Carmyn's Reviews > Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
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's review
Jul 09, 2009

did not like it
bookshelves: read-in-2008, teaching-and-writing, library-books
Read in August, 2008

This book's dismal tone from start to finish made the read an unpleasant one for me. The format also left much to be desired. The book had 35 pages of preamble in the form of foreword, introduction, publisher's note from the first edition, and about the author. The following five chapters over 94 pages were reprinted speeches or essays that lacked flow or transition and didn't truly follow through on what I thought the book would offer. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling is something I set out to read eager to see if Gatto was going to corroborate some of my own ideas about public schools in our country. Instead, he seemed to not understand schools at all. At least, not as I've witnessed them. His credibility was instantly damaged,in my eyes, and it was difficult to lend much credence to his words. Furthermore, his tone was such that I was irritated and had he been a TV (he'd like this reference)I would have changed the channel. :)

Some of his points in the "Seven Lesson Schoolteacher" were things I could agree with. Where he loses me is his vehemence with which he lambastes all schoolteachers and schools as falling into this trap. Sure, even if one is to assume his theory is correct and the entire machine of public education is broken in the United States, not every school, not every teacher is the demon he makes them out to be. And furthermore WHAT exactly is his solution? It's VERY clear he doesn't believe in school reform. Just get rid of all compulsory schooling. Abandon the public school idea. Okay. So we do home schools or create schools in a private club sense. But what of the two income family. Surely it's not SCHOOL that is robbing them of the ability to spend family time together but the necessity of earning enough money to get by. Some people have the ability to live off one income, many do not have that luxury. How does this idea factor in for Mr. Gatto's grand solution? This was something I felt he needed to explore if he was going to make such broad declarations.

I felt that much of what Gatto was stating was dated. Since 1992 there's been a standards movement that serves to create continuum of ideas and skills from kindergarten to grade 12 in areas like reading, math, writing and more. More teachers are using best practices and teaching using inquiry based methods. Nothing he wrote addressed these things because it's only in the past 15 years that these things have been flourishing. His final chapter makes mention of standards, once again with a disparaging word. What is ironic, is that in an earlier chapter schools were lambasted for lacking these standards and continuum and connectivity in curriculum and then in the congregational chapter he denounces the the presence of the very thing he was shaming schools for not doing. Not only is Gatto, inconsistent, he is unrealistic, and it seems his way if it were followed to the letter would leave HUGE groups of people with no education at all, nor any realistic or fair way to get it.

In chapter three, Gatto says of his subbing experience in New York City,

"After three months the dismal working conditions, the ugly roms, the torn books, the repeated insistences of petty complaints from authorities, the bells, the buzzers, the drab teacher food in the cafeterias, the unpressed clothing, the inexplicable absence of conversation about children among the teachers (to this day, after thirty years in the business, I can honestly say I have never once heard an extended conversation about children or about teaching theory in any teacher's rooms I've been in) had just about done me in."

This quote just about did me in. I cannot fathom working in an environment like he's described. None of that characterizes my school or others I've worked in. And in 30 years to never have heard an extended conversation about children or teaching theory? What kind of planet is this guy from. Not only are teaching theory and school improvement topics that are discussed at length in our teacher's lounge, in our Monday morning staffings, at staff meetings, and during our professional learning community meetings, but we also regularly express concerns about various students and pool resources, information, and ideas about how to help particular students achieve their learning potential. We approach our students with a team approach and this at a high school level. So, I find Mr. Gatto very much mistaken. Perhaps no one wanted to discuss theory with HIM. :) In fact, if I were creating my own select village as he describes in chapter five, I'm pretty sure he would not be invited to stay.

I'd sort of like to pair Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) and John Gatto and see what sorts of correlations could be drawn from some of the ideas Gatto puts forth with no statistical evidence whatsoever, aside from his own 30 years of what appears to be pretty limited experience.

If you are looking for a book with some radical ideas about public schools and the ways they damage kids and destroy families, be sure to pick this book up. If you are like me and just want so understand a bit more about the underside of public schools, you might find what you want here, but take this with a block of salt and be prepared for some grating, over-the-top, generalizations.

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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-3 of 3) </span> <span class="smallText">(3 new)</span>

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message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie did you feel about this book and its author?? Don't hold back! :-) Sounds like a total tool to me. ("Tool" in the negative sense, not as something that is useful!).

I have to say, though, everything except the part about teachers not talking about theories or students could apply to my school the last 12 years. Seriously. It is enough to give one pause and begs the questions, "WHY have I chosen to spend my life doing this??" But we will get rid of the ugly rooms at least this year, and we DO spend a lot of time, maybe even TOO much, talking about teaching theory and students and how to improve the opportunities at our school.

Guess I won't jump on Amazon and read this book! I will trust your judgment! I just bought a new one by Leila Christenbury that I am DYING to read, but I have to plow through the stupid "brain" book first (a requirement for all teachers in our district for this summer).

Carmyn Was my review a bit much? Sheesh. I couldn't hold back. The annoying thing is that I do agree with many of his ideas, it's just his method of delivery and attitude sour the whole deal for me. He's just too over-the-top.

We got a whole pile of "professional" books on grammar and writing and teaching theory that I'd love to dig into but I still need to hammer out a few more things for my reading class so I guess the other stuff will have to wait. It is fun to have ten shiny new books waiting for me though.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I agree with your review 100%.

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