Monday, August 26, 2013

Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto, Book Review

Dumbing Us Down
John Taylor Gatto
New Society Publishers 2005
Gabriola Island BC Canada

In this wonderful book of essays and speeches John Taylor Gatto
explains what's wrong with public school education in the United States. He is a former teacher who was awarded best teacher in New York State and also in New York City.

[From a speech on being named "New York State Teacher of the Year" for 1991.]

He recognizes that American children are being taught to be dependent. "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. [. . .] if children weren't trained to be dependent" the following industries would disappear: counselors, therapists, commercial entertainment, television, restaurants, prepared foods, law, medicine engineering, clothing and schoolteaching "unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people continued to pour out of our schools each year."

He adds, "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."

"The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth." He does not say it but that is especially true at Harvard University and most other high level education institutions. He adds, "Children will follow a private drummer if you can't get them into a uniformed marching band."

Gatto observes, "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."

He reveals, "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[.]"

Gatto lists the seven lessons which current schools teach: "confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, and surveillance." He continues, "All of these lessons are prime training for permanent underclass, people deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius." He adds, "this training has shaken loose from its original purpose: to regulate the poor."

Next he states what I think is essentially what controls the public schools in the United States and what prevents them from improving.  "[S]ince the 1920s the growth of the school bureaucracy as well as 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."

Look at what happened in Wisconsin when Governor Scott Walker stood up to the teachers unions. Gatto adds, "Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach?"

Speaking about young people, Gatto observes, they "are indifferent to the adult world and to the future, indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich and poor, school children 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."

He says, "without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of our children, our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified school teacher. 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. In our secular society, school has become the replacement for church, and like church it requires that its teachings must be taken on faith. [. . .] institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children."

He says, "the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency for letting contracts [. . .] it is a business, subject neither to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition."

"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."

[From a speech January 31, 1990 accepting an award from the NY State Senate naming him New York City Teacher of the Year.]

"Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent: nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact the term 'community' hardly applies to the way we interact with each another. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. School is a major actor in this tragedy, as it is a major actor in the widening gulf among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism, we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through the subway trains begging and who sleep upon the streets."

Segregating people by age and other arbitrary categories is well established at Harvard University, where access to their housing portfolio is limited only to full time Harvard affiliates. When confronted the response was "Are we the only ones who do that?" No but that does not make it right or even desirable. In 2013 Harvard began moving all older residents into one building, segregating them further. Harvard simply continues the process described by Gatto which begins in the lower schools. Creating classes is strongly entrenched at Harvard University. Then the thoughtful politicians appropriate taxpayer funds for students to fight classism. How convenient is that? How's that for job creation?

"[S]chools 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."

In his farewell address to the nation, January 17, 1961

President Eisenhower commented on the dangers of the rise of the military industrial complex, "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Less often quoted is this comment from the same speech "We must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." It applies to Gatto's observations.

Research is now almost entirely in the hands of universities and high tech corporations -- the elite. How many independent individuals are doing any serious research these days? In a recent book, The Life of Super-Earths by Dimitar Sasselov, the author mentions the astronomical discoveries by ordinary civilians who use telescopes in their backyards to see things no one else does. He noted there is so much to see it is nearly impossible for it all to be observed. Amateur astronomers help professionals, who are not blinded by credentials.

"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." Massachusetts was the birthplace also of the eugenics movement, which was adopted by Adolf Hitler. Today Massachusetts is a one-party state run by Democratic party loyalist lawyers. Education dominates the Massachusetts economy. Harvard University dominates education. Harvard University faculty and administrators have a strong influence on public policy of Massachusetts.

"[I]f we're going to change what's rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance, 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."

"Schools were designed by Horace Mann and by Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and by Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College and by some other men to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled."

That may explain why crime families, police and Communists take turns keeping me under surveillance and harassment. They just can't predict what I will do. They cannot control me. That is the object of their character assassination, ridicule and humiliation for 42 years. Control.

Gatto notices in schools what is also a widespread practice of Harvard University. "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." Harvard is moving all their older tenants who may or may not be affiliated with Harvard into one building sealing them off from any of the students, faculty and staff. Harvard University (and the City of Cambridge) vigorously express support for diversity. But they implement conformity.

"But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the 'basics' anymore because they really aren't basic to the society we've made." Does that explain why so many verbally gifted people, talkers, get elected to office; people with no skill besides talking. And when they say and do some of the most ridiculous misguided things you can imagine, voters wonder why?

"Two institutions at present control our children's lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world or wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have been occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to becoming a whole man or woman."

"The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants children to grow up these days, least of all the children themselves -- and who can blame them. Toys are us."

"The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. [. . .] they live in a continuous present: the exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness." Two weeks ago is ancient history to many young people today.

"The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune; they laugh at weakness; they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly." Do rap music lyrics reflect this cruelty and lack of respect for others?

"The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy; so intimate relationships have to be avoided."

"The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who materialistically 'grade everything' and of television mentors who offer everything in the world for sale."

"The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This timidity is frequently masked by surface bravado or by anger or agressiveness, but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude."

"More money and more people pumped into this sick institution will only make it sicker."

"For 140 years this nation has tried to impose objectives downwards from a lofty command center made up of 'experts,' a central elite of social engineers. It has not worked. It won't work. And it is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise that once made this nation a noble experiment."

"Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grassroots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large vested interest preempting all the air time and profiting from schooling as it is, despite their rhetoric to the contrary." That would be the politicians, the unions, and the contractors, human services corporations and diversity consultants, etc.

Gatto says, "Experts in education have never been right[.]"

He favors a community "where people argue with their doctors, lawyers, and ministers, tell craftsmen what they want instead of accepting what they get, frequently make their own food from scratch instead of buying it in a restaurant or defrosting it, and perform many similar acts of participation." This is a problem especially with lawyers and doctors, who are certain that they are always the smartest man in the room. Try asking your doctor or nurse if he or she washed their hands after their last patient. See how they react. Never mind that 90,000 to 100,000 American patients die each year from medical negligence some as simple as not washing hands between patients. When it comes to judges they get angry when attorneys object to their misguided decisions and rulings within trials. They are as petulant as doctors.

Gatto explains how our lives are focused around networks which have do to with one part of our lives. We meet with others who share one of our interests. But we lost the concept of community, where everyone knows the others in the community. He says, "The fragmentation caused by excessive networking creates diminished humanity [. . .] we need to accept that schools, as networks, create a large part of the agony of modern life. We don't need more schooling -- we need less."

"[N]etwork schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with their humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators, and not parents."

"Networks divide people, first from themselves and then from each other, on the grounds that this is the efficient way to perform a task. [. . .] Networks make people feel lonely. "

"In the growth of human society, families came first, communities second, and only much later came the institutions set up by the community to serve it.  [. . .] spokesmen for institutional life have demanded a role above and beyond service to families and communities.  They have sought to command and prescribe as kings used to do, though there is an important difference. In the case of ancient kings, once beyond the range of their voices and trumpets you could usually do what you pleased; but in the case of modern institutions, the reach of technology is everywhere[.]"

This is the same argument made by Mark Steyn in an essay, NSA oversight overstated, overrated, published on August 19, 2013. Steyn says, "Privacy is dying in all technologically advanced nations, and it may simply be a glum fact of contemporary existence that the right to live an unmonitored life is now obsolete unless one wishes to relocate to upcountry villages in Somalia or Waziristan. Nevertheless, even by the standards of other Western nations, America’s loss of privacy is deeply disturbing. Its bureaucracy is bigger and better-funded, and its response to revelations of its abuse of power is to make it still bigger and better-funded and more bureaucratic."

Gatto reveals that "only half of our eligible citizens are registered to vote [. . ] of those a barely fifty percent do vote [. . .] In two-party jurisdictions a trifle over one-eighth of the citizenry is thus sufficient to elect public officials [. . .] redefining as an option what used to be regarded as a duty, but that is what alienation from community life quickly accomplishes: indifference to almost everything."

"No matter how good the individuals who manage an institution are, institutions lack a conscience because they measure by accounting methods." That is a lesson I learned at IBM, and at Columbia University. I see it every day at Harvard University. It is laughable how seriously university officials take themselves. Public officials in Cambridge and the Massachusetts state government are pathetic indicating how seriously they take themselves. Can't imagine a word to describe the federal officials who say the opposite of what they do. Does the phrase "cognitive dissonance" come close to capturing what they do?

"[A]ll employees of [institutions] are servomechanisms. the deepest purposes of these gigantic networks are to regulate and to make uniform. [. . .] By redirecting the focus of our lives from families and communities to institutions and networks, we, in effect, anoint a machine our king."

Gatto quotes Alexis De Tocqueville: "every institution's unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself."

"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 in ancient Greece."

He calls "the New York City public school system [. . .] 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."

Gatto asks, "What [. . .] is the purpose of mass schooling supposed to be? Reading, writing, and arithmetic can't be the answer, because properly approached those things take less than a hundred hours to transmit -- and we have abundant evidence that each is readily self-taught in the right setting and time."

School "divides and classifies people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other [. . .]  the bottom line for the winners is that they can buy more stuff!"

"'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." Harvard University (legally the President and Fellows of Harvard College) keeps building more buildings and buying more land to build more buildings. Harvard leads the way in relentless network expansion.

Gatto says schools function "like cysts, impenetrable, insular bodies that take our money, our children, and our time and give nothing back. Do we really want more of it?"

He adds "schools are a major cause of weak families and weak communities. They separate parents and children from vital interaction with each other and from true curiosity about each other's lives."

"Children learn what they live. [. . .] ridicule them and they will retreat from human association; shame them and they will find a hundred ways to get even. The habits taught in large-scale organizations are deadly." Harvard University and the federal government grow more deadly each year.

"One of the surest ways to recognize real education is by the fact that it doesn't cost very much, doesn't depend on expensive toys or gadgets. [quoting] Betrand Russell [. . .] saw that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating [. . .] the family. [It] produced a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking in self-confidence, and having less [. . .] 'inner freedom' than [students] in any other nation [ever]. [These students hold] excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt[.]"

Gatto quotes Christopher Lasch (The True and Only Heaven): "We love particular men and women, not humanity in general." But listen to what politicians say every day. How they love humanity but do serious harm to individual humans.

Next he quotes Wendell Berry: "The people who think globally do so by abstractly reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully." Does that apply to Barack Obama, Al Gore, George Soros, and Eric Holder?

"Monopoly schooling [. . .] certifies permanent experts who enjoy privileges of status unwarranted by the results they produce." In August 2013 Jennifer Martel was murdered by her live-in boyfriend, Jared Remy. In the aftermath Martin Healy, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, a lawyer, and journalist, Dan Rea, also a lawyer,  called for an "external" investigation of why the prosecutor (not the judge) released the suspect one day before the murder; after he was arrested for bashing Martel's head into a mirror. When I suggested on air in a phone call that civilians be included in the investigating committee, Healy said "The chance of that happening is slim to none." Experts rule in Massachusetts.

Gatto adds, "Even under the severest criticism they [the schools] grow larger and more dangerous because they nourish important parts of our political and economic system."

He says, "education and schooling are [. . .] mutually exclusive terms."

His proposed solutions include: "trust children and families to know what's best for themselves; stop the segregation of children and the aged in walled compounds; involve everyone in every community in the education of the young: businesses, institutions, old people, whole families; look for local solutions and always accept a personal solution in place of a corporate one. [. . .] There is abundant evidence that less than a hundred hours is sufficient for a person to become totally literate and a self-teacher. Don't be panicked by scare tactics into surrendering your children to experts."

To emphasize that Gatto's words frighten the establishment his publisher tells, in a 2005 Postscript, of Gatto's speech on March 25, 2004 at Highland (NY) High School.  "[T]he second half of John Gatto's  presentation was canceled by the School Superintendent, 'following complaints from the Highland Teachers Association that the presentation was too controversial.'"

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