John Taylor Gatto was the 1991 New York State teacher of the year. He is also a confirmed critic of the education system and efforts to reform it. His book, Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education, is a series of essays on the matter. He idealizes the self-education found in this country through its early years. They are, in his view the foundation of democracy and progress. The republication of his 1992 classic highlights the challenges of public education and proposed the elimination of it as the only solution the challenges of poverty, teen suicide, drug addiction and illiteracy.
His essay entitled “We Need Less Schooling Not More” was the one that struck me most profoundly. He epitomizes the family as the ultimate learning machine, the community as the fertile ground in which learning grows and networks as the downfall of society. In his view communities are small groups that regulate their participants and look after themselves. They are small, deeply knit groups that work together for a common cause. Networks, on the other hand are liable to be large, like schools, all-inclusive and thrive on the lack of individualism and holistic nature of humankind. Networks dehumanize people, reducing them to limited bites whose sole interest is what you can do for me (p. 53). While the book contains an introduction and afterward written for the modern reader, this essay is not based in modern times in which our virtual networks and social media have further isolated us and our interactions. One only has to go to a restaurant, public event or grocery store to see the fodder that would support Gatto’s assertions here. People do not talk to those they are with, they text and surf their cell phones. They may be with people, like their children, spouses or friends, but their attention is elsewhere. Networks have become substitutions for deep friendships and relationships.
Gatto asserts that teacher unions are trying to persuade the business community to hire and promote based on grades (p.60). Today we see this as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) includes a statement that students who pass the high school exams will be required to be exempt from remedial classes in college. Since these tests will be required to graduate, the conclusion is that all students will be ready for college upon graduation- something that is not true today. Currently we Estimate between 20% for private four year schools to 60% for community colleges of students take remedial classes. If our graduates are going to meet the bar of being ready for college one of a few things must happen:
· Fewer students will graduate- the bar is raised, students incapable of meeting the current bar will not be able to jump over a raised one and they will leave school without a diploma.
· New diploma tracks will be developed- passed the CCSS test and graduate verses some form of a not yet there but has attended school and is on track to eventually get there.
· Colleges will reduce standards and require passing a higher level course that students may need to take repeatedly to pass.
· Fewer students will attend college.
These selections are all incompatible with the Common Core standards. While the business community is unlikely to buy into the grades= money phenomena, colleges might be mandated to do so.
Gatto sees schools as agents that divide and classify “people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other, and publicly labels the losers by literally degrading them, identifying them as ‘low class’ losers”(p. 61). Clearly he sees the worst of school and society. I wonder, however, how he reconciles this concept with his model Puritan village. They were quick to degrade nonconformists, often embarrassing, killing or exiling those who were different and thus “losers.” Even the Puritans competed with each other; there was a hierarchy that was based in the quality of your family, the frequency of your church going and the fiscal success of your enterprises.
He contrasts this modern vision of schooling with what sees as the purpose of education, “discovering meaning for yourself as well as discovering satisfying purpose for yourself” (p. 62). While self-discovery was important for some of our early pioneer learners like Franklin and Lincoln, they had access to books that had great storehouses of information. They had mentors who helped them in their “self-discovery.” Teachers are our modern day mentors. We will discount the many individuals throughout our early years that were illiterate and poorly educated. Families that are supported by either two working parents or single family households where the sole supporter is working are not available for the omnipresent family development and support that Gatto envisions as critical to self-discovery. Schools fill an interaction void that modern life has created. The advent of constant electronic communication has magnified this void since the largest periods of time kids spend face to face talking is in schools. Some proponents of technology are advocating for limiting this interaction by implementing increased amounts of screen time in school. Will this lead to self-discovery and purpose- unlikely. Although some of the CCSS methodologies emphasize self-discovery, there is a huge challenge in this idea. Only so many hours are available for school to teach. In the historic past of Gatto’s ideal, there was less to learn, and students did not experience self-discovery in their one room school house epitomized by rote learning.
Gatto effectively points out the contradictions of schools in relation to families. He states that “schools stifle families” (p. 67). I have seen this over and over as my children have marched through school. Most recently at the high school midterm test schedules were emailed to students, not their families. Students were expected to only be in school during their exams, and were not to be present if they had no tests. I do believe a consequence of this idea is that families need to help out with transporting their darlings, even if they do not have the schedule that came out a full week before the testing was to begin. We do not live in a community where kids walk to school or where public transportation exists. Parents were required to struggle to provide supervision of their children who were prohibited from being in school if they had no exams. Although most high schoolers can spend time on their own, we know that doing so results in an increase in vandalism, self-destructive behavior like drug-use and screen time which results in increased violence and obesity. Schools that want parents to be involved invite them into school and education meaningfully. Our current system falls far short of this. I do not, however, see the down time kids have as being used in a journey of self-discovery. I think that perhaps this vision that Gatto has is just that, a vision or ideal, much like the creators of the CCSS have toward the standards- lightly based in reality but lacking the solid foundation of the real world.
Gatto’s writing has become a cornerstone of homeschooling proponents who are looking for deep values and limited exposure to perceived “deviant” influences. I understand that there are many unsavory things that children are exposed to in schools. I would have been grateful if my son did not pick up some of his colorful vocabulary there. If I do not want my children to live in an isolsate environment and want them to engage in the wonderful, rich experiences the world has to offer, however, they need to figure out how to navigate these unsavory elements. It is my job to teach the values. I know that many parents have abdicated that role, knowingly or unknowingly, but that is not an excuse to decry public education. Families need to use the local control we have and fight for the righting of school policies and “norms” that are in the best interests of children and families. This decision is a local one, that will be encased in debate, but that is the essence of democracy.
This book is a philosophical examination of schooling that is not for everyone. The writing is pedantic. The ideas challenging to those involved in public education. The implications intriguing especially in light of the CCSS.