Reflections on John Gatto

Gatto’s definitive theses on education appear in “Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Schooling.”  It is a collection of speeches given over time after he was named New York Teacher of the Year in 1991.  He summarizes his themes concisely in his preface to the 2005 edition.  Explaining the overarching lesson he has learned in thirty years of teaching in Manhattan, he writes:

” During that time, I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.  I didn’t want to accept that notion—far from it:  my own training in two elite universities taught me that intelligence and talent distributed themselves economically over a bell curve and that human destiny, because of those mathematical, seemingly irrefutable scientific facts, was as rigorously determined as John Calvin contended.

The trouble was that the unlikeliest kids kept demonstrating to me at random moments so many of the hallmarks of human excellence—insight, wisdom, justice, resourcefulness, courage, originality—that I became confused.  They didn’t do this often enough to make my teaching easy, but they did it often enough that I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down.  Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it?  That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addition and dependent behavior.” (pp. xxv-xxiv)

As I reread this book, published first in 1992 just after I had become an assistant professor of education at the University of Houston, I was depressed by the enlarging scope of its truths.  My current frustrations with the assessment environment of schools is just another exaggerated element of the same program—a program of control exercised by the vested interests of the institutional school, the publishing industry, (now especially companies that create and publish the tests and all the workbooks to practice for test success), and the power-brokers of government at every level who use the schools as platforms for propaganda purposes.   Want a work force that will be content on an assembly line in an auto plant?  Teach children how to take orders and do small meaningless tasks over and over.  Want massive numbers of employees for menial work at McDonald’s and fancy hotels?  Make sure a large majority of students will never even attain high school graduation credentials, leaving school with such low self-esteem that they believe they can have a future in America only if they work in those kinds of jobs.  Want a population that is gullible and doesn’t question the government’s decisions or directions?  Don’t teach critical thinking.  Don’t teach thinking at all!  Just give students safe questions with prescribed answers and tell them to memorize those “right answers” for “success.”

One of the great “vested interests” involved in the perpetuation of schooling as we know it is, of course, the people who work in schools.  Gatto points out that every institution from the post office on through all those institutions we accept as essential to our well-being, are actually employment agencies first.  Schools employ huge numbers of people in every community; and with the added power of teacher unions, the employment agency of school is formidable.  Every person who works for or with schools has a vested interest in maintaining—and in fact expanding—schools as we know them.  Any drastic reform would upset the apple-cart and threaten the well-known jobs of the institution, from the custodians and lunch ladies up through the professors of the schools of education in colleges and universities.  After what I considered to be an inspiring graduate education at the Emory School of Education that concluded for me with a Ph.D. in educational leadership,  I planned to pursue a career that would inspire future teachers.  I planned to challenge prospective teachers to reflect on their own education with a critical eye to its limitations and help them think critically about how to educate students for a future of active participation in a thriving democracy and a global economy.   Instead, I found that my primary job at the University of Houston was to teach aspiring teachers how to prepare their students for success on Texas Standards’ assessments.  The stability of the system that employed all the people at the university depended on compliance with what the Texas legislature had deemed important, what they had decided they wanted students in Texas to know.  There were no questions asked.

Gatto:  “By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables—and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways—network 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.” (p. 51)

“What’s gotten in the way of education in the United States is the theory of social engineering that says there is one right way to proceed with growing up. . . .This theory has been presented in many different ways, but at bottom it signals the worldview of minds obsessed with the control of other minds, obsessed by dominance and strategies of intervention to maintain that dominance.” (p. 68)

Widgets.  Why are we trying to run schools like factories?  In the land of individuality, why would we promote a standardized product, homogeneous outcomes,  sameness in our children?  Have we lost faith in the democratic experiment that encourages strong individual voices to disagree and thereby save us from ourselves?

Gatto’s questions have made my argument small,  or at least it has reminded me that the assessment oppression I rail against is only a small part of a much larger system with oppressive  goals.   I perceive the problem as a crisis of time management—no time to teach and no time to learn.  With Gatto’s larger perspective, I recognize that this is only a symptom of a failed system, an institution that no longer serves the goals of education.  As Gatto says, “it is impossible to get an education at school.  Students can only get “schooled.”  The habits and answers that they learn in their schooling diminish us all.

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