Review of Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

I’ve been wanting to read Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto for several years. I’d come across it when I first started teaching and had looked into a number of critical pedagogy books to inform my teaching practice. I picked it up now that I’m returning to teaching a public high school as a refresher to all those books by Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. I’d not paid close enough attention and what I’d expected to be a more empirical approach to looking at different manners in which there is consciousness raising manners in which to teach in the class room instead got a collection of speeches lengthened into articles. After having read the author’s I’d previously mentioned, I wasn’t that impressed. Rather than what I didn’t like, however, I’ll start with what I did like.

As a criticism of mass schooling on the industrial model, Gatto’s is pretty typical. Students become alienated through the school institution. They don’t learn things that will often help them in real life, they aren’t able to follow paths that interest them, the bell schedule is structured so that they feel that little is worth devoting a significant amount of time to, the learn to value themselves based upon an external authority, they learn intellectual dependency, they learn no real personal or spiritual values other than submission to the state, the learn disconnection from the community.

While a lot of these criticisms are true, the age of the books printing doesn’t address the fact that many new Federal government initiatives have addressed some of these by encouraging project, problem and inquiry based learning methods related to Common Core. In this, the book is dated. The teaching of mindfulness practices and emotional intelligence methods for dealing with problems is another area the book is silent upon. Overlooking this, however, I think the book is on point. There is a great need for student’s learning to be connected to their immediate needs and community. Gatto’s focus on the all-positive family, however, rings hollow from my own experience. When previously teaching in public schools the level of involvement was low and the anecdotes that I heard between kids in the hallways was not all that encouraging as to the types of acculturation that they were receiving at home. And this is in large part the turn towards the thrust of my criticism.

What I didn’t like was Gatto’s right-libertarian, anti-school union bent of the author’s suggestions. In this regard the success of the book and the paid public speaking gigs he refers to gets cast in a different light. It’s because his critique is aligned with the assault against public school unions and the pro-charter/homeschool movement. Thus while I think that his congregational approach to teaching, wherein students act as the market demanders for the subjects that they want to learn, I also feels that it does a disservice to “professional” educators. I agree that a certain degree of professional experience or personal devotion to a subject qualifies someone with the content knowledge to teach is does not always grant them the methods for successfully conveying this information to students. This stems from the fact that typically after people have mastered a number of elementary skills they have difficulty conveying the steps that they took to learn them. Gatto’s libertarian perspective thus, also, isolates and dehistoricizes the students/parents he speak of. He claims that a number of American economic illnesses stem from industrial American education rather than the specific dictates of capitalism. This is something that is addresses in limited detail, but it underlies all of his opinions. All in all I enjoyed reading it, but if someone was interested in the same content dealt with in greater depth Illich and Freire are who to look to.