do arithmetic in a matter of days instead of years? How does that affect the economics of education?

    • Christine says:

      Hi Terry-

      Thank you for commenting. Such great points you have made, it looks like I have even more reading to do now! I’ve not read any of the authors you mentioned, except of course, Gatto. Thanks for visiting my blog!