Books — 19 June 2012


Julia Hones


If education is supposed to encourage independent thinking and create original spirits, ready to face new challenges, mass schooling is not educating. After thirty years of teaching in different public schools in New York, John Taylor Gatto wrote the book “Dumbing Us Down”. The lesson of Gatto’s life as a teacher is that both the theory and structure of mass education are fatally flawed: they are unfaithful to democratic principles. Through interesting examples he acknowledges that mass schooling cannot produce a fair society because its daily practice is rigged in competition, suppression and intimidation.

Far from embracing curiosity, personal learning motivations, and creativity, schools subject kids to a system that grades them as if they were grocery store produce and honors obedience with rewards and grades. However, grades and trinkets of subordination have no connection with education; they are, instead, the paraphernalia of servitude.

When a bell rings, kids need to leave whatever they are doing to move on to something else; the school system conveys the message that nothing is of enough importance to stay on it. Why are we locking up kids in schools, away from the community they live in, for twelve years? Children are dumped together into compartments according to similar scores on standardized tests. Then they are exhorted to perform and behave according to the specifications of strangers. The result is the creation of kids that are unable to fill their free time in a useful manner. Both television and schooling contribute to their aimlessness and dependency.

One of the big lessons of schools is to teach people that they have to wait for somebody else to tell them what to do. (Then we wonder why kids are not motivated to learn). Why do we get surprised by our society’s being plagued by violence, drug addition, alcohol, gambling and consumerism? Schools create dependent personalities. They even take away time from their families and then blame their families for not doing enough for their kids.

Gatto invites us to open our eyes to a reality hidden under the blankets of routine and conformism. He dares to unravel the absurdity of schooling and gives suggestions on how things could be done differently. (As a teacher he put some of those suggestions into practice with good results). He points out that schools dehumanize people: administrators, students and teachers are all negatively influenced by the rigidity of the institution. He tells us anecdotes and examples that will bring you back to your childhood years and question the jail-like system we all had to acquiesce to from a very early age. Even though he writes about American schools, the problem transcends borders. Sir Ken Robinson, author of “The Element”, says that schools kill creativity and states that a reform is needed to stop treating education as a fast food chain where everybody has to follow the same curriculum regardless of their passions, motivations and personal interests.

In a real community each individual is valued as a unique person that will make a difference. In a pseudo community, you are forced to live around others without noticing them, and you are constantly menaced in some way by strangers you find offensive. You are anonymous for the most part, and you want to be because of various dangers other people may present if they notice your existence. The prevailing atmosphere is one of indifference. Schools function like pseudo communities. Their methodology teaches children that people are like machines. A bell rings and everybody needs to stop doing what they started, children are numbered and qualities are reduced to a numbering system.

Eighty-five years ago, Bertrand Russell noticed that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation. Octavio Paz, the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature said, “In the North American system men and women are subjected from childhood to an inexorable process. Certain principles contained in brief formulas are endlessly repeated by the press, radio, television, churches, and especially schools. A person imprisoned by these schemes is like a plant in a flowerpot too small for it. He cannot grow or mature. This sort of conspiracy cannot help but provoke violent individual rebellions.”

According to Gatto, we are addicted to dependency. “In the current national crisis of maturity we seem to be waiting for the teacher to tell us what to do. Bridges collapse, men and women sleep on the streets, bankers cheat, families betray each other, the government lies as a matter of policy–corruption, shame, sickness, and sensationalism are everywhere. No school has a curriculum to provide a quick fix.”

If we think that children need to be educated to love their communities and feel a part of them, isolating them in schools is not going to achieve our desired aim. Gatto says we need to trust children from a very early age. Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude are all necessary in the real process of education. Schools must become more tolerant of individual variation and more reliant on self-initiated activities. Motivation is the key to success. Children should thrive in an environment that focuses on self-motivation and self-assessment. A school reform is needed, and we need less school, not more.


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