Review of Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down,” Chapter 2

After reading endless superlative references to him in the columns of Las Vegas Review-Journal author Vin Suprynowicz, I have decided to read a book by renegade educator John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.  Read the first part of my critique of this book here.  This essay covers chapter two of the book.

Gatto calls the public school model psychopathic, describing it with phrases like “a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class,” and “move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong.”  Never mind that the first is exactly how people choose to group themselves in normal adult life and that the second is a jaundiced version of what more objective observers would call organization and time management, rather than insidious tools in a soul-crushing, brain-washing conspiracy.


Gatto’s crude caricature of school fails because he never connects his vision of school—with its routines and schedules—directly to the academic malaise he bemoans at the beginning of the chapter. 


That being said, I’ll agree with him on one point.  Children are institutionalized at school.  Gatto would probably say because of school, but I merely share the observation that kids tend to mindlessly shuffle through their routine.  For example, I’ve lost count of how many students ditch school or neglect their work to the point that their grade barely registers as a percentage, but who show up on the last day for the final exam and work their hearts out for hours.  There is, of course, no chance for them to pass the class and get credit at that point, so why do they do it?  My only answer is that they must be very well programmed to follow the overall conventions of the school-centered life.  


But I see that “programming” as evidence of being spoiled, not brainwashed.  It’s the product of an entire childhood of being coddled, of being ensured a safety net—by entitlement-minded parents set on auto pilot, by a media that indulges their every hedonistic whim to a degree that Caligula would have thought excessive, and only partially by a school system that inflates grades and promotes them socially.  Ironically, the cure for the apathy that Gatto sees isn’t to make school far different in form, but to make it more strict—and therefore more effective—in its current form.  But that would only work partially, because the other aspects of a young person’s life which influence him or her far more than school—home and media—are beyond our control.  (To his credit, Gatto does admit that television has a greater effect on children than school, but neglects to propose solutions to the problems that causes.)


Gatto labels this malady “dependency,” and he’s absolutely right to do so.  But this dependency on “the man” to tell you how to live isn’t created by schools—in fact, it’s well in place before most students step into Kindergarten—it’s merely enabled by a school system that fails to combat it aggressively enough.  The structure of school isn’t broken, it just isn’t employed rigorously enough.


Higher standards and expectations would raise achievement like nothing else.  I know because that’s what worked for the colonial and pioneer eras that Gatto so adores.  He seems to imply that there was some radically alternative method of schooling back then that we’ve lost.  Sadly, he never gets around to explaining what this is (he doesn’t appear to have a very good conception of the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse—where do rulers and paddles fit into your paradigm, Mr. Gatto?), but, yet again ironically, that system which was corrupted by the Industrial Revolution (another point on which we agree) was not individualistic, it was regimented, mechanical, and authoritarian.  (This truth is perhaps best laid bare in Dorothy Sayers’ classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”)


Perhaps the best argument against Gatto’s “school is an assembly line that only produces government-worshipping drones” thesis is this: where’s the beef?  Where do we see hordes of public school graduates whose eyes zone out at the very mention of school and robotically chant, “I love Big Brother”?  In actuality, school does the opposite of what Gatto claims: many, if not most, students, drunk on the intoxicant of countless media models, reflexively combat the school system via apathy, truancy, and shallow work, most often to their own detriment, and usually solidifying a lifelong hatred of school in the process.  To me, a hundred hostile parent conferences prove this. 


Gatto also decries the “loss of private time” foisted upon students by school.  Is he suggesting that less time drilling in algebra and more time staring at caterpillars under shady elm trees would boost math scores?  If so, he forgets to clarify it, much less document it, though the existing research (see my earlier post on this subject) and common sense dictate otherwise.  (Though perhaps Gatto would agree with Lowell Monke’s excellent essay, “Charlotte’s Webpage: Why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips,” which shares his concerns about the degradation of independence, interaction, and imagination, though Monke lays the blame squarely at the doorstep of electronic entertainment technology parading as educationally valuable.  Amen.)


Perhaps I’m not being charitable; in all fairness, Gatto does emphasize a loss of social and imaginative development in his comments against the unstructured time vampire that is school.  However, he does not account for the fact that much of today’s schools are disproportionately engaged in group work or “cooperative learning” or some similar counterproductive fad.  More than a few truculent students have told me over the years that the only reason they don’t drop out is because school is where they see their friends, which would seem to rebut Gatto’s school-as-Gulag position.  But at least it demonstrates that institutionalizing isn’t the only thing keeping our kids in school!  J


At one point, Gatto lists eight distressing facets of the identity of modern young people (all quite real), but in his zeal to blame them on school, he takes logic to a brave new world—how in the world do the bells between classes invariably lead to a dearth of curiosity?  Mr. Gatto, it’s not just the time spent watching television that hurts children, it’s the amoral content.  They get it there, not at school. 


I’m also confused when Gatto criticizes the doctrinaire public education system of “the last 140 years.”  All of the problems we see—mental and emotional—are products of the post-WWII period, less than half of the time the current models of public school have existed.  Perhaps Gatto ignores this because it would invalidate his anti-school thesis.


Gatto’s suggestions for solutions near the end of the chapter amount to engaging in a national “debate” (about what?) and, especially, letting children do more independent study.  I agree that ultimately a well-educated person must be an autodidact, but it is foolish to think that students who have little self-control or study skills, much less goals or ambitions that they can articulate, would benefit from being set loose to do it all on their own.  Also, Gatto’s scheme of encouraging ad-hoc apprenticeships would do little to inculcate literacy or computational skills.  Is he seriously suggesting that America’s intellectual deficit is the result of not enough unsupervised field trips? 


The most disturbing thing in the chapter is Gatto’s assertion that time needs to be taken away from school so that students might have “large doses of privacy and solitude,” when by his own accounting, students spend far more time watching television (55 hours—far lower than the actual 2008 total) than attending or preparing for school (45 hours—far inflated).  Such poor selection of targets makes for irresponsible reform.  By ignoring the media and lacerating school, Gatto is tilting at windmills.


Gatto’s call for a “curriculum of the family” is honorable, but in the age of day care, not practical.  I can’t believe that he would have us campaign for family-involved public education (this would certainly pose controversial problems for the large percentage of students with missing, uninterested, or otherwise unavailable “families”!), which assumes that we can count on community factors far beyond our control, yet he declines to include a head-on campaign against the abuse of electronic entertainment media, which is obviously the major culprit in America’s mental decline, and a goal for which we can conceivably make progress.


Or is it just easier to blame the big bad bogeyman of school than it is to ask America to reform its media-saturated lifestyle?





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