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Education Reporter

Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers 2008, 215 pages, $24.95.

Former New York State "Teacher of the Year" John Taylor Gatto has an urgent message for American parents: "School is not a good place for your kids," even if they get good grades.

The author is at pains to break the spell most are under about the purpose of modern education. We are told compulsory schooling is meant to help people achieve their personal best, but historical documents tell a different story. For example, a 1906 Rockefeller General Education Board document reads, "In our dreams . . . people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands."

William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, is shockingly blunt about his vision. "Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata," he said. "This is not an accident but the result of substantial education which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual."

Harris regarded children as property of the state, and believed they ought to be alienated from families, traditions, religion and themselves so they would not pose a threat to the state or the industries they were trained to serve. Other powerful people concurred. Gatto knows it sounds incredible, so he piles on the evidence.

The 30-year teaching veteran also shows how the "open source," family and self-directed education common before the 20th century, served America quite well. It produced Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. He also tells the stories of modern men and women who succeeded without a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Modern schooling disconnects Americans from the "Western intellectual tradition that gave societies the greatest gift of personal liberties they had ever seen." Instead young minds are filled with disconnected facts and subjected to standardized tests that cripple imagination and real learning.

Gatto makes a case that 12 years of "incarceration" dulls the mind by stripping kids of real-world responsibilities that develop competence and confidence. Colonial-era children made vital contributions to family and society by age 12; modern education unnaturally lengthens childhood.

"Factory" schooling is now the largest industry in the U.S. Textbook publishers, building contractors, and bus companies benefit from a mass captive customer base just as much as teachers and administrators. Change must come from the bottom, insists Gatto, and he offers specific tactics for disarming the leviathan that is modern schooling.

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