Dumbing Us Down -
The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
by John Taylor Gatto
Published by New Society Publishers
(4527 Springfield Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143)
1992: 104 pages, $9.95 paper
 
Reviewed by Ron Miller
 
Ron's review of John's book, Dumbing Us Down, first appeared in summer issue of Holistic Education Review for 1992 and was reprinted in the Winter, 1993 issue of SKOLE.  
 
John Taylor Gatto's fiery speech to the New York legislature, upon being named the state teacher of the year, was reprinted in several publications and widely circulated among alternative and radical educators, making Gatto an immediate hero within the alternative education movement. That speech, along with four other essays, are brought together in Dumbing Us Down, a book that should further establish Gatto as the most visible contemporary critic of public schooling. Like Paul Goodman, John Holt, Herb Kohl, Jim Herndon, and Jonathan Kozol in the 1960s, Gatto is a morally sensitive and passionate teacher who is thoroughly disgusted by the spirit-crushing regimen of mass schooling, and unafraid to say so. Both Kohl and Kozol are still writing important books that present a progressive/radical critique of schools, but Gatto (like the late John Holt) gives voice to a growing populist rebellion against schooling as such. Whether this rebellion will support or counteract the holistic education movement is an open question, to which Dumbing Us Down may offer some clues.
 
One thing must be said up front: Gatto is a superb essayist. His writing is not academic or pedantic, but a model of harnessed passion. He builds his argument carefully and smoothly and then unleashes bold attacks that cut right to the core of many problems of modern education. He clearly has a solid understanding of the historical foundations of modern education, but generally makes his own personal interpretations rather than citing sources or scholars. Indeed, his essay *The Green Monongahela" is an intimate account of his own life and how he became a teacher. He tells a simple story from early in his career, of rescuing a young Hispanic girl from the stupid injustice of the system (she later went on to become an award-winning teacher herself), that captures the essence of his moral crusade against institutional schooling.
 
Gatto summarizes his argument in an introductory chapter:
 
Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior. (p. xii)
 
In his speech to the legislature, he makes this charge explicit, describing seven 'lessons' that form the heart of the compulsory curriculum.
 
"These are the things you pay me to teach":
1. Confusion. 'Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the unrelating of everything.' (p. 2)
2. Class position. "That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.' (P. 3)
3. Indifference. 'Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?* (p. 6)
4. Emotional dependency. 'By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, hon-ors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.' (p. 7)
3. Intellectual dependency. 'Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers.... Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity* (p. 8). Gatto says this is 'the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.' (p. 8)
6. Provisional self-esteem. 'The lesson of report cards, grades and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.' (p. 11)
7. One can't hide. Surveillance is an ancient imperative, espoused by certain influ-ential thinkers (such as Plato, Augustine, Calvin, Bacon, and Hobbes). All these childless men ... discovered the same thing: children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control.' (pp. 11-12)
 
And here is the crux of Gatto's critique: in the past 125 years, social engineers have sought to keep American life under tight central control. Compulsory schooling is a deliberate effort to establish intellectual, economic, and political conformity so that society can be managed efficiently by a technocratic elite. "School,' claims Gatto, *Is an artifice that makes .... a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution' (p. 13). Along with the media - especially television, which Gatio criticizes harshly in another essay - schooling removes young people from any genuine experience of community, any genuine engagement with the world or immersion in lasting relationships. It robs them of solitude and privacy. Yet these experiences are what enable us to develop self-knowledge and to grow up 'fully human,' argues Gatto, and he asserts that our most troubling social pathologies, such as drug abuse and violence, are the natural reaction of human lives subjected to mechanical, abstract discipline.
 
Gatto insistently calls for a return to genuine family and community life by rejecting the social engineering of experts and institutions. In a particularly powerful passage, he rejects the notion that a "life-and-death international competition' threatens our national existence, as A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) warned. Such a notion is "based on a definition of productivity and the good life" that is 'alienated from common human reality.' " True meaning is genuinely found, Gatto writes,
 
.... in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent in-dependence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built.... (pp. 16-17)
 
And these are the things we have lost in our hierarchically managed, global empire-building society.
 
In the essay 'We Need Less School, Not More," Gatto draws a sharp distinction between true community (in which there is open communication and shared participation) and institutional networks (which value the individual only in terms of the institution's particular goals). A network cannot be a healthy substitute for family or community, Gatto argues; it is mechanical, impersonal, and overly rational. Schooling is a prime example of this:
 
If, for instance, an A average is accounted the central purpose of adolescent life - the requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirant - and the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize students, alienate them from their own human nature, and break the natural connection between them and their parents, to whom they would otherwise look for significant affirmations.' (p. 62)
 
This is a brilliant, radical critique of the nature of modern schooling. Gatto has certainly earned his heroic stature with his deeply insightful observations into the very essence of what public education has become. His writings deserve to be pondered seriously by holistic teachers and can contribute a great deal of insight and energy to our work.
 
Nevertheless, there is a fundamental issue at stake here, which could end up sharply dividing the holistic education movement if we do not sensitively address it. Gatto, like John Holt and a great many homeschoolers, holds and defends a libertarlan social philosophy, In the John Locke/Adam Smith tradition. Gatto argues that a common (social) good arises only out of the free interaction of individuals and intimate communities pursuing their own local good. Individuals and families are seen as the primary human reality, while social forces are generally treated as a distressing nuisance. (The term 'social engineers' seems to include anyone who seriously addresses social issues.)
 
In the spirit of dialectical discourse (honest disagreement leading to a more inclusive synthesis), which Gatto admires and knows to be the heart of genuine education, I wish to oppose the libertarian position with one that is more socially conscious. I am especially sensitive to the nuances of this question, since I spent several of my intellectual formative years as an enthusiastic student of libertarian philosophy and political theory, and still have a great deal of sympathy for it. Gatto is justified in calling for a genuine community life - to replace the stultifying power of the state, huge corporations, self-serving experts and professionals, and all impersonal institutions. Like other libertarians and homeschool advocates, however, Gatto throws the baby out with the bathwater by categorically defining 'school' as an impersonal network and virtually equating educators and activists with 'social engineers.'
 
The problem is illustrated vividly in the book's closing essay, 'The Congregational Principle.' Here Gatto lauds the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay for organizing their churches and towns largely free of higher authority, thereby bringing about local solutions to social and political questions.
 
He explicitly recognizes the parochialism inherent in such radical localism: He discusses the towns' practice of banishing people whose religious views or personal qualities were discomfiting to the community, and he even acknowledges that dissidents (such as Quakers) were publicly humiliated and whipped (a few were also executed). Gatto's main point in relating this story is to celebrate the fact that New Englanders eventually evolved to a more open, liberal worldview - without compulsory schooling or social engineering.
But Gatto's historical interpretation is flawed by his libertarian bias and is quite unconvincing: He asserts that the. colonists enjoyed 'nearly unconditional local choice' in a social 'free market' (pp. 90-9l) - a strange claim to make for a rigidly moralistic society with a single established church!
 
Gatto claims that New England culture was transformed by 'something mysterious inside the structure of Congregationalism.' (p. 90) (read. Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' that magically turns self-interest into common good). But this utterly ignores the distinctly social events that forced New Englanders to alter their parochial culture in the early decades of the nineteenth century - the nationalistic impulses released by the War of 1812 (which New Englanders had bitterly and futilely opposed); Irish Catholic immigration; enlightenment and romantic movements; the rise of science, industrialism, and urban centers; and the growing tensions between North and South over trade, tariffs, and slavery. More important, it doesn't bother Gatto in the least that the liberalization of New England culture took two hundred years and probably would have taken far longer had these crucial societal events not intervened.
 
Libertarian thinking is a much-needed antidote to the hierarchical, mechanical power that has been amassed by social institutions in the twentieth century. We surely do need to pull the plug on these monstrous organizations. But that is not all we need to do. We live in a society that is poisoned by inequality, racism, and grossly materialistic values. We live on a planet that is threatened with biocide within the next decade or two. We simply do not have two hundred years to wait for some 'invisible hand' to lead individuals and families and self-satisfied little communities to begin addressing these tremendous issues! We must find a way to incorporate personal and communal independence into a social movement that recognizes our interdependence.
 
As I see it, this is exactly what holistic thinking attempts to do. Holistic educators are not 'social engineers' - we reject the compulsion and fragmentation and alienation of public schooling as earnestly as Gatto - but we recognize that the modern crisis demands a concrete response grounded in certain moral, philosophical and spiritual principles. Holistic politics - otherwise known as the Green movement - explicitly embraces decentralization and personal empowerment, but within the context of severe social and ecological problems that need to be addressed. In a society of blatant inequality, how will the 'free market' provide quality educational opportunity for poor children? In a society driven by addicted consumerism, how will families, on their own, deal with environmental devastation, media brainwashing, or corporate control of resources and jobs? These are problems of a social dimension, not solely a personal one. Getting rid of compulsory regimentation in school is an important part of our task, but by no means is it a panacea that will restore our society to some golden age of free people and whole families. A holistic response - not an atomistic one - is required.
 
Editorial (MML) comment on Ron Miller's review:
 
Ron Miller is a student of history, and as such takes an objective stand on anything which focuses on historical events. I think, in this case, however, in the very process of challenging John's structuring of historical sequences of events, he has himself thrown out the baby of history - the history, not of Massachusetts Congregationalism but of the actual organization of the American school system - in order to salvage the bathwater of the meaning of history.
 
He is not wrong about John's omissions of the sequences of historical events he cites - but, because he sees history in terms of "movements" rather than individuals - and because of his own passionate belief in what he calls "holistic education," which he sees as a cure for our educational ills, I believe he himself omits far too much that is immediately relevant to an understanding of the role played by a few individuals who shared an élitist viewpoint in the actual organization of that school system. There is also far more value in the Congregationalist model of society - even with its documented inhumanity and abuses in the hands of the intolerant men who were its leaders - than Ron has been able to discern.
 
In his reply to Ron's assessment of Congregationalism itself, John characterizes it thus:
 
To the extent Puritan vision was that of a world order, it was diseased and murderous, but genius implicit in the Congregational mechanism, by a wonderful irony (which unfortunately became obvious over time to Unitarians) is so relentlessly local, so unmistakably personal, it sabotaged the global vision of Calvinism right from the beginning. It is a fascinating paradox never examined to my knowledge by academic scholarship and it is the real point I explore in "The Congregational Principle" (first published in Maine Scholar).
 
It wasn't "something mysterious" inside the structure of Congregationalism in any sense like Adam Smith's "magic hand," to use Ron's phrases in the area where he goes farthest astray, it was one of the great fundamental discoveries of human social genius. What is mysterious is how it ever came into being - and sustained itself until the Unitarians destroyed it right under the noses of the very social engineers who were giving New England its global economic mission.
 
It strikes me that history itself is more and more coming down on the side of John's interpretation of events. John has continued to sharpen his weapons in unearthing more historical data to support his contentions, and the results are unmistakable. He offers us some encouragement to sabotage the plans and programs devised by the "social engineers" among us thus:

So what to do with the strong human impulse to meddle, to tinker, to dominate, to improve, to not accept destiny? Well, my own answer is to do what you personally can, and suffer what you personally must. Accept the punishment of Prometheus if you want to play the part. And do I think you should play the part? Yes, of course, I've tried to myself all my adult life, but the other side of that dialectic is that I also believe that brilliant and beautiful lives are possible everywhere, under any duress or deprivation, as long as you see clearly what really matters.

To read his recent blockbuster article restructuring his argument for the real purposes of American schooling, in the light of his continuing research into the speeches and writings of such leaders during those organizational years, visit his liberally documented article Some Lessons from the Underground History of American Education.!
 
Praise for John Gatto:
John Gatto's writing is like a Jackson Pollock painting - a streak of history here, a splash of humor there, three drops of statistics. Every sentence is filled with passion. You have to work hard to understand what John Gatto is getting at, but the reward is an invitation to an endless adventure; the search for meaning in life.

- Jerry Mintz, Education Revolution

Also click here to see John Gatto's response to Ron's review.