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John Gatto’s Book: Dumbing Us Down and Life in Hell

May 7, 2009

Dumbing Us DownDumbing Us Down:  The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schoolingby John Taylor Gatto is a heartfelt read.  It surely appears to have been a heartfelt write.  John writes with a tone of urgency, and revolution, as if calling soldiers to arms in the defense of their country.  He is calling us to bear witness to a national crisis:  The crisis of education, particularly the acute crisis in our schools.   In a larger sense he is writing about the dire condition of our communities as a whole.  His  message is no less pertinent today than it was seventeen years ago when he first published his essays.  He doesn’t mince words or present vague references.  John aims his crosshairs straight at the established monopoly of american education (which he ironically is a part of!) and fires a volley.  If the gun metaphor is too violent for you, consider him a bugler, sounding the clarion call for it’s destruction.  He could also be driving a crane with a wrecking ball though.  Consider the metaphor of urban renewal rather than violence, and  destruction, but do not take away his urging for revolution because that is what he is calling for.  While reading his book, I thought about a quote from Che Guevara“Do not try to kill your enemy rather, attempt to educate him.  For he is worth more alive to you than dead”.  For a revolutionary at war, those words come across as pretty holistic and nurturing to me, and this is how I perceive Mr. Gatto’s message. 

He begins in a rather self deprecating fashion by describing the seven tenants of his profession:

  1. Confusion
  2. Class Position
  3. Indifference 
  4. Emotional Dependency
  5. Intellectual Dependency
  6. Provisional Self-Esteem
  7. You Cannot Hide.  

Scary stuff! John’s words induce me to reflect:  Is this what being a teacher is about?  Is our society sick?  What can I do to not be a part of this curriculum?  Thankfully, Mr. Gatto has some ideas.  He proposes the value and virtue of self-knowledge.  In fact, John states “only self-teaching has value”.   This is not to say that one cannot be taught by another but rather, for teaching and education to be real, it must be relevant to the individual.  To be relevant to the individual, it must be relevant to her or his community and not as an abstract lesson.  With relevancy, comes a personal conversation, and the dialectical process between people in which real learning occurs will come about.  This is inspiring for those of us who have struggled with schooling presented as mere concepts on a blackboard, protocols to complete, and hoops to jump through.  John’s book encourages us to re-engage with our communities and become active learners and teachers.  He promotes learning as an organic process with a broad scope and many roots.

Matt Groening’s Life in Hell series often reflects on compulsory schooling.  So funny, it hurts. 

Bongo has some questions....
Bongo has some questions….





2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2009 11:38 am

    Mike, not trying to start a revolution here either, but it seems to me that the quote you chose to represent your thought on the book was not the best……… El Che might have said: “Do not try to kill your enemy rather, attempt to educate him. For he is worth more alive to you than dead”. But that was not the ‘law’ he followed. He alone killed more people he perceived as enemies than all other combined Castro troops.

    In his April 1967 “Message to the Tricontinental,” el Che spoke these words: “hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine.” ………….These are the words by which he lived.

  2. June 28, 2009 12:10 pm

    I do not have much of a background on Che’s life and he has become a romanced figure ( I did enjoy the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries). Further reflection on his life and revolutionary perspective may bring us to the conclusion that violence will beget violence and the end result is destruction for one and all. The words Che spoke that you mention may not be very holistic, and sadly, the children who suffer through our parochial system of education, demonstrating the failure of an “education” without meaning may identify with Che’s comments the most. The result? A horrible Columbine massacre, the recent shooting of a high school football coach, and all the violence that is and has occurred. Surely it leads us to the same conclusion. That our system of education appears to be broken. Gatto calls for the structure of an American education to be radically changed. His tone is revolutionary. What can we do that’s different? I’ll try to do my part to change what I can by engaging communities and strengthening positive relationships.

    Thanks for your comment and perspective!

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