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Dumbing Us Down

A book by John Taylor Gatto


“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 roadmap 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.”

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling is a non-fiction book written by John Taylor Gatto, an American teacher, that consists of several speeches given by the author.

Gatto was a teacher in New York for nearly 30 years, and he was named 'New York City Teacher of the Year' in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and 'New York State Teacher of the Year' in 1991.

In 1991, he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled I Quit, I Think, to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, saying that he no longer wished to 'hurt kids to make a living.'

In his book Gatto asserts that, as a teacher, he taught the following seven lessons to his students:

  1. The first lesson I teach is confusion, by presenting an incoherent ensemble of information that you need to memorize to stay in school. Everything I teach is out of context.
  2. The second lesson I teach is your class position; that students must stay in the class where they belong.
  3. The third lesson I teach kids is indifference. I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do.
  4. The fourth lesson I teach is 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem; a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts.
  7. The seventh lesson I teach is that one can't hide. I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time.

I think that the first lesson and the third lesson stand out to me the most. Throughout my years in school, I covered many things in many different classrooms. In my junior high school, for example, I often moved from subjects such as Geography, in which I learnt about tectonic plates, igneous rock and estuaries, to subjects such as Home Economics and French, in which I learnt about food danger zones and irregular verbs.

The only thing separating these classes was thirty minutes - the ring of a bell and a shuffling along the corridor. The things I learnt were not only out of context, but didn't seem to have anything to do with each other, and I sometimes attended nine different classes all in one day.

My issue with this, I suppose, is that I feel it may have snuffed any real interest or passion I may have had in these subjects. If I were to grow genuinely interested in a class... well, it would likely end in thirty minutes, anyways.

Gatto states that he teaches students indifference 'by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor', but that 'when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we've been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch.'

Why bother feeling curious whenever, in the classroom, the place we are meant to learn, work is only important for a very limited period of time? When interest and investment must be turned 'on and off like a light switch'?

One spring, I was speaking to a classmate of mine after school, as we had decided to hang out together. We wound up speaking about what we thought we wanted to do in the future, and we came back to speaking about what we would likely need to study at school.

I mentioned possibly being a dietitian. I stated what I would probably need to study. What she said surprised me rather a lot. She told me that she wasn't sure exactly what she wanted to do, because she wanted to do so many different things. She wanted to learn new languages, study history and carry out science experiments. She said that she wanted to find out why things work the way that they do, and why parts of the world are the way they are, and that she couldn't seem to settle on one thing.

I was expecting a plain response. She seemed to be so curious about everything, though, and whenever I noticed that I felt rather stunned. Why wasn't I so curious? Why did I seem to be so disinterested in the things around me? Why wasn't I trying to find out how things worked?

I guess a way that I would try to put it is that, if she saw a plane, she would likely wonder how it works, and try to figure out how it does. If I saw one, I would likely think, "Oh, a plane", and mindlessly move on without thinking much else of it. Maybe that sounds rather silly, but it bothers me.

Whenever I was younger I was constantly asking questions and wondering why things were the way that they were. As I've gotten older and progressed throughout school, though, that curiosity seems to have faded almost completely. I don't like that. I want to be a person who questions things, not someone who thoughtlessly accepts them without trying to dig any deeper.

This is now something I try to work on, as it is something I have realised and decided that I don't like, but I know that I'm not the only one. My peers and classmates growing up very rarely displayed such a curiosity about the world. They scarcely ever questioned why things were the way they were, and if they did, it was often because someone else asked the question first.

There were, of course, a few exceptions, such as the classmate that I mentioned earlier. It bothers me that I felt so stunned whenever someone displayed a genuine interest in the world, though. Should I really have felt so surprised?

Something that I read near the end of Gatto's book was this:

"Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned."

This is something that I felt I noticed a while ago. I noticed that I sought these things out whenever I felt lonely or bored, and I now try to avoid resorting to them for company and entertainment, but I sometimes still find myself feeling an urge to do so.

It is very easy to waste time looking for company online or distraction through TV and social media, since I have grown so used to finding it that way. It seems so easy, because there are so many people to speak to online, right? So many things to look at online, right? It’s the internet, after all!

Almost every time I habitually sought out communities or people to speak to in the past, though, I almost always felt like I had simply wasted my time, in the end. The people I encountered didn’t seem interesting, or they didn’t want to speak about the things I wanted to speak about. I didn’t like their mannerisms or ways of speaking. They didn’t share any interests. They bored me. They didn’t seem to care about what I had to say. I didn’t care about what they had to say.

Whenever I did occasionally find people to speak to, I often had one interesting conversation with them and then never spoke to them again, or only did so a few times.

There have been a few much appreciated anomalies, but they have been very rare.

One reason that I don’t want to touch applications like Discord (and other social media platforms) again is because I know that I will likely want to seek that kind of thing out again, instinctively. I do trust myself to be able to hold back if I really want to, but I still don’t like the idea of being able to fall back into that habit so easily, and the idea of being active on platforms that seem to so readily encourage users to seek out such things.

What I really hate is that, instinctively, as soon as I feel lonely, I seem to think of reaching for something like my phone or my computer. It’s like I‘m so scared of loneliness, boredom and of spending time in my own company that I can’t handle more than a few minutes of it.

I know that reaching for those things is not something that I want to do, and is something that almost never feels rewarding, so I have been trying to teach myself not to reach for things like that so quickly for a while now, and I have been trying to spend more time alone with myself, in my own company. I have grown to enjoy it, most of the time. I know that I’m not the only one who does or has done those kinds of things that I now try to avoid, though — definitely not. And that is bothersome. It seems so common, and that thought depresses me rather a lot.

I won't write about them all here right now, but there are plenty of other things that this book has caused me to think about and want to speak about. This book was a very interesting read, a worthwhile one, and one that I would definitely recommend.

For now, I shall include another excerpt.

"It's perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don't bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can."