Excerpt from Dumbing Us Down by John T. Gatto
For more on John T. Gatto's comprehensive understanding of the educational system today and how we've arrived here, see this site
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Interview with John Taylor Gatto
Alliance for the Separation of School and State
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Gatto provided, and continues to provide the key to comprehending this conundrum. Central to this understanding is the fact that schools are not failing. On the contrary, they are spectacularly successful in doing precisely what they are intended to do, and what they have been intended to do since their inception. The system, perfected at places like the University of Chicago, Columbia Teachers College, Carnegie-Mellon, and Harvard, and funded by the captains of industry, was explicitly set up to ensure a docile, malleable workforce to meet the growing, changing demands of corporate capitalism—“to meet the new demands of the 20th century,” they would have said back then. The Combine (whoops, slipped again!) ensures a workforce that will not rebel—the greatest fear at the turn of the 20th century – that will be physically, intellectually, and emotionally dependent upon corporate institutions for their incomes, self-esteem, and stimulation, and that will learn to find social meaning in their lives solely in the production and consumption of material goods. We all grew up in these institutions and we know they work. They haven’t changed much since the 1890’s because they don’t need to—they perform precisely as they are intended.
In a recent lecture at which I introduced him, John cited U.S. Dept. of Labor statistics regarding the occupations most widely held by Americans today. The job that is held by the largest number of individuals, as well as the occupation that has shown the greatest growth in the past 30 years, is that of Wal-Mart clerk. Second is McDonald’s burger flipper. Third is Burger King flipper. And close behind? Elementary school teacher. The main difference between these jobs and those held in the days of Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th century is that Henry Ford wanted to be able to pay his workers enough so that they would be able to afford new automobiles (and food and houses and medical care) themselves and thus provide the consumption engine guaranteeing the profitability of the corporation. Now, with globalization of the marketplace, it is undeniably clear that the captains of industry no longer care.
What do they really care about? That public education be public. In other words, that we—and not they –pay for it. Corporate institutions have unloaded their basic training needs on to us, and we voluntarily pay to forge the chains of our own servitude.
So far, so good. But the obvious question that follows from this is this: If educational institutions are so demonstrably successful, why are we always hearing about their failures? And here Gatto might have provided the answer, for in his aborted career before becoming a New York City schoolteacher,…he was an advertising copywriter, “a young fellow,” as he writes in The Green Monongahela, “with a knack for writing thirty-second television commercials.” The copywriter knows that to sell a product or service, one must create the perception of need and the palpable feeling that this need can only be filled exclusively through the purchase of the product or service being sold. The simplistic notion that “our schools are failing” easily translates into a limitless demand for more resources for the institution and its supports: for books, for teachers, for computers, for real estate—and for more time: for more pre-school, more homework, longer school years, the end of recess, and semi- (and soon fully) compulsory summer schools. And to the copywriter’s delight, it’s a zero-sum game. Not only is there an endless stream of consumers with little or no institutional memory and an absolutely insatiable demand, but the truth is that no matter how much is expended in the educational marketplace, 50% of the schools will remain “below average”, with those branded as poor performers changing from year to year and those above the mid-point fearing, above all, that they will fall into the abyss. And the copywriter has done his job for, it is universally believed, the only response to a fall into sub-mediocrity is to buy one’s way out.
This stratagem is extraordinarily elegant but so transparent that it always ran the risk of being seen for the confidence game that, at bottom, it is, except that it gets translated down to individual children. In other words, the Combine preys upon our maternal and paternal instincts. And so the latest iteration of “education reform”…comes with new (actually old) testing strategies where it can be ensured that large majorities of children will regularly “fail”, either in comparison with each other, with those in another school, or with children living in the much more productive economies of Tunisia or Slovenia. The “answer” to those deficits and the perpetual dissatisfaction they engender is simply more of the same, rather like “the hair of the dog that bit you.”
The reforms are therefore never completed. To do so would require admitting failure, or worse, admitting that the failure is no failure at all, only a continuing round in the socialized enforcement of intellectual and emotional dependency, of which Gatto writes so eloquently. In the meantime, what we’re doing is like requiring our children to live in buildings that are never finished, and never will be, and forcing them to breathe in the noxious fumes and dirt and dust from the never-ending construction.
But our children deserve the opportunity to come up for a breath of fresh air.
(Intro. p.xxii-xxv by David Albert)
Chapter 1 The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher
Call me Mr. Gatto, PLEASE. Thirty years ago, having nothing better to do with myself at the time, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. The license I have certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English; I teach school – and I win awards doing it.
Teaching means different things in different places, but seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. You are at liberty, of course, to regard these lessons any way you like, but believe me when I say I intend no irony in this presentation. These are the things I teach; these are the things you pay me to teach. Make of them what you will.
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much….
The second lesson I teach is class position. I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered by schools has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human beings plainly under the weight of numbers they carry. Numbering children is a big and very profitable undertaking, though what the strategy is designed to accomplish is elusive. I don’t even know why parents would, without a fight, allow it to be done to their kids…..
The third lesson I teach is indifference. I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it be demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation…When I’m at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch….
The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal, because rights do not exist inside a school…Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification….
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of them all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what my kids must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions, which I then enforce….
The sixth lesson I teach is 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. Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that a kid’s self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.
A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into a student’s home to elicit approval or mark exactly down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with the child a parent should be. The ecology of “good” schooling depends on perpetuating dissatisfaction, just as the commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records, the cumulative weight of these objective-seeming documents establishes a profile that compels children to arrive at certain decisions about themselves and about their futures based on the casual judgment of strangers….
One Can’t Hide
The seventh lesson I teach is that one can’t hide. I teach students that they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by me and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts exactly 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. Of course, I encourage parents to file reports about their own child’s waywardness too. A family trained to snitch on itself isn’t likely to conceal any dangerous secrets.
I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not the surveillance itself travels into private households, where students might other wise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother,…Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a devil always ready to find work for idle hands.
It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things…
Only a few lifetimes ago things were very different in the United States. Originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social-class boundaries were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do much for themselves independently, and to think for themselves. We were something special, we Americans, all by ourselves, without government sticking its nose into and measuring every aspect of our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel. We were something special, as individuals, as Americans.