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Excerpts from Dumbing Us Down, 1992

by John Taylor Gatto

The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on than to leave with one genuine enthusiasm. But quality in education entails learning about something in depth. Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship with each other, pretending for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.

Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, preempting the teaching function that belongs to everybody in a healthy community. Professional teaching tends to another serious error: It makes things that are inherently easy to learn, like reading, writing, and arithmetic, seem difficult by insisting they be taught through pedagogical procedures.

In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen. You must understand that, first and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency for letting contracts. We cannot afford to save money by reducing the scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to help children grow up right. That is the iron law of institutional schooling—it is a business neither subject to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition.

After an adult lifetime spent teaching school I believe the method of mass-schooling is the only real content it has. Don’t be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and daughter’s schooltime. All the pathologies we’ve considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families, to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home life.

School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching, that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools, as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic; it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted—sometimes with guns—by an estimated eighty percent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.

Now here is a curious idea to ponder. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was ninety-eight percent, and after it the figure never exceeded ninety-one percent, where it stands in 1990.

We need to realize that the school institution “schools” very well, though it does not “educate”—that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent. It’s just impossible for education and schooling ever to be the same thing.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety; indeed it cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present much the same way television does.

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its “homework.”

“How will they learn to read?” you ask, and my answer is “Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.” When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease, if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them.

Only self-teaching has any lasting value.

Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships—the one-day variety or longer—these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of “school” to include family as the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents—and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850—we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.

Experts in education have never been right; their “solutions” are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. We’ve seen the results. It’s time to a return to democracy, individuality, and family.

Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human; in that he differed from Plato. What is gained from consulting a specialist and surrendering all judgment is often more than outweighed by a permanent loss of a piece of your volition.

It is a fact generally ignored when considering the communal nature of institutional families like schools, large corporations, colleges, armies, hospitals and government agencies that they are not real communities at all, but networks. Unlike communities, networks—as I reminded you—have a very narrow way of allowing people to associate, and that way is always across a short spectrum of one, or at most a few, specific uniformities. It is a puzzling development, as yet poorly understood, that the “caring” in networks is in some important way feigned. Not maliciously, but in spite of any genuine emotional attractions that might be there, human behavior in network situations seems to become a dramatic act—matching a script produced to meet the demands of a story. And as such, the intimate moments in networks lack the sustaining value of their counterparts in community. Those of you who remember the wonderful closeness possible in army camp life or sports teams, and who have now forgotten those you were once close with, will understand what I mean. Have you ever forgotten an uncle or an aunt?

I belong to some networks myself, of course, but the only ones I consider completely safe are the ones that reject their communitarian facade, acknowledge their limits, and concentrate solely on helping me do a specific and necessary task. But a vampire network like a school, which tears off huge chunks of time and energy needed for building community and family—and always asks for more—needs to have a stake driven through its heart and be nailed into its coffin. The feeding frenzy of formal schooling has already wounded us seriously in our ability to form families and communities by bleeding away time we need with our children and our children need with us. That’s why I say we need less school, not more.

Networks divide people, first from themselves and then from each other, on the grounds that this is the efficient way to perform a task. It may well be, but it is a lousy way to feel good about being alive. Networks make people lonely. They have no way to correct their inhuman functioning and still succeed as networks. Behind the anomaly that networks look like communities but are not lurks the grotesque secret of mass-schooling and the reason why enlarging the school domain will only aggravate dangerous conditions of social disintegration it is intended to correct.

I want to repeat this until you are sick of hearing it: Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is they cannot. Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, amateur acting groups or groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Who has not felt this sensation who frequently networks? Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you have or how often your telephone rings.

With a network, what you get at the beginning is all you ever get. Networks don’t get better or worse, their limited purpose keeps them pretty much the same all the time, there just isn’t much development possible. The pathological state which eventually develops out of these constant repetitions of thin human contact is a feeling that your “friends” and “colleagues” don’t really care about you beyond what you can do for them, that they have no curiosity about the way you manage your life, no curiosity about your hopes, fears, victories, defeats. The real truth is that the “friends” falsely mourned for their indifference were never friends, only fellow networkers, from whom in fairness little should be expected beyond attention to the common interest.

But such is our unquenchable need for community and the unlikeliness of obtaining it in a network, that we are in desperation of any better solution, driven to deceive ourselves about the nature of these liaisons. Whatever “caring” really means, we all understand instinctively that it means something more than simple companionship or even the comradeship of shared interests.

If an “A” average is accounted the central purpose of adolescent life—the requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirant—and the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize the student, alienate him from his own human nature, and break the natural connection between him and his parents, to whom he would otherwise look for significant affirmations.

Welcome to the world of mass-schooling which sets this goal as its supreme achievement. Are you sure we want more of it?

Institutional goals, however sane and well-intentioned, are unable to harmonize deeply with the uniqueness of individual human goals. No matter how good the individuals are who manage an institution, institutions lack a conscience because they measure by accounting methods. Institutions are not the sum total of their personnel, or even of their leadership, but are independent of both and will exist after management has been completely replaced. They are ideas come to life, ideas in whose service all employees are but servo-mechanisms. The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks is to regulate and make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions make a major intervention into personal affairs they cause much damage. By displacing the direction of life from families and communities to institutions and networks we, in effect, anoint a machine our King. Nearly a century ago a French sociologist wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. Thus the first goal of government postal service is to provide protection for its employees and perhaps a modest status ladder for the more ambitious ones, its first goal is not to deliver the mail. The first goal of a permanent military organization is not to fight wars but to secure, in perpetuity, a fraction of the national wealth to distribute to its personnel. By this relentless logic an adoption agency requires babies to justify its continuing existence and under such a dynamic it will seek to obtain babies one way or another, whether they “need” adopting or not.

It was this hidden aspect of teaching the young for pay—that such teaching would inevitably expand to protect the interests of teachers, not students, that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.

If this view of things troubles you, think of the New York City public school system where I work, one of the largest business organizations on planet Earth. While the education administered by this abstract parent is ill-regarded by everybody, the institution’s right to compel its clientele to accept such dubious service is still guaranteed by the police. And forces are gathering to expand its reach still further—in the face of every evidence it has been a disaster for all its history.

For 150 years institutional educators have seen fit to offer that the main purpose of an education is an economic one. Good education = good job, good money, good things. This has become the universal national formula, flogged by Harvards as well as high schools. This prescription makes both parent and student easier to regulate and intimidate as long as the connection goes unchallenged either for veracity or in its philosophical truth. Interestingly enough, the American Federation of Teachers identifies one of its missions as persuading the business community to hire and promote on the basis of school grades so that the grades = money formula will become true by definition as it was made for medicine and law the same way after years of political lobbying. So far, common sense of businessmen has kept them hiring and promoting the old-fashioned way, using private judgment and performance as the preferred measures, but they may not resist much longer.

The absurdity of defining education as an economic good becomes clear if we ask ourselves what is gained by perceiving education as a way to enhance even further the runaway consumption that threatens the earth, the air, the water and the atmosphere of our planet. Should we continue to teach people that they can buy happiness in the face of a tidal wave of evidence that they cannot? Shall we ignore the evidence that drug addiction, alcoholism, teenage suicide, divorce and other despairs are pathologies of the prosperous much more than they are of the poor?

One other thing I know is that eventually you have to come to be part of a place, part of its hills and streets and waters and people—or you will live a very, very sorry life as an exile forever. Discovering meaning for yourself, and discovering satisfying purpose for yourself is a big part of what education is. How this can be done by locking children away from the world is beyond me.

An important difference between communities and institutions is that communities have natural limits, they stop growing or they die. There’s a good reason for that: in the best communities everyone is a special person who sooner or later impinges on everyone else’s consciousness. The effects of this constant attention makes all, rich or poor, feel important because the only way importance is perceived is by having other folks pay attention to you. You can buy attention, of course, but it’s not the same thing. Pseudo community life, where you live around others without noticing them, and where you are constantly being menaced in some way by strangers you find offensive, is exactly the opposite. In pseudo-community life you are anonymous for the most part, and you want to be because of various dangers other people may represent if they notice your existence.

Almost the only way you can get attention in a pseudo community is to buy it because the prevailing atmosphere is one of indifference. A pseudo community is just a different kind of network—its friendships and loyalties are transient, its problems are universally considered to be someone else’s problems (someone else who should be paid to solve them); its young and old are largely regarded as annoyances, and the most common shared dream is to get out to a better place—to “trade up” endlessly.

Unlike true communities, pseudo communities and other comprehensive networks like schools expand indefinitely just as long as they can get away with it. “More” may not be “better” but more is always more profitable for the people who make a living out of networking. That is what is happening today behind the cry to expand schooling even further, a great many people are going to make a great deal of money if growth can be continued.

Truth itself is another important dividing line between communities and networks. If you don’t keep your word in a community everyone finds out and you have a major problem thereafter. But lying for personal advantage is the operational standard in all large institutions, it is considered part of the game in schools. Parents, for the most part, are always lied to or told half-truths; parents for the most part are considered adversaries, at least that’s been true in every school I ever worked in. Only the most foolish employees don’t have recourse to lying since the penalties for being caught hardly exist—and the rewards for success can be considerable. Whistle-blowing against institutional malpractice is always a good way to get canned or relentlessly persecuted. Whistle-blowers never get promoted in any institution because, having served a public interest once, they may well do it again.

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values that will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves wherever he is, whoever he is with, whatever he is doing; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

One of the surest ways to recognize education is that it doesn’t cost very much, it doesn’t depend on expensive toys or gadgets. The experiences that produce it and the self awareness that propels it are nearly free. It is hard to turn a dollar on education. But schooling is a wonderful hustle, getting sharper all the time.

Sixty-five years ago Bertrand Russell saw that mass-schooling in the United States had a radically anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation, and by eliminating the forge that produces variation: the Family. According to Lord Russell, mass-schooling produced a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self confidence, and having less of what Russell called “inner freedom” than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present. These schooled children become citizens, he said, with a thin “mass character,” holding excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt, inadequate to the personal crises of their lives. He wrote that in 1926.

Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole business—trust the free market system. I know it’s easier to say than to do, but what other choice do we have? We need less school, not more.

Divorced from religion, the congregational principle is a psychological force propelling individuals to reach their maximum potential when working in small groups of people with whom they feel in harmony. If you think about this you wonder what purpose is achieved by arranging things any other way. The Congregationalists understood profoundly that good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone.

The best immediate evidence I have to offer, that leaving people alone to work out their own local destinies is a splendid idea, is the curious sociology of my presence as a speaker in Dedham last year. There, in a community that had whipped half-naked Quaker women, stood I—a Roman Catholic with a Scots Presbyterian wife, accompanied by my good friend Roland, half pagan, half Jewish—in a Unitarian Universalist church that had once been Congregational. No act of the Massachusetts legislature made that possible, no pronouncement of the Supreme Court. People learned to be neighbors in Dedham because for three hundred years they were allowed real choice, including the choice to make their own mistakes. Everyone learned a better way to deal with difference than exclusion because they had time to think about it and to work it through—time measured in generations.

But if they had been ordered to change, ordered, as other immigrants were, to change their behavior and to abandon their culture in compulsory schools set up for that purpose, I think what would have happened is this: some of them would have seemed to change but would have harbored such powerful resentments at being deprived of choice that some way to exact vengeance would have evolved. And most of the group deprived of choice and custom and family and roots would have reacted in a variety of ways to these social pressures, would have gone quietly insane or become simplified people, fit to haul stones to build someone else’s pyramids, perhaps, or to watch television’s simplified fantasies, but fit for little else.

Despite the lip service we have continued to pay to local choice ever since Congregational days, our schools are centrally planned and already have a national curriculum in place mediated by the textbook publishing industry and the standardized training of teachers. That our schools have failed spectacularly to give our children the education we want for them, or the selves we want, or to deliver on the dream of the democratic, classless society we still yearn for is obvious enough; what we miss is the logic of our failure. By allowing the imposition of direction from centers far beyond our control, we have time and again missed the lesson of the Congregational principle: people are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony. Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family, and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others. And these dreams must be written locally because to exercise any larger ambition without such a base is to lose touch with the things which give life meaning: self, family, friends, work, and intimate community.

Ultimately, how we think about social problems depends on our philosophy of human nature: what we think people are, what we think they are capable of, what the purposes of human existence may be, if any. If people are machines, then school can only be a way to make these machines more reliable; the logic of machines dictates that parts be uniform and interchangeable, all operations time-constrained, predictable, economical. Does this sound to you like the schools you attended, that your children attend? The Civil War unfortunately demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt both the financial and social utility of regimentation, but while this notion of people as machines has been around for thousands of years, its effective reign has only been operational since the end of World War I. American education teaches by its methodology that people are machines. Bells ring, circuits open and close, energy flows or is constricted, qualities are reduced to a numbering system, a plan is followed of which the machine parts know nothing. Octavio Paz from Mexico, the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has this to say about our schools:

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.

No amount of tinkering will make the school machine work to produce educated people; education and schooling are, as we all have experienced, mutually exclusive terms.

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