“Compulsory government schooling has nothing to do with education” says John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto makes the case that the current government-mandated school system has so many inherent flaws in its design that the entire institution must be replaced. Gatto would know; he worked as a New York City public school teacher for 30 years. “Over the years,” Gatto says, “I have come to see that whatever I thought I was doing as a teacher, most of what I was actually doing was teaching an invisible curriculum that reinforced the myths of the school institution and those of an economy based on caste.” Gatto reveals the seven “lessons” that exemplify the flaws that permeate the public school system, flaws that are inherent in its design.
There is no sense of coherence between the subjects taught in public schools. “Everything I teach is out of context” says Gatto. “I teach too much; the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing… What do any of these things have to do with each other?”
The lack of continuity and coherence in the public school system causes anxiety and panic in children, as the curriculum is in constant violation of natural order and sequence. We are led to believe that the array of subjects taught to students throughout the day will give them a well-rounded education, but this violates how humans learn. Children cannot learn in an environment of fragmented facts. There needs to be a sense of continuity and interrelatedness between all subjects taught in school, as that is how the mind develops a schema of the world; an associative net of information from which the mind can derive meaning. Currently, subjects are being taught in a way that doesn’t allow the student to connect information, leaving them with a mix-match of unintegrated facts and concepts.
- Class Position
Children in public school are separated into different classes with varying positions, teaching that society runs on a caste-like hierarchy. “If I do my job well,” says Gatto, “the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes.” Rather than having a class structure that allows for a students’ potential to unfold upon a level playing field, they are taught at a young age that their potential has a place either below or above others. “The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Failing that, you must stay where you are put.”
“Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”
Students are expected to show interest and enthusiasm about the subject being taught at a given time, yet are expected to completely shift themselves to a new subject at the sound of a bell. This doesn’t allow learning to take its natural course. Children are being led down a rabit hole of information only to be pulled out and thrown down a new one at the sound of a bell. “They must turn on and off like light switches” Gatto writes. “Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other, as the abstraction of a map renders every living mountain and river the same, even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.”
- Emotional Dependency
“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to a predestinated chain of command” Gatto writes, as he explains how children are taught to be emotionally dependent on their teachers. Teachers also serve as disciplinarians, deciding what behavior from the students is to be rewarded and which is to be punished. Students must conform their behaviors to those preferred by their teachers as they depend on the teacher’s favors, such as going to the bathroom and getting a drink of water. There is a pressure on the children coming from the school to be emotionally homogeneous. “Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgements come quick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.”
- Intellectual Dependency
“This is the most important lesson of the all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.”
Students in a classroom are presented with an authority figure; the teacher. The teacher is not just an authority in a disciplinary way, but an intellectual way. If the teacher says it, it is true. This is a central precept for children in school who are never taught how to think critically, only how to absorb information with the least amount of resistance. If a student does not accept and internalize the information given to them by the teacher, they will be given low grades. As children are taught to deify good grades and demonize bad grades, this instills incentive in the children to internalize the information that will lead to the higher grades. This channels all of the students’ attention into the teacher’s curriculum. “Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for… curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.”
This “lesson” of intellectual dependency is central to a population that keeps certain economic pillars in our society strong, Gatto argues. “Think of what might fall apart if children weren’t trained to be dependent… Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun. Restaurants, the prepared food industry, and a whole host of other assorted food services would be drastically down-sized if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to plant, pick, chop and cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too, as well as the clothing business and school teaching, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people continued to pour out of our schools each year.”
- Provisional Self-Esteem
“If you’ve ever tried to wrestle into line kids whose parents have convinced them to believe they’ll be loved in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform.”
Gatto describes how the school system uses a child’s self-esteem to direct their behavior through placing selective pressures on their development. Progress reports are sent home to a child’s parents that either show approval, or, down to a percentage point, disapproval of the child’s performance in school. This progress report shows, as Gatto writes, “how dissatisfied with the child a parent should be”. Children come to depend on the judgement of others to make an evaluation of their own self-worth as they are taught that their worth is dependent on these “expert” judgements. Self-esteem is not sourced from virtue, integrity, compassion and empathy, but from academic conformity. “The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.”
- One Can’t Hide
Almost every square foot of modern schools is under video surveillance, if not under the surveillance of a watchful hall-monitor or teacher. There is no private time. Some of us may be able to remember moments in middle school or high school when the teacher had to step out of the class for a few minutes, leaving the students in the room for a moment. Most remember the anxious response coming from that; anarchy. Students are so used to being under surveillance that the moment they are not, they feel as if the structure of school itself has become groundless.
Schools must also constantly keep tabs on the students to ensure that there is no collaboration or communication going on that is not approved of. “Children will follow a private drummer if you can’t get them into a uniformed marching band.” Placing children under constant surveillance and stripping away all privacy ensures that their conformity is only to that which the school puts in place.