Book Review: Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

I went to public school. Saying I survived is possibly more accurate, but perceptions can be unreliable.

As a teacher for 30 years, John Taylor Gatto has a different perspective on the educational system, and one which will seem like a "no duh" to folks who are not supporters of the current system of mass-production schooling.

The sub-heading of the book "The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling" tries to ensure that the book won't be entirely invective, and indeed the commentary is detailed and poignant for someone who went through the public school system.

What Gatto does is try to pull off the surface layer and get to the root of the issue. What is the specific manner of the educational system that is so erroneous? What are the effects of those errors? Perhaps even more importantly, what can we do about it?

The book is not a single cohesive narrative, but a collection of speeches and essays by Gatto on the topic, one being a speech he had given in the early 90's. What is remarkable is how nothing significant about the criticisms of the system nearly 30 years ago now has changed. The same flaws he saw then are still present now, and in some ways, are on display more than ever due to the arrogance bred from continued support from an unquestioning public.

My wife also went to public schools, though instead of being just outside the Urban Growth Boundary in Oregon, she was in southern California. Can you guess at the differences in influence between a school in a "commuter town" and one just a few miles from Disneyland?

Surprisingly, all the flaws discussed in the book applied to both, in part because the purpose of schools isn't to educate for the purpose of creating a more enriched and mature person, but to prepare them for service to a materialistic society that is concerned more with profit margins and comfort than actual quality of life.

We see debates on whether minimum wage should be raised to deal with the rising costs of living, but nobody seems to question the rising costs or desire to deal with reducing them. The rise is felt to be inevitable, necessary, just a part of modern life, and that is the same problem that people have with respect to the modern school system. If you think the problems aren't problems, you won't be interested in resolving them, let alone in a way which really resolves the root cause instead of just addressing symptoms.

In the product development world (software or hardware) the phrase which captures this sentiment is "it's a feature, not a bug."

What Gatto talks about is how the system of schooling is not actually defective, what's wrong are what people expect from it, and once people resolve  the dissonance in their heads, the nature of the problems and why past solutions were so ineffective becomes much clearer.

Gatto's work demystifies the mechanics behind the school system to explain why schooling and education are two different things, and that if we want to fix how we bring our children into adulthood, it will require taking back control and responsibility of something that, for generations, we were told we shouldn't and couldn't.

The Colosseum in Rome was built without the modern schooling system, and it still stands more than a thousand years after the society which built it crumbled. The system we have today does not inspire our children to build anything lasting, there is no concern for legacy, let alone the value or enrichment of the individual. 

Ignore the warnings of folks like Gatto at the peril of your own present and your children's future. While technology of the past was simpler, the people accommodated by being exceptional, for good or ill. We have the arrogance of thinking our modern ways make us superior, but with respect to schooling, all the evidence points to the contrary.

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