Reflections on “Weapons of Mass Instruction”

Old-Thinker News | Jan. 7, 2009

By Daniel Taylor

I’ve been researching the history of our schooling (there’s a difference between schooling and true education) system in the United States for a couple of years now and I’ve found some amazing as well as angering information. I’ve read all of John Taylor Gatto’s books on the subject to help me understand just how it came to be. He is a former New York state teacher of 30 years. He finally quit, saying that he couldn’t hurt children anymore. I can’t do justice to his way of explaining our school system in his books, but here are some of my own reflections on his latest book, Weapons of Mass Instruction.

It’s easy to see how the spark of life can be squelched in the schooling system. I experienced it myself, as did everyone who has been through public school. Easily managed people make for an easy day for the elite of society. Incomplete, predictable people are the products of forced schooling. Imagination, creativity, and original thinking have no place in the schooling system. There are a variety of reasons we have the school system that we have, but I’ll use one example. When wealthy industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie (who were both, ironically, high school and elementary school dropouts respectively) created their vast empires, they made the rational finding that self-reliant, independent, creative, inventive people didn’t make good workers. Our current consumer economy would shrivel if schooling didn’t produce masses of people who were incomplete, who couldn’t cure their permanent state of dissatisfaction by creating their own entertainment.

Gatto points out that School doesn't allow for the development of a unique consciousness

Here’s an anomaly, or perhaps a view into what real education is: In almost every branch of society there are industries, arts, inventions, revolutionary ideas, and scientific achievements that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the dropouts that created them. We wouldn’t have the computer industry of today if it weren’t for a handful of dropouts. Virgin airlines was created by a dropout. The mapping of the human genome was pioneered by a dropout and a homeschooler.

I guess having more degrees than a thermometer isn’t that important after all, is it? When I consciously made that realization, a whole world opened up that had been sealed off by my well schooled thought process. America didn’t used to be like this. Open source learning, as John Taylor Gatto calls it, used to rule the day. We wrote our own scripts, we weren’t actors in somebody else’s play.

Only you can educate yourself. School can’t do it for you. School wasn’t meant to educate you, as Gatto points out, it is designed to put you in your place. Permanently.

For parents who have children in the school system, there are ways to counter school’s detrimental effects on young people, other than removing them completely from it. John Taylor Gatto writes in Weapons of Mass Instruction,

“School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored.”

Gatto points out that School doesn’t allow for the development of a unique consciousness. With the advent of television, even less time is allowed for this critical development outside of school. I remember taking long hikes every summer from an early age in the beautiful Michaux State park. Having time in a quiet forest to hear nothing but the sounds of nature allows for a time of solitude, a time for introspection. This was one of the pieces of a firm foundation that provided me with a sturdy shield against the “Weapons of Mass Instruction” of public schooling, as Mr. Gatto calls them. I wasn’t immune to all of them, but no one is. The truth of what Gatto is saying hits home for all of us that went through the school system. Whether we want to consciously realize it or not, our gut tells us that something wasn’t quite right with our experience in school. Vital time that our ancestors used to gain their bearings in the real world and discover their own strengths and weaknesses is now pre-empted sitting in school classrooms. For those that have a solid foundation to hold them steady through their 12 years of confinement, the detrimental effects of schooling are dramatically lessened.

Gatto’s “Guerilla Curriculum” involved getting his students involved in “real world” activities. He found that many children had an addiction to television. They were seeing only simulations of things that they could be doing in the real world. He gave students the choice to do a walk (by themselves if they chose to do so) around New York City, observing the business of the grown up world, taking notes, and even doing apprenticeships. Anything they saw on TV, as Gatto describes, now paled in comparison to the thrill of actual risk taking and engagement.

School teaches us to police ourselves. Choking fear of ridicule keeps too many people from doing anything out of the ordinary, from thinking unconventionally, from taking risks. Imagine if the public schools of today had gotten hold of the self-reliant, unpredictable, independent people that made America. Their self determined, inventive, imaginative and self confident ways would have them branded with too many labels that the school system hands out to fathom. George Washington had little to no official schooling, with nothing more than an elementary school education. He made his own path.

Could it be that the elite are deathly afraid of the average man and woman? It makes sense that the elite of society would have us police ourselves, to artificially limit our potential. If they allowed us to be free from their system, we would prove far too dangerous. They can’t have too much competition. They have to hold back the tide of humanity. One of the most powerful insights in John Taylor Gatto’s new book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, comes from an 11 year old boy that Gatto met named Andrew Hsu. Gatto writes,

“When asked to describe the most important lesson of his life, the one which held the most influence over his choices, he said it was a story told to him by his father about the method used to train fleas to swing on trapezes, drive little chariots, (or pull them) and all the wonderful things fleas learned to do to amuse kings and courts in world history. The story his father told goes like this:

If you put fleas in a shallow container they jump out. But if you put a lid on the container for just a short time, they hit the lid trying to escape and learn quickly not to jump so high. They give up their quest for freedom. After the lid is removed, the fleas remain imprisoned by their own self-policing. So it its with life. Most of us let our own fears or the impositions of others imprison us in a world of low expectations.”

Why have we been convinced to think so little of ourselves, instead relying on expert opinion? Could it be the conditional self-esteem that we were taught in school? It’s hard to break our conditioning, but it’s not impossible. The human spirit is resilient.