Dumbing Us Down

Have you ever wondered how our form of compulsory education got setup in the way it is? John Taylor Gatto has. He wrote many essays on the subject, a variety of which were collected into a book entitled: "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education." What follows is a list of quotes from his many essays, which have been posted to the web, arranged in a manner as if Gatto wrote the article himself. After you have read these, look at my follow-on article "On Education: Division of Labor, Divide and Conquer for some more thoughts on this question, culled from the minds of such luminaries as R. Buckminister Fuller, Alfred North Whitehead, Adam Smith, and Noam Chomsky. You will be surprised to find out that Adam Smith, generally accepted as the promulgator of the "division of labor" concept, predicted that a worker placed in such a system, would be rendered "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become for a human creature to become." So watch out!

Here now is the concatentated collection of Gatto quotes:

1. From: The Public School Nightmare: Why fix a system designed to destroy individual thought?

  "The structure of American schooling, 20th century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon's amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious. Almost immediately afterwards a German philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous "Address to the German Nation" which became one of the most influential documents in modern history. In effect he told the Prussian people that the party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders.

    So the world got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:

1.Obedient soldiers to the army;
2.Obedient workers to the mines;
3.Well subordinated civil servants to government;
4.Well subordinated clerks to industry
5.Citizens who thought alike about major issues. "

2. From: Why Schools Don't Educate

"Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted - sometimes with guns - by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880's when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard."

3. From: An Interview with John Taylor Gatto on the Origins of Compulsory Education, in Flatland Magazine #11 © Jim Martin, 9/94.

"....The next step came in 1890, when Andrew Carnegie wrote eleven essays, called The Gospel of Wealth. In it he said that capitalism (free enterprise) was stone cold dead in the United States. It had been killed by its own success. That men like himself, Mr. Morgan, and Mr. Rockefeller now owned everything. They owned the government. Competition was impossible unless they allowed it. Which, human nature being what it is, was a problematical thing.

Carnegie said that this was a very dangerous situation, because eventually young people will become aware of this and form clandestine organizations to work against it. Ultimately they'll bring down this edifice. You've got to read all eleven essays, sometimes several times, and only then the majesty of the design emerges. Carnegie proposed that men of wealth re-establish a synthetic free enterprise system (since the real one was no longer possible) based on cradle-to-grave schooling. The people who advanced most successfully in the schooling that was available to everyone would be given licenses to lead profitable lives, they would be given jobs and promotions and that a large part of the economy had to be tied directly to schooling."

4. From: Modern Education and the Mass Marketing of Children

"Look...at the seven lessons of school teaching -- confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance -- all of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. And over this time the training has shaken loose from its own original logic: to regulate the poor. For since the 1920s, the growth of the school bureaucracy and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from schooling exactly as it is, have enlarged this institution's original grasp to the point that it now seizes the sons and daughters of the middle class as well. "

5. From: "The Six Lesson Schoolteacher." and The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher

"The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong."
"The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch."
"The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command."
"The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study."
"In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth."
"In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched."
"The seventh lesson I teach is that you can't hide."

6. From: "The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know?"

A few years back one of the schools at Harvard, perhaps the School of Government, issued some advice to its students on planning a career in the new international economy it believed was arriving. It warned sharply that academic classes and professional credentials would count for less and less when measured against real world training. Ten qualities were offered as essential to successfully adapting to the rapidly changing world of work. See how many of those you think are regularly taught in the schools of your city or state:

1) The ability to define problems without a guide.
2) The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
3) The ability to work in teams without guidance.
4) The ability to work absolutely alone.
5) The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
6) The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.
7) The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
8) The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.
9) The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically.
10) The ability to attack problems heuristically.

You might be able to come up with a better list than Harvard did without surrendering any of these fundamental ideas, and yet from where I sit, and I sat around schools for nearly 30 years, I don't think we teach any of these things as a matter of school policy.

And for good reason, schools as we know them couldn't function at all if we did. Can you imagine a school where children challenged prevailing assumptions? Or worked alone without guidance? Or defined their own problems? It would be a radical contradiction of everything we've been conditioned to expect schools to do. If you want your son or daughter to learn what Harvard said was necessary, you'll have to arrange it outside of school time, maybe in between the dentist and the dancing lessons. And if you are poor, you better forget it altogether."

7. Now read my article "On Education: Division of Labor, Divide and Conquer

8. Bibliography and links to some lists of online essays authored by Gatto:

Gatto, John Taylor, (1992). "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education," New Society Pub:Gabriola Island, BC 104 pp.

Underground History of American Education, by J. T. Gatto, online book
Wikipedia entry
"What really matters", part 1, part 2

Last updated 25 September 2005

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