Dumbing us Down by John Taylor Gatto – Review

by Josiah Audette

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

“Look at the seven lessons of schoolteaching: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, and surveillance. All of these things are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius.”

The source quoted is from a New York city schoolteacher, John Taylor Gatto. He has won several “New York State Teacher of the Year” awards and has written several books on the subject of education. I don’t believe him to be a Christian man. He objects to the current educational system because of the system’s “Institutional stupidity.” (Religious principles were not the foundation of his argument)

This quote comes from one of Gatto’ books, “Dumbing Us Down.” I took the liberty of reading the book to ascertain his objective in the notion of “The Seven Lessons of Schoolteaching.”

  1. Confusion: Here Gatto pronounces the observation that upon close examination of school curriculum and its sequences there lies a substantial lack of coherence. The confusion arises in a social mass of children being sentenced for 12 quarantined years in segregated groups who are placed in separate spaces and taught disparate, quixotic subjects by surface relationship strangers under the punditry of the federal government. (One would wonder who could concoct such a convoluted system of alien proportions in the first place! That is until you find out it was the Socialists and Communists… Social chaos can only breed chaos.) The touted logic of this seemingly foreign method is to have the child leave the school, after having resigned a prodigious 24,000 hours of their life and consumed 250,000 pages of data, with “A tool kit of superficial jargon, derived from economics, sociology, natural science, and so on than with one genuine enthusiasm.” On the contrary, quality education is constituted by learning something in depth. “Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human being seek.” The answer is a coherent and systematic education which is designed to instruct the individual for life in community.
  2. Class Position: This consideration by Gatto is a very clear reflection of the age-segregated, classroom oriented school method. On this point he writes rather satirically yet acutely, “I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belonging there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away the can be returned to the right class…My job  is to make them like being locked together with children who bear numbers like their own. Or at least to endure it like good sports. If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes… I never lie outright, but I’ve come to see the that truth and schoolteaching are, at bottom, incompatible, just as Socrates said thousands of years ago. The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Failing that, you must stay where you are put.” Age-segregated/social-class segregated/grade-segregated learning pushes the great students down, abnegates the good students from advancing, and fails the poor students for developing, all because everyone must be kept in position. Public school is a one-size-fits all mentality and the one size is established, pertinacious, and capitulated to the lowest common social-mass denominator. The answer is to determine and apply education based on the quality of the individual.
  3. Indifference: Gatto here sites the “bell” driven classes. He notes how the school method is to have children rigorously involved in their classroom lessons, but when the bell rings they are insisted to quit themselves and “Proceed quickly to the next work station.” “The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other… Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.” Naturally, the “Lesson of the bells” is just an illustration of an underlying principle of the school method. Students are belled out of a particular subject, graduated out of another subject, expelled out of that subject, moved from this subject, etc… all of which fosters an indifference towards true, unremitting, consequential learning. The proverbial “bells” make education as trivial as flipping through TV channels. The answer lies in embracing an education which is conformed to the individual, not the individual to the system.
  4. Emotional Dependency: Here Gatto reports how the emotions and expectations of children are “Surrendered to the predestinated chain of command” via stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces. In this regard, the school system overrides the individuality of the student because individuality contradicts all systems of classification. Schools are a convention of social engineering which reform and repudiate the individual’s epistemological, aesthetic, ethical, and religious identity. “Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.” Here the Communist forefathers of the public school system were successful. School engineers, not educates.
  5. Intellectual Dependency: Again the school system is characterized by apodictic control. Not only does the system administer the student’s class position, time allocation, and identity but it moreover regulates what students learn, regardless of their individuality or community. Children wait on faceless others to make the meaning of their lives. “Successful students” are defined as those who offer minimum resistance and submit themselves to learn, of the innumerable precious subjects, what the declared experts have decided they will have time for. Sadly this dependency is being realized more and more in the outside world. “Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.”
  6. Conditional Self-Esteem: With entire disregard to the individual and to quality education, the system evaluates, tests, judges, grades, marks, and ultimately reports the student’s standing. The system in its infinite wisdom marks each student down to a single percentage point. What a remarkable feat. These percentages will govern, regulate, and determine the careers, wages, professions, and abilities of these individuals for the rest of their lives. “The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.”
  7. Surveillance. The school system is very meticulous and dependable in its surveillance of its many minions. Privacy is a forbidden fruit. Every minute of the child’s time and attention is already preordained and those who deviate are to be reported by fellow students, teachers, or parents. The systems extends its jurisdiction of control even further by a type of auxiliary schooling called “Home-work.” These and other marvelous practices conveniently provide the system entrance even into private households “Where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.” 

In conclusion Gatto gives sobering words. “It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things… Inevitably, large compulsory institutions want more and more, until there isn’t any more to give. School takes our children away from the possibility of an active role in community life… and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human… It is time that we squarely face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children. Nobody survives the seven-lesson curriculum completely unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it… Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers… one in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them… We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found… in all the free things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built – then we would be so self-sufficient we would not even need the material “sufficiency” which our global “experts” are so insistent we be concerned about.”