11A114 Dumbed by Jim Davies, 4/27/2011    

I've been re-reading John Taylor Gatto's masterpiece, Dumbing Us Down. If you haven't read it, please do. If you have but not recently, read it again, as I did. It is magnificent. Elegantly and economically written, it indicts the entire government school system and does so from the perspective of an insider: a teacher, who managed to see through the smokescreen and tell it like it is, as a kind of whistleblower - yet one who was applauded for his teaching.

The first two chapters are texts of speeches he gave when accepting awards, as Teacher of the Year in New York State and City, respectively, in 1991 and 1990. So he writes with unique authority. If you want to know what was done to you between ages 6 and 18, read his book. It's a life-changer.

Gatto entered teaching quite late in life, after writing ad copy on Madison Avenue - with success, but without sensing fulfilment. Then he engaged with children, and got to understand what is being done to them. He presents the seven lessons he is paid to impart to his charges:

  1. Confusion. Lessons descend on the student in random order
  2. Class position. Students are placed, by Authority, and must stay put
  3. Indifference. Interest in a subject must terminate when the bell rings
  4. Emotional dependency. Kids must surrender to the chain of command
  5. Intellectual dependency. Study is directed by the teacher, choice is denied
  6. Provisional self-esteem. A student's value is determined by precise grading
  7. One can't hide. Oversight teaches privacy is not allowed

Those are the facts, Gatto says; that's the reality, regardless of all the hype. Anything learned about algebra or history or grammar is incidental; those seven are the subjects actually drummed in to children, day in and day out. Schools are not about education (literally, "leading out" the natural human curiosity of children, eager to learn what interests them) but (a) an indoctrination process, to teach them above all obedience to "authority" and (b) an humongous jobs program for teachers and administrators. I was particularly impressed, at this re-read, to notice that Socrates had warned of the dangers of a professional teacher class 2,500 years ago: "if we professionalized teaching two bad results would occur: first, things that are easy to learn would be made to appear difficult, and second, things that are learned quickly would be prolonged indefinitely." He was outraged, says Gatto, "at the accusation that he took money to teach."

Here and there, I must part company with Gatto. In one place he complains that he must teach evolution as a "fact, not a theory" and if that's the case he is quite right; Darwin never advanced his theory of evolution as anything other than a theory, and in the scientific method that is accurate as is every new finding. The whole point of that rational method is that observations are explained by a theory, which is very much open to verification, falsification or refinement by new observations; hence, the true scientist moves ever closer to true truth. However, without mentioning the rival creationist theory by name, he implies that it is more than a theory and not subject to that same process. Not true. And as a theory, if comes off a distant second to Darwin's.

In another place, Gatto treats the French philosophers of the 17th Century with surprising disdain; he blames them for all the social engineering of the following three centuries. That is much less than fair. It's true that without them Horace Mann might never have dreamed up his government school system with which to manipulate society, but it's also true that without them humanity would still be mired in the religious superstitions of the Middle Ages. So I fear Gatto comes off more as a social conservative than a rational anarchist. Nonetheless, his contribution is magnificent.

Gatto has unmasked the huge pretense of government schools: that in reality they exist solely to train children to obey Authority, and to provide a vast jobs program for employees - at the expense of the second parent, who must abandon her home teaching opportunities to take a job to pay their salaries. In the coming zero government society, that nonsense will end. Teachers will find productive work (sometimes, in actual teaching!) and children will begin to learn, either at home where it's most natural or else in a for-fee, competitive school whose continued existence depends upon satisfying its customers.

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