Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto was New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, when he published Dumbing Us Down. I guess he knows what he's talking about. The following excerpts are from an earlier version of Chapter 1 that was published in The Sun (May, 1991), and Whole Earth Review (Fall 1991):

The first lesson I teach is "Stay in the class where you belong." I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned... Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of numbers he carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch. I demand that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. But when the bell rings I insist that they drop the work at once and proceed quickly to the next work station. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of.

The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?

The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. My judgments come thick and fast, because individuality is trying constantly to assert itself in my classroom.

The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study (rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me). This power lets me separate good kids from bad kids instantly. Good kids do the tasks I appoint with a minimum of conflict and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to learn, I decide what few we have time for. The choices are mine. Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity...

Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.

This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.

In lesson five, I teach that your self-respect should depend on an obsever's measure of your worth. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students' homes to spread approval or to mark exactly -- down to a single percentage point -- how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers... children... must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time.

The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers; it was a central prescription set down by Calvin... by Plato... by Hobbes... By Comte... by Francis Bacon. All these childless men discovered the same thing: Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control. (end of excerpts)

My hope is that students and parents will seek alternatives, such as charter schools, homeschooling, and unschooling. I recommend Grace Llewellyn's book, Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go to School Tell Their Own Stories, for some inspiring examples.


The English Teacher said...

Just a thought, but that was 1991. Personally, I never taught that way, even in 1991. I also had only a few teachers myself who ever taught that way. I would imagine this author was either 1) a bad teacher himself or 2) jaded because of a really bad work environment.
Fearmongering. Yup. It's out there.

Anonymous said...

The problem with our kids today is that we are teaching them material, instead of teaching them how to learn. I am skeptical of alternatives to traditional schooling. From what I have observed, traditional schools are the lesser of two evils. I'm not saying that all alternatives are bad, but a lot of them are lacking.

gonovice said...

New York State Teacher of the Year - Probably not a bad teacher. I don't think Gatto is a fearmonger. He thinks our kids deserve better.