Notes from Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

  • When the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch…the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other…bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference. (p. 6)

These days SMS messages, alerts, email arrive every moment on our phones, in our inboxes. We’ve become so acclimatized to interruption we invite it into our lives and don’t see how it trivializes everything we do.

  • …Reading, writing and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. (p. 12)
  • School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life — in fact, it destroys our communities by relegating the training of children to the hands of certified experts — and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. (p. 13)
  • Where meaning is genuinely to be found: in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built. (p. 15)
  • Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone. (p.16)
  • School children…cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are, for we have divorced them from significant parental attention; they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction. (p. 17)
  • Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent: nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. (p. 21)
  • The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thing in the presence of intimacy; so intimate relationships have to be avoided.(p. 28)
  • Networks don’t require the whole person, only a narrow piece. If, on the other hand, you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part — a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to. …If you enter into too many of these bargains, you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human. (p. 48)
  • Mass commercial entertainment, as addictive as any other drug, has blocked the escape routes from mass schooling, blotting up any attention spared by school. (p. 49)
  • A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: the good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation….An example might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave, or Marty — a community will call its bums by their names. (p. 51)
  • Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that htey can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot. Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you belong to or how often your telephone rings. (p. 53)
  • In the growth of human society, families came first, communities second, and only much later came the institutions set up by the community to serve it. (p. 55)
  • Networks…isolate [people] by some limited aspect of their total humanity — their age, in the case of compulsory schooling (p.56)

One law for lion and ox is oppression — William Blake

  • Nearly a century ago a French sociologist (?) wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, NOT to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. …It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expandinto an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly. (p. 58-59)
  • Sixty-five years ago Bertrand Russell…saw that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation and by eliminating the forge that produces variation: the family. According to Lord Russell, mass schooling produce a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self-confidence, and having less of what Russell called “inner freedom” than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present. They [held] excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt; were inadequate to the personal crises in their lives.(p. 70)
  • In Colonial New England Each town was able to exclude people it didn’t like! People were able to choose whom they wanted to work with, to sort themselves into a living curriculum that worked for them. The words of the first Dedham charter catch this feeling perfectly; the original settlers shut out “people whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.” So in a funny way these early towns functioned like selective clubs or colleges, like MIT and Harvard do today, narrowing human differences down to a range that could be managed by them humanely.
  • …If you have to accept everyone, no matter how hostile they may be to your own personality, philosophy, or mission, then an operation would quickly become paralyzed by fatal disagreements. …living dialectically as the New Englanders did produces spectacular accomplishments and brings out strong qualities of character but isn’t possible to manage where the whole catalogue of human beings is thrown together haphazardly or forced together, as it is in government monopoly school life. To prevent chaos in these places, management must aim to make everything — time, space, texts, procedures — as uniform as possible. (p. 78-79)
  • “The capacity for loyalty is stretched too thing when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people and specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.” (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven) (p. 79)
  • People are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony. Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others. (p. 87)

14 thoughts on “Notes from Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

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  2. Good excerpts, thanks for posting.

    I very much agree with the comments on schools as artificial, isolating entities, echoing some of Paul Graham’s ‘Why Nerds Are Unpopular’ essay.

    Partly agree with views on organizations and clubs as also allowing for a somewhat narrow slice of people’s personas, although I didn’t see a lot of proposed solutions (at least in your excerpts🙂

    This was the truest/saddest part to me (and a major cause of divorce):
    “The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy; so intimate relationships have to be avoided.”

  3. Thanks for this post, I hunted the book down at our school’s library and I’m really enjoying it so far. The passage about the bells struck me as especially insightful–it instills a sort of attitude in students (myself included) that in other places might well be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder.

    PS: donald knuth has a good essay on the trivialization of everything we do by email here:

  4. Caterina –

    Thanks for writing these down. There are some real gems in here, and the last time I read Gatto (Underground History), I found it so meandering, I had a hard time sticking with it. Your excerpts are great.

    I wanted to note that if you like Gatto’s critiques of contemporary schooling, you might also really like Wendell Berry’s writing. His is more critical of modern culture in general, but has many of the same overtones of the importance of community and the need for more active and engaged citizens. He’s an excellent writer, a wonderful thinker, and a necessary voice crying out in the (literal and metaphorical) wilderness.

  5. @jake I’m reading Weapons of Mass Instruction now!
    @charlie Yes! I am also a big Wendell Berry fan

    @harold @roy @eric — Zadie Smith, Donald Knuth and Paul Graham — I will read them all, love getting these recommendations as this one of my favorite topics is how to make technology more human.

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