The book that is the subject of this review is John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. It is a collection of several essays and speeches written by the author, who is an advocate of reforming the American educational system.
Gatto’s basic premise is that our schools do exactly what they were designed to do, and they do it brilliantly. Unfortunately, though, schools have not been designed to educate anyone; on the contrary, they are designed to churn out mass production citizens, much like an assembly line can mass produce cars that are nearly identical in their finished products. This process does not call for the education of students — it simply calls for their imprisonment in the school system for hours a day, along with a continuance of school in the form of homework and television. In fact, Gatto also includes modern television programming as contributing to the false education that masquerades as “schooling.”
Instead of receiving an actual education, students of schools follow a different kind of lesson plan. Some of the lessons they learn include confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the fact that students can not hide. This education results in graduates who have never been given the time to develop an individual personality, can not self-reflect, and whose self-esteem and self-confidence are completely based on external factors, such as grades, gold stars, or a positive performance review by a superior. The constantly ringing bells of school to signal a period change also result in students being taught that nothing in life is worth finishing, so nothing is worth starting. It is simply better to accept one’s place, even though no one can quite understand why the place has been given to them, or what they are supposed to do with it if no one tells them what to do.
The author also argues that the modern school system creates psychological problems in students, who end up with a life full of dependency and aimlessness. The products of school, according to Gatto, are indifferent to the adult world and refuse to grow up, have very little curiosity, a poor sense of the future, a poor sense of the past, a mean streak directed at other students, teachers, and others, uneasy with any situation requiring intimacy, materialistic, and unable to handle new challenges. Of course, these problems make students the perfect product needed in an economy founded on mass production and cheap labor.
In terms of solutions, Gatto recommends homeschooling with a focus on family and community involvement. Schools, social clubs, and professional organizations, because they are merely networks, will not be able to replace a child’s community and family life. No matter how many networks a person has, these will not meet a person’s emotional needs. Gatto gives the example of asking the reader how quickly they began forgetting the names of classmates, teammates, or fellow club members, and comparing that with the number of aunts and uncles the reader has forgotten. This is designed to reinforce the idea that ties of family and community are more important to an individual’s individuality than loose bonds associated with most networks.
Gatto’s conclusion is that there is no right way to educate people as a whole. They need to educate themselves, find their own interests, and develop their own internal processes. Mass schooling will only result in more mass people, who are controlled by mass media and work in an economy that requires mass obedience to menial jobs. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling details the problems and solutions to the widespread psychological problems of numerous members of society, and pins the blame squarely on the insight that mass production students, who have weak family and community ties and are always competing for a “good grade” from a superior, who are lonely, desperate, and unhappy, lacking the experiences of educating themselves and indifferent to almost everything except their present environment, are the perfect finished product of schooling. As Gatto emphasizes, “education and schooling are, as we all have experienced, mutually exclusive terms.”