photo by Sheri Dixon

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review- "Weapons of Mass Instruction"

"Weapons of Mass Instruction", by John Taylor Gatto isn't a new release, nor a bargain bin book find. I'd been wanting to read it since before we decided to home school Alec (and he's finishing up 6th grade now) but never got the chance.

I love this book. I love it because it validates every reason we're home schooling our son.

Both Ward and I suspected even during our own sentence in school systems (12 years for me, 16 years for Ward) that school wasn't so much about learning, about education, about donning actual thinking caps and expanding our intellectual horizons.

It seemed to both of us that we were being molded, formed, spindled and mutilated into what was CALLED "good upstanding contributing members of society" but felt a whole lot like the end result was intended to be "future Employees of the Month".

It was horrifying.

Ward is a far better person than I am. He went to school, got good grades, went to college and graduated with a shiny degree in Biology.

Me? Ummm...yeah.

When I was in junior high school, our town's schools were overcrowded and they hadn't built a new school yet so we had "split shift" schedules. 7th graders went to school from noon till 5pm and 8th and 9th graders from 7am-noon.

Our high school was a social experiment in "modular scheduling"- instead of Monday-Friday schedules, we had days 1-6. Instead of set class times, each class was 2 mods (40 minutes) or 3 mods (60 minutes). Most classes were on days 1/3/5 or 2/4/6. Before the school year started, they gave us the classes we were REQUIRED to take that year and a list of electives. We had to take X many credits to graduate. Then they let us do our own scheduling.

College-bound friends crammed themselves non-stop (except for the required 1 mod minimum for lunch) in a frenzy of grade point and credit attainment. I saw the scheduling as a different sort of challenge. My crowning achievement was senior year, day 4- I had class from 8:20-9am. And then I was free.

High school was pretty much a social event for me. Not that stupid useless crap like cheerleading and sports- I was on the school paper and a theater geek. When I was actually in the building anyway. Modular scheduling coupled with this being the '70's- before schools were on lockdown with metal detectors the exterior doors were ALL unlocked and people came and went unquestioned. There WERE school cops. We loved the school cops. They had the best weed. Or so I heard...

So it was pretty easy to come and go. I spent alot of time in the "go" mode. I'd walk to the city park down on the river- not a manicured/fountained sort of park, this was a "too swampy to build on so lets donate it to the city" sort of park. It was wild and isolated and I loved it. I'd walk to the art museum that had the glorious old fashioned gardens around it- the same beloved old historic home-turned-into-museum my mom had taken me to since I was 2 years old. During school hours.

I actually worked for the head of the English department who owned a small farm- during harvest season he'd have his teachers ask their students each day "When are you finished today? Wanna make some cash?" and off we'd go- like migrant workers in the back of his pickup to pick watermelons, or tomatoes, or pluck/process chickens. During school hours.

A few times my friends and I hopped the commuter train to Chicago in the early morning and be back home before dinner. We toured the museums, ate great (and cheap) food and generally hung around. Parental permission? Nah- they'd just worry, or worse- want to come with us. (Guess I'll find out if my mom reads my blog now...)

My POINT is that I learned more about nature study by spending quiet hours at the river's edge, more about hard physical labor at the truck farm, and more about getting around a big city sans wheels and more than pocket change than I ever learned sitting at a desk.

Here's something I've always wondered- I've always wondered how many of my classmates who went through the split shift/modular scheduling years ended up in the normal 9-2-5, because I never did. Our block of graduates hadn't graced a conventional classrooom since we were 13 years old, and I felt acutely the lack of training for "show up for 8 hours a day 5 days a week and obey someone you don't really like doing something that's probably a complete sham".

Oh, I worked. I worked full time from the time I was 16. I bussed tables. I worked at the school (teacher's aide- not tethered to a desk and alot of errand running), I worked any number of part time, half time, graveyard shifts to cobble enough money together to pay bills and stay fed. I worked at a Christmas tree lot, at an ice company, the city paper and a bank. I worked at a finance company and as a camp director. I had no pre-conceived notion of what I was "supposed" to do- other than get out and earn a living if I wanted to eat and have somewhere to live other than a cardboard box under the bridge.

In "Weapons of Mass Instruction" John Taylor Gatto takes us through the evolution of the American school system and explains beautifully what I instinctively felt- school has very little to do with education and everything to do with training a workforce to think spending 40+ hours a week at mind-numbing soul-crushing endeavors is how you're supposed to go through life.

According to the author, one huge tool in pigeonholing people at an early age and keeping them there and focused on learning answers and facts without delving into questions and reasons is standardized testing, which tell exactly nothing about intelligence, or life skills, or anything that makes a damn bit of sense in real life. Standardized tests are Big Business for the testers, an excellent way to keep students stressed and feeling unworthy, and the perfect excuse for not letting teachers...teach. Because such a huge chunk of the school year is spent "teaching to the test".

Somehow I knew that, too. When I was a senior in high school, I went to my parents and said "You know, I don't really know what I want to do for a career yet and I don't want to waste money on college till I'm sure- can I have some of my college money to maybe travel for a while?" This (seemingly sensible to me) request was met with unmitigated gales of laughter. "College money? COLLEGE MONEY?? COLLEGE MONEY??? What do you think we've been feeding and clothing you with for 18 years?"

Nevertheless, these same parents told me I HAD to take the SAT's with my friends just in case I decided I wanted to go to college. So they paid for me to sit my SAT and the morning of the test I showed up with my 2 college-bound friends. My friends went into the maws of the testing room. I hesitated at the door. I asked the woman at the door "Do you work here at the college?" She did. "If I decide I want to go to college in 5 years or 10 years or 20 years will it matter if I take the test today?"

She looked nervous.

"No. It won't matter", she said barely under her breath.

Not aware I was 40 years ahead of my time for John Taylor Gatto's Bartleby Project at the end of the book, I thanked her and turned away from the artificially lit arena of false importance and spent the day reading in the sunshine.

Spend all of a beautiful day sweating over which little dots to blacken in response to questions that have no real significance to Life, the Universe and Everything?

"I prefer not to".

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