Dumbing Us Down: The 7 Hidden Lessons of Compulsory Education
While teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills.
Dumbing Us Down: The 7 Hidden Lessons of Compulsory Education
A Book Review
By Meryn Callander / kindredmedia.org

In the early nineties John Taylor Gatto resigned from 26 years of award-winning teaching in Manhattan’s public schools.

There he had used his classes as a laboratory where he could learn a broader range of what human possibility is; and what releases and what inhibits human power. He came to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality; and that he had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it. He saw that whatever he thought he was doing as a teacher, most of what he was actually doing was teaching an “invisible curriculum that reinforced the myths of the school institution and those of an economy based on caste.” He began to devise “guerrilla exercises” to allow his students to be their own teachers and to make themselves the major text of their own education.

The first chapter is the transcript of a speech Gatto gave on the occasion of his being named “New York Teacher of the Year” for 1991. I felt myself thrill to the courage, the heart, and the soul of this man as revealed through his words; and wonder at the reception of the audience who I imagine would be present at such an event. The intent of this speech was to convey his belief that while teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. Read on and you may share my wonder as, maintaining his voice, I precis his points.

  • 1. Confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating and disconnections of everything. I teach too much: from the orbiting of planets to adjectives. Curricula are full of internal contradictions and lack coherence. Kids leave school without one genuine enthusiasm or indepth appreciation of anything. Human beings seek meaning, not disconnected facts.
  • “In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many moves or job changes or too much ambition… I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.”
  • 2. Class position. I teach students they must stay in the class where they belong. If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else, because I have shown them how to envy and fear the better classes, and to have contempt for the dumb classes. The lesson is everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and you must stay where you are put.
  • 3. Indifference. I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do. I do this by demanding students become totally involved in my lessons, exhibit enthusiasm for my teaching, compete with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever they’ve been doing and proceed to the next class.
  • “Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything.”
  • 4. Emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command. Individuality is a contradiction to class theory and curse to all systems of classification.
  • 5. Intellectual dependency. Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. They learn that we must wait for others, better trained, to make the choices that will direct our lives. successful children do the thinking I assign with a minimum of resistance and decent show of enthusiasm. Curiosity has no place, only conformity. Bad kids fight this, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting. There are procedures to break the will of those who resist. Our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what might fall apart if children weren’t trained to be dependent. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do.
  • 6. Provisional self-esteem. It is impossible to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood such spirits, so I teach that a child’s self respect should depend on expert opinion. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but rely on the evaluation of certified officials.
  • 7. One can’t hide. I teach children they are always under constant surveillance. There are no private spaces for children, no private times. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other. The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, privacy is not legitimate. Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control.

Gatto believes that the debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony. “We have one–in the 7 lessons outlined.” He finds this curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis, and that no curriculum of content is sufficient to reverse its effects. He asserts that what is currently under discussion about failing academic performance misses the point that the schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.

Gatto presents a credible case for his belief that school is an essential support system for a model of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramidal social order, even though such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution. From Colonial days through the period of the Republic we had no schools to speak of–he refers readers to Ben Franklin’s autobiography for an example of a man who had no time to waste in school.

Gatto claims that mass education cannot support democracy, cannot support a fair society, because its daily practice is rooted in competition, suppression, and intimidation. The schools can’t teach the nonmaterial values that give meaning to life, because the structure of schooling is held together by rewards and threats, carrots and sticks–“the paraphernalia of servitude, not freedom.”

Gatto looks at how compulsory schooling, as we know it, came about as an invention of the State of Massachusetts about 1850. It was resisted–sometimes with guns–by an estimated 80% of the Massachusetts population. The last outpost was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard in the 1880s. Prior to compulsory education, it was noted that the state literacy rate was 98%. Since this time, it has never exceeded 90%.

For 150 years institutional education has offered as its main purpose, economic success. Good education=good job, good money, good things.

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The absurdity… is clear if we ask ourselves what is gained by perceiving education as a way to enhance even further the runaway consumption that threatens the earth, air, and water of our planet. Should we continue to teach people that they can buy happiness in face of tidal wave of evidence that they cannot?

Gatto sees schools dividing and classifying people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other and publicly labeling losers by literally degrading them, identifying them as “low-class” material. “The bottom line for the winners is that they can buy more stuff.”

Gatto believes that the crisis we are facing–young people indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence, children unable to concentrate on anything for very long, children mistrusting of intimacy, hating solitude, children who tend to be cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction–is to be expected, given the lessons our schools are teaching. And that it is time we face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children, even to the instructors.

In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking the schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen.

After an adult lifetime teaching school, Gatto has concluded that the method of mass-schooling is its only real content. Good curricula, equipment, or teachers are not the critical determinants of a child’s education.

All the pathologies we’ve considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity, love–and lessons in service to others, too…

Gatto is convinced that the schools are draining the vitality from communities and families, bleeding away time we need with our children and our children need with us. He sees the current school crisis as linked to an even greater social crisis: Our nation ranks at the very bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Our teen suicide rate is the highest in the world. In Manhattan, seventy percent of all new marriages last less than 5 years. We live in “networks,” not communities, and everyone is lonely because of that. We are creating a class system, complete with “untouchables” who beg and sleep in the streets.

The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in the schools… but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions… it is psychopathic–it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

But Gatto does not stop with the schools. He sees television as rivaling, even surpassing, the schools in controlling our children’s lives. He builds his case on the fact that in the past childhood and adolescence were filled with real work, real charity, real adventures, community pursuits, and the search for mentors to teach them what they wanted to learn. Given the hours most children spend in school and before the TV, they are left with about eleven hours a week out of which to “create a unique consciousness.” If rich kids watch less TV, their time tends to be as controlled by commercial entertainments and private lessons.

What can be done? He does not see us getting rid of the schools in the near future, but the priority must be to get rid of the monopoly: pumping more money and people into a sick institution will only make it sicker. He sees some form of free-market system in public schooling as the likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools and small entrepreneurial and religious and crafts and farm schools compete with government education. This is something like the country had before the Civil war.

READ THIS BOOK NOWGetting rid of the monopoly means turning our backs on national solutions, looking for local solutions and toward communities of families as successful laboratories, encouraging experimentation, trusting children and families to know what is best for themselves, stopping the segregation of children and the aged in walled compounds, involving everyone in the community in the education of the young.

He sees home-schooling as showing great promise. Today one and a half million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents; in 1990 it was reported than children schooled at home seemed to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.

Gatto believes that none of this is inevitable; that we have choices in how we bring up young people; that there is no one right way. This, he believes, is what we would see if we broke through the power of the present illusion.

… if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found–in families, friends, the passage of the seasons… in generosity, compassion… in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, friends, and communities are built–then we would be so self-sufficient we would not need the material “sufficiency” our global “experts” are so insistent we be concerned about.

He urges us to reinvolve children with the real world–real world adventures and experiences, apprenticeships of a day or longer–so that time can be spent in something other than abstraction. Community service gives them experience in acting unselfishly, and a real responsibility in the mainstream of life. Gatto offers mind-opening and heart-warming stories of his experience in running a program where every kid gave 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of young adults came to him years later and told him the experience had changed their lives.

An educational philosophy favored by Gatto is that used by the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. At the core is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge, and independent time is the key to self-knowledge. Gatto sees that right now our children have no independent time. We need give it to them, and trust them from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school, but which takes place away from the school setting. We need curricula where children have a chance to develop their own private uniqueness and self-reliance. He gives some great examples of how he has used this method in his own teaching, “as much, that is, as I can get away with given the present institution of schooling.”

While Gatto sees all of these things as powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling, he believes that no large scale reform will work until we force open the idea of school to include family at its heart. He believes that the “Curriculum of Family” is at the heart of any good life. He calls on the schools to promote, during schooltime, confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. He challenges us to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want our children to learn and why.

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 that 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… and to die.

While many may dismiss Gatto as extremist and radical, it behooves us to appreciate the meaning of the latter word–from the roots. Gatto touches me as a man who has experienced and thought deeply and courageously, with heart, about the impact of our schools on the wellbeing of our children–and our future.

He continues practicing his unique guerilla curriculum with the Albany Free School, while travelling around the country to promote a radical transformation of state schooling


Meryn G. Callander is the author of the groundbreaking book, Why Dads Leave: Insights and Resources for When Partners Become Parents, as well as After His Affair: Women Rising From The Ashes Of Infidelity. She is the co-founder and past president of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children.

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Dumbing Us Down: The 7 Hidden Lessons of Compulsory Education