A Review of Three Controversial and Potentially Life-Altering Educational Books: Part 1

(In truth only one is actually altering my life – but we’ll get to that part in a bit.)

Ok, before I go any further, you need to know I am a non-confrontational person. So I often start explanations of unoffensive, but potentially differing views with disclaimers, such as the following:

Although I am highly critical of our current public education system, I am not against teachers. I am not against schools. I want more than anything for the teachers to be able to teach, the children to be able to learn, and the schools to be productive and successful. I don’t consider myself an extremist or an activist in any sense (although a have gone to political and educational rallies in defense of students, parents, and teachers). I do not participate, condone, or affiliate with any groups or people who belittle, bully, reduce themselves to name calling, threatening behavior, or violence.

I just have to say that because some people (myself included) can misunderstand things meant generally to be very personal, and when such comments go against what someone has been trained or taught to believe, differing views can feel like personal attacks.

Also it makes it sound like I am going to talk about something really juicy and controversial.

Which I’m not.

Guys, this is just a book review.

I really enjoy reading, especially non-fiction. A few months ago I downed “Not in God’s Name” by Jewish Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Righteous Mind” by liberal atheist Jonathan Haidt, “Liberal Fascism” by conservative Jonah Goldberg, and”The Fourth Turning” by some guy I can’t remember who doesn’t seem to be very politically or spiritually motivated, at least not in that particular book. It was an intense month. My mind was kind of mush after that.

But a good kind of mush.

And intellectual kind of mush.

Smart mush.

But I’m not going to talk about those books, because, although really interesting (although I wouldn’t say I agree with everything I read) this last month I read a few books specifically pertaining to education and the history of America’s public school system. And that just seems more applicable here.

This is an educational blog, after all.

(The previous list was just to give you ideas if you are in need of a good thought-provoking read. Or you have a desire to cultivate some smart mush up in your noggin.)

All of these books (the educational ones) were in some way politically charged. But only because education is politically charged, which is highly unfortunate. The books weren’t anti or pro Democrat/Republican, but more anti Progressive/Communist as they pertain to education in America. I specifically asked a group of people highly involved and concerned about the state of America’s public schools which books I should read to better understand how our schools have gone from highly rigorous and classically liberal (which in the U.S. nowadays roughly translates to constitutionally conservative) to environmental, technical texts as opposed to literature, and feeling and emotionally driven vocational training.

If you are my age you probably don’t remember reading or discussing the development of western civilization and the theories of Locke and Milton, but you might remember talking about how we should treat people and to be sensitive to others’ feelings.

So… I downloaded to my kindle (because the libraries here don’t carry them)…

“The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America” by Charlotte Iserbyt

“Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Education” by John Taylor Gatto

“The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core” by Terrence O. Moore

These books, although obviously sharing a common thread, were very, very different from each other! Which of course makes them more fun to read at the same time.

Book 1; The Deliberate Dumbing Down…

Ok, Charlotte Iserbyt worked in the Reagan administration and, for years, was highly concerned about what she saw in the Department of Education and what certain parties with very specific political agendas were doing to shape and reshape the schools of America. She researched for what must have been YEARS to compile an over 700 page book of primary and secondary source documents (letter, memos, legislation, personal histories, etc.) to document who has been involved and what has been done in the transition from providing a high quality classical education to students who themselves were responsible to learn, to Outcome-Based Education (meaning teachers are responsible for the students scoring high on tests), psychological conditioning techniques to instill stimulus/response behavior modification proposed heavily by B.F. Skinner (think Pavlov’s dogs but with children), vocational training instead of educating, and globalization heavily pushed by UNESCO. (Whew! That was a long sentence.) She shows through these documents that there has been a consistent and persistent effort to replace education that enhances personal liberty, equality, individualism, and all around western ideas and values with global workers/laborers and consumers who maintain and further “the system” instead of rock the boat.

THIS BOOK IS REALLY LONG! Since most of it really was a collection of documents with limited analysis, it was very convincing. I mean, who can argue that if B.F. Skinner wrote “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything” about psychologically conditioning children to do whatever he wanted them to do and believe whatever he wanted them to believe (which in this case was becoming a cog in the system), and did so over and over again, and that high ranking administrators in educational circles, as well as those funding education, repeatedly quoted him and sang his praises in documents provided to revolutionize American education, who can really argue they didn’t actually say that? I suppose you could argue that deep down inside they really didn’t believe it… but that would be an extremely weak argument. (And I thought John Dewey was bad!)

(Maybe, because we are nerdy like that, one day I might dress my kids up as John Dewey and B. F. Skinner for Halloween and nobody will know who the heck they are. It will start all kinds of awkward and controversial conversations. Uh. Or we’ll just stick with Batman and pirates.)

You can get this book free as a PDF download at http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com

Book 2: Weapons of Mass Instruction…

John Taylor Gatto worked as a public school teacher for something like 30 years. He even won the Teacher of the Year award – right before he resigned from teaching because he believed the educational system was stripping kids of their imaginations, ingenuity, and really, their intellect as well. He gives lots of examples of people who flunked or dropped out of school, yet because they weren’t stuck in the “school” mentality, they educated themselves, followed their passions and dreams, and became extremely successful – people like Mark Zuckerberg. His book was also very interesting, although he puts such an enormous emphasis on letting the children direct their own education, that I feel he and I differ quite a bit. I agree very much that sitting a child down in a desk, telling him he must memorize and “learn” such and such for a test, pass the test, and then label him educated, is NOT an education and even discourages the human spirit to reach it’s potential. That practice mentioned above is stifling and has detrimental effects to individuals and, as we have seen, entire cultures.

I often lament how many opportunities for learning I missed in college because I was still in the high school mentality; take a class, read a book, write a paper, take a test, make the grade, move on. I would gladly take over 50% of my college courses again so I could actually learn from them this time. But I missed out. I didn’t know how to learn because I had been taught how to get through the public school system. So props to Gatto for calling us all out on that one.

But I wouldn’t go so far as to never instruct a child, but instead let him find and choose his own “teachers” in every aspect of education. For example, two of his examples are a girl who really wanted to be a strip club dancer, followed her dream, and eventually wrote the movie “Juno” about a pregnant teenager and made oodles of money… and then the guy who really just loved computer games and gambling and was able to make so much money he could do whatever the wanted for the rest of his life. I see and understand his point. And I agree with him to a significant degree. But no that much. (I’m not letting any of my children follow dreams into a strip club or casino, nor will I support such “ambition.”

What I did gain from his book that has made a lasting impression, is what he taught his students and is trying to teach us. Don’t be a spectator. Don’t just watch other people live their lives – like on TV, movies, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Don’t live vicariously through other people. Be a doer! Live your life. Be active. Be moving. Don’t watch reality shows about incredible adventurists. Go out and experience nature. Don’t watch shows about distant lands, other cultures, whatever. Don’t sit around being “entertained” by others making, doing, being, and achieving. Do it yourself. You’ve got a life. GO OUT AND LIVE IT.

Don’t read blogs about homeschooling, GO OUT AND…. wait.

It’s ok if you read a few blogs about homeschooling.


Anyway, I found it very motivational. Life is for doing. Life is for learning. Life is for being and growing and reaching and trying and achieving. And sometimes failing. Life is for LIVING. Life is not for sitting around and watching other people do all those things. Find your passion and get out of the house! Or for us as educators, help your students/children find their passions, and support them in immersing themselves and educating themselves in it. Not compulsory education – or in other words, schooling, papers, tests, lectures, tests, worksheets, tests, diploma, degree – but Education with a capital “E.” Passion-driven education. Actively being involved in reaching your potential as an individual with dreams, passions, and desires.

In other words, get off the couch!

(I have been way too guilty of being lazy ever since “school” got out. Which is just another reason I started “Hike it Homeschoolers.”)

The third book I read, and my favorite by far – although also potentially the most controversial – is called “The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core” by Terrence O. Moore. The book is less about Common Core and more about the sorry state of where our educational system is today. Common Core just happened to be the newest program when the book came out.

Because of this book, I’ve got a new 4 year mission underway. First, I felt literally called to not put my children in public, private, or charter schools, but instead keep them home and give them a whole education from here. Next, I felt the pull to start up The Honest Homeschool and help other newbie moms out by giving people an honest look into what homeschooling can really be like (Pinterest free!). After that I felt the desire – and got a little push – to start Hike It Homeschoolers, my homeschooling hiking group which had that most wonderful time climbing red rock and jumping into a river today! And now… well, I’ve got 4 years to prepare, and it’s gonna take me that long, too. But I am really excited, slightly overwhelmed, and wish I had paid so much more attention in college.

To be continued…