Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down

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Parents love to be scared. The news industry feeds on parents who want to be scared and then ‘protect’ their children. News is full of stories about things that could harm your children, like hot dogs or Marilyn Manson. If Stranger Danger was a band, it’d be the best-selling artist. It was a shock that no one told us we should stop going to rock concerts after the Eagles of Death Metal.

For some reason, no one started a moral panic around schools. No news media ever tried to scare parents about what goes on in schools and how terrible they are. I think it’s because parents love schools. Schools make raising children very easy. Let a bunch of strangers raise your child and grade them. They even do the job of telling you how good your kid is.

Although this book is pretty well-known, it hadn’t started a moral panic. Why? Could it be that parents don’t mind that their children are taught confusion, antisocial behavior, that their brains are being ruined by the confining environment of schools?

Gatto later says that the essay about the seven lessons isn’t the central essay. It is. It’s perhaps the definitive text about the wrongs of schooling. It lays down what schools actually teach, and asks us whether we want it or not.

He sometimes slides into conspiracy thinking. One of the introductions name-drops Cuckoo’s Nest and the Combine. Besides missing the point of the novel (It’s about how we must subjugate women), Gatto is never as paranoiac. He doesn’t talk about a huge organization controlling everything behind the scenes. Rather, our society is moving towards this.

It’s not because people are just power hungry, like a cliched villain. Our society moves towards this centralized structure because we think it’s efficient and will give us what we want.

What makes Gatto’s position worthwhile is because he’s not talking just about schools, but the worldview that gave birth to them. This comes to light in the last essay, the one that strays most from Gatto’s criticism of schools.

It’s one that’s destined to failure. Gatto waxes nostalgia about some past when we all lived in a small town and were a ‘community’. While he doesn’t go deep enough into describing the differences between networks and communities, his view isn’t black and white.

In fact, he addresses the flaws of these small towns. They cast out people. They caused great harm to those they deemed unfit. But, according to him, they did not have that much power. A person could have chosen to join that community to leave it.

In reality, it’s harder than it seems since we’re forced into existence, and born into a community that might not fit us. If it doesn’t, how do we know there’s something beyond it? Tolerance that people reach on their own is better, but I’d rather enforce tolerance than risk the damage the Quakers suffer. Even if it will slow the process a little, I’d rather illegalize these acts than wait until people decide to be tolerant.

While it may seem like he’s a religion apologist, he’s not. What he takes from religion is the sense of community. This is one of the most important ideas in this book. He demonstrates that the church was an environment where everyone took part – the old, the young and the in-between. Yes, they had roles but they were more connected than we are right now.

The problem with secular living, especially in big cities is how segregated we are. We are put into classes or schools or companies, all of which have a cause none of us agree with. He’s also wrong about the military. The military is intense. It creates an emotional experience that connects people. These networks don’t offer that.

He doesn’t view networks as completely useless. His problem with networks is that they serve a specific purpose, and can’t do more than that. The military can defend the country, but it’s not enough to bring meaning to a person’s life. We need networks to accomplish some objectives, but they must never be our whole lives.

The best part is Gatto’s criticism of schools. He uses the good old method of analyzing the form. Schools must, first of all, have a structure that encourages learning. Some may criticize Gatto’s anecdotes, but he describes in detail the type of ‘psychopathic school’. If your school functioned differently, then you’re lucky.

Humans are curious by nature. The reason parents have to scare us all the time is because we’re curious about what the fire feels like. Everything in the school structure goes against it. Standardized test limit what you can learn. You’re trapped with the same people in a setting where you’re punished for socializing.

The idea that we need schools to teach ‘basic skills’ is moronic. Reading and arithmetic don’t take too much time, and schools don’t teach basic skills anyway. How many schools teach cooking or fixing or building things?

It’s such a focused attack on the school structure that I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a splash. Sure, Gatto’s tone is often bitter and he sometimes repeats himself. It would have been helpful if there was more research involved, but then again these are speeches. He’s successful at explaining the exact problem and offering solutions. He never descends into black-and-white thinking, although he’s close to it. The idea of demolishig schools may seem radical, but some radical ideas have basis.

It’s not a perfect book. It’s a collection of speeches so it often slides into bitterness. Gatto’s dissection of the school structure is a brilliant one, even if Postman had better solutions. People often tell me that we can’t do anything about schools or that there aren’t any alternatives. Well, here they are. Even if it’s not the definitive text about education, it’s full of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 psychopathic schools out of 5