Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflection on, and Review of, Gatto's "Weapons of Mass Instruction"

Recently, I read John Taylor Gatto's book "Weapons of Mass Instruction." Gatto, a former New York City Teacher of the Year, has become an outspoken advocate of abolishing compulsory education. While I share his libertarian sentiments, I similarly distrust his solution of "open source education" which basically means that every child is on his or her own to get an education however they can (i.e., some may be homeschooled, some may become apprentices at an early age, and some may have to "learn on the street.")

One criticism I did not put in my book review was that Gatto demonstrates a Rousseauean faith - a faith I do not share - in the "natural" education written about in books like Emile and those authored by Maria Montessori. Here, students choose their own educational trajectory and, through sheer will, educate themselves (possibly with teachers playing the role of 'facillitator'). This idea sounds good in theory, and would probably work for some highly-motivated and passionate kids. But (a) youth and short-sightedness are otften positively correlated, and I shudder to think of how many kids would not become educated (about anything socially productive or marketable) if left ot their own devices. (b) I think that this approach mistakenly assumes that students know what their interests are from the get-go (where many actually find new interests via education that they would not have chosen on first blush).


I began this book with high hopes. I am a libertarian and, like Gatto, a teacher who is very unsatisfied with our (mis)education of children. Like Gatto, I strongly feel that the "one size fits all" system may be more accurately summarized as a "one size fits a few quite well, and the rest can fend for themselves" system.

For all that, I found Gatto's case to be surprisingly weak. First, Gatto breaks a cardinal rule of those aiming at reform: tearing down a system need always be accompanied by putting something explicit in its place. Gatto's "open source education" proposal is far from explicit. "Let kids get education on their own, each in their own way," is about the extent of his suggestion, and the suggestion begs many questions: what about those who come from unmotivated or ill-equipped (financially or intellectually) families? How can we ensure that students pursue not only what they are immediately interested in, but also become well-rounded? Gatto might not feel these questions to be important enough to address, but many others do.

He attempts to allay our concerns about open source education by reminding us that many folks have been successful without formal schooling. Abe Lincoln, after all, became president with only a fourth grade education. NASCAR driver Danica Patrick does not possess a high school diploma. Craig Venter, of the Human Genome Project, was a D student who passed high school by the skin of his teeth (Gatto fails to mention that he went on to get a BS and PhD, which would ruin his argument against the value of formalized education).

All in all, Gatto provides us with about 30-35 examples of people who have achieved a lot without formal education. I am sure, if you give me about a week, I could come up with at least as many examples of students who did not achieve much without a formal education and an equal number of examples of those who have achieved a lot that would credit formal schooling as a key component to their success. Unfortunately, Gatto's argument here is so highly anecdotal that one is tempted not to call it an argument (but an appeal to emotion).

He does make some interesting observations about formalized schooling's inability to (he says it is a deliberate lack of desire to) foster skills like critical reasoning. I wholly concur, but fail to see how the inexorable conclusion to this is to abolish formal schooling. (Gatto is convinced, in a very conspiracy-theoristic tone, that the government is deliberately dumbing down students to make them better sheep. He never really cites evidence for this.) Gatto's argument here is analogous to a person cooking a recipe and when the results turn out less-than-tasty, automatically making an argument that the utensils (rather than the recipe) is the problem. In other words, the fact that schools often turn out ill-equipped and ill-learned kids could as much be attributed to HOW we instruct rather than the fact that we do it under compulsion. (Other nations don't seem to have our problem turning out kids who can think.)

Frankly, I am surprised that Gatto does not even consider the idea of revamping the school system we have, maybe into a competitive voucher system. And if creating an education system relevant to student interests is the concern, then a voucher system may achieve a similar objective to Gatto's ideal without leaving everything up to chance and luck of the draw, as his "open source education" does.

When it all comes down to it, I admire much that Gatto stands for. Like him, I am deeply dissatisfied with the system of schooling that I teach in, and am convinced that we can make schooling fit individual students better. I, too, decry the increasing centralization of education (and notice that it is accompanied by lessening performance.) But I don't think that Gatto's solution is TOO laissez-faire ("anything goes") in a way that leaves too much up to chance (especially for those who are not lucky enough to have parents who can homeschool or ambition to self-study). He does not provide any reason to suppose that a voucher system could not allay many of the problems he discusses, but in a way that guarantees at least some degree of guarantee that all students have the opportunity to receive schooling.

For a much more interesting, plausible, and fact-based book on educationa reform from a libertarian perspective, read "Education and Captalism."

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