I transcribed this brief article from the video Weapons of Mass Instruction – John Taylor Gatto.mp4from a talk Mr Gatto gave on June 27th, 2004. The full video is available on YouTube.com and you can learn more about John Gatto at www.JohnTaylorGatto.com.

Gatto’s hypothesis: [It was] about 15 years ago when I became utterly certain that the kids who scored on the top of the standardized reading exams, for the most part, could not read, unless their parents were skilled and loving readers. They could not read. They could pass reading tests, but they couldn’t read.

Gatto’s experiment: I devised a way of testing whether that hypothesis I had was true. I took a book written in one and two syllable words, that’s world famous even today and when it was written in 1927, All Quiet On The Western Front. The chapters were about 1500 words long. There was plenty of leading between the lines to make the book longer so they could sell it for more. And it’s from the point of view of German teenagers. Nothing could be more accessible than All Quiet On The Western Front.

I then devised the test using this cunning Italian strategy. I studied the type of question that was asked on the standardized test and you don’t have to do that very long before you see that there are really only half a dozen types asked. The wording is different but they’re after the same thing in the question over and over again. So let’s say for the sake of argument the standardized reading test is seeking six types of information.

Well, I knew from my periodic dabbling into the world of linguistics, which you always run screaming away from, but, so I knew that there were approximately a hundred and fifty types of information in a reading section. They really are classified, they have Latin names and things, but here this test was only asking for six, six qualities of information.

So I made up a test drawing on types of information the standardized test didn’t ask for, but none of them were tricky questions. Unless you think, “What’s the name of the person telling this story?” If you think that’s a tricky question then, then I was full of tricky questions.

Gatto’s results: After two years of applying that test to the gifted and talented children at IS44, catty-corner from the Museum Of Natural History in New York City, the highest grade on the short answer test that I ever got in two years was 30 out of a hundred.

So I said, “To what extend have they actually had blinders built-in, that they can’t see the information?”

Gatto’s follow-up experiment: So in the third year and the fourth and the fifth, I said “It’s an open book test, and it’s only on the first ten pages, which only have about 220 words on a page.”

Gatto’s follow-up results: Most of the people in the open book test, couldn’t get but one right out of ten questions, and the real stars could get four or five right. I thought I had stumbled across some real form of animal training that’s applied over and over again.

The sharper the mind, the more it sees that the payoff is in getting the right answer on the test. So what would a sharp mind do, confronted with Moby Dick? Would it really struggle with predestination, and, you know, God’s hand in man’s affairs? I don’t think so. You’d scan for the kind of information that you knew was going to be on the standardized test. And fortunately, since the same information is on over and over again… I mean you don’t have to be too smart to figure out what it is. You wouldn’t see the rest of the book. And that, I submit to you, is what our form of animal training has done to the best and brightest among us.

When you see somebody who’s an exception to this rule, they are invariably an exception because their parents know how to read—or anything else.

—John Taylor Gatto, 2004

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Mr. Gatto has provided us here with one very sharp illustration of how we can become locked into ‘allowable-thought cages’ that repeatedly prevent us from making intelligent evaluations.  

Will future generations have fewer parents who can read?  Will this lead to fewer ‘exceptional’ children who can read?  Will we get better at passing on the best of what we’ve learned to our children in time to make a significant difference?