Despite having heard him quoted many times over the years, I have only recently read a book by John Taylor Gatto. If you had asked my about him before this, I would have said, “Oh, he compares schools to prisons and unschoolers love to quote him.” And these things are true, but I also have a new appreciation for his tought having actually read one of his books.
The book I read, Dumbing Us Down, is a collection of speeches Gatto gave on the topic of education. As such, it is not one coherent argument and there is some overlap between the chapters. Taken all together, however, there is a lot here to condemn our public school system as it currently exists.
Gatto’s main argument is that the public school system has not failed; it has done exactly what it intends to do. But what it intends to do is not to educate our children but to “school” them, that is, to turn them into products of the institution. Individuality and freedom are suppressed; conforming to the system is rewarded. Here is how he puts it:
“Good students wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of them all; we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make meaning of our lives.” (p. 7)
I suspect that some will find Gatto’s arguments and his depictions of the school system extreme. He himself was a teacher (and a much honored one) in the New York City schools. He does acknowledge that in other places and in previous generations the damage done by the schools was probably not so great.
While Gatto’s main argument is convincing, if overwhelming, I was often a lot more struck by the subsidiary points which support it. I have already written about the idea of networks versus communities that he puts forward. The idea that the schools speed the break up of the family also made me stop and think. It is easy to say, especially in an urban environment with very needy kids such as Gatto worked in, that the schools provide what these children can’t get from their broken homes. But what if the schools themselves are contributing to the brokenness? I think we can see this on a small-scale when children who go to school begin to identify and associate with their peers and to reject their siblings. It is easy to imagine that by taking on more and more areas that should be the domain of the parents that the schools are contributing to the break-up of the family though I would like to see more evidence for this.
In addition to showing how schools are not educating, Gatto also shows what damage they are doing to our children’s personalities. They lose their love of learning. They cannot concentrate and have no attention (ADHD anyone?). They lose their very sense of self. They develop ” . . . a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers” (p. 28).
Gatto does offer some solutions. Children, he says, need to gain self-knowledge. In order to do so, they need to face risks on their own. The risks may be large or they may be small, like simply facing their own boredom. Gatto spends a long time talking about how town governments worked in early Massachusetts. They were congregational with each town making its own rules and thereby acquiring its own character. While some fo them sometimes went astray, perhaps persecuting religious minorities, people could essentially vote with their feet by moving elsewhere or trying to change their town. He would see a solution for schools working in a similar way so that there might be many different kinds of schools, each making their own way. Some, no doubt, would be badly done or would fail, but in the end the best ones would survive and would be imitated. It is an individualized approach rather than one which perpetuates and continually grows the large educational machine we have now.
Though short, Dumbing Us Down is compelling and I would certainly recommend it. It made me think about a lot of different topics. I have already written on the relationship between networks and communities. I also plan to do a post on how Gatto’s thought overlaps with Charlotte Mason’s. One of the biggest things this book made me realize, though, is that I was very well-schooled, but perhaps not so educated as I thought. I always did very well in school but when it came to the later stages of grad school and having to come up with original thoughts, I was at sea. School may have taught me a lot, but it never taught be how to develop original, creative ideas.
On final note, as a resident of Massachusetts, I was interested to learn that compulsory schooling was slow to take hold here. I had always heard that my state was early to institute it, but no one ever mentioned that 80% of the population resisted the idea, often with guns. Very interesting.