WEAPONS of MASS INSTRUCTION: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling

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    John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction focuses on mechanisms of traditional education that cripple imagination, discourage critical thinking, and create a false view of learning as a byproduct of rote-memorization drills. Gatto’s earlier book, Dumbing Us Down, introduced the now-famous expression of the title into the common vernacular. Weapons of Mass Instruction adds another chilling metaphor to the brief against conventional schooling.

    Gatto demonstrates that the harm school inflicts is rational and deliberate. The real function of pedagogy, he argues, is to render the common population manageable. To that end, young people must be conditioned to rely upon experts, to remain divided from natural alliances, and to accept disconnections from their own lived experiences. They must at all costs be discouraged from developing self-reliance and independence.

    Escaping this trap requires strategy Gatto calls “open source learning” which imposes no artificial divisions between learning and life. Through this alternative approach, our children can avoid being indoctrinated—only then that can they achieve self-knowledge, judgment, and courage.

    Softcover, 214 pages

    Excerpt from Chapter 1

    It was from James Bryan Conant—president of Harvard for 20 years, WWI poison-gas specialist, WWII executive of the atomic-bomb project, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII, and truly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century—that I first got wind of the real purpose of American schooling. Without Conant, we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at a time. Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant’s 1959 book-length essay, The Child, the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a “revolution” engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and uninformed to Alexander Inglis’s 1918 book Principles of Secondary Education, in which one “saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary.”

    Inglis, for whom an honor lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the bourgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical intervention into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant ranking on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-intergrate into a dangerous whole. Inglis breaks down the purpose—the actual purpose—of modern schooling into six basic functions, anyone of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals of education listed earlier:

    I. The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

    2. The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

    3. The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record” Yes, you do have one.

    4. The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits—and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

    5. The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit—with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments—clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

    6. The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.

    John Taylor Gatto is an internationally renowned speaker who lectures widely on school reform. He taught for 30 years in public schools before resigning on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal during the year he was named New York’s official “Teacher of the Year.” On April 3, 2008, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard credited Gatto with adding the expression “dumbing us down” to the school debate worldwide.


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