Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

5. Hector Isn’t the Problem

  • This chapter contains the text of the letter that John Wrote that was published in The Wall Street Journal just after he quit teaching in the New York City Schools. At the time he was also the teacher of the year. His main complaint seems to be that New York City was determined to limit teacher freedom and force a one-size-fits-all approach on all teachers. Kids were also sorted into special ed and gifted classes. Like myself, John doesn’t seem to think that labeling kids is ethical.
  • Hector is a student who was sorted into a class one notch above special ed. Since the school didn’t try to meet Hector’s specific needs he became a discipline problem. From what I’ve seen New York has some good schools, but they also have too many bad schools. They suffer from a bloated bureaucracy and exist in a politically charged environment. With over one million students it’s just too big in my opinion.

6. The Camino de Santiago

  • While teaching 13-year-olds John found that the ones who were most addicted to TV were also the worst students in many respects. As part of his Guerrilla Curriculum, he arranged for each of his students to “skip” school for a number of days and walk around parts of New York City that they hadn’t been to before. He got the idea from a pilgrimage road in Spain called The Camino de Santiago. As the students walked they had to engage in some useful field of study. It could be observations of things like dress, speech, architecture, or window displays integrated with interviews and library research. They had to analyze what they saw and produce a product like a field guide, map, or history.
  • The big idea is that reality, when tied to compelling intellectual work, causes feedback circuits in a majority of the young to produce substantial growth. This would in a sense undo the crippling effect of passive TV watching and mindless computer activity. John believes that all students should have the chance to make these kinds of pilgrimages in and beyond their communities. If the government won’t do that for you, you must do it for yourself and your children.

7. Weapons of Mass Instruction

  • As an English teacher John was determined to sabotage the system. He started by assembling an accurate biography of each student. He reached out to parents, siblings, friends, and enemies for data. Then he constructed a personal course for each student by asking them three things they wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year and three weaknesses they wanted to overcome. There was no censorship and the students’ priorities became his. This approach served to motivate students to work hard and to recruit outside resources to help. They also engaged in self-grading. In essence, they were responsible for educating themselves.
  • School curricula are controlled by the powerful and this is not new. For example, in Australia sheep grazing is bad for the ocean environment, which includes the great barrier reef. Thanks to the power of the sheep lobby this doesn’t end up in Australian textbooks. Your appearance has a lot to do with your success, which is never taught. Being overweight predisposes you to diabetes yet schools serve high-calorie meals and often give students access to soda machines. Being skilled in speaking promotes success yet schools spend most of the time on reading and almost never on speaking skills.
  • The rest of this chapter continues to build the case that school strips self-awareness from students. There are a lot of don’ts that students hear as well as some that are implied. Some of those would be: don’t have your own ideas, don’t show initiative, don’t be independent, don’t make your own choices, and don’t take responsibility for your own learning. In essence schools along with help from parents work to extend childhood. There is a story of a father who disgusted with his daughter’s independent nature offered to buy her a 26-foot sailboat if she would sail it around the world. To spite him she dropped out of school and did it.

8. What is Education?

  • Here we have a speech John gave to the US Senate in 1991. When asked about what education would look like in 2000 he replied that it would look the same as it did in 1991 and that the 1991 version wasn’t much different from the 1891 version. The education of 1791 was much different as people went about learning what they needed from their environments rather than being trapped in factory classrooms. He uses how we learn how to drive and use computers without the aid of schooling as an example of how we could learn other things. He notes that the driving test is pass/fail and that you can keep taking it until you pass.
  • John notes that political leaders, educators, and many vendors have an interest in keeping education just the way it is. Important things like what to do with time, the dynamics of relationships, using rules of evidence rather than memorizing the opinions of others, actively seeking variety, and not depending on wealth for happiness are seldom taught. Here we also find a rant against standardized testing, which I and other authors of books summarized here have done as well.
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