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:
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).