Education Achievement Has Declined Radically Since World War II

Published April 1, 2009

Weapons of Mass Instruction
by John Taylor Gatto
Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2009
206 pages, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-86571-631-5, $24.95

John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction is an articulate, compelling description of the state of U.S. education, in which the author details the unnecessary and in fact harmful aspects of public education that have developed since the end of World War II.

Gatto notes our nation’s literacy rate dropped from 96 percent in 1945 to 44 percent in 2003. At the same time, the number of children being educated by “government compulsory schooling” has increased each decade since 1945. Student enrollment peaked at 51 million in the 1970s, decreased until 1984, and now stands at 55 million children and rising.

How is it possible for more of the population to be schooled and yet have a greater percentage of people lack basic literacy and computing skills by adulthood than in previous generations? That question is the premise of Gatto’s book. As schooling became mandatory, he observes, it began stripping children away from real-world learning experiences.

Nonacademic Success Stories

Consider the achievements of Bill Gates and Michael Dell—both innovative and successful computer entrepreneurs, yet both lacking college degrees. Like them, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamrad and John Kanzius, who discovered a way to destroy tumors without chemotherapy or radiation, are successful examples of what people can achieve without following the educational path our culture deems of utmost importance.

Those men learned through what Gatto calls open source learning—a natural method his observations conclude is most efficient. By definition, open source learning means looking at everything as a possible road to self-mastery, with everyone you encounter as a potential teacher.

Before public schools took over education in the mid-nineteenth century, this was how children learned, Gatto observes. Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, and even Andrew Carnegie—all were learned men, but not through the current “twelve-year wringer our kids go through,” Gatto notes. Similarly, Warren Buffet started his own business at age 6, supported himself by 13, and was rejected by the Wharton School of Business at 18.

The U.S. public school system relies on cookie-cutter methods—making every child fit the same mold as those who went before. There is no incentive for individual initiative. As Ellwood P. Cubberley wrote in 1922 in his book Public School Administration, “Our schools are factories in which the raw product (children) are to be shaped and fashioned.”

Free to Dream

Today few students manage to break out of this mold. Two who did, Gatto writes, are John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Market, and Kip Tindell, founder of The Container Store. Both men stopped short of finishing their degrees at the University of Texas as they first set out, and they started their businesses on philosophies they were not taught in business school—that “the purpose of business is not to make money for owners and shareholders, but to satisfy customers.”

Clearly this is not the motto of the nation’s public schools. Gatto describes public schooling as wreaking havoc on society, creating “wall-to-wall conformity” and “breaking families, intellects, and character.”

Gatto, who spent 30 years as a public school teacher, encourages his readers to think of what society would look like if 55 million trapped schoolchildren learning to be consumers were suddenly set free, with flexible schedules and learning environments. His observations ring true—but he does not identify the steps necessary to change the system.

Need to Understand Purpose

K-12 public education is a central part of our society, yet dropping out sometimes seems like the only way a student can escape a failing school. Clearly the nation’s children need more choices so each family may find the school that best brings out their children’s real potential.

It is time to step away from arguments over standardized tests, the demands of teacher unions, and how much to spend on facility bonds and instead concentrate on finding out exactly what the purpose of schooling children is. Gatto’s book is useful in focusing on the lost value of self-knowledge, sound judgment, and adding value to society, which allows us to see the basic flaws in our mass-marketed, government-monopolized education system.

Providing for Diversity

Though Gatto does not recommend specific reform policies, he does conclude students should not have to attend a school assigned by the government. Instead, he says, schools should range in flexibility and innovation to fit the diversity of American students. States should give educational responsibility back to the family, he says, which would give families an incentive to reflect on what they want their children’s education to be like and to find the schools that can provide it.

“Positive change directed from the top isn’t likely to happen,” Gatto writes. “It would require political courage from men and women who benefit from the existence of mass-schooling … and parents, students, and yes teachers, like myself.”

If that happened, schools could run like businesses, focused on satisfying their customers by giving them choices and quality, Gatto notes.

Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is a research assistant at the Pacific Research Institute.