Monday, August 17, 2009

Weapons For or Against the Child

I wasn't really much enjoying John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction, even though I wanted to like it. It badly needed a proofreader, for one thing, and it seemed a bit of a patchwork of things he had already said in other books. I found the second chapter irritating in its catalogue of dropouts who "made it". The criterion for making it seemed to be making money, no matter how. OK, the criterion was "success" but if it is divorced from Goodness/Truth/Beauty(as with the example of one lady of ill repute who "made it" by writing a book about her past misadventures) then it just gets flattened into worldliness. This seemed like a version of the pragmatism that dealt a heavy blow to learning in the first place.

However, I started getting more in tune with the book's intention as I continued reading, and though I haven't finished reading it yet, I do realize that Gatto's focus is about power, empowering the kid, rather than pragmatics. His anger about school is that it has a weakening effect, and he thinks it is often intentional. I don't think he's paranoid here after reading so much of that early-2oth-century eugenics and industrial agenda. I read the actual words of the people concerned in the transformation, and it was sobering.

Is this a valid distinction, the one between "pragmatics" and "power"? I am not sure. Any thoughts? Normally I would go and google for a while and then think about it during the day but now that we're starting our school year I can't do that. My brain cells are needed for pragmatics ;-).

I would say, off the top of my head, that they are different. In other words, when Gatto gives examples of people who are able to live in empowered ways (I hate that word, and he does not use it, but I have to use jargony shorthand to make up for writing this in a hurry) -- he uses examples of success, which might seem pragmatically oriented. But this is because measurable results are by definition "results", and pragmatics are about results too.

In other parts of the book he talks about an examined, intentional, vigorous, LIVED life, which seems more like the essence of his point. It is like Chesterton's maxim: Any dead thing can go with the current; only a living thing can go against it. (I don't have time to look up the exact words).

Education should be about developing those muscles for counter-swimming, not weakening them. Not that we reflexively always swim against the current, but that we need to be able to if necessary. And it's always been agreed that the good life is usually going to involve at least SOME swimming against the tide. Life as a jellyfish is just not the summum bonum of human existence.

So I take that to be Gatto's main thesis. His other, related thesis is that this is a human imperative. It doesn't have anything to do with a bell curve, or Charles Murray's "real education" which involves winnowing and sorting the supposed wheat from the chaff at the very beginning of the educational process. It is about Every. Single. Human. Being. Aidan has just as much right to a human, empowering education as his precocious early-reader little brother. His human value has nothing to do with how he does in the brain-circuses.

I can go along with that, and forgive the crasser examples of success and some of the poor sentence editing in the book.

I also have a take-away point, which was the main reason I started writing this -- but as usual, it takes me about six paragraphs to actually GET there. Education is about empowering -- ooh, I wish I had a better word than that!!! Let me start over. When I'm thinking about what to do on a given homeschool day, the thought process doesn't have to be so much -- structure vs non-structure, unschooling vs classical. It's more about what is best for aiding in developing capacity and reflection and competence. That seems to simplify things for me and get rid of some of my ongoing dilemmas. I wanted to hold the thought so it didn't slip away. I'll probably have to write some more about it to actually make it clear, though ;-).

In that light, we put the strength -- the "weapons" or tools of learning -- in the child's hands, as much as possible, while being fully aware that this equips the person to be a force of his or her own (AMDG, of course, in my world!), with all that entails. We don't bend all our efforts to minimizing the child's strength, and use the educational weapons AGAINST the child. Sure, we have to teach them to use the weapon rightly, not just flail around to their own peril and that of the innocent bystanders. We may have to practice with wooden or buttoned swords for a while, but in order to eventually produce REAL fighters, not to produce wooden, weak ones that fit better with society's agenda. Interesting -- shall have to think more about the ramifications of that.


  1. Yes, Gatto is not exactly eloquent, but he is passionate. However, this was the first book of his I read; so, it didn't feel repetitive.

    Another word that I took away from the book that wasn't actually there (like empowerment) was "fulfillment."

    While his examples of success often included money as the indicator, I didn't walk away thinking that was what he thought the bottom line of education was. I felt that a good education would be one that allowed us to be completely *human* in various capacities. That requires freedom, true freedom of thought as well as freedom of person.

    I wasn't surprised to find out after reading it that he is a dedicated Libertarian. ;)

    Of course, as Catholics, we know that true freedom comes within the law. Gatto never said this outright, but his frequent Classical references reminded me that the goal of a Classical education is to lay down the appropriate tools for this. That the better we understand the limits both morally and philosophically, the more freely we can let our minds roam without fear of their getting lost:)

    One reference I keep thinking of when I recall the book was the statistic that the number of patents filed for in the US has declined since the start of compulsory education. That tidbit alone spoke volumes to me!

  2. I am very interested in your thoughts about this, and in Lindsay's comment. I, too, am troubled when people seem to make income the benchmark of "success." I look forward to hearing more.

  3. "It's more about what is best for aiding in developing capacity and reflection and competence."

    I liked that thought, Willa. I tend to get too caught up in the "structure vs. non-structure, unschooling vs. classical" distinctions...

  4. That was thoughtprovoking. I have a few comments about autism and Gatto that I have been trying to put on my blog but dialysis eats all my free time. Could you me in your pictures above which child is the one with the transplant? I have a good book that I think you would enjoy
    Moral Darwinism, How we all became Hedonists.


  5. so odd, so often I check your blog to see you have just posted something very similar to what I was about to post (though written far better than myself:) I am at about the same point in the Gatto book, and loved Dumbing Us Down, but had the very same reaction to the new one that you are having. The other thing I find very problematic is that while I do not believe public education is the best at creating successful people, I also do not thing that EVERY child is able to be fully successful simply by being left alone to pursue his/her interests. That is, the unschooled successes of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson etc. had much to do with the quality of the character of the man and the self motivation they each possessed. I know many people who have become very fulfilled people without a degree - but it was because they had such an internal drive and motivation that nothing could stop them. I am not sure that every person has the determination/desire/motivation that makes for the great success stories he quotes. For that reason, the idea of simply unschooling and letting them follow whatever path they feel like pursuing may not always work with each child. I suppose some would argue that it is school that takes away that self motivation, but I am not convinced that is the case. I also know many homeschool graduates (contemporaries of myself) who are in their mid 30's and still not really going anywhere in life - no family, career or even real direction in life. They were unschooled, never forced to learn what they didn't want to learn, encouraged to apprentice etc. But they are not the motivated type who made that work for them. I think there is a balance somewhere to be found - and must also be defined by moral guidelines which does not fit well into a completely libertarian view of the world. okay, did not mean to make this so long, I just thought it was funny, this is what I have been thinking about all day!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!