Dumbing Us Down

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. –Mark Twain

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down is a lit match in a dry thicket. It’s a feverish dream before the beginning of a long school year. It’s a wet blanket draped over the positive ideas to which you may cling concerning the effectiveness of Systems. It’s every reservation you’ve held about public education, packaged in an economical 94 pages.

The interesting thing about books is the nature of their relevance. Sometimes a book catches like wildfire and then gradually loses its power. In other instances, a book is released to crickets only later to scorch the world with its ideas.

John Taylor Gatto’s book is a slow and steady burn tailor-made for thoughtful educators concerned with the effectiveness of the public school system. Dumbing us Down was originally published in 1992, and although it isn’t the most widely read book on education out there, it definitely has a strong following. I read another book of Gatto’s years ago entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction, and it posits a truth about public education I’d never fully realized. Dumbing us Down has accomplished the same feat.

I recommend you stop reading this post, open another tab in your web browser, go to Amazon, and purchase the book right now. If you’re not ready to add another book to your Amazon Cart, or you’d like more information about Dumbing Us Down, feel free to venture forward.

The main idea sewn throughout the book is that tinkering with schools to make them better is a lost cause–we have to re-imagine what school should be. Public education was an invention of industrialism, and the main subject schools have concerned themselves with is compliance. To this end, schooling has been extremely successful. Gatto even goes so far as to divide the first chapter into seven sections that represent what he taught as a New York public school teacher for 30 years:

  1. Confusion

  2. Class Position

  3. Indifference

  4. Emotional Dependency

  5. Intellectual Dependency

  6. Provisional Self-Esteem

  7. One Can’t Hide

You’ll have to read the book to find out how these items are taught. If you do so, you’ll either be cheering for Gatto’s gumption or think he’s crazy. There’s not much middle ground in Dumbing Us Down. In fact, on page 12 and again on 61, he makes a statement with which you may or may not agree:

…the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn (Gatto 12).

He goes on to say that each content area can be easily self-taught; all it takes is the right timing, and if there’s one thing public school does not concern itself with, it’s timing.

Gatto paints a beautiful picture, but don’t let the romantic ideas fool you: Putting his thoughts into action would drastically change society. Consider the following excerpt:

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone (Gatto 16).

Does this mean he would do away with credentialed teachers altogether? It’s difficult to say. What is explicit throughout the text is his insistence that school has replaced more important community institutions such as family and church. Gatto makes a clear delineation between communities and networks. Essentially, communities are groups in which people give and receive empathy. The members have skin in the game, which leads to a healthy sense of love, perseverance, and self-reliance. Networks, on the other hand, are places of sympathy. They have no skin in the game. Even though people may feel badly for one another in a network, there’s no sustaining bond.

According to Gatto, schools are networks–soulless places that make students obey a bell (under all circumstances) and force them to another teacher every year (in most circumstances). If you’re a teacher, I challenge you to calculate the percentage of former students who hold meaningful places in your life. It’s low, right? It’s because we’re all a small part of the System.

Dumbing Us Down was written in the early ’90s, so (web based) social networks weren’t yet created. I’d really like to know what Gatto thinks about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. It seems to me social networks exemplify the same traits Gatto gives to “traditional” networks in the book. Facebook provides a feeling that we’re surrounded by people who have skin in the game, but we know this is false. Empathetic relationships are forged within community via closeness of proximity and investment of time–things which social media cannot replace. I think Gatto would lump schools into the same category as social media, which is to say that school is well meaning infrastructure that produces an illusion of belonging.

Twitter, the network of choice for teachers, has spread great teaching ideas while at the same time disseminated educational junk and empty platitudes. It has also propagated the idea of the importance of a PLN, which for most teachers is nothing but smoke and mirrors on Twitter. Consider the following:

When the integration of life that comes from being part of a family in a community is unattainable, the only alternative, apart from accepting a life in isolation, is to search for an artificial integration into one of the many expressions of network currently available. But it’s a bad trade! Artificial integration within the realm of human association–think of those college dorms or fraternities–appears strong but is actually quite weak; seems close-knit but in reality has only loose bonds; suggests durability but is usually transient. And it is most often badly adjusted to what people need although it masquerades as being exactly what they need (65 and 66–emphasis mine).

Am I wrong in saying this describes the false sense of “community” we’re experiencing online?

If you read Dumbing us Down, you’ll have to choose for yourself whether you agree with the following beliefs: 1) School is causing addictive and dependent personalities. 2) School is promoting a life of “accumulation as a philosophy”. 3) “Only self-teaching has lasting value” (31). 4) The theory of teaching isn’t ever discussed in classrooms and lounges. 5) “…we shouldn’t be thinking of more school, but of less.” (47).


Gatto argues that less school, not more, is a move in the right direction. It’s a bold statement and totally antithetical to what’s tossed about in the media, district offices, and school sites. Nevertheless, it’s a discussion worth having, and reading Dumbing Us Down is the perfect place to start. The book is remarkably quotable. I’ve actually had to restrain from posting a lot of excerpts, but I’d like to leave you with some last words written by 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 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 life and how to die (67 and 68).

Walk the line…prudently

Adding to recent posts, for there to be progress, change must happen slowly and incrementally. Too much change all at once, and people may become uncomfortable, if not downright hostile.

Businesses have experienced this. Change the look of a website overnight without warning, and visitors complain. Change the menu, and regular customers become confused or perturbed (or both).

That’s why Facebook is smart making their recent billion dollar acquisitions. Slowly, their business model is changing; they’re reaching more users in different ways. I’m not a huge Facebook user, but I use Instagram a lot, so they’ve got me.

Facebook is evolving. They’re branching out into the mobile world in various ways, so much so that mobile may very well be their top priority. However, this isn’t how it started. They’re slowly and incrementally changing their product–working hard to not alienate users who like being comfortable.

I’ve written recently about how being innovative involves straying from the present day culture just enough to build something unthought of before, while at the same time respecting the culture and making the product accessible. It’s a fine line to strike. My field is education, and now more than ever technology is making a big presence within schools nationwide. Teachers must stray from conventional thinking to be creative and innovative, but they can’t stray too far. Sometimes in education, we make changes too quickly and alienate stakeholders. Othertimes, we move too slowly and lose stakeholders along the way.

The challenge is walking the line carefully, stepping to the left and right in a prudent manner.

Hatching Twitter

I’m a sucker for Silicon Valley empire building stories. First there was The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich about the tumultuous creation of Facebook. Now we have Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter.

There’s a pattern afoot in these historic assemblages. A group of young, brilliant people come together. A revolutionary idea is born, and there is no consensus on who the founder is.

The Accidental Billionaires went on to be made into the movie The Social Network. I’ve heard Hatching Twitter will follow suit–possibly in the form of a television series. That’s fitting, especially if the filmmakers want to capture the full spectacle of Twitter’s genesis, which is truly the most exciting part of the story no matter where Twitter goes from here.

Facebook and Twitter’s beginnings are intriguing because they reveal how creations assemble themselves–specifically technology. It’s as if the internet was finally ready for Twitter, and if the people who made it showed up a tad later with the product, then something else would have satisfied the need. Of course, hungrier technologies can always supplant the first comers (á la MySpace and Facebook), but the point is that technology needs to grow, and there will always be people who help meet this insistence.

It’s also true that when people work together on a project, the end result is a melding of all ideas. Let’s face it, how can the percentage of responsibility for an idea be accurately calculated? Someone may have voiced an idea that was relatively minor, but it birthed a number of ideas in the minds of others that propelled the vision forward. How much is the initial contribution worth? Also, is a lot of work on a project–say, writing the code or creating the design–as important as a few vital ideas sprinkled throughout the collaboration (like the company’s name, color, branding, etc.)?

Following how this works itself out is fascinating. Hatching Twitter is a fun read in its entirety.

Approaching technology

Sometimes I’m tempted to pick Facebook up again, and I continually weigh the pros and cons. There are plenty of reasons why Facebook is good. There’s one big con, however: The insidious way it sucks up time.

I used to check my wall while watching T.V., while on my iPhone, while waiting in line at the pharmacy… Sometimes I’d click around on the different things people posted and half an hour would be gone.

Once I quit Facebook, I wrote a lot more and read a lot more (books, that is). A level of productivity materialized I hadn’t known the year I was on FB.

Now I approach technology a lot more skeptically. (Like the Amish, I guess.) Instead of thinking about how cool a new site might be to visit, or how fun a new gadget might be to own, I think about what I’m giving up to invest time in the next new thing.

My goal: never pick up a new gadget unless it simplifies my life. And hopefully, gadget makers will be striving for simplicity within the product itself.

Interestingly, Apple’s priorities are becoming the industry’s priorities. It seems that companies making electronics–whether they are vacuums, hand dryers, or thermostats–are striving for simplicity, beauty, and excellence. This wasn’t always the case. Remember the way cellphones appeared before Apple introduced the iPhone? All those sad devices looked the same. Now they all look like iPhones.

By the way, have you seen this new thermostat? Here’s the trailer. (Yes, it has a trailer.)

It’s designed by a former Apple employee. The way things are going, however, you don’t have to be a former Apple employee to appreciate striving for perfection.