Saturday, September 25, 2004

Summer Reading 5

The Underground History of American Education and Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto was New York State and City teacher of the year about ten years ago. Then he quit teaching, after thirty years, because he was fed up with the public school system. I picked up this book because (a) it was recommended to me by a respectable person, and (b) some day I will probably have children who will need to be educated. I've always had suspicions about the public school system, but Gatto's book is an eye opener. If even half of what he argues for in UHAE is true, I will never send my children to a public school, even a good one. This isn't to say that Gatto is a sloppy thinker or doesn't support his argument. It's just that what Gatto argues for really goes against the grain of conventional wisdom about schooling.

So what is Gatto's thesis? There are actually a number of them, and what follows is not exhaustive.

(1) Public schooling was designed (that's important, it was designed) to "remove all significant functions from home and family life except its role as dormitory and casual companionship" (p. 380). In other words, public schools were designed to erode the natural bonds between parent and child and replace them with artificial bonds between the state and the child.

(2) The motivating thesis of compulsory schooling, that "the certified expertise of official schoolteachers is superior in its knowledge of children to the accomplishments of lay people, including parents," is false (p. 384).

(3) Schooling is both very expensive and results in dispirited children; education is practically free and results in free, independent human beings. The difference between schooling, which may or may not coincide with education, and education, which can be done without schooling, is enormous. The degree in "education" that is so eagerly obtained in many colleges and universities is really a degree in "schooling." I cannot spell out the full difference between education and schooling here. Read the book.

(4) "Mass dumbness first had to be imagined, it isn't real" (p. xxxi). School makes people dumb, not smart.

(5) The way things are now is not the result of some vast conspiracy. Instead, "we are held fast by a form of highly abstract thinking fully concretized in human institutions which was grown beyond the power of the managers of these institutions to control" (p. xxxiii).

Gatto gives a plausible argument for each of these theses by drawing on materials available in mainstream scholarship. I think it helps his case that he doesn't refer to very many, if any, "conspiracy books" to make his case. He pins most of the blame on Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan for financing the compulsory school experiment with the full knowledge of what the schools would produce: dumbed-down assembly line workers with little independent spirit.

UHAE is about 400 pages long. I'm still thinking over the main arguments of the book and reading certain sections over again, so I cannot offer very many criticisms of it. One thing that I will say is that Plato draws a lot of fire from Gatto for providing the ideology of an organized, planned state. I think he's missed the boat on Plato there, but so did the people Gatto criticizes (like Carnegie, et al.). I think Gatto may realize this, or at least he would if he reflected on a quotation from Plato he includes in the book: "Nothing of value to the individual happens by coercion" (p. 384). This quotation runs contrary to all the other citations of Plato in UHAE, and Gatto must surely have noticed this. John Calvin also comes in for a lot of criticism, some of it unjustified in my opinion.

Dumbing us Down is a collection of lectures and papers given by Gatto and one time or another. Much of it is reprinted almost verbatim in UHAE, but UHAE is much more comprehensive in its attempt to understand the history of American schooling. Dumbing us Down can be read in a few hours and is more readily available in stores than UHAE. Read one or both of these books if you want to educate your children well. (The full text of UHAE is available online.)

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