Dumbing Us Down

dumbing us downDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto. Originally Published in 1991.

I first read this 3 years ago, as a new homeschooling parent. It was highly instrumental in helping me over the hump at the beginning. Homeschooling was such a slog (still is on occasion) and it was helpful to be reminded of why even contemplation of returning to the school system was a bad idea.

We aren’t the slightest bit tempted to return to the public system, but I recently re-read it. This is one of those books I’ll probably return to every few years on this homeschooling journey.

What better person to expose the hidden dangers, problems, and agendas of institutional schooling than someone who spent nearly three decades teaching in it while winning multiple state teaching awards for the effort?

John Taylor Gatto’s book systematically dissects and distinguishes what we think our schools are there to teach from what it is they actually teach. One of the most jarring chapters is at the very beginning where he outlines the seven lessons that every school teacher teaches:

A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana the other day:

“What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn’t idiosyncratic — that this is some system to it all and it’s not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That’s the task, to understand, to make coherent.”

Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion.

Everything I teach is out of context… I teach the unrelating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parent’s nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers you may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world… what do any of these things have to do with each other?

He goes on further into the seven lessons:

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency.

Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. If I’m told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been paid to tell them to think.

This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily. Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

You can find the total exposition of the seven lessons here, and if those of you who like me graduated the public school system, read them and find that you vehemently disagree, please let me know. I’m interested because I think Mr. Gatto does a masterful job of transmitting in layman’s terms what it is about traditional public schooling that children (and many parents) find so disconcerting but which we can’t quite put our finger on.

Rather than simply diagnose the problem, Gatto offers solutions, with the caveat that is obvious to even the passive observer by now. The school system is first and foremost a jobs program more interested in securing the jobs of the grownups over the interests and education of the children. As such, it cannot truly be reformed and the only way to salvage even a bit of real education for your children, you must rescue them from it. He offers the solutions nonetheless:

Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — the one-day variety or longer — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of “school” to include family as the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.

There’s a lot that I could say in support of this book with the hope that those of you who are parents will read it. Trust me when I say it is an excellent book, because it is.  I’ll close this one out with a quote from the book which sums up well the nature of a true education:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

Grade: A

3 thoughts on “Dumbing Us Down

  1. Elspeth says:

    I try to make a point of keeping my commentary short on these reviews, preferring to put lots of excerpts in for the reader to get a feel for the flavor of the book. Call me naive, but I sincerely hope that someone clicks away from here determined to read a book I reviewed here, or at least some book. It’s one of the reasons why I have not to date reviewed anything that most everyone, even the sporadic reader, has read. But I do have a couple of additional thoughts about this book.

    I was sharing at Booky McBookerson’s my concern that my thoroughly successful schooling might have handicapped me with regard to how I homeschool my children. Re-reading Dumbing Us Down has actually given me an idea for something that I cannot find anywhere else. And believe you me, I looked because I am not one who enjoys extra work for its own sake.

    Gatto mentioned the disconnection of the things we’re taught in school, as if they stand alone, and I teach mostly the same way here, with few exceptions. However, my newly rediscovered reading habit, in particular the reading books by and about great black authors from or connected in some way my hometown, has inspired me to put together a more complete FL history/black history/family history segment for my kids. It would include everything: reading, history, geography, writing. All connected to something rather than just isolated tidbits.

    The history is rich and diverse too, as the town, the school, and the oldest church are all named for the white men who helped these newly freed slaves get all the institutions started. Either by land donations, legal stuff, etc. It goes a long way toward a fuller narrative than the one we are most often treated to. The freed blacks chose, in at least two of the instances, to name things as they did.

    Not to mention that they will be really curious to know all this historical stuff happened where Mommy grew up, and where granddad still lives. We drive the half hour over there every week and they hadn’t a clue that there’s a museum there. I haven’t been in it in 20 years myself. *Color me embarrassed*.

    It’s probably going to take me at least a few months to arrange it, and require more online time that I’ve budgeted for myself the past several weeks, but it will totally be worth it. I hope to be able to start it in January, but that sounds a bit ambitious at the moment.

    All because I re-read this book. Thanks John Taylor Gatto!


  2. Booky McBookerson says:

    Well I got a copy of “Wise Blood” because you reviewed it. When I get around to reading it is anyone’s guess, but it’s here waiting for me at least.

    And John Taylor Gatto is the best, I think I first came across his stuff probably over 10 years ago now, and my 9YO read some of “Dumbing Us Down” earlier this year and wrote a little about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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