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Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”, John Taylor Gatto, 2005 (first ed. 1992), New Society Publishers, ISBN 978-0-86571-448-9

Dumbing Us Down is a collection of five essays, often themselves based on lectures. The essays weren't written with a cohesive objective in mind, and as a result individual essays will tackle a point very concisely, but often repeat a statement that is made elsewhere. A better abridgement might restructure the entire work so as to avoid this repetition, but that would be of less use to a reader that intends to use this to locate the most interesting essay or segment to read in full.

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:

  1. The green Monongahela
  2. The congregational principle

The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher

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:

  1. Confusion: the structure of the school day, when subjects are divided into small pieces, with children constantly moving from one class to an entirely unrelated class, inevitably teaches that no subject is important or meaningful, there is no justification or reason for anything that is learned, and that the proper attitude towards the content of lessons is therefore one of indifference, preferably with an artificial show of enthusiasm.
  2. Class Position: the constant ranking and grouping of children based on performance in meaningless tasks teaches students, above all else, to know their place. Teachers have to pretend that grades are the key to future success, even though they are acutely aware that employers are rightly indifferent about them. By teaching children to have contempt for lesser-performing students and fear and envy for better-performing peers they are separated from one another, making them easier to control.
  3. Indifference: all enthusiasm for any subject must evaporate the instant a bell sounds. Nothing is important enough to be pursued to its conclusion. The endless repetition of this process forces children to be adequately indifferent about everything that they are taught.
  4. Emotional Dependency: no human rights are permitted within schools. All children are subject to ubiquitous arbitrary authority. In this environment, it is impossible for them to develop trust in their own judgement: whether they are successful or not is decided by their teacher, and this necessarily leads to emotional dependency.
  5. Intellectual Dependency: good students do what they are told when they are told to do it. Any attempt to pursue a curriculum or investigation that has not been officially sanctioned will be crushed. In fact, any attempt to use higher-order critical techniques is recognised as dangerous to maintaining an adequate level of control — a school must prevent such criticism in order to survive.
  6. Provisional Self-Esteem: report cards, grades and tests grind into children the lesson that their worth is determined by independent experts. Self-evaluation has no place in their lives.
  7. One Can't Hide: school enables a fantastic level of surveillance coupled with the absolute denial of any right to privacy or independence. This prevents children from developing the ability to be alone or to work independently. It is enhanced by encouraging students to inform on one another, and on their parents. It is extended beyond school hours by monopolising their time at home with homework.

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 on 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 between 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.1) 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 Psychopathic School

I

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.2) 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.

II

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.3)

III

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

IV

Two institutions at present control our children's lives: television and schooling, in that order. —p25
Activity Time (hours)
weekly total 168
of which:
sleep 56
television 55
school 30 45
preparation and travel 8
homework 7
eating 3
remaining time 9

These dominant influences create dependency and there is no remaining time to enable children to learn any degree of self-reliance.

V

The effects are important and must be recognised for any reform to work. Children in public schools:

  1. are indifferent to the adult world, unlike all previous generations in history;
  2. have no curiosity or attention span;
  3. have a poor sense of future;
  4. have no sense of the past or links between the past and present;
  5. are cruel and lack empathy;
  6. fear intimacy;
  7. are materialistic;
  8. are dependent, passive and timid in the face of new challenges.

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.

VI

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.

VII

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.

Sometimes 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

VIII

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.

The Green Monongahela

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:

  1. The author's childhood experience was that all adults would use any spare time they had to teach children that they came across anything that seemed interesting about adult life. This was seen as part of their community responsibility. Adult life, in turn, was interesting to children because it was purposeful: “No one ever became indifferent to these steamers [on the river] because nothing important can ever really be boring.”4)
  2. He found advertising to be a meaningless activity. Nobody involved in it could see any purpose to it, and eventually this proved intolerable, despite the high salary and near total absence of work required of him.
  3. He became a teacher because he had been inspired by the spontaneous teaching of the adults he encountered in his youth.
  4. His early experiences of teaching centred around mindless bureaucracy thwarting any learning that might otherwise have been possible, but he ultimately found a meaningful role doing what he could to protect students from it. As a substitute teacher, he was given control of 75 students and 75 typewriters in a typing class, with the single instruction not to permit any of them to type anything, as he did not possess the appropriate licence; within minutes he was attacked with a chair. His first victory was, as a substitute, to fight a principle to move a girl into a higher set who was convinced the child was 'faking' being a competent reader.

We Need Less School, Not More

This essay uses several terms in an explicitly designed way:

  1. Community is a good thing. It consists of a closed group of people that interact with and know one another in an holistic way. It consists of lifelong bonds. It requires a heavy and continuous investment of time on the part of its members. It is spiritually nourishing and a key source of true human happiness. It naturally takes responsibility for its own problems, and develops in-community solutions. It is self-limiting. Communities are an ancient phenomenon, originally formed through the amalgamation of families.
  2. Networks are a more recent human invention. They are systems of interconnected people designed for a purpose. Interaction between members is defined by that purpose and is partial — people play a network-specific role when interacting with other members. Examples include workplaces, professional associations, armies, hospitals and universities. Networks provide efficient means of accomplishing rational tasks, but provide negligible emotional support. “It is a puzzling development, as yet poorly understood, that the 'caring' in networks is in some important way feigned. Not maliciously, but in spite of any genuine emotional attractions that might be there, human behaviour in network situations often resembles a dramatic act”.5) They also tend to externalise their problems, since a network can always be defined in such a way that any problem is not its responsibility.
  3. Institutions can be seen as nothing more than a formalised network (whereas networks can be informal). Institutions are often established for a defined purpose, but they invariably have a higher priority: self-perpetuation at best and more commonly self-aggrandisement.
  4. Pseudo-communities are networks that masquerade as communities by trying or pretending to offer the emotional support provided by a community. They always fail spectacularly. Networks are least dangerous when they are honest about their limitations. Public schools are pseudo-communities. “A pseudo-community is just a different kind of network: its friendships and localities are transient; its problems are universally considered to be someone else's problems (someone else who should be paid to solve them); its young and old are largely regarded as annoyances; and the most commonly shared dream is to get out to a better place, to 'trade up' endlessly.”6)

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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

V

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.”7) Teachers competition amongst themselves for resources dispensed by administrators is at best arbitrary; at worst, these resources are “hostages to obedience, deference, and subordination”.8)

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

VI

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.

VII

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.”9)

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

The Congregational Principle

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.

The congregational principle

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.)

The failure of central authority

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 1910.10) —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.11)

Two acceptable analyses of education

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.

Solutions

Schools are failing, and schooling itself is antithetical to real education. The solution should draw lessons from the congregational principle:

  1. “encourage and underwrite experimentation”;
  2. “trust children and families”;12)
  3. stop segregation: of children into age groups and of children and old people from communities;
  4. look for local and personal solutions, reject corporate ones;
  5. decertify teaching immediately;
  6. encourage free-market competition; and
  7. remain always conscious of the question, “What is education for?” and refuse to allow experts to answer it for you.
1) No source supplied.
2) No source cited.
3) Statistics on historical literacy are “claims” made by the office of Senator Ted Kennedy (D–MA, 1962–2009). Comparison of homeschooled/publicly schooled children was “reported” by the “educational press”.
4) p36.
5) p50.
6) p62–3, emphasis original.
7) pp3.
8) pp63–4.
9) p70, emphasis original.
10) According to “some disturbing evidence [that] exists”. No other citation is given for any part of this section.
11) Which seems to imply that equal rights granted with “indifference” are no better than discrimination? Better to discriminate for a century or three until people find it in their hearts to grant equal rights enthusiastically?
12) p93.
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