Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us DownOverview

The author, John Taylor Gatto, has spent more than 30 years of his life in education. Though this book was originally released in 1992, it continues to be a best selling book that is still referenced 24 years later. In this book, Mr. Gatto breaks the silence regarding what he feels to be the true nature of compulsory schooling. He was heralded as courageous for not only expressing these views, but putting them in writing and selling them. The book is more of a collection of essays and speeches that is woven together to tell the story of how our modern school system came into being.

In this book Mr. Gatto eloquently breaks down the hidden curriculum into seven lessons that he as a teacher was covertly teaching his students. Those seven lessons are 1) confusion, 2) class position, 3) indifference, 4) emotional dependency, 5) intellectual dependency, 6) provisional self esteem and 7) one can’t hide. He gives a thorough explanation of what is taught in each of these lessons. The reader may even reflect back on their own grade school days to see this reflected in their experiences.

Additionally, he shows us how the industrialization of the world and technological advances have contributed to the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. He states that schools were designed by Horace Mann and by Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago along with Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College. Their intent, as he describes it was this.

Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled. 

He goes on to explain how entertainment in the form of TV and video games is meant to enhance the hidden curriculum by keeping young minds locked up and controlled. Mr. Gatto cites that prior to compulsory schooling children had higher literacy rates and were able to learn math and reading just fine through interacting with their communities and the level of schooling they received. The rest they learned through self directed exploration of the world and apprenticeships. He argues that children need less school and more opportunities to explore the world, have time for solitude away from screens and others to read and think, and be part of communities where they can connect with like-minded and culturally different people.

What Worked For Me

This book makes total sense. The seven lessons he walks through become completely obvious after he walks through them. It is meant to make you reflect on your own experience to see if this was a part of the schooling you received. It also makes you think about how school impacted the choices you made for your life. Just when what he is saying begins to sound like conspiracy theory he breaks out knowledge and facts to support his point of view.

John Taylor Gatto backs this up with passion and experience. He was named Teacher of the Year in some form or fashion five times. He dedicated his life to the education of children. He lived in the world. This lends credibility to what he is saying. Not only that, his passion is for the betterment of our society through the education of children. His passion is not to vilify the education system. We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. He is acknowledging the issues of the system in the hopes to change it to better suit children and, ultimately, society.

He presents the problem with suggestions for solutions. I always say never bring me a problem without a potential solution, otherwise it’s just complaining. He does give practical advice based on his expertise supported by facts on what can be done to address the education system. Chief among them is less schooling, more community and opportunities for self-education/discovery.

What Didn’t Work For Me

This is probably not directly related to the book, but I would have loved to have seen a detailed description of his ideal school and community. I would have liked to have seen more suggestions on how to address the socioeconomic of compulsory schooling. Not all public or private schooling is simply focused on keeping kids locked away for twelve years. The more money, the more programs and opportunities for self-education and discovery. How do we as a society change the education system to what Gatto suggests while at the same time distributing resources in a more equitable fashion? That question should be as easy to answer as how do we create world peace.

The Verdict

Take Dumbing Us Down and read it with the Mis-Education of the Negro to create a vivid image of education today. This is why self education in critical, not just during grade school but in adulthood as well. It’s important to note that Gatto doesn’t feel changing the public school system is impossible or that there aren’t good things about it. What I believe he is suggesting is that we as consumers of education need to be aware that this is what we and our children are being taught. Parents have the ultimate decision to send their children to private school, home school, public school and to supplement those education pathways with a home curriculum. The education system needs to look at how what it is doing to create order, standards, and common platforms is impacting children on multiple deep-rooted levels. While controlling minds and making people predictable and controllable may no longer be the intent of compulsory schooling it is still operating within a system built on that premise. Here is Mr. Gatto’s thoughts on what an education is:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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Genre: Education, Non-Fiction
Subjects: Public Schools

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