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Monday, February 1, 1993

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

How did we come to accept that one group’s version of education should be forcibly imposed on every American child?

If John Taylor Gatto were introducing his book to us, he’d do us the favor of introducing himself first. In order to do justice to Mr. Gatto and his eye-opening book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, I must offer first of all a few words on the author himself.

Mr. Gatto taught for 26 years in New York City public schools, a number of these years in Harlem and Spanish Harlem. But his “heart and habit,” he asserts in his “Biographical Note,” are still in Monongahela, the small riverside town in Pennsylvania where he spent his early years. He describes the town as “an altogether wonderful place to grow up, even to grow up poor,” a place where “independence, toughness, and self-reliance were honored,” and where, he says, he “learned to teach from being taught by everyone in town.”

A year and a half ago, the public school system lost Mr. Gatto, and along with him it lost much of the smokescreen that has enabled it to remain so remarkably unchallenged over the years. Just after receiving the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year Award, Mr. Gatto announced he was going to quit because he didn’t want to “hurt” kids anymore. “Government schooling,” he charged, “kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.”

The publishers of Dumbing Us Down call Gatto’s ideas about education “not easily pigeon-holed,” which is an accurate observation. Who else would stand up and tell us that schooling as we know it is not education, but a “twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned”?

According to Gatto’s observations, the seven lessons taught in public schools from Harlem to Hollywood Hills are these:

1. Confusion (The natural order of real life is violated by heaping disconnected facts on students.)

2. Class position (Children are locked together into categories where the lesson is that “everyone has a proper place in the pyramid.”)

3. Indifference (Inflexible school regimens deprive children of complete experiences.)

4. Emotional dependency (Kids are taught to surrender their individuality to a “predestined chain of command.”)

5. Intellectual dependency (One of the biggest lessons schools teach is conformity rather than curiosity.)

6. Provisional self-esteem (“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.”)

7. One can’t hide (Schooling and homework assignments deny children privacy and free time in which to learn from parents, from exploration, or from community.)

He also contends that many of our modern society’s excesses, including the growth of commercial entertainment such as television, the dependence on experts, and even parts of our economic structure (prepared-food industries, for example) would wither once people started truly thinking and acting for themselves. The thought of people doing more things for themselves is exciting, but I hope Gatto doesn’t mean to say that working for pay is always dependency. And although it’s true that most individuals would benefit from diversifying their skills, Gatto would have to admit that highly specialized professions also have their place in a prosperous society.

The best thing about Gatto is he doesn’t seek to impose his version of desirable education on anyone else. Neither can he be accused of being anti-civilization, and certainly not anti-education. He speaks admiringly of early America’s prosperity (and literacy) through individual initiative, and even offers ideas toward the revival of better schools and communities in our current day.

As for solutions to the state of our educational system, Gatto at one point advocates a voucher, or school choice system, which would still be sadly deficient because of its dependence on government funds. His real thrust, though, comes out beautifully on page 79: “Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole business—trust the free market system. I know it’s easier to say than do, but what other choice do we have?”

Sure, it’s a radical proposal, and Gatto doubtless has his enemies. However, there’s a part of every one of us that thrills to his appeal to unleash the infinite possibilities within the human mind. And most of us can’t help asking ourselves questions, such as, “Where did we ever get the idea that education means just the same thing to one person as it does to another?” Even more relevant: “How did we ever come to accept that any one group’s version of education should be forcibly imposed on every American child?”

Reading Dumbing Us Down with an inquisitive mind is a whale of a learning experience, and it doesn’t take long to do. The book is only 120 pages, every one of them delightfully original. 

Hannah Lapp is a freelance writer who lives in Cassadaga, New York.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.