Posts Tagged ‘compulsory schooling’

Weapons of Mass Instruction

May 29, 2010

I can’t claim any credit for the catchy title of this post. It is taken from the 2009 book of the same name by John Taylor Gatto. The subtitle is ‘A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would now like to return to this topic.

This post also links with another thread in the blog. In my last post, I embedded a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he spoke of the need to move away from an industrial model of education to a more organic one: education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught. This sentiment is very much in keeping with Gatto.

Gatto contends that the roots of compulsory schooling lie in a model of social engineering developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the professed ideals of universal education. By contrast with earlier eras (even the immediately preceding one of independent school authorities), modern compulsory schooling is concerned with uniformity, with grouping by ‘class’, and all with the force of the law. Consider the following extract:

contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.

The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving the lot of the group … The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. (129)

Compulsory schooling as a form of social engineering is inseparable from an economy based on consumption and, by implication, the avoidance of over-production. By removing children from their family and community contexts, and forcing them to remain in a classroom as part of a group of age-peers, school induces passivity and what Gatto calls the ‘artificial extension of childhood’:

The same young people we confine to classrooms these days once cleared this continent when it was a wilderness, built roads, canals, cities; whipped the greatest military power of earth not once but twice, sold ice to faraway India before refrigeration, and produced so many miracles — from the six-shooter to the steamboat to manned flight — that America spread glimmerings of what open-source creativity could do all around the planet.

In those days Americans weren’t burdened by a concept of the phony stage of life called ‘adolescence,’ or any other artificial extension of childhood. About the age of seven you added value to the world around you, or you were a parasite. Like all sane people, so-called kids wanted to grow up as soon as possible — that’s why old photos show boys and girls looking like men and women. All that takes is carrying your share of the load, and a few open-source adventures and presto! You are grown up. (39-40)

The book gives many examples of individuals who, one way or another, escaped the tyranny of compulsory schooling and forged lives of independence and success. From George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, to name some of the more celebrated cases. Chapter 2 contains many others and I am grateful to New Society Publishers for permission to copy this chapter and link it to this post (see below).

Prior to his resignation, Gatto was a multi-award-winning high-school teacher of thirty-years experience, and his views carry the weight of that experience. There are many anecdotes from his career, including several humbling ones where he acknowledges the lessons that particular students taught him. Although he resigned out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the schooling system, he does provide some positive suggestions intended to minimise the harm done by compulsory schooling.

Chapter 6, for example, begins with a critique of television and computer entertainment as factors that help to maintain children in a state of passivity and consumption. Gatto realised that merely exhorting children to avoid such devices would have no effect. In order to combat the tendency, he developed what he calls his Guerrilla Curriculum. The principle was that by keeping children actively involved in real-world experiences, they would come to see their erstwhile spectator roles as less interesting. It should be understood that this was no attempt to create ‘engaging’ lessons in the conventional sense:

Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life — sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court systems to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action — made them realize, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark. And as that realization took hold, their dependence on the electronic doll houses diminished. (93)

From Gatto’s description, what we have here is more of an induction into the adult world of action than the schooling to which we have grown accustomed. And it worked!

The biggest surprise for me was how easy this was to accomplish, it took neither talent nor money; anyone could duplicate my results, I won’t deny its hard work to try to pull off the trick with 130 kids a year, but a lot of effort is wasted in finding ways to circumvent the dead hand of school administration. In a system more congenial to learning (and less to social control) the thrill of doing the labor would more than outweigh the effort required. And, of course, if everyone in the society were on the same page about the necessity of developing intellect and character in the young (not weighting them down with chains), the work would be … child’s play.

Over the years my students launched so many useful projects and earned so many plaudits and prizes that I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results. When I tried to explain to the awards committees how little I had to do with the achievements, I suspect it was discounted as obligatory modesty, but these days when I have nothing more to prove to myself about who I am, I sincerely hope you’ll believe me. Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and you’ll get the same results I did. Maybe better. (96)

Gatto tells us that he ‘stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time’ (101). The first step was to build a personal profile for each student, relying not on school records but on data from ‘parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and enemies — anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative’ (101-2).

Once a profile was created, the second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year — that was the wishes part — and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) — that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were became mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher — only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.

I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way … Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading. (Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 102)

Finally, Gatto (in an echo of Ivan Illich — see Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy) sees some hope in the emerging social phenomenon of online interconnectivity:

Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube, MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.

These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.

Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted. (113)

Weapons of Mass Instruction is distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. I purchased my copy from The Book Depository.

Chapter 2 can be viewed, printed or downloaded from here:

Weapons of Mass Instruction – Gatto (Chapter 2)