John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction, now available in paperback, focuses on mechanisms of traditional education which 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 a 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 can they achieve self-knowledge, good judgment, and courage.
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About the Author
John Gatto was a teacher in New York City's public schools for over 30 years and is a recipient of the New York State Teacher of the Year award. A much-sought after speaker on education throughout the United States, his other books include A Different Kind of Teacher (Berkeley Hills Books, 2001) and The Underground History of American Education (Oxford Village Press, 2000).
Read an Excerpt
Everything You Know about Schools is Wrong
In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in 20 factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible conditions of the factories than return to school.
- Helen Todd, "Why Children Work" McClure's Magazine , April 1913
Running the World
In 1919, in the heady aftermath of World War victory parades and an intoxicating sense that nothing was forbidden to the United States, including the very alteration of human nature, Professor Arthur Calhoun's Social History of the Family notified the academic world that something profound was going on behind the scenes in the nation's schools. Big changes were being made to the idea of family. And it was a consummation to be celebrated by Calhoun's crowd, although not by everyone.
Calhoun wrote that the fondest wish of utopian thinkers was coming true: children were passing from blood families "into the custody of community experts." In time, he wrote, the dream of Darwin and Galton would become reality through the agency of public education, "designed to check the mating of the unfit." The dream of scientific population control.
Not everyone was as impressed as Calhoun with the school agenda discreetly being inserted into classrooms beyond public oversight. Mayor John Hylan of New York City made an elliptical remark in a public address back in 1922 which preserves some of the weirdness of that moment. Hylan announced that the schools of the city had been seized by "tentacles" of "an invisible government, just as an octopus would seize prey," a pointed echo of the chilling pronouncement made years earlier by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, when he claimed that all important events were controlled by an invisible government, of which the public was unaware. The particular octopus Hylan meant was the Rockefeller Foundation.
The 1920s were a boom period in compulsory schooling, as well as the stock market. By 1928 the book A Sociological Philosophy of Education was claiming, "It is the business of teachers to run not merely schools but the world." A year later, Edward Thorndike of Rockefeller- sponsored Columbia Teachers College, creator of a curious new academic specialty called "Educational Psychology," went on record with this dramatic announcement: "Academic subjects are of little value." His colleague at Teachers College, William Kirkpatrick, declared in his own book, Education and the Social Crisis , that "the whole game of rearing the young was being taken over by experts." It seemed only common sense to Dr. Kilpatrick. Family, after all, was a retrograde institution, why should mom and dad know better than experts how to bring up baby?
The Control of Human Behavior
On April 11, 1933, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Max Mason, announced a comprehensive national program underway, with the help of the Foundation, to allow "the control of human behavior." School figured centrally in its design. Max Muller, an Eastern European geneticist, inspired Rockefeller to invest heavily in control of human evolution. Muller was using X-rays to override normal genetic laws, including mutations in fruit flies. Mutation appeared to open the door to the scientific control of all life.
In Muller's mind, as to Galton and Darwin before him, planned breeding of human beings was the key to paradise. His thinking was enthusiastically endorsed by great scientists and by powerful economic interests alike. Muller won the Nobel Prize and reduced his scheme to a 1,500-word Geneticists' Manifesto , signed by 22 distinguished American and British biologists. State action should separate worthwhile breeding stock from the great mass of evolutionary dead end material. The Manifesto can still be Googled. What had been discussed behind closed doors in the 1870s, before we had forced schooling, had broken through into public discourse, at least in high policy circles, and in the writings of sophisticated literary artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald. A movement away from democratic egalitarian ideals was underway, which Fitzgerald alludes to in The Great Gatsby.
In simple language, on the most basic level of institutional management, smart kids had to be kept from stupid ones; Horace Mann's common school notion that all levels of society would mix together in the classroom to create social harmony was now officially stone dead, except for rhetorical purposes. A few months before the Manifesto began circulating aggressively, an executive director of the National Education Association announced the NEA expected "to accomplish by education what dictators in Europe are seeking to do by compulsion and force." That's straightforward enough, isn't it?
World War II drove the eugenic project underground, but hardly slowed its advance. Following the end of hostilities, school became an open battleground between old-fashioned, modest, reading, writing and arithmetic ambitions of historic schooling, and proponents of advanced academic thinking, located mainly in project offices of great corporate non-profit foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller - men who worked diligently to lead institutional schooling toward a scientific rationalization of all social affairs. Two congressional investigations, one in 1915 and one in 1959, came to the identical conclusion that school policy in the new pedagogical order was being deliberately created far from public oversight, in corporate offices - inserted into the school mechanism by a sophisticated, highly nuanced campaign of influence, invisible to public awareness. Neither report received much public attention. While both are available for examination today, virtually nobody is aware they even exist. Every major teachers' college in America flushed them down the memory hole, under whose orders nobody knows.
Two decades after WWII, between 1967 and 1974, teacher training was radically revamped through the coordinated efforts of important private foundations, select universities, think-tanks, and government agencies, encouraged by major global corporations and harmonized through the US Office of Education and a few key state education departments, particularly those of California, Texas, New York, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
Three milestones in this transformation were: (1) an extensive government exercise in futurology called Designing Education for the Future ; (2) The Behavioral Science Teacher Education Project ; and (3) Benjamin Bloom's multi-volume Taxonomy of Educational Objectives , an enormous manual of over 1,000 pages out of Bloom's office at the University of Chicago. Later, this work impacted every school in America. Bloom's massive effort is the work of a genuine academic madman, constituting, in his own words, "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think and feel as the result of some unit of instruction." It's the "think and feel" part that gives the game away. Simple fascism would have stopped at action , but as Orwell warned in 1984, something deeper than fascism was happening.
Drawing on the new technology of "behavioral psychology," children would be forced to learn "proper" thoughts, feelings, and actions, while "improper" attitudes brought from home were "remediated." Seething and bubbling in the darkness outside the innocent cluster of little red schoolhouses coast to coast a chemical wedding was being brewed worthy of Doctor Frankenstein. On all levels of schooling, experiments were authorized upon children without any public notice. Think of it as the Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment writ large. Testing was an essential part of the experiment - to locate each child's mental susceptibility on an official rating scale.
Bloom's insane epic is r eminiscent of The Complete System of Medical Policing , proposed for Prussia by another mad German doctor in the late 18th century (in which every citizen was charged with continually spying on every other citizen, detecting any sign of disease pathology, even a sniffle, and reporting it at once to authorities for remedial action), Bloom spawned a horde of descendant forms: mastery learning; outcomes-based education; school-to-work; classroom/ business "partnerships;" and more. You can detect Bloom at work in any initiative which seeks to classify students for the convenience of social managers and businesses. Bloom-inspired programs are constructed so as to offer useful data for controlling the minds and movements of the young - mapping the next adult generation for various agencies of social engineering.
The second pillar of change agentry, Designing Education for the Future , belies its benign title and would well repay a disciplined readthrough of its semi-literate prose. Produced by the US Office of Education, it redefined "education" after the Prussian fashion as "a means to achieve important economic and social goals of a national character." No mention of personal goals are in evidence. State education agencies were henceforth ordered to act as on-site federal enforcers, ensuring compliance of local schools to central directives. Each state education department was to become "an agent of change," and these were advised to give up "independent identity as well as authority," accepting a junior partnership with the federal government. Or suffer financial penalties for disobedience.
Finally, consider the third gigantic project, twice the size of Bloom's Taxonomy : the Behavioral Science Teacher Education Project (contract number: OEC-0-9-320424-4042), BSTEP for short, which clearly sets down government policy intentions for compulsory schooling, outlining reforms to be forced on the US after 1967. Institutional schooling, we learn, will be required to "impersonally manipulate" the future of an America in which "each individual will receive at birth a multi-purpose identification number." This will enable employers "and other controllers" to keep track of the common mass and to expose it to "direct or subliminal influence when necessary." Readers of the BSTEP document, which entered public consciousness (to the minor extent it has) only when a former Department of Justice employee blew the whistle, were invited to consider a future America in which "few will be able to maintain control over their own opinions."
BSTEP tells us that "chemical experimentation" on minors will become normal procedure after 1967, a pointed foreshadowing of Ritalin, Adderol, and other chemical "interventions" which accompany little Johnny to grade school these days. The document identifies the future as one in which a small elite will control all important matters, a world in which participatory democracy will disappear, reduced to a meaningless voting prerogative in electoral campaigns, campaigns in which all serious candidates have been pre-selected to exclude troublemakers. Politicians will still be able to threaten substantial change, but to deliver only token efforts to that end after election.
Postmodern schooling, BSTEP continues, will focus on "attitudes and skills compatible with a non-work world." Like "pleasure cultivation." You'll have no difficulty seeing the "socialized" classroom of WWI school reform - itself a radical departure from mental and character development - had evolved by 1967 into a full-scale laboratory of psychological manipulation.
How many schoolteachers were aware of what they actually were a part of? Surely a number close to zero. In schoolteaching, as in hamburger- flipping, the paycheck is the decisive ingredient. No insult is meant, at bottom this is what realpolitik means. We all have to eat.
Teachers as Therapists
The conversion of schools into laboratories was assisted by a curious phenomenon of the middle to late 1960s: a tremendous rise in school violence and general chaos which followed a now-forgotten policy declaration cooked up at the Ford Foundation, one which announced that henceforth, disciplining of children must reflect due process practices of the court system. Teachers and administrators were stripped overnight of any effective ability to keep order, since due process apparatus, of necessity slow and deliberate, is inadequate to the sudden outbreaks of childish mischief which occur, even in presumably good schools. A rough ad hoc justice is the principal way order was maintained historically. Without it, le deluge !
Denied access to the ancient catalogue of ad hoc disciplinary tactics, classrooms descended into chaos, disorder spiraled out of control - passing into dangerous terrain from what once had been only a realm of petty annoyance. As word passed through student ranks that teachers' hands were tied, crowds of excited kids surged through hallways, howling, screaming, banging on doors, attacking one another. Even displays of public fornication weren't unknown - at least not at my own school assignment at Intermediate School 44 in Community School District 3 on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, smack in the middle of one of the wealthiest communities in the country. But appeals to authority for help went unanswered.
Instead of interrupting the fornicators, arsonists, muggers, and other hooligans forcibly (which we were repeatedly warned would expose teachers to legal action), the new policy required teachers to file complaints (on official complaint forms only ). After that, a hearing date would be set and, assuming the accused showed up, both sides had the right to be represented by counsel, to summon witnesses, to cross-examine. When that drama was complete, a ruling would issue from the assigned referee. Not at once, but in due time. If "convicted," students had the right to appeal the decision, and the whole wheel would turn once again. This in a universe of 1,200 12-14 year-old kids.
Now imagine serious or semi-serious incidents each and every day, a hundred a week, four thousand a year, each necessitating forms, testimony, adjudication, punishment (or not), appeals . . . The Behavioral Science Teacher Education Project, occurring at the peak of this violent period, demanded teacher training institutes prepare all graduates to be teacher-therapists, translating prescriptions of social psychology into "practical action" in the classroom. Curriculum had been redefined. Now teaching followed suit.
We Don't Need Brains Between
1896 and 1920, a small group of industrialists and financiers, together with their private charitable foundations, heavily subsidized university chairs, researchers, and school administrators, actually spent more money on forced schooling's early years than did the government. Just two men, Carnegie and Rockefeller, were themselves spending more as late as 1915. In this laissez-faire fashion a system of "modern" schooling was constructed without any public participation, or even much public knowledge. Motives were complex, but it will clear your head wonderfully to listen to what Rockefeller's General Education Board thought the mission should be. Its statement occurs in multiple forms, this one taken from a 1906 document called Occasional Letter Number One :
In our dreams . . .people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen - of whom we have an ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple. . .we will organize children. . . and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.
In other words, they didn't want brains or talent, just obedience. Who is the "we" here? This mission statement of the General Education Board should be read more than once, until the illusions about school so carefully implanted in your mind are broken.
"Is This Nuts?"
At the start of WWII, millions of men showed up at registration offices to take low-level academic tests before being inducted. Years of maximum mobilization were 1942 through 1944, and our fighting force had mostly been schooled in the 1930s. Eighteen million were tested and 17,280,000 were judged to have the minimum competence in reading necessary to be a soldier - a 96 percent literacy rate.
This was a two percent fall-off from the 98 percent of ten years earlier, but the dip was too small to worry anyone. The generals might have been more concerned had they been able to foresee profound changes being foreshadowed by this nearly imperceptible two percent decline.
WWII was over in 1945. Six years later, another war began in Korea and several million more men were tested for military service. This time, 600,000 were rejected. Literacy in the draft pool had mysteriously dropped to 81 percent from 96 percent, even though all that was needed to classify a soldier as literate was fourth grade reading proficiency. In a few short years from WWII to Korea, a terrifying problem of adult illiteracy had appeared, seemingly from nowhere.
The Korean War group had received most of its schooling in the 1940s while the conflict with Germany and Japan was being waged. It had more years in school, with more professionally trained teachers in attendance, and more scientifically selected textbooks than the WWII men. Yet, it could not read, write, count, speak, or think as well as the earlier, less-schooled contingent.
A new American war began in Vietnam in the middle 1960s. By its end in 1973, the number of men found non-inductible by reason of inability to read safety instructions, interpret road signs, decipher orders - the number found illiterate in other words - had reached 27 percent of the total pool. Vietnam-era young men had been schooled in the 1950s and 1960s, far more intensely schooled than either of the two earlier groups , but now the four percent illiteracy of 1941, transmuted into the 19 percent illiteracy rate of 1952, was now 27 percent.
And not only had the fraction of barely competent and competent readers dropped to 73 percent, but even a substantial chunk of these struggled mightily, unable to read a newspaper (or anything else) for pleasure. They could not sustain a thought or an argument, could not write well enough to manage their own affairs without assistance.
Mute evidence of rising ineptitude is more compelling when tracked through the very minimal requirements of Army enlistment tests, because SAT scores are frequently "renormed" (inflated), whether to conceal the decline or not, your guess is as good as mine.
By 1940, literacy as a national number stood at 96 percent for whites, 80 percent for blacks. Four of five blacks were literate in spite of all disadvantages. Yet, six decades later, the Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported a 40 percent illiteracy rate among blacks - doubling the earlier deficiency - and a 17 percent rate for whites, more than quadrupling it. Yet money spent on schooling in real terms had grown 350 percent.
Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein contended in a national #1-bestseller, The Bell Curve , that this was the result of selective breeding. Smart people got together with smart people - and dumb with dumb. If you're a eugenicist that sounds just right, until you remember the inconvenient military data. The terrifying drop in literacy between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Korean War happened inside a single decade. Even the most fervent natural selection enthusiast wouldn't argue things work that quickly.
The Bell Curve held that violence in black society was genetically programmed; but once again, data from outside the charmed circle in America pushing this biological reality was contradictory. My control group comes from South Africa, where 31 million blacks lived as of the year 2000 - the same number as in the US. During 1989 to 1991, civil war conditions existed in South Africa. Then how to account for the embarrassing truth that death by violence among blacks there was only one-quarter of what it was in America?
A second corrective piece of information turned up as I was writing this: data from nearly all-black Jamaica for the year 2004 shows the literacy rate there at 98.5 percent, considerably higher than the 2005 American rate for whites - 83 percent.
What might explain the sharp decline in literacy among blacks, if not bad biology? Consider this: during WWII, American public schools - first in urban areas, then everywhere - were converted from phonetic ways of instruction (the ancient "alphabet system") to non-phonetic methods which involved memorizing whole word units, and lots of guessing for unfamiliar words. Whites had been learning to read at home for 300 years the old-fashioned way - matching spoken sounds to written letters - and white homes preserved this tool even when schools left it behind. There was a resource available to whites which hardly existed for blacks. During slavery, blacks had been forbidden to learn to read; as late as 1930 they averaged only three to four years of schooling. When teachers stopped teaching a phonetic system - known to work - blacks had no fallback position.
By 1952 the Army had hired a brigade of psychologists to expose what it believed must be mass fraud, so many were failing to qualify. As Regina Lee Woods described it in Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's Network News and Reviews :
After the psychologists told the officers the graduates weren't faking, Defense Department administrators knew something terrible had happened to grade school reading instruction. Why they remained silent, no one knows. The switch to reading instruction that worked should have been made then. But it wasn't.
In 1995 a student-teacher of fifth graders in Minneapolis wrote a letter to the editor of the Star-Tribune complaining about radically dumbeddown curriculum. She wrote that 113 years earlier fifth‑gradersin 12 Weapons of Mass Instruction Minneapolis were reading William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Caroll, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, and others like them in the Appleton School Reader , but that today,
I was told children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, have, he, home, if, in, is, it, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?
It's time to meet William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, the premier Hegelian philosopher in America, editor of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Other than Ellwood P. Cubberley and James Bryant Conant, no professional pedagogue ever approached the influence Harris once wielded. Harris standardized our national schooling and Germanized it. Teacher colleges gloss over Harris, referring to him as a conservative defender of classical education standards, but he was intensely radical, regarding children as the absolute property of the political state, and he was a personal friend of Andrew Carnegie - the steel man who nourished a hope that all work could be yoked to cradle-to-grave schooling - the grandfather of all school-to-work projects.
Perhaps Walt Whitman had been anticipating Harris and Carnegie when he wrote that "only Hegel is fit for America." Hegel, the protean Prussian philosopher whose power molded Karl Marx on the one hand and J. P. Morgan on the other, the two men different faces of Hegel, as the Soviet Union and America danced also to the music of this Prussian. What Hegel taught that intrigued the powerful then and now was that history could be deliberately managed by skillfully provoking crises out of public view and then demanding national unity to meet those crises - a disciplined unity under cover of which leadership privileges approached the absolute.
Waiting for Teacher to Grant Your Turn
Harris and associates, known to academic philosophy as the "St. Louis Hegelians" worked toward a strange goal, bringing an end to history. Fixing global society into frozen relationships in which all argument would end, and with argument gone, the urge to war and revolution as well. Just amicable folk waiting around pleasantly for someone to tell them what to do, like the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Waiting in tutelary relationships for someone to signal each individual's turn.
The tool to build such a society was psychological alienation, said Harris. To alienate children from themselves so they could no longer turn inward for strength, to alienate them from families, traditions, religions, cultures - so no outside source of advice could contradict the will of the political state. You need to hear Harris' own voice now, to fully appreciate what the principal school figure in America was thinking at the very moment institutional schooling was coming together here:
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual. . . .
The great purpose of school [self-alienation] can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places. . . . It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world. [ The Philosophy of Education , 1906]
There's a commonsensical lunacy here, a rich manure of pragmatism inherent in this which deserves being held up to the light. Self-alienationas a secret success formula for a mass production industrial/ commercial economy (and the class-driven social order which complements it) isn't as wrong as first impressions make it sound. Consider that such a social order can't produce very much satisfying work - the kind where personal sovereignty is exercised. As this social order matures, so many dissatisfied people are its byproduct that daily life is rocked by instability. But if you can be persuaded to blame yourself rather than a group of villains for your miserable lot, the dangerous gas goes out of the social balloon.
When you flip hamburgers, sit at a computer all day, unpack and shelve merchandise from China year after year, you manage the tedium better if you have a shallow inner life, one you can escape through booze, drugs, sex, media, or other low level addictive behaviors. Easier to keep sane if your inner life is shallow. School, thought Harris the great American schoolman, should prepare ordinary men and women for lifetimes of alienation. Can you say he wasn't fully rational?
The transformation of school from a place of modest ambitions centering around reading, writing, arithmetic, and decency into a behavioral training laboratory ordered up by "certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process" (as Harvard president James Bryant Conant wrote), has acted to poison the American experiment. After 30 years in a public school classroom serving this creature, when I quit teaching in 1991 I promised myself I would bear witness to what I had seen and, forgive me, done. This book is my way of keeping that promise.
The Crisis of Democracy
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, far-sighted American businessmen, having metaphorically conquered the world, set about bringing the ancient dream of utopia alive through a psychological strategy pioneered in Germany. They would colonize the minds of the young, wipe the messy slates clean so they could be written upon fresh. What religion had conceived and philosophy affirmed now took on new urgency as science spelled out the biological disaster which might attend any delay. Darwin himself had spoken. And the laboratories of Germany.
Horace Mann's efforts to make school attendance compulsory were bankrolled by men of wealth, including the brilliant Peabody family of New England. Mann was promised Daniel Webster's seat in Congress if he could pull off the trick, and he did, winning the Congressional seat as a prize. But we know the America of Mann's day was already formidably literate and full of opportunity, so any attempt to portray this as philanthropy shouldn't be taken seriously.
In every age, men of wealth and power have approached education for ordinary people with suspicion because it is certain to stimulate discontent, certain to awaken desires impossible to gratify. In April 1872, the US Bureau of Education's Circular of Information left nothing to the imagination when it discussed something it called "the problem of educational schooling." According to the Bureau, by inculcating accurate knowledge workers would "perceive and calculate their grievances," making them "redoubtable foes" in labor struggles! Best not have that.
Thirteen years later in 1885, the Senate Committee on Education and Labor issued a report which contains this forceful observation on page 1382: "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes." Teaching the means to become broadly knowledgeable, deeply analytical, and effectively expressive has disturbed policy thinkers since Solomon, because these skills introduce danger into the eternal need of leaders to manage crowds in the interests of the best people.
Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations called for "educational schooling" to correct the human damage caused by mindless working environments, but Andrew Carnegie, writing 126 years after Smith, in The Empire of Business disagreed. Educational schooling, said Carnegie, gave working people bad attitudes, it taught what was useless, it imbued the future workforce with "false ideas" that gave it "a distaste for practical life."
In 1949 in an essay which has slipped through the cracks of history, Science and the Moral Life , the academic, Max Otto, found the heavy involvement of business behind the curtain of schooling far from odd. He said it was something naturally to be expected. A stupendous revolution in marketing had taken place under the public nose, one brought about by the reality of mass production which could not be constrained to simply meet human demands, but instead imposed the demands of production on human wishes. Where once the conventional laws of supply and demand put the buyer in the driver's seat, in the topsy-turvy world of financial capitalism demand had to be created for whatever could be supplied most profitably at the moment. To keep this golden goose laying eggs, consumption had to be taught as the most important end of life. It was this new reality, he said, that explained business manipulation of schooling:
It is natural businessmen should seek to influence the enactment and administration of laws, national and international, and that they should try to control education.
Keep that uppermost in your mind as you read my book.
A Different Agenda
The new forced schooling octopus taught anyone unable to escape its tentacles that inert knowledge - memorizing the dots - is the gold standard of intellectual achievement. Not connecting those dots. It set out to create a reflexive obedience to official directions as opposed to accepting responsibility for one's own learning.
These habit trainings are among the most important weapons of mass instruction. On the higher levels of the school pyramid, among those labeled "gifted" and "talented," the standard is more sophisticated: there children are required to memorize both dots as well as what experts say is the correct way to connect those dots into narratives: even to memorize several conflicting expert analyses in a simulation of genuine critical thinking. Original thinking in dot connection is patronized at times, but always subtly discouraged. Twelve to twenty years of stupefying memorization drills weakens the hardiest intellects.
Long before this habit training took hold, America was, by any historical yardstick, formidably well-educated, a place of aggressively free speech and argument - dynamically entrepreneurial, dazzlingly inventive, and as egalitarian a place as human nature could tolerate. Social class distinctions were relatively fluid since merit in simple free-market economies produces its own rewards, including advantageous marriages. Although the same currents of class privilege which ran in Europe were always present in America, the crucial difference was they were vigorously contested there.
America was literate beyond anybody's wildest dreams, and not merely book-literate. Americans were broadly proficient in the formidable "active literacies" of writing, argumentation, and public speaking; things which had actually been a crime to teach ordinary people under British colonial rule. Foreign travelers like Tocqueville were surprised and impressed with what the new nation demonstrated in action about the talents of ordinary men and women - abilities customarily suppressed in Europe among the common classes.
We were embarked on a unique libertarian path right up to the Civil War, until post-war fallout put an end to its career in reality, although the original myths are still with us. The transition from an entrepreneurial economy to a mass production economy, which began soon after the end of hostilities, wrenched the country from its freedom-loving course and placed it along the path toward industrial capitalism - with its need for visible underclasses and a large, rootless proletariat to make it work.
But the record of our libertarian beginnings is so striking it cannot be erased from the historical record. It persisted long enough to provide a wealth of practical evidence that successful alternative formats exist through which young people can win through to effective minds and characters. Alternative, that is, to confinement with hired mercenaries which, harsh as it sounds, is the current system.
Ben Franklin, son of a candlemaker in a family of seventeen, was the perfect emblem of the difference. Make his short autobiography a must-read, to be read closely more than once. Franklin was the product of brilliant and daring curriculum design with the designer Franklin himself. He was an open-source learner for the ages and he will generously show you how the trick is done.
The Myth of a Golden Age
Long before we actually converted schools to the Prussian model beginning in 1852, the matter had been carefully discussed in drawing rooms, and in the backrooms of business and politics. As early as 1840 in New England, a prominent public intellectual named Orestes Brownson began to publicly denounce in speeches and writings what he called a monumental conspiracy on the part of important men to subvert the Constitution, using northern Germany's rigid institution of forced schooling as its principal weapon. You can read about Brownson and those critical days of school history in Christopher Lasch's True and Only Heaven.
By the end of the same decade, Mann's (imaginary1) visit to see Prussian schools in action - and his famously favorable report of that visit to the Boston School Committee - soon led to the first successful2 school law in US history. Brownson's larger theory, that a group existed out of sight intent on recasting American national life to meet British and German standards, should be kept in mind as we proceed into the dark world of compulsory schooling.
Right from its advent the school institution was not popular. There wasn't any rush to sign on. It took a full 15 years for one more state to come aboard, but a telling clue exists to let us know where the evangelical energy driving the scheme was actually being housed. Although no second American state followed Massachusetts for a decade and a half, the tiny District of Columbia adopted compulsion in its schools almost at once! It was from Washington's bribes, subsidies, and cajolings that institutional schooling spread, not from the merit of the idea.
The myth of a golden age of public schooling is the creation of Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of Teacher Education at Stanford University. There never was such a thing. Cubberley rose to become a leader of the school group around WWI, and remained a close associate of all other names of consequence in the founding period. He acted, de facto , as a beloved historian of American schooling until the 1960s.
1 Mann, through careless planning, actually arrived in Prussia after schools were closed for the summer, a fact he concealed from the committee.
2 Earlier school laws existed, but they were widely ignored.
Eliminating Local Voices
At the start of the compulsion era there were approximately 135,000 separate citizen school boards, perhaps more, each with seven to nine very solid and very local men and women as board members, watchdogs over the local institution. Messy as their operation was - and you can get a sample of how they worked by reading Edward Eggleston's little 19th century classic, The Hoosier Schoolmaster - they were models of democratically elected republicanism. But local oversight promised nothing but trouble to those who wanted national uniformity. That centralization was never likely to happen as long as community boards held sway, with local philosophies and overly sentimentalized personal connections with parents.
Almost at once, even before compulsion had claimed every American state, a process of consolidation began, intended to curb localism. By arranging for larger and larger bureaucratic units, only those with funds enough and reputation to campaign at large beyond the neighborhood could be elected. These mergers were sold as efficiency measures to save taxpayers money, but an oddity occurred - as the districts were enlarged, costs went up, not down, and continued upward in subsequent years. With local watchdogs gone, tendencies to use mass schooling as a cash cow were exploited by every special interest group with political friends.
Inside of a century the number of boards was reduced to 15,000. And each decline in the absolute number of school boards made their composition less and less local. Board seats became stepping stones for the ambitions of politicians, insurance policies for interests which drew their sustenance from school affairs: real estate people, textbook publishers, materials suppliers, et al.
I remember the shock I felt the first time I discovered, quite by accident, that I could personally negotiate larger discounts on book purchases (or anything else) than the school district could. It didn't seem to make sense.1 The most personally troubling occasion was the moment I decided to use my own funds to purchase classroom sets of good books for student use rather than rely on the "approved" list of books for which school funds could be used, and which required many months, if not a full year, to pass through the acquisition protocols and be shipped. Traveling to a book wholesaler, open to anybody, to secure its standard 40% discount, as I stood at the cash register with a hundred copies of Moby Dick and a hundred copies of Shakespeare's Plays in shopping carts, the checkout clerk asked me, "Are you a schoolteacher?" Without thinking, I nodded affirmatively, after which she rang the books up at a 25% discount.
"You've made a mistake," I told her. "The discount is 40%."
"Not for schoolteachers," she replied curtly. And when I bellowed in angry protest, she became indignant. "Look," she said, "that's the discount your Board of Education negotiated. If you don't like it, take it up with them." Now why on earth would my employer sell out my right to a standard discount? Can you think of a reason that isn't crooked? And, of course, it wasn't only my right to a full discount the school authorities had stolen, but every teacher's right in New York City. Perhaps this will help you understand why I titled this chapter "Everything You Know about Schools is Wrong."
1 In one instance, for example, the school board voted to buy 5,000 copies of the Har-Brace College Handbook (a grammar/usage guide) for $11.00 a copy at the moment it was being remaindered by the publisher's own book outlet for $1.00 a copy, a $50,000 net difference. When this was pointed out by my wife Janet - a member of the school board at the time who demanded a vote be taken - the balance of the board refused to buy the cheaper copies! Many other examples could be given. Reams of blank paper available for $1.50 a ream in bulk to anyone, were purchased by my school district for $2.50 a ream.
I remember another moment when I told the assistant principal that I could save him about 40% on the purchase of some world globes and he said without hesitation, "It isn't your money. What are you getting all worked up about?" I realize how cynical that sounds, but here's the paradox: this was a decent man who showed by his daily behavior he actually cared about student welfare.
And the Har-Brace Handbook affair? It wasn't arranged by the Tweed gang, but by middle-class neighbors speaking as representatives of a very progressive neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home to Columbia University, the Historical Society, Fordham, the Opera, the Symphony, the Museum of Natural History. . . and School District Three.
The principle of citizen oversight had become part of the great school illusion, part of the house of mirrors inside which classrooms had been made teacher-proof; schools, principal-proof; school districts, superintendent-proof. Responsibility had migrated elsewhere, but few knew quite where. In any important matters, state departments of education were little better than stooges, the Federal Department of Education - ditto.
In the new world of forced schooling, the training of the young was simply too important a matter to be left to pedagogues , just as had been the situation in ancient Rome. Tracing the word pedagogue to its origin in Rome is useful because it leads us to the threshold of the mystery. The Roman pedagogue was only a slave, albeit a specialized kind of slave. He was assigned the task of driving home a curriculum created by the Master who owned him, and making sure the pupil got to school on time. But who was the master, and where did he live?
For a compelling answer to that question, you must read Thomas Hobbes' immortal book, The Leviathan , written in the first half of the seventeenth century and kept in print ever since. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise you have in store when you discover that the elaborate system of social control official schooling represents has been a vigorously worked out idea for at least 400 years. The real question you should be asking is why, in all the years of school incarceration you suffered, did nobody bother to let you in on the secret?
The Fourth Purpose
As the initially transparent motives for schooling were undermined, professionalized pedagogy worked in tandem with government to recommit the institution to the service of corporate economy. Recall that government schooling had been forbidden by default in the federal Constitution, which contains not a single mention of the thing. But the utility it promised for governors - who had no intention of ever honoring a Bill of Rights dedicated to ordinary people - was enormous. Let me select only a few benefits school can offer elites. And let these stand for many more.
Any political management, even tyranny, must provide enough work for ordinary people that revolutionary conditions don't emerge. Forced schooling provides a spectacular jobs project, one almost infinitely elastic, one expanding and contracting with employment needs. It should be no secret to you that institutional schooling, with all its outriggers, is the principal employer in the United States. And such a formidable granter of contracts that even the Defense Department (a similar jobs project) can't keep up.
School is also an efficient way of ensuring loyalty to certain ideas and attitudes; its potential employees can be pre-screened for possession of these, or at the very least for a willingness to conform to them. School is also a tax-absorption mechanism which can claim to be draining resources from the body politic for the good of the next generation, while actually routing a goodly portion of these revenues to friends of the house. My tales of book-buying and materials purchase in School District Three, Manhattan, is only the smallest sample of what is possible. Consider the national school milk purchasing scandal of several decades ago when it was discovered that all over the nation, schools were paying more for milk than retail purchasers!
From its beginnings, forced schooling represented a big step backwards from the exciting free market in learning offered by the bazaar of American life, a market well-illustrated in the lives of Franklin, Jefferson, Farragut, and many others. This asystematic system of learning put the nation on a road to unparalleled power and wealth. And America's young responded brilliantly to it, out-inventing and outtrading every old world competitor by a country mile.
But in the new fashion, different goals were promulgated, goals for which self-reliance, ingenuity, courage, competence, and other frontier virtues became liabilities (because they threatened the authority of management). Under the new system, the goals of good moral values, good citizenship skills, and good personal development were exchanged for a novel fourth purpose - becoming a human resource to be spent by businessmen and politicians. By the end of the nineteenth century, school was looked at by insiders as a branch of industry. In those more innocent times, the creators of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were up to, a candor which shines through a speech delivered in 1909 by Woodrow Wilson to an audience of businessmen in New York City. I mentioned this in the Prologue, but it bears hearing again:
We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.
Forgoing the privilege of education was not to be a matter of choice, which probably explains why Wilson's remarks were not broadcast to the common public but were made behind closed doors. By 1917 all major school administrative jobs nationwide were under control of a group referred to in the press of the day as "the education trust." A record of the first meeting of the trust in Cleveland, Ohio exists, and an attendance roll showing that the interests of Rockefeller and Carnegie were represented, together with those of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the National Education Association. British evolutionist Benjamin Kidd wrote in 1918 that the chief end of the project was "to impose on the young the ideal of subordination."
The Specter of Overproduction
You should be champing at the bit by now demanding to know why all this was being encouraged by the principal families in the nation. Were they so venal and greedy, so saturated with prejudice, that they were willing to sacrifice our revolutionary egalitarian traditions for personal advantage? I'm sure some were, but to say "all" would be to commit a huge oversimplification and a great injustice as well. The folks who gave us forced schooling on the Prussian template were among the finest, most honorable families in the land. Their democratic instincts had been deeply shaken by the biological speculations of Charles Darwin, and by the philosophies of Benedict Spinoza and Johann Fichte (of whom we shall hear specifics in a later chapter), but it took a very down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts economic idea to seal the fate of hundreds of millions of schoolchildren to come.
The idea went by the name, overproduction, and it's still with us (although now referred to as overcapacity), and it's a very important concept indeed, one whose effects had staggered American prosperity more than once in the nineteenth century. In essence, to overproduce is to make more goods and services for sale than there are customers for those things. When that happens, prices fall. Depending on the degree of overproduction they continue to fall, even below the cost of production. Even so far below costs that the capital required to produce at all is wiped out.
Hidden behind a bonanza for customers when that happens, a dangerous reality lurks: to produce at all in a mass production sense requires huge amounts of money to be assembled from investors for the purchase of production machinery, and for its repair and upgrading, training programs, advertising, a distribution infrastructure, and so on. Unless protection against overproduction is promised investors, why would anyone risk capital to produce in the first place?
What nineteenth century American experience demonstrated unmistakably is that an independent, resourceful, too well-educated common population has the irresistible urge to produce - and the ability to do so. Many famous "panics" of nineteenth century America were caused in part by a hangover from early Federal times and Colonial days when the common ideal was to produce your own food, your own clothing, your own shelter, your own education, your own medical care, your own entertainment, etc. The common population was still insufficiently conditioned to be interdependent and specialized.
And added to this burden of self-sufficiency (from a corporate point of view) was the incredible inventiveness of the American people, a natural by-product of three factors: an open-source learning tradition; a heterogeneous, mixed-age society which didn't exclude the young from full participation; and a government presence without heavy-handedness. Given this heady brew, inventions poured out of the American population with dazzling speed, at a pace unknown in the rest of the world's experience. Unexpected invention is probably the easiest way to provoke the creative destruction which ends the career of otherwise dominant enterprises under capitalism. Ideas are just as deadly in overproduction as hats are, or bushels of corn.
From 1880 to 1930, the term "overproduction" was heard everywhere, in boardrooms, elite universities, gentlemen's clubs, and highbrow magazines. It was a demon which had to be locked in the dungeon. And rationalized pedagogy was a natural vehicle to implant habits and attitudes to accomplish that end. Under this outlook, the classroom would never be used to produce knowledge, but only to consume it; it would not encourage the confined to produce ideas, only to consume the ideas of others. The ultimate goal implanted in student minds, which replaced the earlier goal of independent livelihoods, was getting a good job.
I don't mean to be crazy about this, the new school institution served other purposes, too; but seeing the connection between longterm legal confinement of children and the nation's business gives us an essential perspective in rethinking the role of mass schooling. Classical business values corrupt education, they have no place in education except as cultural artifacts to be examined.
For the first two centuries of our existence, such an institution would have been unthinkable - the young were too valuable a part of economic and social reality. Indispensable, in fact. But when the young were assigned to consume, not produce; when they were ordered to be passive, not active, as part of the general society, the schools we have were the inevitable result of this transformation. As soon as you understand the functions it was given to perform in the new corporate economy, nothing about school at all should surprise you. Not even its Columbine moments.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Against School XIII
1 Everything You Know About Schools is Wrong 1
2 Walkabout: London 27
3 Fat Stanley and the Lancaster Amish 61
4 David Sarnoff's Classroom 71
5 Hector isn't the Problem 83
6 The Camino de Santiago 91
7 Weapons of Mass Instruction 99
8 What is Education? 145
9 A Letter to my Granddaughter about Dartmouth 157
10 Incident at Highland High 175
Afterword: Invitation to an Open Conspiracy: The Bartleby Project 193
About the Author 215
What People are Saying About This
"John Taylor Gatto has been a hero of mine for years. He has the courage to challenge an educational system that is obsolete and out of touch with reality. Years ago, he gave me the courage to speak out and write my books. I trust this book will give you the courage to speak out. "
— Robert Kiyosaki, author, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
"For over 20 years John Taylor Gatto has been working tirelessly to teach us the truth about our educational system - that compulsory schooling does not work to foster a democratic way of life!"
— Mary Leue, Founder of the Albany Free School
"All of Gatto's words shine. Let's have Gatto as US Secretary of Education and then, this time, he can blow it all up!"
— George Meegan, author of The Longest Walk and world record holder, longest unbroken march in human history
"We accept Mr Gatto's invitation to an open conspiracy against forced schooling here in Europe as well. The virtues of this book, its precise ideas, realistic proposals and sharp conscience, class it among the best works of Thoreau, Jefferson, Hume or Diderot. A masterly book."
— The Kadmos Paris Magazine, Paris, October 2008.
"In Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Taylor Gatto points out the folly of the business of American education, especially standardized testing. Listen up, for children's sake!"
— Wendy Zeigler, artist and former student of John Taylor Gatto.
"It happens rarely, but whenever I do read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television, on a variety of topics, I find myself wondering, "How? How can this happen? How can people be so gullible?" Gatto has an answer and it is disturbing as well as compelling: 20th Century US education. His argument renews gratitude to my father for having given me the chance to dodge full immersion in the homogenizing machine, and makes me more determined than ever to pass this gift of becoming an individual on to my own children."
-Tania Aebi, author of Maiden Voyage; and world record holder, first circumnavigation of the world by a solo female sailor
"I run a school. John Gatto is my conscience. He has taught me to hate school and love learning. This book will do that for others, and we need them!"
— Becky Elder, Northfield School of The Liberal Arts
Reading Group Guide
The transformation of schooling from a twelve-year jail sentence to freedom to learn.
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