Dumbing Us Down: The 7 Hidden Lessons of Compulsory Education

While teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills.

55f1565a-e953-4abd-b619-3789ba8df0b7By Meryn Callander / kindredmedia.org

In the early nineties John Taylor Gatto resigned from 26 years of award-winning teaching in Manhattan’s public schools.

There he had used his classes as a laboratory where he could learn a broader range of what human possibility is; and what releases and what inhibits human power. He came to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality; and that he had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it. He saw that whatever he thought he was doing as a teacher, most of what he was actually doing was teaching an “invisible curriculum that reinforced the myths of the school institution and those of an economy based on caste.” He began to devise “guerrilla exercises” to allow his students to be their own teachers and to make themselves the major text of their own education.

The first chapter is the transcript of a speech Gatto gave on the occasion of his being named “New York Teacher of the Year” for 1991. I felt myself thrill to the courage, the heart, and the soul of this man as revealed through his words; and wonder at the reception of the audience who I imagine would be present at such an event. The intent of this speech was to convey his belief that while teaching means different things in different places, seven lessons are universally taught from Harlem to Hollywood Hills. Read on and you may share my wonder as, maintaining his voice, I precis his points.

  • 1. Confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating and disconnections of everything. I teach too much: from the orbiting of planets to adjectives. Curricula are full of internal contradictions and lack coherence. Kids leave school without one genuine enthusiasm or indepth appreciation of anything. Human beings seek meaning, not disconnected facts.
  • “In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many moves or job changes or too much ambition… I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny.”
  • 2. Class position. I teach students they must stay in the class where they belong. If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else, because I have shown them how to envy and fear the better classes, and to have contempt for the dumb classes. The lesson is everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and you must stay where you are put.

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