Tips for Homeschooling Mamas

One Book to Read Before Heading Back to School

Dumbing Us Down Book Review

With talk of whether or not to reopen public schools taking center stage across the country, Dumbing Us Down is a short book everyone should read. By that, I mean everyone. It may even make you question if COVID-19 could be the best thing to ever happen to the entire education system.

Disclaimer: I was not paid or compensated in any way to write this review. I purchased this book on my own, and the thoughts and opinions are my own. This review contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you.

I came to learn of Mr. Gatto after viewing the documentary, Indoctrination years ago. The film literally changed me, and has forever changed how I view education. You can find what it’s all about in one of my early blog posts. It was particularly Mr. Gatto’s words and insight that has resonated with me over the years.

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto was first written over 25 years ago. It is a collection of a few of his essays and speeches he gave after receiving New York State Teacher of the Year Award in 1991. Yes, I said Teacher of the Year. He was also awarded New York City Teacher of the Year for three consecutive years. So what does a teacher who has taught for 30 years (and won awards doing it) have to say about education? Not what you may think.

My highlights and underlines begin in the pages where you find the Roman numerals. Zachary Slayback’s intro is as insightful as it is liberating.

Seven Lessons

Dumbing Us Down begins with what Gatto describes as The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher. He writes that seven lessons are universally taught and constitute a national curriculum. The lessons are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and surveillance. He describes each of these lessons in much detail, and I have to say looking back from my own experience in school, they are spot on. Mr. Gatto goes on to say 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.” So why is twelve years the standard time kids spend in school? Gatto’s answer is that “basic skills” practice is a smoke screen behind which schools use to teach the above seven lessons.

I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if 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 to ever be the same thing.”

John Taylor Gatto

In light of the school closures due to COVID-19, I often wonder what he would say about the situation we are in now. Mr. Gatto links the school crisis with a social crisis. He speaks much about a restructured school system with family as the main engine of education. Could this be our chance for the restructuring he speaks of in which children can grow up without “absurd abstractions”? Could our current situation really be an opportunity to repair families as it repairs children?

We Need Less School, Not More

In the pages to follow, Mr. Gatto discusses why we need less school. He stresses the importance of community and family, not networks. As a school teacher himself, he sees that schools are a major cause of weak families and weak communities. One of my favorite parts is when he speaks of real education. It doesn’t cost very much, and it doesn’t depend on expensive gadgets. “The experiences that produce it and the self awareness that propels it are nearly free”.

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 which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.”

John Taylor Gatto

So, do we really need school? Is school something that is necessary 5 days a week, 9 months every year for 12 years? If so, for what? Remember, it doesn’t take that long for reading, writing, and arithmetic to be learned. Many well known Americans such as George Washington, Ben Franklin, Lincoln, Edison, Rockefeller, Mark Twain and many more never “graduated” from a school. Of course, someone taught them, but none were products of a system. Today, many people around the world find ways of educating themselves without a system of compulsory schools. The origins of compulsory schools are rather dark, and Mr. Gatto gives a brief history of that in this book. Read it and cringe.

The Good News

Although much of the book is bleak, and Gatto has a somewhat prickly way of telling the harsh truth, there is a happy ending. When one wakes up to what compulsory schools really are, the tricks and traps are easily avoided. When one is aware of the “dumbing down” that exists, we can do better. I can’t think of a better time to open our eyes to what Mr. Gatto explained 25 years ago in Dumbing Us Down. We have been given an opportunity to make a positive change in our children, our families, and our society. I urge you to take that leap, get out of the system, and begin to “educate”.

For farther reading, you may want to check out Weapons of Mass Instruction and The Underground History of American Education, also by Gatto.

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