The purpose of John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down is to critique the national school curriculum and to explain how it prevents children from learning how to think and act. How the current school system, in reality, works to dumb us down.
Gatto explains in the first chapter of
Dumbing Us Down the seven lessons that any school teacher inevitably
teaches. He says that in his many years of teaching he realised at some point that
what he was truly teaching children was an invisible curriculum, without even
being of aware of it. This invisible curriculum
reinforces the myths of the
school institution and those of an economy based on caste. The school system
such as it is today creates a gap between learning and the student. For Gatto, the
best way to describe this disconnect is to explain everything that he has been
doing wrong as a teacher; that is, what the school system, by its nature, forces
teachers to show students, without their even realising it. He explains that these
seven lessons are what he has been doing wrong, what every teacher has been doing
wrong. They are the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling.
The first lesson is confusion. In schools, there
is no logical sequence in teaching. They go from one workshop to another with no
real continuity. However, there are some natural sequences in life:
walk and learning to talk; the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; the
ancient procedures of a farmer, a smithy, or a shoemaker. Put simply, these
sequences make sense; there is an undeniable logic to them. This is not the case
in school. There is a curriculum of disconnected facts that students
understandably have trouble relating to. There is a lack of coherence within the
school's curriculum. Children suffer these inconsistencies without being able to
identify the problem. Their lack of motivation or behavioral problems in school
may stem from these inconsistencies, even if they themselves do not know it.
The second lesson is class position. Teachers
educate students to know their place. The school system uses a method of numbering
students in order to keep track of them and make sure they are where they belong.
The teacher's role in this is to help student understand that they do not have any
other choice but to stay where they are. To be regarded as a good teacher, you
have to make sure
the kids can't even imagine themselves somewhere else.
Gatto explains that even though he now realises how disturbing this concept is, he
still follows it himself because there is sadly no alternative. He withholds
information, such as how important tests scores and grades truly are, because he
come to see that truth and school-teaching are, at bottom,
The third lesson is indifference. The ultimate goal for teachers is to create lesson plans that will generate interest and enthusiasm in students. Students are then applauded when they show it. However, when the bell rings at the end of class, they are told to drop everything and go on to the next class. This sends the message that nothing truly important can ever be done in a classroom. In reality, we are showing students not to truly care about anything they do. We only want them to make it appear that they do.
The fourth lesson is emotional dependency. By
rewarding good behaviour and reprimanding bad behaviour, teachers educate students
surrender their will to the predestined chain of command. Students are
subject to the authority of the teacher and, to be a good student, they must obey.
Individuality is strongly discouraged because it goes against all systems of
classification. Students are told to bottle up any kind of emotion stemming from
outside the classroom because teachers cannot recognize the right for students to
have them, they can only give or take away privileges based on good or bad
The fifth lesson is intellectual dependency. It
is important for students to know that to be successful, they need to think what
the teacher tells them to think, with little resistance and a smile on their face.
Bad students are the ones who rebel against this. The whole schooling system is
created to mold these kids into beings that do what they are told. The same goes
for teachers. Teachers are told what to think, before in turn being allowed to
tell their students what to think. Everyone knows that
good people wait for an
expert to tell them what to do. Our way of life is entirely comprised of
people being told what to do because
they don't know how to tell themselves
what to do.
The sixth lesson is provisional self-esteem. A
system where every student is a self-confident person and does not need to rely on
others would not work. This is why they are shown very early in life that they
should depend on expert opinions. Students are constantly being evaluated and
judged and this forms the basis for their self-worth. In the end, students are
shown that they should make decisions
based on the casual judgment of
strangers. We shape students to become dependent on the opinions of other
people because their own opinion about themselves does not come from a reliable
source. In Gatto's words, people need to be told what they are worth.
The seventh lesson is surveillance. Students are
taught that no matter where they are, they are under constant supervision. There
is no private time; not only in school, but when they go home as well
(with homework). The message behind it is
that no one can be trusted, that
privacy is not legitimate. For a society to be controlled efficiently, people
must be closely watched. This lesson is taught the minute students walk into
According to Gatto, institutional schooling is
massively destructive to children, because the only thing they truly learn are
these seven lessons explained above. Society in the United-States has been under
central control since the Civil War and making sure that this control is
maintained is the true goal of the education system. It takes children away from
the possibility of having an active role in community life. Current debates about
failing academic performances are missing the point. Gatto compares this society
with the ancient dream of Egypt which is total control of subordinates. In
reality, the school system is not failing because it is teaching exactly what it
has been created to teach:
how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place
in the pyramid.
Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. 1992. Web. 26 March 2016.