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Dumbing Us Down is a collection of five essays, often themselves based on lectures. It is a short and lean book, making abridgement relatively difficult, at least so long as the original structure is preserved — there is some repetition between chapters.
The standard of citation is more what you'd expect from speeches than essays. Sometimes sources are referred to broadly; specific documents are never mentioned. Herein, notes have usually been included where statistical assertions have been made concerning their origin and justification.
Here are links to sometimes different versions of the five essays where they were easy to track down:
All compulsory education is based on seven fundamental lessons, which form the main content that children learn. The actual material that is traditionally considered to constitute the 'curriculum' is actually of negligible importance in terms of the impact that education has on children. These seven lessons are universal and cannot be changed without a revolution in education that would probably destroy institutionalised compulsory education as it is known today. The lessons are as follows:
These lessons, and the type of children that they produce, are reflected in various societal problems. People defer uncritically to experts. They have less mastery of beneficial skills, relying instead to experts (eg in areas like craft, cooking, construction, mechanical repair, etc). They are emotionally unprepared to spend time alone. They require their entertainment to be provided for them pre-packaged (especially through television). They live in atrophied communities, that are no longer held together by the transmission of skills and knowledge from old to young and general fraternisation of all ages.
[W]ithout the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that actually dared to teach the use of critical thinking tools — like the dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ — would last very long before being torn to pieces. —p17
This structure is not inevitable. Historically, the United States became a literate society before the majority were schooled — research indicates that literacy was probably close to one hundred per cent amongst non-slaves on the eastern seaboard at the time of the American revolution. The development of compulsory schooling had a different purpose: to prepare working-class children for docile service in factories, responding to perceived socialistic threats, particularly in 1848 and 1919. The ability of the public school system to defend and appropriate resources resulted in a gradual creep that captured the middle classes in the same system, and it is still able to convince society that all failures of education can be addressed in essentially the same way: more education and more resources for education.
All of these [seven] lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses[.] —p16
School of this type is unnecessary. It takes only about 100 hours to teach reading, writing and arithmetic provided the child is enthusiastic to learn:
The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things — it really isn't very hard. —p12
The US ranks last of 19 industrial countries in literacy and arithmetic, has the highest suicide rate in the world, and in Manhattan 70 per cent of marriages last less than five years.1) These trends are all inextricably linked to public schooling. Despite the good faith of teachers, schools are psychopathic institutions, increasingly irrelevant to all important work that is done on the planet.
The current American implementation of public schooling was invented in Massachusetts in 1850, and could only be implemented by force. At that point, literacy in Massachusetts stood at 98 per cent; at no time since has it risen above 91 per cent. One and a half million children are now homeschooled in the US; in their ability to think they are between five and ten years ahead of their public school counterparts.2)
Originally, schools were consciously designed to mass-produce compliant and predictable people. People that are successful in the modern world are independent, confident and self-reliant.
Well schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves. —p23
Two institutions at present control our children's lives: television and schooling, in that order. —p25
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These dominant influences create dependency and there is no remaining time to enable children to learn any degree of self-reliance.
The effects are important and must be recognised for any reform to work. Children in public schools:
These trends must be attributable to TV, public schooling, or both. There are no other influences in their lives that command enough time to be significant.
In response, the first thing that is needed is a real, ongoing national debate — the type that the media is incapable of. Reform is possible, but any improvement will require less resources to be devoted to education. Centrally planned mass education will inevitably be “mechanical, antihuman, and hostile to family life”, leading to a range of social pathologies.
History provides rich lessons on how to educate children better. For thousands of years, European elites have based their children's education on placing children alone in an unguided setting with a challenge to solve. This approach works well for all children.
the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, or course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything? —p30
School denies children opportunities to develop self-knowledge. Reform must give that time back. And it must involve them with the real world so that their independent time can be spent on things that are not abstract.
A short time ago I took $70 and sent a twelve-year-old girl from my class, with her non-English-speaking mother, on a bus down the New Jersey coast to take the police chief of Seabright to lunch and apologize for polluting his beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology I had arranged with the police chief for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small-town police procedures. —p31
The education system needs to cease being parasitic on the working community and re-immerse children in work and family life. Education must strengthen family bonds, and should reject the influence of experts and centralised planning.
This is a personal essay that covers the author's childhood on the banks of the River Monongahela, his early career in advertising and his later transition to teaching. As a story it is difficult to summarise, but the main points relevant to the book's thesis are these:
This essay uses several terms in an explicitly designed way:
Networks can be useful as means to accomplish economic tasks, but communities are essential for normal human development and for personal happiness. Without communities, people are lonely. Yet strong communities require members to be personally developed — people that have spent or are spending enough time alone to have grown or be growing to become rounded human beings. There is a great danger in being fooled that a range of networks can move in to replace a community. They cannot. No matter how many networks a person belongs to, he or she will be lonely without a community.
Institutions and nations try to increase their power and influence by conditioning us that we have a stronger bond of loyalty to them than to our families or communities. Compulsory schools are a key part of this conditioning.
One particular danger of the pre-eminence of networks over communities is that networks' means of valuing human worth are dehumanising and fantastical. Attempting to gain recognition in this sphere leads to pathological behaviour. In contrast, family and community is capable of providing people with sensitive affirmations for positive behaviour that is measured in a careful and humane way, promoting healthy ideals of behaviour. The importance of institutions in American life is rising at the expense of communities.
Institutions invariably protect their own interests over and above the goals for which they are created. Educational institutions are no exception.
It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.
If this view of things troubles you, think of the New York City public school system in which I work, one of the largest business organisations on planet Earth. While the education administered by this abstract parent is ill-regarded by everybody, the institutions right to compel its clientele to accept such dubious service is still guaranteed by the police. And forces are gathering to expand its reach still further — in the face of every evidence that it has been a disaster throughout its history. —p59, emphasis original
Communities are self-limiting, whereas institutions can expand indefinitely, and probably will unless checked from outside.
Competition can be a positive force in businesses, leading to better outcomes for customers, but it is wholly damaging in schools, because it is not possible to systematically measure anything meaningful. Competition between students amounts to a fight for a teacher's favours, and these are at best rather arbitrary: this competition “gives rise to envy, dissatisfaction, and a belief in magic.”6) Teachers competition amongst themselves for resources dispensed by administrators is at best arbitrary; at worst, these resources are “hostages to obedience, deference, and subordination”.7)
Truth also separates communities from networks — communities can tell if you are lying, whereas networks can't. The result is that many networks reward and therefore encourage lying.
[L]ying for personal advantage is the operational standard in all large institutions; it is considered part of the game in schools. Parents, for the most part, are lied to or told half-truths, as they are usually considered adversaries. At least that's been true in every school I ever worked in. Only the most foolish employees don't have recourse to lying; the penalties for being caught hardly exist — and the rewards for success can be considerable. —p64
Recently some have argued that schools need to be made more powerful — to be given a much larger proportion of children's time: nine-to-five all year round, or perhaps even nine-to-nine. The proposition is often justified on the grounds that it levels the playing field for poorer children, enabling them to escape non-conducive family environments. The flaw in this proposal is that school is a prime factor in the destruction of these families and the communities in which they used to be situated — it is pathological to strengthen schools to compensate for familial difficulties that they themselves have created.
Children learn what they live…
Mass education cannot work to produce a fair society because its daily practice is practice in rigged competition, suppression, and intimidation. The schools we've allowed to develop can't work to teach nonmaterial values… because the structure of schooling is held together by a Byzantine tapestry of reward and threat, of carrots and sticks. —pp68–9, emphasis original
In the first half of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell attacked American schooling for producing “a recognisably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self-confidence, and having less of what Russell called 'inner freedom' than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present.”8)
Schools must be rebuilt in order for children to begin to educate themselves with our help.
They don't have anything to work for now except money, and that's never been a first-class motivator. Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatise this whole business — trust the free market system. I know it's easier said than done, but what other chance to we have? We need less school, not more. —p72
In overview, this essay describes the organisation of New England towns in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and compares this mode of organisation favourably with a modal of central authority and control held to represent the management of education in the twentieth century. It goes on to advocate that the features of this 'congregational' mode of community organisation should be the guiding principle in beneficial education reform.
In the seventeenth century, newly established New England towns discovered an opportunity for development that was different to anywhere else in the Christian world, because they were free from the authority of church and state. Their response was participatory-democratic. They formed themselves into congregations with democratic control over their church, including clergy and effectively the content of preaching. From these organisational structures flowed all else, including fundamental choices about economic decisions — some held most land in common, others enacted private ownership, largely depending on the traditions of the area from which they had migrated.
These congregational communities had important properties. They were able to expel members who did not fit in with the community, and members were able to migrate to other communities if they wished. This enabled communities to tolerate dissent by enabling communities to select members who were sufficiently homogenous that dissent would be non-threatening to the community. Thereby a 'free market' in communities developed: those with the 'best ideas' prospered and those without failed, making the system as a whole self-correcting. Each congregation took responsibility for its community and acted together as necessary to accomplish community goals.
Divorced from religion, the congregational principle is a psychological force propelling individuals to reach their maximum potential when working in small groups of people with whom they feel in harmony. If you think about this you wonder what purpose is achieved by arranging things any other way. —p85
Whilst these communities could be brutal, sometimes executing dissenting voices, the important thing is that they improved over time, without any outside interference. In the course of several hundred years, they developed much more religious tolerance. This timeframe is explicitly acknowledged, but it is implied that this speed of development is either acceptable or the best that can be hoped for:
Everyone learned a better way to deal with difference than exclusion because they had time to think about it and to work it through — time measured in generations. —p86, emphasis added
(Whilst this is not mentioned, large, organised power structures (central government, corporations, combinations of wealthy individuals) are notable by their absence from the community world that is described. It is unclear whether this is perceived as a cause of, effect of, or irrelevance to the type of community power under examination.)
Centralised authority is established, in opposition to all forms of localism, as ineffective and deleterious. Social change cannot be legislated: central authority has achieved nothing or very nearly nothing in advancing the progressive agenda. In other words, the causes of feminism, racial equality and the improvement in living standards of poor people have not benefited from equality or affirmative action legislation or redistributive economic policy.
By most parameters, the plight of Black Americans, for example, now seems to be worse than it was in 1960…
The predicament of women is a little trickier to see, but if sharply accelerated rates of suicide, heart disease, emotional illness, sterility, and other pathological conditions are an indicator, the admission of women en masse to the unisex workplace is not an unmixed blessing…
[T]he income of working couples in 1990 has only slightly more purchasing power than the income of the average working man did in 1910.9) —pp83-4, emphasis original
Centralised authority has also failed to control the abuse of drugs, alcohol and pornography.
In other words, humans can only 'progress' if they do so voluntarily in the absence of outside pressure (especially from a centralised authority). Forcing people to comply will ensure that they do so badly, or with poor will, or with indifference.10)
Educational failure is currently analysed with the confines of two acceptable narratives. The first is the engineering analogy: any difficulty in education is a sign that the machine is not perfectly optimised. The curriculum needs to be improved, the school day lengthened, teacher training improved, etc. The second is the court-room drama: somebody is guilty of not doing their duty, whether teachers, principals, parents or children themselves. These offer endless ready solutions whose failure never falsifies the theory that more can be done, and divert criticism away from the deeper assumptions that underpin monopoly government schooling.
Schools are failing, and schooling itself is antithetical to real education. The solution should draw lessons from the congregational principle: