Mr. Gatto taught for 26 years in New York City public schools, a number of these years in Harlem and Spanish Harlem. But his heart and habit, he asserts, in his Biographical Note, are still in Monongahela, the small riverside town in Pennsylvania where he spent his early years. He describes the town as an altogether wonderful place to grow up, even to grow up poor, a place where independence, toughness, and self-reliance were honored, and where, he says he learned to teach from being taught by everyone in town.
A year and a half ago, the public school system lost Mr. Gatto, and along with him it lost much of the smokescreen that had enabled it to remain so remarkably unchallenged over the years. Just after receiving the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year Award, Mr. Gatto announced he was going to quit because he didnt want to hurt kids anymore. Government schooling, he charged, kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.
The publishers of Dumbing Us Down call Gattos ideas about education not easily pigeon-holed, which is an accurate observation. Who else would stand up and tell us that schooling, as we know it, is not education, but a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned?
According to Gattos observations, the seven lessons taught in public schools from Harlem to Hollywood Hills, are these:
- Confusion (The natural order of real life is violated by heaping disconnected facts on students.)
- Class Position (Children are locked together into categories where the lesson is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid.)
- Indifference (Inflexible school regimens deprive children of complete experiences.)
- Emotional dependency (Kids are taught to surrender their individuality to a predestined chain of command.
- Intellectual dependency (One of the biggest lessons schools teach is conformity rather than curiosity.)
- Provisional self-esteem (The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests, is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials.)
- One cant hide (Schooling and homework assignments deny children privacy and free time in which to learn from parents, from exploration, or from community.)
Just what is Gatto suggesting by his assaults on government schooling? Dont children have to learn to read and do math? Clauses can be picked out of Dumbing Us Down to challenge the thinking of conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and anyone in between. Truly Gattos theories are not readily pigeon-holed. Some are radical, if not downright subversive. Thats precisely why we find him so intriguing, and perhaps also why hes booked for speaking engagements months ahead of time, and why were excited to hear he has another book forthcoming from Simon & Schuster [NOTE: The book referred to here is actually The Underground History Of American Education]. Its as though weve been waiting too long for someone like Gatto to tell us theres something wrong with the dependency on bureaucracy in modern American culture. Then too, he makes his point in such a straightforward, well-meaning way, that we arent easily offended even where we disagree.
Gatto exhibits great confidence in the ability of human beings to educate themselves. But even if we agree that government schooling is the biggest impediment to this natural process, is it really the only problem? Why doesnt a book as thought provoking as Dumbing Us Down address the other forms in which a centrally controlled society assaults the intellect of its members? For example, learning how to survive, to get along in life, is a basic part of any persons education. In the modern American system, this process is sabotaged in welfare offices where people with material needs are taught that you don't have to earn the necessities of life, and in lawyers offices where people with problems getting along with each other are taught that litigation is the way to settle differences. These are just samples of the myriad impediments, many in the form of regulations, which are shoved into the path of self-education. And the age-segregated workplaces, along with lack of apprenticeship training, which Gatto rightfully deplores, are in my opinion as much the result of labor laws as is mandatory schooling.
Perhaps Gatto intended to challenge us into making our own observations on these issues. Perhaps he also is right to imply that the root of such problems lies in government schooling. If peoples minds were not propagandized and controlled from youth up, they might indeed find paths independent of those institutions and networks which says Gatto, constantly compete for the custody of children and older people, for monopolizing the time of everyone else in between.
He also contends that many of our modern societys excesses, including the growth of commercial entertainment, such as television, the dependence on experts, and even parts of our economic structure (prepared-food industries, for example) would wither once people started truly thinking and acting for themselves. The thought of people doing more things for themselves is exciting, but I hope Gatto doesnt mean to say that working for pay is always dependency. And although its true that most individuals would benefit from diversifying their skills, Gatto would have to admit that highly specialized professions also have their place a prosperous society.
The best thing about Gatto is he doesnt seek to impose his version of desirable education on anyone else. Neither can he be accused of being anti-civilization, and certainly not anti-education. He speaks admiringly of early Americas prosperity (and literacy) through individual initiative, and even offers ideas toward the revival of better schools and communities in our current day.
As for solutions to the state of our educational system, Gatto at one point advocates a voucher, or school choice system, which would still be sadly deficient because of its dependence on government funds. His real thrust, though, comes out beautifully on page 79 Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole businesstrust the free market system. I know its easier to say than do, but what other choice do we have?
Sure, its a radical proposal, and Gatto doubtless has his enemies. However, theres a part of every one of us that thrills to his appeal to unleash the infinite possibilities within the human mind. And most of us cant help asking ourselves questions, such as, Where did we ever get the idea that education means just the same thing to one person as it does to another? Even more relevant: How did we ever come to accept that any one groups version of education should be forcibly imposed on every American child?
Reading Dumbing Us Down with an inquisitive mind is a whale of a learning experience, and it doesnt take long to do. The book is only 120 pages, every one of them delightfully original.