This post reviews John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (New Society Publishers, 2009).
John Taylor Gatto is a legendary figure in the world of homeschooling. My bookon homeschool history describes how by the late 1980s secular and conservative Protestant homeschoolers increasingly became estranged. The large Christian conventions and publications stopped inviting as speakers leaders who did not share their worldview. Gatto is a standout exception to this generalization. His stature is great both among conservative homeschoolers like those affiliated with HSLDA and among more liberal homeschoolers like those affiliated with Home Education Magazine, and he regularly keynotes conferences and conventions of all parties.
This, his latest book, is something of a grab-bag of classic Gatto themes. My review here will not systematically work through his chapters but will use it as an excuse to make some comments on Gatto and his meaning for the homeschooling movement.
Gatto is best known for his fierce and relentless opposition to public education, articulated most famously in his 1992 book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Less well known is his quite serious research into the history of public education, published under the title The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation of the Problem of Modern Schooling. This new book stands somewhat between his older work. Much of it is autobiographical and impressionistic, but at times Gatto taps into his more scholarly side. The book is really a collection of independent essays, some long, some brief, edited, compiled, and amended by Gatto in 2008. As such the text’s tone vacillates, sometimes violently, between measured description and analysis on the one hand and embittered, occasionally paranoid, jeremiad on the other. Gatto himself calls the book “a journal of the reflections of an old man whose thoughts, sometimes tormented, sometimes lucid…”(p.175)
I’d like first to make a couple of comments about Gatto’s methodology, and then share some observations about his significance for the homeschooling movement.
First, regarding methodology, it needs to be noted that Gatto has a very frustrating tendency to make claims, quote sources, refer to documents, and so on without ever providing citations that would allow the researcher to check up on him. Sometimes in the body of the text he gives enough information for the assiduous student, with effort, to possibly find his source, but often not. His Underground History suffers from the same flaw, though it does include a brief note at the end promising the reader that he has consulted “somewhat more than three thousand” documents. In that note Gatto dismisses the tendency to cite sources carefully as the misguided obsession of the professoriate. I’m inclined to think, however, that it was laziness more than anything else that caused Gatto to forego the footnotes. Taking care to cite one’s sources is a big pain and greatly increases the time it takes to write a book. Unfortunately, Gatto’s refusal to cite chapter and verse undermines one of his most cherished ideals. We must take everything he says on faith, trusting his authority. Gatto’s approach makes it far more difficult to engage his text with the kind of critical judgment he wants people to cultivate. “Question everything” he seems to be saying, “except for my books.”
A second methodological affliction, common among polemicists, is Gatto’s tendency to cherry pick anecdotes and facts that paint his opposition (public education) in its worst possible light and to do the reverse for his own side. In Gatto’s world every child is infantalized, deformed, and dehumanized by schools, while all dropouts become self-made millionaires. Gatto loves to tell stories of self-made men and women. In every case the moral is that if one can escape the poison of compulsory schooling, a rich and fulfilling life awaits. He also loves to tell horror stories of administrative incompetence, curricular foolishness, and bureaucratic pointlessness in public schools. Nowhere in his prose is there any hint that a child could possibly find school enriching, fulfilling, life-changing. One of the principles I try to teach all of my students is that when engaging an opponent in an argument you want to do your very best to represent the other side fairly. The best philosophers, people like Aquinas or Kant, could make their opponents’ arguements better than their opponents could make them themselves. I call this capacity intellectual charity. Gatto does not practice this virtue. Instead he, like so many other pundits and politicos, jumps on anything and everything that could possibly be used as amunition against schooling and ignores any evidence that might counteract his characterizations.
Let me give an example from the book that illustrates both of my methodological concerns. In two sections of the book Gatto talks about physical attractiveness. “It has long been acknowledged that the most powerful prejudice in America is our national hatred of fat people,” he begins. He then describes how every year
Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elites turn away thousands of applicants with perfect SAT scores and thousands with perfect 4.0 GPAs….. But shapely, well-dressed, physically vital candidates are given a substantial head start–as if elite college was some sort of eugenics project. (p.121)
Gatto then goes on to excoriate schools for making American children fat by keeping them sedentary and serving them fast food. He repeats the critique almost verbatim later in the book (pp. 196-197).
Gatto here is hitting on something very important. He’s absolutely right that most school cafeterias provide unhealthy options that children tend to choose when given a choice, and he is correct about the connection between increased emphasis on standardized testing and cuts in recess and physical education. A measured, well-researched critique on these themes would be a real contribution. But instead we get unsubstantiated claims that would lead anyone not already convinced of Gatto’s view to question his judgment. Is it really true that hatred of fat people is our nation’s most powerful prejudice? Just who has long been acknowledging this? I’ve never read ANYONE but Gatto ever make this claim, and Gatto of course provides no sources to substantiate it. And, while I’m deeply intrigued by the notion that Harvard and Yale might be selecting students based on physical attractiveness, I’ve never seen a source for that either. If Gatto had cited a source or two his claims would be easier to take seriously.
In addition, a good treatment of the issue of childhood obesity would find plenty of culprits other than public schools, starting of course with the family. Parents play a far greater role than schools in determining a child’s eating habits and level of physical activity. It’s in the home that children watch television and play video games. All of this is so obvious it hardly bears mentioning, but Gatto doesn’t mention it. Whatever the problem is in American society, for Gatto the cause is always compulsory schooling. Gatto also doesn’t note the contradiction between his bedrock complaint that schools force students to do things with his own recommendation that schools force children to eat healthy foods and engage in more exercise.
Gatto’s cavalier attitude and sloppy use of sources unfortunately makes it easy to dismiss his ideas as the work of a crank or crackpot. This is a real shame, for much of what he says is profound and powerful. But given his predelictions he will likely never be taken seriously by anyone not already predisposed to agree with him.
Which leads me to my final point about Gatto’s remarkable, perhaps unique, ability to resonate with conservative Christian homeschoolers and with homeschoolers coming from a more left-leaning perspective. In many ways his career is reminiscent of John Holt, who, while an atheist, was also able to make common cause with religious conservatives. Both Holt and Gatto are great writers, adept at telling chilling stories of institutional abuses against children. Both read widely and incorporate their reading into their work while at the same time producing prose that is very accessible. Both are sensitive to and respectful of religious belief.
In Gatto’s case religion is a good because it gives people a higher authority than the State. Christians and others with religious commitment are willing to speak truth to power, to resist the government when it conflicts with their fundamental beliefs.
That said, if you read Gatto carefully you discern that he does find elements of Christianity deeply troubling. He detests Calvinism especially, for two reasons. First, he utterly rejects predestination, seeing it as one of the primary historical causes for the deterministic tendency of schools today to categorize some children as saved and most as damned (or, in contemporary parlance, the “gifted” vs. those with “special needs”). Gatto also despises Calvinism’s doctrine of “total depravity,” with its pessimistic view of child nature. If children are natural born sinners, then it makes sense for adults to force them into compulsory schools to beat the sin out of them. Gatto recognizes the historic connection between New England Puritans and compulsory education, and he doesn’t like it.
But so long as Gatto sticks to his public school critique and holds his tongue about the evils of Calvinism when addressing Christian audiences, he will likely continue to be one of the few celebrity homeschooling advocates who can get liberals like Pat Farenga and conservatives like Michael Farris to endorse his books and homeschoolers of all persuasions to read them.