With Anzac day just past, and red wreaths still fresh on the War Memorial, it seems like a good time for a book chat.
John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling created quite a stir when it was first published 25 years ago. Written by an extraordinarily successful and completely disillusioned schoolteacher, it has become something of a classic – sadly, also an icon for dreamers who think they can change the school system from the inside out. Recently Gatto shook the world again with Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto was only able to write this book, he told an interviewer(1), because when he quit teaching and finally realized what he had been made to do to children for thirty years, his anger drove him to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week , until he had amassed the evidence he needed.
One thing disappointed me, or rather surprised me, when I read the book. Gatto doesn’t seem to be aware of one of the conclusions his own research points to.
With a fury which occasionally becomes abusive, he details how the idea of compulsory schooling was seized upon by the rulers of Prussia(2) in the 19th century as the method by which to achieve state control of a unified country. Before long, other nations caught on to the idea and started herding all their children into state indoctrination centres too.
And here’s the point Gatto never quite makes: The schools weren’t just teaching statism as a pleasant, abstract ideal. Their aim was military might, the power to conquer other countries, and the curriculum they were teaching was loaded with the ideas of the glories of war and dying for the fatherland. Don’t just take it from me – look at some of the school books of the period.
So… all around the world, children were being taught that there is nothing nobler or finer than to die for king and country. And in 1914, they all went out and did just that.
It wasn’t until I read this book that I could actually understand the earth-trembling bitterness of Wilfred Owen, the great poet of the First World War. If you haven’t read his Dulce et Decorum Est (easily found on the Internet), I would highly recommend it as a side dish with Weapons of Mass Instruction. Notice how Owen rails at those who have taught children “ardent for… glory” to believe “the old Lie” about dying for the fatherland, and contrasts it with the hideous reality of soldiers half-mad with horror, utterly unmanned, watching helplessly as a comrade chokes to death from poison gas.
“Lest We Forget”? I think there’s a lot here that we haven’t even started to think about.
(1) Interview serialized in Keystone magazine, 2010.
(2) Prussia was one of the states that united to form modern Germany around 1871.