Please note: this post is the continuation of ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction – Part 2’. The posts are part of my homeschool radio segments on the Richard Syrett Show on Nov. 1st, Nov 8th, and Nov 15th, and Nov 22nd, 2022 (starting generally at around min. 30 to 33) which you can listen to here.
Since the beginning of mass schooling, people were generally led to believe that the purpose of schools is to ‘make good people’ and ‘make good citizens’. What does Gatto have to say to this?
Gatto plainly states that this is ‘dead wrong’.
He refers to Alexander Inglis’s Principles of Secondary Education where the scholar, after whom a Harvard lecture in education is named, lays out the actual function of modern schooling. School was to train fixed habits of reaction to authority. It served a ‘conformity function’ as it was to make children as alike as possible. Its aim was not, as one would hope, to fill children with knowledge and intelligence, but to:
- reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level
- to breed and train standard citizens
- produce formulaic human beings whose behaviour could be predicted and controlled
Here is a brief video (13 min.) if you would like to hear Gatto explain “The Six Purposes of Schooling” himself:
Gatto reminds us that these were not merely the ideas of an ‘isolated crank’, but championed by many, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who recognized the tremendous profits that could be made from a herd ready to follow and consume. At the turn of the century, when mass production was leading the way to vast fortunes, schooling on a mass scale provided ready and willing consumers. Gatto explains that schools didn’t directly train kids to consume, ‘because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all’.
Thus compulsory schooling served government by providing an obedient, predictable populace, while also serving a mass production economy by providing a steady stream of employees and consumers.
Does Gatto have any advice on how to avoid the perils of the school system?
His foremost plea is for parents to wake up to what schools really are: ‘drill centres for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands’, turning children into servants.
Once one recognizes the logic behind modern schooling, there is hope to avoid its pitfalls. He lays them out as follows:
- 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 tolerance for boredom
- Help your own to develop an inner life so that they will never be bored.
- School avoids serious, challenging texts, instead offering pre-chewed material in bite-sized pieces
- Urge them to take on serious, grown-up, material in literature, history, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology.
- Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone
- Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues.
Most important of all, he points out that family, not school, is the main engine of education. Gatto states that “the curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life” and that in order for any reform to occur, institutions need to release their stranglehold on family life.
“I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt”
John Taylor Gatto was an educational rebel and spent his lifetime drawing attention to the harm that mass schooling inflicts on individuals and family life. His opinions may sound extreme, outlandish, or offensive to some. What stands out to me is that he was in no way reluctant to share his views, knowing very well that they would be received with rejection or outrage. Even when addressing Senator Kennedy at a committee hearing of the future of schools, he did not hesitate to state that change will not come from any political center, but that “it can only come from defiant personal decisions by simple men and women”.
While not everyone will agree with his position on the school system, one thing that can inspire all of us is his firm belief in the potential of every individual student, “I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt”. By allowing our children the time and solitude they require to develop self-knowledge, and supporting them in pursuing knowledge so that they can have a true form of education.
When we want better families, better neighbours, better friends, and better schools we shall turn our backs on national and global systems, on expert experts and specialist specialties and begin to make our own schools one by one, far from reach of systems.” ― John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling
For those who are interested in a deep-dive into John Taylor Gatto’s ideas, I recommend The Ultimate History Lesson: A Weekend with John Taylor Gatto: