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The Blumenfeld Education Letter - May 1993
Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
By John Taylor Gatto
Reviewed by Samuel L. Blumenfeld
No one in America today is better qualified to report on the true condition of our government education system than John Taylor Gatto, the now-famous educator who spent 26 years teaching in six different schools in New York City and quit because he could no longer take part in a system that destroys lives by destroying minds
In 1990 the New York Senate named Mr. Gatto New York City Teacher of the Year. The speech he gave at that occasion, The Psychopathic School, amounted to a devastating indictment of public education (reprinted in BEL, May 1991, under the title Why Schools Dont Educate). In 1991 Mr. Gatto was named New York State Teacher of the Year, at which occasion he gave a speech, The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, so insightful of the wrong-headedness of public education that it will probably become a classic in educational literature
These two remarkable speeches, plus several others, including one entitled We Need Less School, Not More, were published in book form last year. And what a powerful book it is, only 104 pages long, readable in one or two sittings. With Outcome-Based Education being imposed on schools across America, we will get much more school, not less, and the content of that schooling will produce far more confusion than we already have
Gatto was born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, an industrial river town forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He writes: It was a place where independence, toughness, and self-reliance were honored, a place where pride in ethnic and local culture was very intense. It was an altogether wonderful place to grow up, even to grow up poor. Gattos grandfather was the town printer and for a time, the publisher of the town newspaper, The Daily Republican, a source of independent thinking in a stronghold of the Democratic party
The move from Monongahela to Manhattan was quite a jolt for Gatto. The difference in society and values turned Gatto into an anthropologist and in the next twenty-six years he used his classes as a laboratory where I could learn a broader range of what human possibility is
and also as a place where I could study what releases and what inhibits human power.
Like so many university students, Gatto was taught by his professors that intelligence and talent were distributed throughout the population in bell curve predictability. But his experience as a teacher taught him differently. He writes:
The trouble was that the unlikeliest kids kept demonstrating to me at random moments so many of the hallmarks of human excellenceinsight, wisdom, justice, resourcefulness, courage, originalitythat I became confused. They didnt do this often enough to make my teaching easy, but they did it often enough that I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself, was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge childrens power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think, and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
These insights led Gatto to develop a teaching style completely opposite to the methodology taught in the university. He writes:
Bit by bit I began to devise guerilla exercises to allow the kids I taughtas many as I was ablethe raw material people have always used to educate themselves: privacy, choice, freedom from surveillance, and as broad a range of situations and human associations as my limited power and resources could manage
.I dropped the idea that I was an expert, whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself.
Naturally, Gattos methods put him more and more at odds with the system. He explains:
The sociology of government monopoly schools has evolved in such a way that a premise like mine jeopardizes the total institution if it spreads
.But once loose the idea could imperil the central assumptions which allow the institutional school to sustain itself, such as the false assumption that it is difficult to learn to read, or that kids resist learning, and many more.
In his speech, The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto describes the seven lessons that are taught in all public schools by all teachers in America, whether they know it or not. He writes:
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections
.Even in the best of schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions
.Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working along with only the thinnest relationship with each other, pretending, for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess
.In a world where home is only a ghost, because both parents work
or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.
The second lesson I teach is class position
.The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class
.My job is to make them like being locked together with children who bear numbers like their own.
If I do my job well, the kids cant even imagine themselves somewhere else, because Ive shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes
.Thats the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.
The third lesson I teach is indifference
.When the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch
.Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.
The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command.
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency
.It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives
.[Only], the teacher can determine what my kids must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions, which I then enforce. If Im told that evolution is a fact instead of a theory, I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been told to tell them to think
.Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm
.Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it
Fortunately there are tested procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult, naturally, if the kids have respectable parents who come to their aid, but that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools. No middle-class parents I have ever met actually believe that their kids school is one of the bad ones. No one single parent in twenty-six years of teaching.
The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem
.The lesson of report cards, 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.
The seventh lesson I teach is that one cant hide. I teach students they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues
.The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.
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