Notes on Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling

My notes from the book Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto.

Christian Mills


March 21, 2024

These notes are part of the following collection:

Against School

  • John Taylor Gatto argues that compulsory schooling is designed to make students bored, childish, and conformist, serving the interests of corporations and governments rather than the students themselves.
  • He traces the origins of this system to Prussia and influential figures like Horace Mann and James Bryant Conant.
  • The real purposes of mandatory schooling are to create obedient workers and consumers, prevent the lower classes from uniting, and maintain a manageable population.
  • Despite this, Gatto believes that children have immense potential and that the tricks of compulsory schooling can be avoided by encouraging critical thinking, independence, and a rich inner life.

The Problem of Boredom in Schools

  • Gatto, a former teacher, found that both students and teachers in compulsory schools are bored.

  • Students complain that the work is meaningless and that they want to do something real. Teachers blame the students for being rude and uninterested.

  • Gatto argues that we are all to blame for this boredom, and that it is a childish attitude that should be avoided. His grandfather taught him this lesson at a young age.

    • “He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people to be avoided if possible, certainly not to be trusted.”

The True Purposes of Compulsory Schooling

  • Gatto argues that the real purposes of compulsory schooling are different from the stated goals of creating good people, citizens, and helping each person reach their potential.
  • He cites influential figures like H.L. Mencken, William James, and Orestes Brownson, who argued that American schooling was based on the Prussian system, which was designed to create mediocre intellects and manageable citizens.
  • Harvard president James Bryant Conant and education theorist Alexander Inglis played key roles in shaping modern compulsory schooling to serve these ends.

The Six Basic Functions of Schooling (according to Inglis)

  1. The Adjustive or Adaptive Function: To establish fixed habits of reaction to authority, precluding critical judgment.
  2. The Integrating Function: To make children as alike as possible, conforming to authority.
  3. The Diagnostic and Directive Function: To determine each student’s proper social role and train them accordingly.
  4. The Differentiating Function: To sort children by role and limit their development to what is deemed appropriate for their destination in the social machine.
  5. The Selective Function: To tag the unfit with poor grades and remedial placement, ensuring that they are accepted as inferior and prevented from reproducing.
  6. The Propaedeutic Function: To teach a small fraction of kids how to manage and control a deliberately dumbed-down population.

The Interests Served by Compulsory Schooling

  • Gatto argues that mandatory schooling serves the interests of corporations and governments by creating a servile labor force, a harmless electorate, and a population of mindless consumers.
  • Industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller recognized the potential of public education to serve these ends.
  • President Woodrow Wilson openly advocated for a two-tiered education system, with one class receiving a liberal education and a much larger class being fitted for specific, difficult manual tasks.

The Effects of Compulsory Schooling

  • By separating children from responsibility, independence, and meaningful work, schooling prevents them from truly growing up.
  • Easy divorce, credit, entertainment, and answers have further infantilized the population, creating a nation of children who are easily manipulated by political and commercial interests.

Recommendations for Resisting Compulsory Schooling

  • Teach children to be leaders and adventurers instead of employees and consumers.
  • Encourage critical and independent thinking rather than reflexive obedience.
  • Help children develop a rich inner life through solitude and engagement with serious ideas in history, literature, philosophy, etc.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for real-world challenges and responsibilities.
  • Recognize that genius is common, and that children are capable of extraordinary things when given the chance to develop their potential.

Everything You Know about Schools is Wrong

  • Compulsory schooling in the US was established in the late 19th/early 20th century, driven by industrialists and financiers rather than public demand. The goal was to produce obedient workers and curb independent thinking.
  • Over the 20th century, literacy rates declined dramatically despite increased schooling. Gatto argues this is the intentional result of new teaching methods focused on memorization rather than comprehension.
  • True education has been replaced by schooling aimed at creating “human resources” for big business and government. Independent learning has been stifled in favor of conformity and subordination.
  • Alternative models of open-source, self-directed learning have consistently produced remarkable individuals. Forced schooling prevents young people from reaching their full potential.

The Establishment of Compulsory Schooling

  • In the early 20th century, schooling became compulsory in the US, driven by:
    • Industrialists like Rockefeller and Carnegie
    • A goal of “scientific population control” and eliminating independent family/cultural influences
  • Number of school boards consolidated from 135,000 to 15,000, reducing local control
  • Schools converted into “behavioral training laboratories” focused on psychology and socialization rather than academics

The Decline of Literacy

  • Literacy rates dropped sharply from 96% in 1940 to under 73% for Vietnam draftees, despite more years of schooling
  • Attributed to a shift from phonics to “whole word” instruction and memorization
  • Motivated by a desire for behavioral conditioning rather than comprehension
    • “Bloom’s Taxonomy” used to classify thoughts, feelings and actions resulting from instruction
    • Shift from academic goals to “good citizenship” and subordination

Producing “Human Resources”

  • Primary goal became creating a docile, malleable workforce for mass-production economy
  • Fear of “overproduction” - too many independent producers, not enough dependent consumers
  • Schools designed to create shallow thinkers focused on consumption and “getting a job”
  • Classical education replaced by habit training and know-how without real understanding

The Suppression of Open-Source Learning

  • Many highly successful people educated through experience, not schooling
    • Examples: Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Edison, Danica Patrick
  • Characteristics of open-source learning:
    • Self-directed exploration based on interest
    • Learning from real-world mentors and experiences
    • Active rather than passive
  • Forced schooling stifles creativity, inventiveness, and entrepreneurial spirit that open-source learning cultivates


  • Compulsory government schooling is a relatively recent social experiment, not a timeless necessity
  • It was designed to create conformity and subordination, not to educate
  • The extreme decline in literacy and other skills is the inevitable result of its methods
  • Alternative models of open-source, self-directed, experiential learning have a far better track record of producing independent thinkers and achievers


  • Shift emphasis from schooling back to genuine education
  • Allow students more autonomy in designing their own learning paths
  • Utilize apprenticeships, mentorships, and real-world experiences as supplements or alternatives to classroom instruction
  • Judge educational methods by real-world results, not arbitrary benchmarks

Walkabout: London

  • The chapter argues that compulsory schooling and the modern education system stifles creativity, independent thinking, and personal growth.
  • It advocates for “open source learning” through real-world experiences and self-directed education.
  • Gatto provides numerous examples of successful individuals who dropped out of school or had little formal education to illustrate the failures of institutional schooling.

The Limitations of Compulsory Schooling

  • Compulsory schooling emerged after the Civil War to create a controllable proletariat class and limit independent thinking.
  • It extends childhood artificially and fails to prepare young people for the real world.
  • Schooling focuses on obedience, conformity, and consumption rather than creativity and self-sufficiency.
  • Even higher education often fails to provide meaningful learning experiences, as evidenced by studies showing little growth in knowledge between freshman and senior year.

The Power of Open Source Learning

  • Open source learning allows individuals to gain knowledge and skills through real-world experiences, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes.
  • Historical examples like Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia show the dynamism unleashed when young people can actively participate in work and community life.
  • Numerous highly successful individuals, from Thomas Edison to Richard Branson to Warren Buffett, achieved greatness without the supposed necessity of extensive formal schooling.
  • Intensive schooling cannot replicate the powerful learning that comes from taking on real challenges and responsibilities at a young age.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

  • True education fosters an entrepreneurial spirit of imagination, independence, and production rather than passive consumption.
  • corporatist compulsory schooling aims to create manageable consumer classes rather than self-reliant citizens.
  • Successful entrepreneurs like Ingvar Kamprad, Robert Kiyosaki, and Bill Gates demonstrate the power of real-world trial and error and learning from failure.
  • Valuing regimentation over open-ended exploration creates a less resilient, innovative society.


  • We need to re-evaluate the dominance of industrial mass schooling and allow space for open-source education.
  • Tying young people’s worth and potential to degrees and credentials crushes the human spirit and potential for greatness.
  • Gatto’s own profound learning experiences came from unstructured exploration with family, not years spent in elite universities.
  • Real education comes from “a foundation of self-awareness,” not the “rigid stupidities of forced schooling.”


  • Encourage and enable more open-ended, exploratory learning experiences for children and teens.
  • Judge individuals by their demonstrable skills and values rather than credentials alone.
  • Provide alternative paths to career success besides just higher education.
  • Create space for the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish through deregulation and decentralizing control.

Fat Stanley and the Lancaster Amish

  • Schooling and education are different - schooling is about habit/attitude training from the outside in, while education is about self-mastery and self-enlargement
  • Many accomplished people throughout history had little formal schooling
  • School prevents the self-directed learning needed for real education and growth
  • Modern schooling is designed to produce a leveled, spiritless workforce for the economy
  • The Amish provide an alternative model focused on self-reliance, craftsmanship, entrepreneurship without extensive formal schooling

Schooling vs Education

  • Schooling: matter of habit and attitude training from the outside in
  • Education: self-mastery, self-enlargement, exploring human potential
  • One can compensate for lack of schooling, but education is essential to avoid “stumbling through life”
  • Many highly accomplished figures in history had minimal formal schooling
  • Real education requires self-initiation, broad experience, introspection, concentration, curiosity, risk-taking, learning from mistakes

Fat Stanley

  • Student who rarely attended class, instead apprenticed with entrepreneurial family members to learn their businesses
  • Saw sitting in school as “wasting time” if he wanted to be self-employed
  • His approach illustrated how school doesn’t align with how children actually learn and grow

School as Conditioning

  • School prevents self-directed learning in favor of drilling mass obedience and conformity
  • Renders students listless by making work abstract, externally imposed, irrelevant to real questions and needs
  • Teaches acceptance of ennui, envy, limited competence as normal
  • Produces people who can be “scrapped and replaced,” perform efficiently then discarded
  • Encouraged by consumer culture (e.g. worrying if your phone is in fashion)

The Amish Alternative

  • Focus on broad competence, self-reliance, honesty, community, commitment to common good
  • Reject consumer culture, maintain prosperous small business and farm economy with little formal schooling
  • Legendary good neighbors, take in special needs children, pioneered organic farming
  • Resisted compulsory schooling in court, seeing it as fragmenting family/community life and relationships


  • Need to reject concept of “mass man” - everyone is unique, averages are lies
  • Abandon notion that ordinary people are too incompetent to look after themselves
  • Honor founding ideals that each person has right to live as they see fit, even if challenging to big business/government
  • The Amish and students like Stanley illustrate alternative paths of community-embedded, entrepreneurial learning outside forced schooling system


  • Re-evaluate assumptions about what type of education is needed for a good life and economy
  • Look to models like the Amish that cultivate self-reliance, craftsmanship, community without extensive forced schooling
  • Reform schools to be smaller scale, parent-driven, allowing apprenticeships/practical learning
  • Resist consumer culture that demands conformity and makes people feel inadequate over superficial things
  • Defend each person’s right to live and learn as they see fit, even if it challenges entrenched institutions

David Sarnoff’s Classroom

In chapter 4, Gatto writes a candid letter to his assistant principal, Murray in Manhattan’s School District 3, exposing the flaws and failings of the compulsory schooling system. He argues that schools are designed to weaken children’s minds, suppress their imagination, and give them bad characters, while maintaining a facade of high expectations and sanctimony. Gatto contrasts the shortcomings of even the best schools with the remarkable self-education and early success of individuals like David Sarnoff.

The Qualities of Successful Adaptation

  • A Harvard brochure identified nine qualities essential for successful adaptation to the evolving world of work, including:
    1. Asking hard questions of data
    2. Defining problems independently
    3. Extracting useful information from masses of irrelevant data
    4. Conceptualizing
    5. Reorganizing information into new patterns
    6. Fluency in moving among different modes of thought
    7. Collaboration skills
    8. Discussion skills
    9. Rhetorical skills
  • Gatto argues that schools in District 3 do not teach any of these qualities as a matter of policy, as they would threaten the existing power structures and hierarchies.

The Example of David Sarnoff

  • David Sarnoff, who became the head of RCA, exemplifies the power of self-education and real-world experience.
  • Despite lacking formal schooling, Sarnoff learned English in just five months as a child, became a newsboy to support his family, and taught himself telegraphy.
  • His initiative, self-teaching, and willingness to seize opportunities led him to become the president of RCA at age 39, without the need for a high school diploma or college degree.
  • Gatto argues that modern schools would not allow for such rapid advancement and self-directed learning.

The Failings of Even the Best Schools

  • Gatto visited a famous alternative public school in East Harlem, founded by Debbie Meyer, but found it still hobbled by bureaucratic constraints and a lack of imagination.
  • The school’s community service program, requiring just two hours per week, trivialized the service ideal and turned it into superficial drudgery.
  • Gatto argues that even well-intentioned educators are limited by the broader system and collective habit of suppressing deviation and imagination.

The Shadow Economy of Schools

  • Gatto exposes the “shadow economy” of schools, where certain teachers are rewarded with better programs, rooms, and students in exchange for their loyalty and cooperation.
  • This caste system, enforced by administrators and the teachers’ union, exploits newer teachers and contributes to high turnover rates.
  • Merit pay would only exacerbate this problem, as administrators would decide what constitutes “merit.”
  • The student-teacher ratio is artificially inflated, with half of all teaching energy siphoned away into administrative tasks.

Destructive District Policies

  • Two district policies have destroyed students’ capacity for sustained thought:
    1. Not controlling outrageous classroom behavior, with the burden of discipline shifted onto teachers.
    2. Recruiting disruptive children from other districts to conceal declining enrollment, leading to chaos in previously calm classes.
  • Gatto argues that these policies were implemented without consultation with parents or teachers, and serve the interests of administrators and influential stakeholders rather than the well-being of students.

The Narcotic Effect of Schooling

  • Gatto argues that schools have become a narcotic, addicting children to passivity, fantasy, and thin abstractions.
  • Students emerge with a shaky grasp of the past, no capacity to visualize the future, and false maps of the road ahead.
  • The thousands of hours spent on passive spectatorship through television, music videos, and computer games are a testament to the diseased state of modern childhood.

Hector Isn’t the Problem

  • Gatto quit teaching after 30 years out of disgust and frustration with the compulsory schooling system
  • He argues that government schooling is a radical and damaging experiment that kills the family, teaches disrespect for parents, and subordinates students to a “priesthood” of educators
  • Gatto believes that the categories and labels used in schools, such as “gifted and talented” or “learning disabled”, are myths created to preserve the system
  • He proposes that mass dumbness is not real, but rather imagined and perpetuated by the schooling system to justify its existence

Gatto’s Experience and Disillusionment

  • Taught for 30 years in NYC, crossing swords with administrations who tried to get rid of him
  • License suspended twice for insubordination, covertly terminated once while on medical leave
  • Ranked first among education faculty at CUNY in student ratings
  • Organized many successful initiatives to engage students in learning and community
  • Finally quit out of disgust, despite accolades, feeling the system was too entrenched to change
  • Wrote “I Quit, I Think” essay explaining reasons, later published in Wall Street Journal

The Problem with Government Schooling

  • Radical experiment that monopolizes childhood and teaches disrespect for family
  • Follows an “Egyptian” model of scarce human value, symbolized by a pyramid
  • Becomes a self-preserving jobs project and contract giver, resistant to real reform
  • Creates artificial categories and labels that permanently limit and stigmatize students
  • Produces shallow and dependent thinkers who can’t fend for themselves
  • Convinces the “dumb” that their status is due to biology, oppression, moral defect, etc.

The Illusion of Mass Dumbness

  • In 30 years, Gatto rarely met a truly “learning disabled” or “gifted and talented” child
  • These categories are myths created by the system to preserve itself
  • Many explanations given for the “dumb” - biology, oppression, depravity, Darwinism, etc.
  • But mass dumbness had to first be imagined; it does not exist in reality
  • The “dumb” are used to justify a vast bureaucracy of schooling and social services

The Story of Hector

  • 13 year old student, frequently in trouble, scored poorly, in the “mainstream” bottom class
  • Caught trying to sneak into skating rink despite having ticket - testing the system
  • Later brought fake gun to elementary school to “free the slaves” by letting out students
  • Failing every subject in high school, truant, classified as a problem by the system
  • Gatto asks if the only alternative to the system that produces Hectors is really chaos
  • Suggests that forced schooling is intended to beat back human nature seen as chaotic

Key Takeaways

  • Compulsory government schooling is a damaging system that artificially categorizes students
  • It perpetuates myths of mass dumbness and defect while really producing dysfunction
  • Students like Hector are not the problem, but creations of a system that wants to limit human potential
  • The system resists reform because it serves entrenched interests, not students and families
  • A return to true education, not schooling, is needed to liberate human nature and potential

The Camino de Santiago

In chapter 6, Gatto discusses the negative effects of television and computers on children’s behavior and development. He argues that these media steal time from children to write their own stories and engage in real-life experiences, leading to a loss of integrity and purpose. Gatto proposes a solution based on the medieval pilgrimage road, the Camino de Santiago, which involves sending students on expeditions to explore the world around them and engage in meaningful intellectual work.

The Impact of Television and Computers on Children

  • TV-addicted kids exhibit negative behavioral traits:
    • Irresponsibility
    • Childishness
    • Dishonesty
    • Maliciousness
    • Lack of sustaining purpose
  • Consuming too many made-up stories and pretending to be someone else leads to a loss of integrity and the ability to grow up
  • Computers can exacerbate the problem due to passive consumption and lack of interactivity

The Importance of Feedback Circuits

  • Suppression of natural feedback circuits prevents learning from mistakes
  • Bureaucracies, such as school management, are inefficient due to their inability to respond to feedback
  • Restoring natural biological feedback circuitry can help reduce media-sickened behavior among students

The Camino de Santiago as Inspiration

  • The Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage road in Spain that attracts people seeking to build a new relationship with themselves and nature
  • Gatto sent his students on expeditions to explore New York City, mimicking the Camino de Santiago experience
  • Students walked alone, studied various aspects of the city, and created guides and analyses based on their observations and research

The Visitor’s Key to Iceland

  • Gatto drew inspiration from a unique Icelandic guidebook that brings the land and its history to life
  • Students created their own “Visitor’s Keys” to various aspects of New York City, such as safe spots to hide while playing hooky, pizza parlors, and neighborhood swimming pools

The Benefits of Engaging in Real-Life Challenges

  • Accepting hard challenges is crucial for self-mastery and competence
  • Engaging in real-life experiences and intellectual work causes feedback circuits in the young to produce substantial growth
  • The thrill of doing meaningful work outweighs the effort required

The Need to Reconnect with Reality

  • Modern influences, such as television, computers, and government schooling, have weaned children away from their need to engage with the real world
  • Restoring what has been stolen and reconnecting kids to primary experience can help address child development problems
  • Being a mature being means living with purpose, welcoming responsibility, and contributing to the community


  • Reduce the time spent in front of electronic screens and encourage children to engage in real-life experiences
  • Incorporate expeditions and intellectual challenges into the education system to promote growth and development
  • Consider using the money saved from reducing high school years to fund personal “Camino” experiences for every student
  • If the government does not provide such opportunities, individuals must take the initiative to create their own meaningful challenges and experiences

Weapons of Mass Instruction

  • Compulsory schooling is doing more harm than good and disconnecting children from themselves, their families, communities and the Western intellectual tradition
  • Schools are designed to produce obedient, dependent consumers rather than educated, self-reliant individuals
  • The irrelevance of most school curriculum and the imposition of artificial childhood leads to boredom, ugliness and an inability to function independently
  • Alternative education focused on the individual needs and interests of each student is necessary

The Irrelevance and Harmfulness of School Curriculum

  • Only 31% of college-educated Americans can fully comprehend a newspaper story
  • 35% of university graduates regret their experience and feel they learned nothing of use
  • School curriculum is largely irrelevant to real life and avoids discussion of controversial but important topics
  • Schools disconnect children from:
    • Themselves and their own unique constellation of needs/interests
    • Their families, communities, religions and natural allies
    • The Western intellectual tradition of personal liberties
    • Experiences of risk-taking, adventure and discovery
  • Results in cowardice, stupidity, sluggishness and indifference to everything but animal needs (per Adam Smith)

The Imposition of Artificial Childhood

  • Schools work to unnaturally extend childhood and restrict intellectual/behavioral development
  • Imposes immobility, stress, unhealthy diet leading to physical ugliness
  • Emphasizes winning/competition over learning and character
  • Fills time with simplistic distractions and busywork
  • Interdicts normal development and leaves graduates unable to do much

Alternative Education Focused on the Individual

  • Author developed personalized curriculum in partnership with each student based on their unique biography, wishes and weaknesses
  • Allows students to direct their own education and recruit outside resources/assistants
  • Enables students to develop independence, self-reliance, literacies of speaking/writing, courage, curiosity, ability to write own life script
  • Historically figures like Ben Franklin achieved success without formal schooling


  • Abolish compulsory school attendance to enable education to spread
  • Treat children as individuals, not categories, and partner with them in their education
  • Focus on developing self-knowledge and connecting students to themselves, human experience and intellectual tradition
  • Allow uninterrupted personal time for students to develop their own ideas and theories
  • Emphasize real-world skills, risk-taking and self-sufficiency over artificial extension of childhood

What is Education?

In chapter 8, Gatto discusses the true meaning of education and how the current compulsory schooling system fails to provide it. He argues that schools have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century and are designed to produce obedient workers rather than truly educated individuals. Gatto proposes a radical restructuring of the education system to foster genuine learning and personal growth.

The Meaning of Education

  • Education should help individuals grapple with fundamental questions posed by Immanuel Kant:
    • What can I know?
    • What may I hope?
    • What ought I to do?
    • What is man?
  • True education goes beyond the lessons of school and teaches how to live a meaningful life
  • It involves confronting the epic of history and one’s place in it

The Failure of Compulsory Schooling

  • Despite claims of reform, schools in 1990 were almost identical to those in 1890
  • In contrast, the voluntary schooling system of 1790 allowed for greater literacy and genuine education
  • The current system is designed to serve the interests of politicians, bureaucrats, and financial backers rather than students
  • Standardized testing is a poor measure of real education and human potential

Gatto’s Vision for a New Education System

  • Establish clear definitions and goals for what it means to be an educated person
  • Educated individuals should:
    • Use time meaningfully and enjoy solitude
    • Form healthy relationships and understand their own mortality
    • Develop a personal value system while respecting the values of others
    • Possess the power to create and adapt to new experiences
    • Seek truth through evidence rather than memorization
    • Find purpose and happiness beyond material wealth
  • Eliminate centralized testing, compulsory attendance, and restrictive curriculums
  • Embrace flexible learning environments, schedules, and teaching methods tailored to individual needs and interests
  • Integrate education with real-world experiences and community life
  • Encourage a culture of lifelong learning and personal responsibility


  • Engage in a national debate to define the meaning and goals of education
  • Dismantle the compulsory schooling system and replace it with a voluntary, decentralized model
  • Empower individuals and communities to take control of their own learning and development
  • Promote alternative educational approaches such as homeschooling, apprenticeships, and self-directed learning
  • Shift the focus from standardized testing and credentials to genuine knowledge, skills, and character development

A Letter to my Granddaughter about Dartmouth

  • Gatto writes a letter to his granddaughter Christina as she considers attending Dartmouth College
  • He advises her to think critically about attending an elite school like Dartmouth, arguing it confers an illusion of social privilege that can limit one’s life
  • Gatto believes true education comes from self-knowledge, keen observation, feedback, analysis, mirroring others, self-expression, good judgment, and adding value
  • He argues elite colleges like Dartmouth don’t provide a real education, but rather train students to conform to the system and fit into a command economy
  • Gatto traces the transformation of colleges into utilitarian training grounds for corporations after WWII, as part of a broader agenda of social control and curtailing of liberty

Family Background

  • Christina comes from a long line of contrarian ancestors who challenged authority and convention
  • Her maternal great-great-grandparents were outlawed by the British Crown; her paternal great-great-grandparents were exiled from Italy for their religious and political views
  • Gatto and Christina’s grandmother Janet also bucked convention, getting married young in a Buddhist temple because they couldn’t afford other options

Advice on Attending Dartmouth

  • Gatto urges Christina to question the conventional wisdom that attending an elite college is the foundation of a successful life
  • He argues the social privilege and connections elite schools promise are an illusion that can limit one’s life and turn it into a “prison” of predetermined associations and choices
  • True education and success come from within, not from the name brand of one’s college
  • Elite schools like Dartmouth teach students to “game the system”, conform to expectations, and delude themselves into accepting contrived problems and simulated learning

Metrics of Real Education

Gatto provides 8 “yardsticks” to measure one’s real education:

  1. Self-knowledge - deep understanding of one’s own character, strengths, and weaknesses
  2. Observation - ability to accurately perceive and record data
  3. Feedback - skill in gauging reactions from others and one’s environment
  4. Analysis - capacity to break down problems and evaluate them independently
  5. Mirroring - adaptability to fit into any group while remaining oneself
  6. Expression - having a clear, strong voice in writing and speech
  7. Judgment - keen discernment to see through falsehoods
  8. Adding value - contributing something of worth to every encounter and group

Transformation of College After WWII

  • After WWII, colleges were transformed into utilitarian training grounds for corporations and government, based on a vision from Francis Bacon’s utopian work “The New Atlantis”
  • This replaced the earlier view of college as a place for pure intellectual development and reflection
  • It fit into a broader agenda of comprehensive social control, using surveillance and the co-opting of talented youth from the underclasses into leadership to prevent uprisings
  • Liberty was curtailed while license was encouraged in zones of traditional morality, undercutting the family as a source of opposition


  • Question the conventional wisdom about elite colleges being essential to success
  • Cultivate true education through developing self-knowledge, observational skills, openness to feedback, analytical capabilities, adaptability, self-expression, discerning judgment, and the ability to add value
  • Be aware of the social control agenda and don’t let yourself become a conformist cog in the system
  • Think critically about the role of higher education in society and whether it truly serves the development of free, independent thinkers

Incident at Highland High

  • Gatto, argues that compulsory schooling disconnects people from true education and operates as a form of social control.
  • Gatto shares stories of incidents in Germany, New York, and Vermont to illustrate how the school system represses dissent and unconventional thinking in order to impose conformity.
  • Gatto contends there is a “dark world” and “invisible force” behind schooling that aims to produce manageable masses rather than educated, sovereign individuals.

The Difference Between Schooling and Education

  • Schooling organizes learning through external command and control, while education is self-organized from within
  • Education provides rich connections and feedback loops that foster independence; schooling circumscribes learning with rules
  • Schooling emphasizes specialization and memorization; education values synthesis, dialectic, and creative destruction
  • The conditions for happiness (good relationships, health, satisfying work) are undermined by the segregation and aimlessness bred in schools

The “Dark World” of Compulsory Schooling

  • Some argue the failings of school are amenable to reform, but Gatto believes a “deliberate intent” and “powerful but invisible force” direct schooling to produce incomplete people
  • He illustrates this through three stories:
    1. In Nuremberg, Germany (2008), a girl is forcibly removed from her home and psychiatrically evaluated for the crime of homeschooling
    2. In Highland, NY (2004), Gatto’s talk to high school students providing data on colleges and successful non-graduates is shut down by police called by the superintendent
    3. In Walden, VT (1991), the state strong-arms the town into replacing its high-performing one-room schoolhouses with a factory-style consolidated school

School as a Tool of Social Management

  • Philosophers like Fichte saw self-conceived individuals as a threat to efficient social management and demanded compulsory schooling to remove sovereignty
  • Schooling breeds dependence and a “slavish need” to follow rules, making the population manageable (but economically handicapped)
  • It represses imagination, free will, and the ability to independently raise the next generation
  • Colleges are businesses that will accept nearly anyone (need students to meet payrolls), but schools maintain discipline through fear of missing elite admission


  • Gatto argues the “growing incoherence of American society” is built upon the “forced schooling” imposed in places like Highland - schools find truth “unbearable because it gets in the way of their real mission”
  • He exhorts the reader to recognize the “dark world school represents” as it “gets worse all the time” and to help “sabotage this thing” as schooling is “too important to allow education to get in its way”

Invitation to an Open Conspiracy: The Bartleby Project

Gatto argues for the destruction of the standardized testing industry, which he believes is causing significant harm to education and society. He proposes a grassroots movement where students peacefully refuse to take standardized tests en masse.

The Harms of Standardized Testing

  • Standardized testing reduces national wealth by suffocating imagination and intellect while enriching a select few
  • Tests are unreliable, misleading, and correlate with nothing of real value, yet cause real harm to students
  • Schools have become focused on test scores rather than real learning and accomplishment
  • Testing has enabled the Classification and ranking of students, with damaging effects
  • The testing regime persists because it serves entrenched interests, not because it benefits students

The Decline of American Schooling

  • In the past, American schools, while imperfect, had more visible morality, egalitarianism and intellectualism
  • Since the 1950s, schools have become increasingly standardized, impersonal, and dumbed-down
  • This decline is rooted in a belief among elites that most of the population is incurably feeble-minded
  • As a result, Americans have lost the self-educating spirit that once made the country a “place of miracles for ordinary people”

Citizen Action as a Force for Change

  • Citizen action has achieved significant victories in the past (e.g. ending Vietnam War, fall of Berlin Wall, etc.)
  • Change will not come from above because entrenched interests are too powerful
  • But history shows the “impregnable social fortresses” can be brought down by ordinary people

The Bartleby Project

  • Students should be recruited online to peacefully refuse to take standardized tests
  • Following the example of Bartleby the Scrivener, they should simply say “I would prefer not to”
  • The movement should be decentralized, unorganized, and leaderless to prevent co-option
  • Colleges and universities, as businesses hungry for students, will be forced to go along


  • Spread the word about the Bartleby Project online to students across the nation
  • Encourage a decentralized, “open source” approach - provide resources and support but do not attempt to lead or control
  • Stand firm against compromise or cooptation - complete refusal is essential
  • Have faith that peaceful, large-scale refusal will be an unstoppable force for change