Holistic Education Review - June 1992
Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
By John Taylor Gatto
Reviewed by Ron Miller
John Taylor Gattos fiery speech to the New York legislature, upon being named the state teacher of the year, was reprinted in several publications and widely circulated among alternative and radical educators, making Gatto an immediate hero within the alternative education movement. That speech, along with four other essays are brought together in Dumbing Us Down, a book that should further establish Gatto as the most visible contemporary critic of public schooling. Like Paul Goodman, John Holt, Herb Kohl, Jim Herndon, and Jonathan Kozol in the 1960s, Gatto is a morally sensitive and passionate teacher who is thoroughly disgusted by the spirit-crushing regimen of mass schooling, and unafraid to say so. Both Kohl and Kozol are still writing important books that present a progressive/radical critique of schools, but Gatto (like the late John Holt) gives voice to a growing populist rebellion against schooling as such. Whether this rebellion will support or counteract the holistic education movement is an open question to which Dumbing Us Down may offer some clues.
One thing must be said up front: Gatto is a superb essayist. His writing is not academic or pedantic, but a model of harnessed passion. He builds his argument carefully and smoothly and then unleashes bold attacks that cut right to the core of many problems of modern education. He clearly has a solid understanding of the historical foundations of modern education, but generally makes his own personal interpretations rather than citing sources or scholars. Indeed, his essay, The Green Monongahela is an intimate account of his own life and how he became a teacher. He tells a simple story from early in his career, of rescuing a young Hispanic girl from the stupid injustice of the system (she later went on to become an award-winning teacher herself) that captures the essence of his moral crusade against institutional schooling.
Gatto summarizes his argument in an introductory chapter:
Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge childrens power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior. (p. xii)
In his speech to the legislature, he makes this charge explicit, describing seven lessons that form the heart of the compulsory curriculum. These are the things you pay me to teach.:
- Confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. (p.2)
- Class position. Thats the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.
- Indifference. Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? (p.6)
- Emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command. (p.7)
- Intellectual dependency. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers
.Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity (p.8). Gatto says this is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. (p.8)
- Provisional self-esteem. 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. (p.11)
- One cant hide. Surveillance is an ancient imperative, espoused by certain influential thinkers [such as Plato, Augustine, Calvin, Bacon, and Hobbes]. All these childless men
discovered the same thing: children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control. (pp.11-12)
And here is the crux of Gattos critique: In the past 125 years, social engineers have sought to keep American life under tight central control. Compulsory schooling is a deliberate effort to establish intellectual, economic, and political conformity so that society can be managed efficiently by a technocratic elite. School, claims Gatto, is an artifice that makes
a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution (p. 15). Along with the mediaespecially television, which Gatto criticizes harshly in another essayschooling removes young people from any genuine experience of community, any genuine engagement with the world of immersion in lasting relationships. It robs them of solitude and privacy. Yet these experiences are what enable us to develop self-knowledge and to grow up fully human, argues Gatto, and he asserts, that our most troubling social pathologies, such as drug abuse and violence, are the natural reaction of human lives subjected to mechanical, abstract discipline.
Gatto insistently calls for a return to genuine family and community life by rejecting the social engineering of experts and institutions. In a particularly powerful passage, he rejects the notion that a life-and-death international competition threatens our national existence, as A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence, 1983) warned. Such a notion is based on a definition of productivity and the good life that is alienated from common human reality. True meaning is genuinely found, Gatto writes,
in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals; in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends and real communities are built
And these are the things we have lost in our hierarchically managed, global empire-building society.
In the essay We Need Less School, Not More, Gatto draws a sharp distinction between true community (in which there is open communication and shared participation) and institutional networks (which value the individual only in terms of the institutions particular goals). A network cannot be a healthy substitute for family or community, Gatto argues; it is mechanical, impersonal, and overly rational. Schooling is a prime example of this:
If, for instance, an A average is accounted the central purpose of adolescent lifethe requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirantand the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize students, alienate them from their won human nature, and break the natural connection between them and their parents, to whom they would otherwise look for significant affirmations. (p.62)
This is a brilliant, radical critique of the nature of modern schooling. Gatto has certainly earned his heroic stature, with his deeply insightful observations into the very essence of what public education has become. His writings deserve to be pondered seriously by holistic teachers and can contribute a great deal of insight and energy to our work.
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