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Book review: "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto

January 23, 2022

“Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto is a scathing condemnation of the U.S education system and despite being nowhere near the United States physically, I drew many similarities, as I suspect others from across the world also can, with how my own education took place. It’s a short piece at only 144 pages in total, but it pulls no punches and because of that, and the many aforementioned similarities, it succeeds in resonating quite strongly with me.

I hadn’t heard of the author prior to stumbling upon this book from the comments section of Zvi Mowshowitz’s The Case Against Education blog post, but apparently1 the author is a veteran in the education system with multiple accolades, so on the face of it there is at least a modicum of credibility to what he lays out.

The book starts out with the seven lessons Gatto has unknowingly been teaching for the nearly 30 years he was a teacher. They are as follows: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and one can’t hide. Each has it’s own little explanation with mostly all of them ringing loudly for me. I won’t go through every one of them, but below are a few I wanted to reflect more on as I think those lessons form the core of what people should reflect on themselves. Quotes are from the book by Gatto himself, unless specified otherwise.

Confusion

Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well concealed.

Looking back at how our own schedules and lesson plans were laid out, it’s absolutely mind-boggling how anything but rote memorization was ever achievable. All of the meaningful endeavours in our lives are part of a natural sequence, according to Gatto, not disjointed as a way to cram as much as possible in to a seemingly necessary and “natural” progression through a class system.

As an aside: a part from being dreadful in its own right, it can have negative consequences for a subset of the population who are more susceptible to explanations of the fantastic ilk; conspiracy theories, in other words. Dan Boykis has expounded a bit on this in his In defense of the flat earthers blog post. This is a perspective I never considered, but now seems wholly plausible.

Class Position

The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Failing that, you must stay where you are put.

This reminds me how my classmates and I felt back during primary school: desperately wanting to advance into the next grade to be on par with the older kids. I wonder if this mental categorization of classes among age groups is partly why we consider age group X or Y to be at a certain intellectual/experience level, as they would be in the school system.

Indifference

Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other, as the abstraction of a map renders every living mountain and river the same, even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.

More than anything, I just thought that was a beautiful passage. It also harkens back in a very apt way to how a lot of the time the engagement in a class was lessened by a great deal knowing that it was only X minutes until the bell rang.

Provisional Self-Esteem

A monthly report, impressive, in its provision, is sent into a student’s home to elicit approval or mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with the child a parent should be. […]. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests, is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

I wonder how much more this is the case with so-called top-level schools. Are there studies on student happiness across various levels of schools?

One Can’t Hide

I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework”, so that the effect of surveillance, if not the surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to picture a world where no homework was ever given. Would we be better off? That’s a hard thing to quantify, but at the very least our daily lives and how we conduct ourselves would be vastly different.


The rest of the book explains why the author feels this way, how it all supposedly2 came to be, and what we can do to get ourselves out of this mess. There are some bits in the book that aren’t entirely consistent with itself and it seems to lean really heavily into the idea that a lot (if not most) of what is wrong with the world today is due to mass schooling, but if those are taken with at least some grain of salt, then I think this book could be an eye-opener for a lot of people.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Taylor_Gatto ↩︎

  2. “Supposedly” because I haven’t (yet) had the time nor the inclination to dig further into Gatto’s claims or whether they are corroborated by others. I suspect my drive to do so will increase in the future. ↩︎

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