Here is a book review I wrote last year for the University of Winnipeg Student Anthology.

Gatto’s book had all the controversial themes that would make for entertaining reading – he’s a great teacher, a politically incorrect (for Canadians) American libertarian, a proponent of an interesting but far-fetched conspiracy, a widely-read shoot-from- the-hip kind of guy, passionate, and idiosyncratic (did I mention his American-ness?).


Can “open source” education be moral?

A book review of Weapons of Mass Instruction, by John Taylor Gatto

If you believe the Marxist educator Paolo Freire, education is always a political act. Its primary purpose is freedom – political freedom. But Freire was wrong to politicize all of education. Apart from politics, education is an exercise in a different kind of freedom – of the effort to think freely, and the ability to contemplate one’s purpose in life.

A teacher’s goal should be to form civic virtue among the citizens of a particular nation, and it so happens that part of being a good democratic citizen is the ability to weigh different views of justice with intelligence. So the kind of freedom we seek for our students lies somewhere between the political and the truly free or liberal, in the sense of “liberal arts.” There is no question that we would like students to conform to our political standards of human rights, multiculturalism and sustainability while giving them the tools to think and decide for themselves.

But wouldn’t you be confused, if you were constantly told you were free, but in reality were made to conform?

Enter John Taylor Gatto. He taught 30 years of public school in New York State and was named “Teacher of the Year” in 1991. He’s known for strong libertarian views and his attack on public schooling. The same year he received the award he wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal in which he promised to “stop hurting more children.” And then, he quit. His book Dumbing Us Down explained why. Public school, he claimed, was largely based on a hidden curriculum meant to remove students from actual life challenges. School replaced the self-worth gained by real responsibility with artificial “self-esteem,” granted to those who followed through with social expectations and phony assessment.

You should know about Gatto, not just because we are entering a period of Conservative majority [Canada, 2011], but because his methods of teaching were highly successful. And when the method works, you use it. More importantly, you look at how he got his ideas in the first place.

Gatto’s latest book, Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009), is a case for what he calls “open-source” learning. Inspired by the early American entrepreneurial spirit, he says students should develop and explore their own interests by solving problems in the real world and learning from competent mentors. Like Sir Ken Robinson, Gatto claims that schools kill creativity, only he believes it was a deliberate strategy on the part of America’s elite governing and corporate class.

Generations of New York students learned from Gatto that rules, bells, and protocol meant precious little in the grand scheme of life – a life meant to be lived with passion, devoted to self-knowledge, and free from capitalist mind control. At the beginning of every year, Gatto would create a profile for every student and then follow through on their interests and talents. He took his classes out of their cells and let them loose on the Big Apple, presenting them with the challenges of real life – to interview, observe, sketch, journal, plan, and create.

Gatto sought to cure men and women of their schooling and ensure that bored students would no longer graduate to become bored teachers. For him, students were young men and women, not adolescents. Gatto says the term was coined in 1904 by psychologist G. Stanley Hall and was literally a hospital chart meant to label a dangerously irrational state of human growth requiring “psychological controls inculcated through schooling.” Ironically, Gatto wanted to free these young men and women by working in the same system that churned out grown up adolescents.

As a libertarian, Gatto sees the individual and their freedom of will as sacrosanct – any government imposition is a denial of this basic freedom. You may recall this argument from the American “Tea Party” movement, some of whose members, like Fox News host Glenn Beck, have concocted elaborate conspiracy theories about how the government is preparing to take away your soul.

In Weapons of Mass Instruction, Gatto provides a parade of punchy quotes gathered in earlier research as a PhD in the history of American education. In short, his argument is as follows: industrial capitalists and the state have consciously sought to control the minds of the young by subjecting them to the methods of behavioural psychologists and consumer propaganda. They did this because too much entrepreneurial activity and freedom of thought would threaten the stability of society. Benjamin Bloom, for example, shows up as a “mad scientist” interested in knowing and thus controlling every stage of human development. America is a sort of Egypt waiting for the revolution of open source media, an oppressive regime that lives by the rhetoric of “liberty.” This magical word was immortalized by Thomas Jefferson who denounced slave trading while owning slaves himself.

Gatto takes aim at the pragmatist transformation of educational philosophy in the late 19th century. Charles S. Pierce, writing in 1877, placed social cohesion above freedom of thought. True individual liberty, he said, was a mirage. Science was the measure of truth and would lead to liberty for society as a whole. Only a handful of men could be trusted with logic and science:

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence…For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain. (The Fixation of Belief)

Pierce taught a generation of American intellectuals the meaning of “liberty” from the halls of Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876 on the Prussian model. Gatto portrays John Hopkins as the fount of all (Prussian) evil. It revolutionized American universities by displacing the liberal arts and making science king. One can see where Gatto is going with this – the modern research university spawned a class of social architects working closely together to improve mankind through science. And the engine of modern science is industrial capitalism. The proof for this is the legacy of Pierce’s students – 28th President Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey. You’ll recall that Dewey’s “progressivism” is based on the belief that it is more important to become socialized and absorb cultural values rather than understand them, and more important to “solve problems” rather than to ask the “why?” questions of life.

For Gatto, the “Prussian” model of education is a sinister plot against the inherent liberty of Americans. If it weren’t for Prussian mind-control educational methods in Europe, the first and second world wars might have been averted (this was also the opinion of Eric Maria Remarque and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). School boards in the US were increasingly centralized following the Civil War, making it easier for capitalists and government to control them.

Gatto’s libertarian streak may be easy to brush off, but remember that Noam Chomsky too is a libertarian of sorts, and they share a central concern:  they believe the goal of industrial capitalism conflicts with the aims of a true education. The best consumers are docile and passive, accustomed to think that freedom of choice equals freedom of thought. To give students a sense of freedom, we teach them “critical thinking” which develops the skill of analyzing advertisements, as long as they keep watching TV. Gatto’s critique of this kind of slavery oscillates in sync with the Frankfurt School Marxists, Horkheimer and Adorno, as well. In the 1960s, they argued that culture in America was becoming an industry. Enlightenment and a democratic leveling of taste was actually a “mass deception,” intended to flatter the consumer while pilfering their wallet.

One of the great redeeming qualities of Gatto, despite his provocative conspiracy theory, is his return to the classics. Through his own “open source” education, Gatto taught himself to read Adam Smith, who was very concerned about the effects of capitalism on the intellectual and moral virtues. In Smith’s treatise, Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argues that only a true education could heal the wounds caused by the free-market: the accompanying cowardice, stupidity, sluggishness, indifference to reality, and obsession with animal desires. These are certainly the demons of modern schooling, where video games and Paris Hilton conspire to thwart our best attempts at making curriculum relevant. But Adam Smith was not referring to public schooling as the cure for these ills. It was something much more – it was a liberal education. This is a problem for Gatto, and another of his interesting contradictions.

While praising the freedom of reading and experimenting widely in any area of interest, Gatto criticizes the idea of liberal education as elitist and un-American. In a 1909 speech, President Woodrow Wilson said that only an elite should receive a liberal education, while the masses should be prepared for manual labour. Gatto shows how this vision of public schooling was heavily funded by steel and oil barons Carnegie and Rockefeller. He also tries to show that literacy rates fell proportional to the expansion of public schools and literacy programs – in particular the lack of phonics teaching which has plagued readers since WWII.

Educational democratization is both an evil (in the form of public schools) and a good for Gatto (if it supports the freedom of each individual to pursue their interests). In hindsight, however, the outcome of educational democratization in public schooling did lead to the libertarian values Gatto espouses. Think student-led learning, type III enrichment (independent problem solving), flex programs, and fostering an internal locus of control to strengthen resilience in at-risk youth. Not to mention the ubiquitous access to technology that is the inspiration of “open source” learning.

But are we really free? Gatto claims we are far from it. So the question is: what kind of education will make us free? How does Gatto reconcile the “true” liberal education of Adam Smith with pure democratic equality? Gatto’s cult of the individual wins out in the end. While appealing to the concepts of liberty and equality in the US Declaration of Independence, Gatto conveniently sidesteps the famous “Federalist” debate in which Madison argued for a strong central government to guard against potentially dangerous opinions of the masses. He also seems to be caught up in the glamour of the entrepreneur, while decrying the evils of the industrial capitalist.

Gatto’s ideal model of a human being is Benjamin Franklin, who apprenticed at the age of 12 to a printer, opened his own shop at 17, and went on to found public libraries and become the ambassador to France. He was entirely self-taught. His book is full of examples like this – Lincoln, Franklin, human genome project leader Francis Collins, and aerospace inventor Richard Branson, to name a few. The key was that they followed their own genius. However, far from seeking wisdom and knowledge for its own sake, Gatto simply seems to be in love with the underdog capitalist. In this way, his libertarian vision of education is no less pragmatist than Charles Pierce. If only America would embrace an “open source” education, they would become competitive once again. What about training in moral and civic virtue?

The real value in reading Weapons of Mass Instruction is its willingness to explore the question: “what is the purpose of education?” It is important to note that Gatto incorporated methods such as individualized learning into his teaching because he thought long and hard about that question. He focused on a question in the liberal arts first, before looking to economic competitiveness, or other utilitarian or motives. The documentary Waiting for Superman didn’t go this far, preferring to frame the failure of public schools as a matter of global market competitiveness. For Gatto, education is about a relationship which encompasses all of life which is best experienced away from bells, rules, and phony self-esteem boosters. He quotes Immanuel Kant – “Any educational quest has four questions at its heart: What can I know? What may I hope? What ought I to do? What is Man?” The point is that Gatto thinks these questions are answered for students before they even step into the classroom, and hence their quest for independent thought has been, let’s say, pre-empted.

We need to find a way to balance conformity to political ideals with the tools that allow students think and decide for themselves. While fostering democratic independence and creative problem solving are key elements both of our economy and democracy, it doesn’t not quite address the spiritual and moral dimensions of the challenges facing youth today. To do this, we must seek an “open source” education into the universal questions. This requires an understanding of liberal education.

Contrary to what Sir Ken Robinson would have you think in his overused TED Talk, a traditional liberal education is not the face of rote learning and creativity destruction. Rather, returning to a liberal education in its traditional sense is exactly what our generation needs to cope with the dizzying disconnect between wisdom and practice. Knowledge is not what you put into the proverbial “jar.” Rote learning is fact-based. In a liberal education, knowledge is more like wisdom – the ability to categorize and order which knowledge is most useful in a given situation. What we need most today is to understand how to become free and moral citizens in a capitalist democracy. Politics, economics, and “open source” are only pieces of that puzzle.