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John Gatto’s “Against School”

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John Gatto’s “Against School” is a persuasive essay arguing both the ineffectiveness and negative outcomes of today’s public school system. Not only does Gatto provide credibility with his experience as a teacher, but he also presents historical evidence that suggests that the public school system is an outdated structure, originally meant to dumb down students as well as program them to be obedient pawns in society. Fact and authority alone do not supplement his argument. Gatto also uses emotional appeals, such as fear and doubt, to tear down the reader’s trust in the schooling system. Although it may seem to be so, Gatto’s argument is not one sided. He also offers suggestions to make the educational system more efficient at the hands of positive reinforcement and the employment of more motivated teachers. Through the effective application of ethos, logos, and pathos, John Gatto provides a well-rounded argument against the public school system that would cause any reader to question the goals of modern schooling.

The first thing that Gatto does is put ethos to play by establishing this credibility with the audience in a number of ways. Before stating any of his claims against school, he thoughtfully informs his readers of his experience in the educational field in order to add more weight to his words. Not only had Gatto been a teacher for thirty years, but he also was elected New York City Teacher of the Year three times during that period and published a plethora of books on the subject of education. Without having specified this at the very start of his argument, Gatto could have failed to captivate his audience the way he had intended. A lack of expertise, whether it is because that expertise does not exist or because it simply was not made clear, could potentially harm any argument.

This is especially the case when making marks against something like the educational system because a majority of the population is by default inclined to support such an entity simply because it is the same system we have all gone through. By giving the audience a reason to trust his word as a credulous source right off the bat, Gatto paved the way for his argument and ensures that the audience will take him seriously. Such an act is one of the most vital components to beginning an argument, and even more so when arguing against an integral part of today’s society. Gatto’s long list of accomplishments counts for more than enough in this case and he successfully uses ethos to his advantage, and rightfully so.

Through the effective use of ethos, Gatto readies his audience for reliable applications of logos through the educated opinions of others and historical evidence. Gatto’s use of logos is spread throughout his essay and makes up some of his most impelling and supportive claims against schooling, and while there are many examples that can be called upon, I would like to highlight a few of the more compelling instances. By referring to well-known pioneers of the past, Gatto makes it clear to his audience that schooling is by no means a necessary component of greatness: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead.

This point makes Gatto’s argument more relatable to the audience because it calls upon historical figures that we are all familiar with in one way or another; thus, giving the audience more inclination to side with Gatto because of the facts we already know about these innovators who received no formal education. Another example of logos, and probably one of the most shocking proofs that Gatto provides, is his overview of the Prussian education system in which our own system was derived from. Not only does he make the audience aware that there is a connection between Prussian and American schooling, but he also uses hints of pathos in justifying his claim by adding emotional appeals of fear to inspire a reaction: But what shocks is that we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens – all in order to render the populace “manageable.”

The reason I have called upon the use of fear as an emotional appeal is because the above claims makes apparent to the audience a chilling comparison that many would probably wish to deny; however, historical evidence can’t be swept under the rug the same way opinions can, so in this sense, the facts speak for themselves. This particular argument that Gatto makes is one of his more intimidating, and by being so it seems as though logos and pathos are being tied together to make more viable arguments than those that rely on just one appeal.

Although Gatto calls upon pathos regularly throughout his essay, its use seems to be weaker than that of ethos and logos. Many persuasive arguments use pathos as their main appeal; however, in Gatto’s case, his use of logos makes his points more justified than the use of emotion and imagination, and for this reason it seems as though he often uses pathos only when coupled with logos. An example of this can be seen when Gatto refers to Inglis’ interpretation of the actual functions of schooling: Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier. Gatto applies innocence to those who believe that the sole purposes of school are to make good people, good citizens, and to make each person his or her personal best. Being referred to as innocent can also be translated to being referred to as gullible, which may cause those people who have never questioned the motives of the educational system to feel offended, and in turn have a more emotional reaction to the material than others.

The emotion that was instilled throughout this essay was the notion of fear, or that we should be scared of how little we have cared to know about what it means to be educated verse what it means to be schooled. By making comments about a society that is programmed to act a certain way and consume at a certain rate, all made possibly by the way our educational system works is not something that is taken lightly. While these opinions are merely opinions, we cannot deny that these claims have a degree of truth to them: It is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform. Unable to comment on the emotions of others, the above statement made me feel fear. Fear of being dumbed down, demoralized, and to feel alienated from my peers by a system that has programmed me to feel as such. Fear is one of the most powerful of emotions, and is often the first emotion to inspire action. Gatto used fear to his advantage, and used concepts of control and power to make the reader feel emotions of fear when thinking about the purpose of public school.

While his use of pathos is the lesser of effectual appeals applied, when coupled with his use of logos and ethos, his argument comes off as solid and thorough. He uses a wide variety of strategies to inspire thought in the reader, and possibly even protest to a system that we’ve all grown so comfortable with. I believe that “Against School” is strong and would inspire more thought or research to those concerned about where society is headed, and might possibly even be powerful enough to influence a call to action.

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