”Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”, John Taylor Gatto, 2005 (first ed. 1992), New Society Publishers, ISBN 978-0-86571-448-9
Dumbing Us Down is a collection of five essays, often themselves based on lectures. The essays weren't written with a cohesive objective in mind, and as a result individual essays will tackle a point very concisely, but often repeat a statement that is made elsewhere. A better abridgement might restructure the entire work so as to avoid this repetition, but that would be of less use to a reader that intends to use this to locate the most interesting essay or segment to read in full.
The standard of citation is more what you'd expect from speeches than essays. Sometimes sources are referred to broadly; specific documents are never mentioned. Herein, notes have usually been included where statistical assertions have been made concerning their origin and justification.
Here are links to sometimes different versions of the five essays where they were easy to track down:
The seven-lesson schoolteacher
The psychopathic school
The green Monongahela
We need less school, not more
The congregational principle
The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher
All compulsory education is based on seven fundamental lessons, which form the main content that children learn. The actual material that is traditionally considered to constitute the 'curriculum' is actually of negligible importance in terms of the impact that education has on children. These seven lessons are universal and cannot be changed without a revolution in education that would probably destroy institutionalised compulsory education as it is known today. The lessons are as follows:
Confusion: the structure of the school day, when subjects are divided into small pieces, with children constantly moving from one class to an entirely unrelated class, inevitably teaches that no subject is important or meaningful, there is no justification or reason for anything that is learned, and that the proper attitude towards the content of lessons is therefore one of indifference, preferably with an artificial show of enthusiasm.
Class Position: the constant ranking and grouping of children based on performance in meaningless tasks teaches students, above all else, to know their place. Teachers have to pretend that grades are the key to future success, even though they are acutely aware that employers are rightly indifferent about them. By teaching children to have contempt for lesser-performing students and fear and envy for better-performing peers they are separated from one another, making them easier to control.
Indifference: all enthusiasm for any subject must evaporate the instant a bell sounds. Nothing is important enough to be pursued to its conclusion. The endless repetition of this process forces children to be adequately indifferent about everything that they are taught.
Emotional Dependency: no human rights are permitted within schools. All children are subject to ubiquitous arbitrary authority. In this environment, it is impossible for them to develop trust in their own judgement: whether they are successful or not is decided by their teacher, and this necessarily leads to emotional dependency.
Intellectual Dependency: good students do what they are told when they are told to do it. Any attempt to pursue a curriculum or investigation that has not been officially sanctioned will be crushed. In fact, any attempt to use higher-order critical techniques is recognised as dangerous to maintaining an adequate level of control — a school must prevent such criticism in order to survive.
Provisional Self-Esteem: report cards, grades and tests grind into children the lesson that their worth is determined by independent experts. Self-evaluation has no place in their lives.
One Can't Hide: school enables a fantastic level of surveillance coupled with the absolute denial of any right to privacy or independence. This prevents children from developing the ability to be alone or to work independently. It is enhanced by encouraging students to inform on one another, and on their parents. It is extended beyond school hours by monopolising their time at home with homework.
These lessons, and the type of children that they produce, are reflected in various societal problems. People defer uncritically to experts. They have less mastery of beneficial skills, relying instead on experts (eg in areas like craft, cooking, construction, mechanical repair, etc). They are emotionally unprepared to spend time alone. They require their entertainment to be provided for them pre-packaged (especially through television). They live in atrophied communities, that are no longer held together by the transmission of skills and knowledge from old to young and general fraternisation between all ages.
[W]ithout the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that actually dared to teach the use of critical thinking tools — like the dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ — would last very long before being torn to pieces. —p17
This structure is not inevitable. Historically, the United States became a literate society before the majority were schooled — research indicates that literacy was probably close to one hundred per cent amongst non-slaves on the eastern seaboard at the time of the American revolution.1) The development of compulsory schooling had a different purpose: to prepare working-class children for docile service in factories, responding to perceived socialistic threats, particularly in 1848 and 1919. The ability of the public school system to defend and appropriate resources resulted in a gradual creep that captured the middle classes in the same system, and it is still able to convince society that all failures of education can be addressed in essentially the same way: more education and more resources for education.
All of these [seven] lessons are prime training for permanent underclasses[.] —p16
School of this type is unnecessary. It takes only about 100 hours to teach reading, writing and arithmetic provided the child is enthusiastic to learn:
The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things — it really isn't very hard. —p12
The Psychopathic School
The US ranks last of 19 industrial countries in literacy and arithmetic, has the highest suicide rate in the world, and in Manhattan 70 per cent of marriages last less than five years.2) These trends are all inextricably linked to public schooling. Despite the good faith of teachers, schools are psychopathic institutions, increasingly irrelevant to all important work that is done on the planet.
The current American implementation of public schooling was invented in Massachusetts in 1850, and could only be implemented by force. At that point, literacy in Massachusetts stood at 98 per cent; at no time since has it risen above 91 per cent. One and a half million children are now homeschooled in the US; in their ability to think they are between five and ten years ahead of their public school counterparts.3)
Originally, schools were consciously designed to mass-produce compliant and predictable people. People that are successful in the modern world are independent, confident and self-reliant.
Well schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves. —p23
Two institutions at present control our children's lives: television and schooling, in that order. —p25
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These dominant influences create dependency and there is no remaining time to enable children to learn any degree of self-reliance.
The effects are important and must be recognised for any reform to work. Children in public schools:
are indifferent to the adult world, unlike all previous generations in history;
have no curiosity or attention span;
have a poor sense of future;
have no sense of the past or links between the past and present;
are cruel and lack empathy;
are dependent, passive and timid in the face of new challenges.
These trends must be attributable to TV, public schooling, or both. There are no other influences in their lives that command enough time to be significant.
In response, the first thing that is needed is a real, ongoing national debate — the type that the media is incapable of. Reform is possible, but any improvement will require less resources to be devoted to education. Centrally planned mass education will inevitably be “mechanical, antihuman, and hostile to family life”, leading to a range of social pathologies.
History provides rich lessons on how to educate children better. For thousands of years, European elites have based their children's education on placing children alone in an unguided setting with a challenge to solve. This approach works well for all children.
Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, or course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything? —p30
School denies children opportunities to develop self-knowledge. Reform must give that time back. And it must involve them with the real world so that their independent time can be spent on things that are not abstract.
A short time ago I took $70 and sent a twelve-year-old girl from my class, with her non-English-speaking mother, on a bus down the New Jersey coast to take the police chief of Seabright to lunch and apologize for polluting his beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology I had arranged with the police chief for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small-town police procedures. —p31
The education system needs to cease being parasitic on the working community and re-immerse children in work and family life. Education must strengthen family bonds, and should reject the influence of experts and centralised planning.
The Green Monongahela
This is a personal essay that covers the author's childhood on the banks of the River Monongahela, his early career in advertising and his later transition to teaching. As a story it is difficult to summarise, but the main points relevant to the book's thesis are these:
The author's childhood experience was that all adults would use any spare time they had to teach children that they came across anything that seemed interesting about adult life. This was seen as part of their community responsibility. Adult life, in turn, was interesting to children because it was purposeful: “No one ever became indifferent to these steamers [on the river] because nothing important can ever really be boring.”4)
He found advertising to be a meaningless activity. Nobody involved in it could see any purpose to it, and eventually this proved intolerable, despite the high salary and near total absence of work required of him.
He became a teacher because he had been inspired by the spontaneous teaching of the adults he encountered in his youth.
His early experiences of teaching centred around mindless bureaucracy thwarting any learning that might otherwise have been possible, but he ultimately found a meaningful role doing what he could to protect students from it. As a substitute teacher, he was given control of 75 students and 75 typewriters in a typing class, with the single instruction not to permit any of them to type anything, as he did not possess the appropriate licence; within minutes he was attacked with a chair. His first victory was, as a substitute, to fight a principle to move a girl into a higher set who was convinced the child was 'faking' being a competent reader.
We Need Less School, Not More
This essay uses several terms in an explicitly designed way:
Community is a good thing. It consists of a closed group of people that interact with and know one another in an holistic way. It consists of lifelong bonds. It requires a heavy and continuous investment of time on the part of its members. It is spiritually nourishing and a key source of true human happiness. It naturally takes responsibility for its own problems, and develops in-community solutions. It is self-limiting. Communities are an ancient phenomenon, originally formed through the amalgamation of families.
Networks are a more recent human invention. They are systems of interconnected people designed for a purpose. Interaction between members is defined by that purpose and is partial — people play a network-specific role when interacting with other members. Examples include workplaces, professional associations, armies, hospitals and universities. Networks provide efficient means of accomplishing rational tasks, but provide negligible emotional support. “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 behaviour in network situations often resembles a dramatic act”.5) They also tend to externalise their problems, since a network can always be defined in such a way that any problem is not its responsibility.
Institutions can be seen as nothing more than a formalised network (whereas networks can be informal). Institutions are often established for a defined purpose, but they invariably have a higher priority: self-perpetuation at best and more commonly self-aggrandisement.
Pseudo-communities are networks that masquerade as communities by trying or pretending to offer the emotional support provided by a community. They always fail spectacularly. Networks are least dangerous when they are honest about their limitations. Public schools are pseudo-communities. “A pseudo-community is just a different kind of network: its friendships and localities 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 commonly shared dream is to get out to a better place, to 'trade up' endlessly.”6)
Networks can be useful as means to accomplish economic tasks, but communities are essential for normal human development and for personal happiness. Without communities, people are lonely. Yet strong communities require members to be personally developed — people that have spent (or are spending) enough time alone to have grown (or be growing) to become rounded human beings. There is a great danger in being fooled that a range of networks can move in to replace a community. They cannot. No matter how many networks a person belongs to, he or she will be lonely without a community.
Institutions and nations try to increase their power and influence by conditioning us that we have a stronger bond of loyalty to them than to our families or communities. Compulsory schools are a key part of this conditioning.
One particular danger of the pre-eminence of networks over communities is that networks' means of valuing human worth are dehumanising and fantastical. Attempting to gain recognition in this sphere leads to pathological behaviour. In contrast, family and community is capable of providing people with sensitive affirmations for positive behaviour that is measured in a careful and humane way, promoting healthy ideals of behaviour. The importance of institutions in American life is rising at the expense of communities.
Institutions invariably protect their own interests over and above the goals for which they are created. Educational institutions are no exception.
It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection 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 in which I work, one of the largest business organisations on planet Earth. While the education administered by this abstract parent is ill-regarded by everybody, the institutions 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 that it has been a disaster throughout its history. —p59, emphasis original
Communities are self-limiting, whereas institutions can expand indefinitely, and probably will unless checked from outside.
Competition can be a positive force in businesses, leading to better outcomes for customers, but it is wholly damaging in schools, because it is not possible to systematically measure anything meaningful. Competition between students amounts to a fight for a teacher's favours, and these are at best rather arbitrary: this competition “gives rise to envy, dissatisfaction, and a belief in magic.”7) Teachers competition amongst themselves for resources dispensed by administrators is at best arbitrary; at worst, these resources are “hostages to obedience, deference, and subordination”.8)
Truth also separates communities from networks — communities can tell if you are lying, whereas networks can't. The result is that many networks reward and therefore encourage lying.
[L]ying 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 lied to or told half-truths, as they are usually 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; the penalties for being caught hardly exist — and the rewards for success can be considerable. —p64
Recently some have argued that schools need to be made more powerful — to be given a much larger proportion of children's time: nine-to-five all year round, or perhaps even nine-to-nine. The proposition is often justified on the grounds that it levels the playing field for poorer children, enabling them to escape non-conducive family environments. The flaw in this proposal is that school is a prime factor in the destruction of these families and the communities in which they used to be situated — it is pathological to strengthen schools to compensate for familial difficulties that they themselves have created.
Children learn what they live…
Mass education cannot work to produce a fair society because its daily practice is practice in rigged competition, suppression, and intimidation. The schools we've allowed to develop can't work to teach nonmaterial values… because the structure of schooling is held together by a Byzantine tapestry of reward and threat, of carrots and sticks. —pp68–9, emphasis original
In the first half of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell attacked American schooling for producing “a recognisably 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.”9)
Schools must be rebuilt in order for children to begin to educate themselves with our help.
They don't have anything to work for now except money, and that's never been a first-class motivator. Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatise this whole business — trust the free market system. I know it's easier said than done, but what other chance to we have? We need less school, not more. —p72
The Congregational Principle
In overview, this essay describes the organisation of New England towns in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and compares this mode of organisation favourably with a modal of central authority and control held to represent the management of education in the twentieth century. It goes on to advocate that the features of this 'congregational' mode of community organisation should be the guiding principle in beneficial education reform.
The congregational principle
In the seventeenth century, newly established New England towns discovered an opportunity for development that was different to anywhere else in the Christian world, because they were free from the authority of church and state. Their response was participatory-democratic. They formed themselves into congregations with democratic control over their church, including clergy and effectively the content of preaching. From these organisational structures flowed all else, including fundamental choices about economic decisions — some held most land in common, others enacted private ownership, largely depending on the traditions of the area from which they had migrated.
These congregational communities had important properties. They were able to expel members who did not fit in with the community, and members were able to migrate to other communities if they wished. This enabled communities to tolerate dissent by enabling communities to select members who were sufficiently homogenous that dissent would be non-threatening to the community. Thereby a 'free market' in communities developed: those with the 'best ideas' prospered and those without failed, making the system as a whole self-correcting. Each congregation took responsibility for its community and acted together as necessary to accomplish community goals.
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. —p85
Whilst these communities could be brutal, sometimes executing dissenting voices, the important thing is that they improved over time, without any outside interference. In the course of several hundred years, they developed much more religious tolerance. This timeframe is explicitly acknowledged, but it is implied that this speed of development is either acceptable or the best that can be hoped for:
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. —p86, emphasis added
(Whilst this is not mentioned, large, organised power structures (central government, corporations, combinations of wealthy individuals) are notable by their absence from the community world that is described. It is unclear whether this is perceived as a cause of, effect of, or irrelevance to the type of community power under examination.)
The failure of central authority
Centralised authority is established, in opposition to all forms of localism, as ineffective and deleterious. Social change cannot be legislated: central authority has achieved nothing or very nearly nothing in advancing the progressive agenda. In other words, the causes of feminism, racial equality and the improvement in living standards of poor people have not benefited from equality or affirmative action legislation or redistributive economic policy.
By most parameters, the plight of Black Americans, for example, now seems to be worse than it was in 1960…
The predicament of women is a little trickier to see, but if sharply accelerated rates of suicide, heart disease, emotional illness, sterility, and other pathological conditions are an indicator, the admission of women en masse to the unisex workplace is not an unmixed blessing…
[T]he income of working couples in 1990 has only slightly more purchasing power than the income of the average working man did in 1910.10) —pp83–4, emphasis original
Centralised authority has also failed to control the abuse of drugs, alcohol and pornography.
In other words, humans can only 'progress' if they do so voluntarily in the absence of outside pressure (especially from a centralised authority). Forcing people to comply will ensure that they do so badly, or with poor will, or with indifference.11)
Two acceptable analyses of education
Educational failure is currently analysed with the confines of two acceptable narratives. The first is the engineering analogy: any difficulty in education is a sign that the machine is not perfectly optimised. The curriculum needs to be improved, the school day lengthened, teacher training improved, etc. The second is the court-room drama: somebody is guilty of not doing their duty, whether teachers, principals, parents or children themselves. These offer endless ready solutions whose failure never falsifies the theory that more can be done, and divert criticism away from the deeper assumptions that underpin monopoly government schooling.
Schools are failing, and schooling itself is antithetical to real education. The solution should draw lessons from the congregational principle:
“encourage and underwrite experimentation”;
“trust children and families”;12)
stop segregation: of children into age groups and of children and old people from communities;
look for local and personal solutions, reject corporate ones;
decertify teaching immediately;
encourage free-market competition; and
remain always conscious of the question, “What is education for?” and refuse to allow experts to answer it for you.
· Last modified: 2015/06/27 16:05 by
The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher
John Taylor Gatto
State Teacher of the Year. Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do at the time, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. The license I hold 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.
A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana the other day: "What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn't idiosyncratic -- that there is some system to it all and it's not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That's the task, to understand, to make coherent."
Kathy has it wrong. 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 orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents' nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world....What do any of these things have to do with each other?
Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions. Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education. 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.
Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw facts into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search lies well concealed. This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple relationship of "let's do this" and "let's do that" is just assumed to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned how little substance is behind the play and pretense.
Think of the great natural sequences like learning to walk and learning to talk; following the progression of light from sunrise to sunset; witnessing the ancient procedures of a farmer, a smithy, or a shoemaker; watching your mother prepare a Thanksgiving feast -- all of the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifies itself and illuminates the past and the future. School sequences aren't like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes.
School sequences are crazy. There is no particular reason for any of them, nothing that bears close scrutiny. Few teachers would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized since everything must be accepted. School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism.
I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost, because both parents work, or because too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition, or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny. That's the first lesson I teach.
2. CLASS POSITION
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. In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own. Or at the least to endure it like good sports. If I do my job well, the kids can't even imagine themselves somewhere else, because I've shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline the class mostly polices itself into good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.
In spite of the overall class blueprint, which assumes that ninety-nine percent of the kids are in their class to stay, I nevertheless make a public effort to exhort children to higher levels of test success, hinting at eventual transfer from the lower class as a reward. I frequently insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores and grades, even though my own experience is that employers are rightly indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see that truth and schoolteaching are, at bottom, incompatible just as Socrates said they were thousands of years ago. The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Failing that, you must stay where you are put.
The third lesson I teach kids is indifference. I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It's heartwarming when they do that; it impresses everyone, even me. 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 that they stop whatever it is that we've been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan.
Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as the abstraction of a map renders every living mountain and river the same, even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.
4. EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCY
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 predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal, because rights do not exist inside a school -- not even the right of free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled -- unless school authorities say they do. As a schoolteacher, I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. 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.
Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels, or they steal a private instant in the hallway on the grounds they need water. I know they don't, but I allow them to deceive me because this conditions them to depend on my favors. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or happy about things outside my ken; rights in such matters cannot be recognized by schoolteachers, only privileges that can be withdrawn, hostages to good behavior.
5. INTELLECTUAL DEPENDENCY
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that 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 you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce. If I'm told that evolution is a fact instead of a theory, I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been told to tell them to think. This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.
Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult, naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid, but that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools. No middle-class parents I have ever met actually believe that their kid's school is one of the bad ones. Not one single parent in twenty-six years of teaching. That's amazing and probably the best testimony to what happens to families when mother and father have been well-schooled themselves, learning the seven lessons.
Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained to be dependent: the social-service businesses could hardly survive; they would vanish, I think, into the recent historical limbo out of which they arose. Counselors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply of psychic invalids vanished. Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun. Restaurants, prepared-food and a whole host of other assorted food services would be drastically down-sized if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to plant, pick, chop, and cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too, the clothing business and schoolteaching as well, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people continued to pour out of our schools each year. Don't be too quick to vote for radical school reform if you want to continue getting a paycheck. We've built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don't know how to tell themselves what to do. It's one of the biggest lessons I teach.
6. PROVISIONAL SELF-ESTEEM
The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem. If you've ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him to believe they'll love him 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 your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged.
A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students' homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of "good" schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much 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 the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile that compels children to arrive at certain decisions about themselves and their futures based on the casual judgment of strangers. Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet, is never considered a factor. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.
7. ONE CAN'T HIDE
The seventh lesson I teach is that one can't hide. I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts three hundred 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 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 that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands.
The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient imperative, espoused by certain influential thinkers, a central prescription set down in The Republic, in The City of God, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, in New Atlantis, in Leviathan, and in a host of other places. All these childless men who wrote these books discovered the same thing: children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control. Children will follow a private drummer if you can't get them into a uniformed marching band.
It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among the best of my students' parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things. "The kids have to know how to read and write, don't they?" "They have to know how to add and subtract, don't they?" "They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job."
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 our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel. We were something special, as individuals, as Americans.
But we've had a society essentially under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War, and such a society requires compulsory schooling, government monopoly schooling, to maintain itself. Before this development schooling wasn't very important anywhere. We had it, but not too much of it, and only as much as an individual wanted. People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic just fine anyway; there are some studies that suggest literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least for non-slaves on the Eastern seaboard, was close to total. Thomas Paine's Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population of 3,000,000, twenty percent of whom were slaves, and fifty percent indentured servants.
Were the colonists geniuses? No, the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things, it really isn't very hard. Pick up a fifth-grade math or rhetoric textbook from 1850 and you'll see that the texts were pitched then on what would today be considered college level. The continuing cry for "basic skills" practice is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the seven lessons I've just described to you. The society that has become increasingly under central control since just before the Civil War shows itself in the lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast, all of which are the products of this control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the United States products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual, family, and community importance, a diminishment that proceeds from central control. The character of large compulsory institutions is inevitable; they want more and more until there isn't any more to give. School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life -- in fact it destroys communities by relegating the training of children to the hands of certified experts -- and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. Surely he was right. Look around you the next time you are near a school or an old people's reservation if you wish a demonstration.
School as it was built is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control. School is an artifice which makes such a pyramidical social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution. From colonial days through the period of the Republic we had no schools to speak of -- read Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography for an example of a man who had no time to waste in school -- and yet the promise of Democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient pharaonic dream of Egypt: compulsory subordination for all. That was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in The Republic when Glaucon and Adeimantus exhorted from Socrates the plan for total state control of human life, a plan necessary to maintain a society where some people take more than their share. "I will show you," says Socrates, "how to bring about such a feverish city, but you will not like what I am going to say." And so the blueprint of the seven-lesson school was first sketched. The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony. We already have a national curriculum locked up in the seven lessons I have just outlined. Such a curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its hideous effects. What is currently under discussion in our national school hysteria about failing academic performance misses the point. Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.
None of this is inevitable. None of it is impossible to overthrow. We do have choices in how we bring up young people; there is no one right way. If we broke through the power of the pyramidical illusion we would see that. There is no life-and-death international competition threatening our national existence, difficult as that idea is even to think about, let alone believe, in the face of a continual media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important material respect our nation is self-sufficient, including in energy. I realize that idea runs counter to the most fashionable thinking of political economists, but the "profound transformation" of our economy these people talk about is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Global economics does not speak to the public need for meaningful work, affordable housing, fulfilling education, adequate medical care, a clean environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common human reality I am convinced it is wrong and that most people would agree with me if they could perceive an alternative. We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found -- in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends and real communities are built -- then we would be so self-sufficient we would not even need the material "sufficiency" which our global "experts" are so insistent we be concerned about.
How did these awful places, these "schools", come about? Well, casual schooling has always been with us in a variety of forms, a mildly useful adjunct to growing up. But "modern schooling" as we know it is a by-product of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor. Partly, too, total schooling came about because old-line American families were appauled by the native cultures of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigrants of the 1840s and felt repugnance towards the Catholic religion they brought with them. Certainly a third contributing factor in creating a jail for children called school must have been the consternation with which these same "Americans" regarded the movement of African-Americans through the society in the wake of the Civil War.
Look again at the seven lessons of schoolteaching: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance -- all of these things are prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. And over time this training has shaken loose from its own original logic: to regulate the poor. For since the 1920s the growth of the school bureaucracy, and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from schooling exactly as it is, has enlarged this institution's original grasp to the point that it now seizes the sons and daughters of the middle classes as well.
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, which belongs to everyone in a healthy community.
With lessons like the ones I teach day after day it should be little wonder we have a real national crisis, the nature of which is very different from that proclaimed by the national media. Young people are indifferent to the adult world and to the future, indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich or poor, schoolchildren who face the twenty-first century cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are (for we have divorced them from significant parental attention); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.
All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are nourished and magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, which, through its hidden curriculum, prevents effective personality development. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that actually dared to teach the use of critical thinking tools -- like the dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ -- would last very long before being torn to pieces. School has become the replacement for church in our secular society, and like church it requires that its teachings must be taken on faith.
It is time that we squarely face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children. Nobody survives the seven-lesson curriculum completely unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking the 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, subject neither to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition.
Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government education. I'm trying to describe a free market in schooling just exactly like the one the country had until the Civil War, one in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them, even if that means self-education; it didn't hurt Benjamin Franklin that I can see. These options exist now in miniature, wonderful survivals of a strong and vigorous past, but they are available only to the resourceful, the courageous, the lucky, or the rich. The near impossibility of one of these better roads opening for the shattered families of the poor or for the bewildered host camped on the fringes of the urban middle class suggests that the disaster of seven-lesson schools is going to grow unless we do something bold and decisive with the mess of government monopoly schooling.
After an adult lifetime spent teaching school, I believe the method of mass-schooling is its only real content. Don't be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son's or daughter's education. 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, too, which are among the key lessons of home and community life.
Thirty years ago [in the early 60s] these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten up most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time as well. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human and only thin-soil wastelands to do it in. A future is rushing down upon our culture which will insist all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; a future which will demand as the price of survival that we follow a path of natural life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.
- John Taylor Gatto, 1991, New York