Dumbing Us Down

John Taylor Gatto

Indeed, the larger world hardly extended beyond Pittsburgh, a wonderful dark steel city worth a trip to see once or twice a year.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve used my classes as a laboratory where I could learn a broader range of what human possibility is — the whole catalogue of hopes and fears — and also as a place where I could study what releases and what inhibits human power.

During that time, I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.

In other words, 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.

the economy schoolchildren currently expect to live under and serve would not survive a generation of young people trained, for example, to think critically.

Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education.

If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes.

I never lie outright, but I’ve come to see that truth and schoolteaching are, at bottom, incompatible, just as Socrates said thousands of years ago.

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

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of them all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.

Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do.

Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun.

Don’t be too quick to vote for radical school reform if you want to continue getting a paycheck. We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do. It’s one of the biggest lessons I teach.

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.

People need to be told what they are worth.

It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.

“They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job.”

the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on.

read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography for an example of a man who had no time to waste in school

Such a curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its hideous effects.

Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.

Look again at the seven lessons of school teaching: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, and surveillance. All of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses,

I’m trying to describe a free market in schooling exactly like the one the country had until the Civil War, one in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them even if that means self-education.

No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes.

keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect.

In centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have been occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn.

Think of the phenomena which are killing us as a nation: narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, and alcohol — and the worst pornography of all: lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy.

Sometimes the problem is the problem of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customs house.

It happened when they were thirteen, in my Lab School program, and was only possible because my rich school district was in chaos. When “stability” returned, the Lab closed. It was too successful with a widely mixed group of kids, at too small a cost, to be allowed to continue.

The rules didn’t need to be written down; if men had time they showed boys how to grow up. We didn’t whine when our time was up: men had work to do — we understood that and scampered away, grateful for the flash of our own futures they had had time to reveal, however small it was.

My family moved again and again and again, but in my own heart I never left Monongahela, where I learned to teach from being taught by everyone in town, where I learned to teach the love of work from being asked to shoulder my share of responsibility, even as a boy,

In New York City we don’t have schools; we have pens for lost souls. Teaching is a scam, a welfare project for losers who can’t do anything else!”

But the truth was none of the sub assignments were boat rides: schools had an uncanny habit of exploiting substitutes and providing no support for their survival.

“We were making the future,” he said, and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is! — The Sleeper Awakes, H. G. Wells

No one survives these places with their humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators, and not parents.

Discovering meaning for yourself as well as discovering satisfying purpose for yourself, is a big part of what education is.

American national unity has always been the central problem of American life.

This new system began with the first Puritan church at Salem, organized in 1629 by the so-called “Salem Procedure.” No “higher-up” was around to approve the selection of the church authorities, so the congregation took that responsibility upon themselves. With that simple act, they took power that had traditionally belonged to some certified expert and placed it in the hands of people who went to church.

Each separate congregation took on responsibility for solving its own problems — whether of education, economics, or doctrine — rather than submitting to the old authority of England or to the new aristocracy of expertise.

Christopher Lasch writes in The True and Only Heaven: The capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people and specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.

I don’t think “global thinking” is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it ... The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally.

Because the town churches did not team up to present an institutional orthodoxy that made each town just like another — as government monopoly schools do today — error in one church could be countered by its correction in another. As long as people had the choice to vote with their feet, the free market punished severe errors by leaving a congregation empty, just as it could reward a good place by filling it up.

Are these victories for the groups the courts sought to protect, or do these victories hold the same value they would have, had they been won through change in the social consensus?

It succeeds in surviving only because it employs the police power of the State to fill its hollow classrooms. It prohibits local choice and variety and, because of this prohibition, has had a hideous effect on our national moral fabric.

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. The Congregationalists understood profoundly that good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone.

People learned to be neighbors in Dedham because for three hundred years they were allowed real choice, including the choice to make their own mistakes. 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.

But if they had been ordered to change, ordered, as other immigrants were, to change their behavior and to abandon their culture in compulsory schools set up for that purpose, I think what would have happened is this: some of them would have seemed to change but would have harbored such powerful resentments at being deprived of choice that some way to exact vengeance would have evolved.

By allowing the imposition of direction from centers far beyond our control, we have time and again missed the lesson of the Congregational principle: people are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony.

Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family, and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others.

To many of us, the greatest attraction of social engineering and antisocial demonologies is that both, at bottom, promise a quick fix. That has always been the dark side of the American dream, the search for an easy way out, a belief in magic.

Ultimately, how we think about social problems depends on our philosophy of human nature: what we think people are, what we think they are capable of, what the purposes of human existence may be, if any.

American education teaches by its methodology that people are machines. Bells ring, circuits open and close, energy flows or is constricted, qualities are reduced to a numbering system, a plan is followed of which the machine parts know nothing.

We cannot grow or mature, like plants in too little flowerpots. We are addicted to dependency; in the current national crisis of maturity we seem to be waiting for the teacher to tell us what to do, but the teacher never comes to do that.

It’s time to stop. This system doesn’t work, and it’s one of the causes of our world coming apart. No amount of tinkering will make the school machine work to produce educated people;

Encourage and underwrite experimentation; trust children and families to know what’s best for themselves;

involve everyone in every community in the education of the young: businesses, institutions, old people, whole families;

“What is education for?” If some of them answer differently from what you might prefer, that’s really not your business, and it shouldn’t be your problem.

an outrage distilled from years of confinement, limitation, and humiliation, years of intimidation, of chasing prizes not worth winning, of lost opportunities, of ruined relationships, often with one’s own parents, family, neighbors, friends, and self,

social “science” is mostly hooey — and dangerous hooey at that. It exists to justify pseudo-scientifically the multiple subordinations which modern management imposes on the managed.

Time we were done with this thing. This was once a land where every sane person knew how to build a shelter, grow food, and entertain one another. Now we have been rendered permanent children.

Lest that pass as idle hyperbole, let me confess that every single day of my life as a schoolteacher I chanted a litany to myself while shaving in the morning. In it I pledged to find, that very day, a way, however small, to throw sand in the gears of the system.

I urge all of you who ask me about what to do in your own schools to become such saboteurs, to become little drops of water that erode this waste land of forced institutional schooling.