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Dumbing Us Down – Book Review



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“We need less school, not more”.  John Taylor Gatto.
Dumbing Us Down is one of John Taylor Gatto’s older books.  It originally came out only a few years after he won Teacher of the Year Awards for New York State and New York City.  Oddly fascinating  that a Teacher of the Year would produce quotes like this: “School is a 12 year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned.  I teach school and win awards doing it.  I should know.”
Gatto collects five essays / speeches and collects them in one volume.  The most potent of the five is the first one, “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher”.  This essay is magnificent.  Gatto details the seven things that school actually teaches.  Probably because I work in a difficult environment, I spent the entire essay saying ‘wow that’s right’ and ‘that’s exactly how it goes in my building’.  Gatto has a knack for stating what is rightly obvious, yet so politically incorrect that even a School Veteran such as myself might have missed it.  Gatto’s work woke me up about six years ago – I spent a decade in the system, buying the shibboleths fed to me, believing in the system, before I found him.  
The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher
The most important of the essays, Gatto explains what school really teaches:
  1. Confusion – school is a mixture of mostly non – related topics, devoid of meaning, grouped under one roof.  A group of adults, not chosen by the student or the parent, administers jargon and superficiality for hours a day.  This is not the natural progression of things.
  2. Class Position – If you don’t study and get good grades, you’ll never find a good job.  Is this true?  Children are given a number and ranked, the classes are divided by ability and the ‘good kids’ get the good grades.  They are considered the smartest and will achieve.  So we are told.
  3. Indifference – “I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do.”  “… the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”  All the classes are of the same length, indifferent to the teacher, subject, passion, interest – what does it matter if after 40 minutes, it’s time to get up and leave?
  4. Emotional Dependency – Rights do not exist in school (not even free speech – see the Tinker and Bethel cases), so students are dependent upon teachers and school officials for emotional underpinnings and support.  “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command.”
  5. Intellectual Dependency – Students wait for the teacher to tell them what to do – the ‘good’ ones anyway.  The ‘bad’ students buck the trend, leave the herd, and therefore have ‘issues’.  The teachers determine what the students must study and think about – whether it’s based on fact or conjecture.  All is determined from the top down.  The current fad of ‘student centered instruction’ is laughably ironic – it is a command from above to teach in such a manner.
  6. Provisional Self Esteem – “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that a kid’s self respect should depend on expert opinion.  My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.”  Progress reports, report cards, serial State Exams, GPA’s – all determine ones value, and all come from the ‘experts’.  None come from within.  Our consumer culture demands this.  How else do you get millions of people to buy stuff?  “Buy (product x) and you will feel happy!”  It’s a sinister formula.
  7. One Can’t Hide – There is no private time.  Mealtime is in a room with hundreds of other students.  Classes are watched, and wayward students who don’t fit the paradigm get written up, overtly or covertly.  Perhaps the quiet child has ‘issues’ or is a ‘loner’.  If  parent, god forbid, were to teach unsanctioned thoughts to the child, well, there is a way to combat that too – homework.  The more homework, the less chance there is for an independent or unruly idea to penetrate the shield of conformity.
The effect of twelve years of this conditioning is a negative one for most.  Many young people figure it out, some are simply unable to conform.  Some find that conformity is the path of least resistance.  I know that is what I figured out by the first grade.  The ‘bad’ kids did wayward things, and negative sanctions occurred.  I didn’t want that.  Gatto lists the effects at the end of the essay.  I wish they weren’t’ true, but I see this every day: “They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are (for we have divorced them from significant parental attention); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.”.  Interesting that Gatto wrote this in 1992 – years before the smartphone revolution.  If only he could see the gasoline poured on the fire with the introduction of these devices.
The Psychopathic School” is the second best essay in the collection.  Gatto covers the effects of this historically radical idea of twelve years in forced schooling.  The students become incomplete people.  They have no grasp of history, unemotional and intellectually incurious.  The most damaging and dark result is the culture of consumption that is fostered by this.  As intellectual curiosity is stifled, the acquisition of ‘things’ becomes paramount, and when they are told that the purchase of a product will make them happy or better, they comply.  
At the end of The Ultimate History Lesson, Andrew Grove asks Gatto what he would like to end the interview with.  This quote of Gatto’s hangs on the wall of my room: “Sensible people do not wish to be incomplete human beings.”  When I see the lashing out, the profanity, the noise and the choice of wardrobe at my school – I think of this.  These are people stuck in an unnatural setting from age five, one that was resisted (sometimes with violence) until the late 1800’s. After going through Gatto’s work, one can’t help but feel that he is right, we need less school, not more.


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