Dumbing Us Down

Diane M. Cooper interviews John Taylor Gatto, “the most famous teacher in the world”, New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and author of many books on education.
Even though this is written for American readers, it still applies here in South Africa.

If John Taylor Gatto had your ear—especially if you are a parent—he might ask you some pretty strange questions:
What if it could be absolutely proved to you that the education system was designed by financiers who felt that self-reliant, self-educated citizens made poor factory workers and rotten consumers?

What if you could become convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that literacy in the United States was at its highest point just before compulsory education was signed into law?

What if there is a really scarey parallel between school bells and bugle calls, and it’s not accidental?

Could any of this make even a little dent in the beliefs we have been spoonfed by our media about ‘’Why Johnny Can’t Read’’?

Forty years ago, Gatto was an advertising copywriter who became bored with the ad business and needed a place to ‘’mark time’’ while he thought things through. His roommate at that time had a teaching license but wasn’t using it. ‘’It was sitting in a drawer,’’ Gatto says. ‘’He taught for one day, tossed his license in a drawer, and said you’d have to be crazy to do that for a living.’’

So using his roommate’s license, Gatto started substitute teaching ‘’just to see what it was like.’’

He soon became intrigued by the responsibility the job offered. ‘’If you dropped dead,’’ he told us, ‘’there aren’t many businesses that would miss you, not even if you were the CEO. But teaching school was different.’’

He ended up teaching for 30 years, as what he calls a ‘’saboteur’’—someone who tries to change the system simply by refusing to follow it. Along the way, he learned some sobering, basically frightening, facts about the true intent of “government’’ education in our schools.

Today, he says, he is “in constant motion, in every one of the fifty states and seven or eight foreign countries, bearing witness to what I saw in that 30-year period.’’

Author of Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education, John Taylor Gatto, although he’s no longer operating from within the system, is still ‘’the most famous teacher in the United States.’’

Diane: How did you happen to get so completely sidetracked from the advertising business?

John: What I think happened was a series of events which occurred when I was substitute teaching, where I seemed to run into a densely compacted mass of perversion on the part of nominal authorities. In challenging or testing myself against these authorities, I became genuinely intrigued by what appeared to be massive stupidity. It seemed that things that were very easy to accomplish were being made impossible to accomplish by the very structure of the system itself, and its guardians.

I decided to take a year or two out of the advertising business and teach.

I thought I’d go back, eventually, and make a fortune in advertising. But each week I stayed in teaching, I became more enthralled by the political challenges.

Today, after 40 years of thinking about this business, I see that the obstacles that are generated structurally have nothing to do with stupidity.

And that they are virtually insuperable unless somebody’s ready to play the saboteur.

A couple years ago, Mort Zukerman, the publisher of US News and World Report and the Atlantic Monthly, said that our wonderful economy is self-maintaining because our people are not like any other people in the world. They are interested only in their paycheck. They don’t mess around with management. They define themselves by what they buy. They mortgage their futures.

As I read that article, I said to myself, How do people get this way? Well, they get this way by being schooled to be that way.

Diane: So how did our schools get to be that way.

John: Look at our school system as a laboratory, and then you can see that the physical habits that are trained into our children quite purposefully limit and defeat them. You have to ask someone’s permission to go to the toilet. You have to sit in a cramped seat from eight to three with virtually no ability to get up and move around. These things would be deadly even for adults. For children it’s a colossal perversion.

Nor are there any known intellectual explanations, based on academic results, for any of this behavior.And the people who stand before these children—the teachers—are the single worst-performing group in American colleges. If that’s not radical enough, the people who manage the people who stand before the children—that is, the superintendents—are considerably more ignorant than the most ignorant subgroup among the teachers.

Now, I believe you’d have to be terminally innocent to believe that this inverted pyramid could have occurred by accident. But it is the only way to keep the system intact. You put the worst people in charge, and the second-worst people in charge of the kids. And you do this in second, third, and fourth grades. Kids either learn to think critically at that age, or 95 percent of the time, they never do.

And, starting out in kindergarten, sitting in our schools makes people restless—with each other, with themselves, with their families, with their possessions. When you can make people generally discontented with everything, you have the perfect climate for a successful mass-production economy. And when you have people who don’t understand anything except some little specialty—like how to drill a tooth, how to argue a case in court, some little thing—you have the perfect climate for running everything centrally. Specialists don’t see themselves as citizens.

Diane: So how did this happen, if it wasn’t an accident?

John: If you look at the annual reports of the Carnegie Foundation beginning about 1906, you’ll find out where schooling and its structure came from. You’ll find out what its goals are. And it is nothing to do with any debate being conducted in any press or any forum in the United States, today or any other year that I’m aware of.

If you take the window of 1890 to 1910, what was traditionally thought of as ‘’schooling’’ began to vanish. It was replaced by a kind of global experiment in human behavior, in human obedience, tractability, and conditioning. Our schools today are a laboratory of human behavior.

A lot of this you can deduce logically. If you’ve got a small-farm, agricultural economy, it’s easy to see the qualities people will need: the ability to be alone with themselves for long periods of time, to be utterly resourceful, to be able to fix anything that broke. So what if you’ve suddenly got a mass production economy where the machinery has to run night and day in order to pay for itself. How could you train these self-sufficient, resourceful kids to support such an economy?

That was the question.

How it happened was not a secret. Between 1890 and 1910, there were masses of public statements made by the owners of the new economy, statements that were extremely anti-intellectual, extremely demanding of what they wanted schools to produce. And on higher levels, such as the Harvard Ed. Journal, there were actually bald statements of what these demands were all about.

You can’t accuse these people of being conspiratorial. They were very open about what they were bringing about—which was, in part, the death of capitalism.

Diane: So how did they mean to accomplish this?

John: Their method was to model our schools after the Prussians. The Prussians had figured out in the early part of the 19th century, long before we had forced schooling ourselves, that if you lock all the kids up and keep them amused with colors, games, music, and balloons until they’re about ten or eleven, then all of a sudden you crack down and say, Okay, the fun is over, those children will never recover their volition, their independence—their minds. They will become wonderful soldiers and workers.

Even if they can conceive of opposition, they won’t be able to sustain it.

This is how Germany produced the most successful armies that have ever been seen in history. Even in its lost wars, even when outnumbered two to one and more, Germany regularly inflicted thirty to forty percent more casualties than those it fought against. The army worked like a well-tuned machine because no one ever argued with orders.

Diane: So the developers of our compulsory education system adopted that system?

John: Yes. People went to Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century and came back with these coveted German PhDs—we didn’t have our own PhDs yet—and they took over the presidencies and the heads of key departments in every major American university.

Diane: I was looking at the word ‘’kindergarten’’ and it dawned on me that that, too, is a German phrase.

John: Yes, and it doesn’t mean ‘’a garden for children.’’ It means a garden where teachers cultivate children like vegetables. Frederick Frobel—the guy who invented kindergarten—had a life-long dream to be a member of the Prussian Army, but they wouldn’t take him because he was born in Austria.

Diane: So the system is about our economy?

John: People who believe that organized schooling can be about anything else than serving the existing economy are out of their minds. I feel a great deal of sympathy for these people, the huggy kind, because they don’t deserve what they get, and they certainly don’t deserve to waste their life’s energy and their heart’s blood fighting imaginary battles on imaginary battlefields.

But there isn’t any way for a centralized school operation not to be about the dominant economy. You can argue till you’re blue in the face. And if you’re a mother, you’ll be arguing with a school teacher, or a principal, or a superintendant. And when you do, you’re arguing with someone who has no power at all. None of those roles has any power at all. The only way they can step out of their powerless role is to play the role of saboteur.

Because the system, by definition, has no room for debate. It may feign debate as a way to bleed away public discontent, but by definition, there is no room for real debate. The system is systematic—if it’s not systematic, it’s not a system anymore. It collapses. There is no wiggle room at all.

Diane: A while ago, you said the change to our school system was in order to bring about an end to capitalism. Could you say more about that? I thought we still had capitalism.

John: It’s true that we are all racing around screaming at each other about who’s the greatest capitalist. But it’s impossible any longer to be a capitalist—there is no competition left that matters at all.

I’ll give you a few pieces of evidence: Lockheed and Boeing should have gone out of business years ago. They weren’t allowed to go bankrupt because your tax dollars were used to buoy them up until they could sustain themselves again.

Chrysler is another corporation that should have gone bankrupt a long time ago. There is no reason for Chrysler to be in business except for massive injections of federal tax money.

The government issues bogus contracts, and simply buys things that are junked instantly, all in order to keep these few central corporations in business. Chrysler is just one of the most flagrant examples.

In my later life I’ve been dumbfounded that otherwise intelligent people—certainly my intellectual peers—can look at the words and the story and are unable to see the meaning. Some of them could pass a quiz about when Chrysler went bankrupt, and what year the government bail-out occurred, and what size it was—but they have no idea of the significance of this.

Our economy is basically centralized in 200 corporations who are totally dependent on government privilege. These corporations require the government to stamp out any competition that emerges, and they require the government to pick them up when they stumble and fall, and bail them out with public funds.

There’s no competition. There hasn’t been since the end of the second World War. And as I implied earlier, the plan to destroy capitalism was announced by Carnegie and company back in the 1890s. They said that only stupid people and fools competed. That competition was a huge waste of energy and profit, and that there was room for anyone who wanted to play ball. They said that the democratic populace of the country was getting in the way, so the populace was going to have to be put out of commission. These statements were made quite openly. But no one paid any attention.

Then these ideas were written into legislation.

In Silicon Valley, for example, they succeeded in outdistancing their competition through government intercession, guaranteed contracts, protected markets, and guaranteed profits. Then, with that giant stream of revenue from the government, they could hire away the creative personnel that had developed in places you’ve never heard of—like someone’s garage.

Diane: You call yourself a saboteur. How did you get ‘’found out’’?

John: Saboteurs identify themselves by their radically different numbers.

Diane: What if the numbers are positive?

John: It doesn’t matter. The public perception that good school-teaching is desired or rewarded is naive. Teaching is a ‘’guild’’ system, and unlike what we were taught in school, guilds were not about ensuring quality. In a guild, the idea was to ensure that nobody used a technology or method unless everyone else was using it. There is no innovation in a guild.

Diane: Well, we can see that schoolteachers aren’t necessarily honored guildmembers, either. Not if you gauge it by the pay rate. John: I would dispute that. The national average for teachers right now is about $41,000 for a nine-month year—comparable to about $55,000. That’s the average. The upper end of the scale, in most places, is around $70,000. That doesn’t match the range of a doctor or a lawyer, of course…

Diane: Most of the teachers I’ve heard of are not making that kind of money…

John: You believe that because that’s the stuff that’s pumped out by the teachers’ unions. The reality is quite different. Teachers need only a very indifferent education, and in return, they get a guaranteed pension, medical plan, and income that is certainly adequate, if not munificent.

It seems to me that American teaching as a career is one of the great deals in human history, especially for people who, by and large, are not very accomplished themselves. Many teachers’ hearts could bear a very close scrutiny—but not their intellects or their accomplishments, or even their understanding.

It’s funny, you can take five-year-olds off the street, and teach them in about two weeks to do all the arithmetic operations mentally—really, up to multiplying four or five figures! That’s all it would take, two weeks. Even accomplished mathematicians say that the entire mathematics curriculum through calculus and trig takes about 50 contact hours to deliver.

The consensus is that it takes 30 contact hours to bring someone to the point where they can be a self-teacher in reading for the rest of their lives. When we see kids who can’t read, we’re seeing the results of a radical dysfunction that is transmitted by schooling. We’re talking about things that are very, very easy to learn.

The funny thing is, it’s very, very easy to put children back on track to where they can self-teach. But that’s not allowed! That sort of thing really is severely punished by structured schooling. I’m not suggesting that teachers, principals, or even superintendents understand that this is what’s going on.

They do what they are instructed to do by the orders that are passed down—from where, they don’t know, but they do know that if those orders aren’t followed, some people are going to get in a lot of trouble.

Diane: Do you think the rebellion that we are seeing within our children today—the murders, the drugs, the high crime, and so on—is the American psyche saying that they’ve had enough?

John: Yes. Plato said that before you can make a new society you have to wipe the slate clean. One way to do that was to wipe our children’s minds clean of history, philosophy, literature—all the things that used to provide models of human behavior and the range of human choice.

What was also required to reach the path we are in now was for four or five generations of parents to become progressively weaker, more isolated from reality, more specialized, dependent, addicted to purchasing—so that each succeeding generation of parents, from somewhere around 1910 on, has had less to teach its own children. The consequence is that children are learning very early on to disrespect their parents. They are learning to keep two sets of books… to lie with an easy heart…So now, with the existing adult generation providing no models to follow at all, you see children casting their lot with a basketball player or a singer or a comedian—or God knows what. Television actors. Commercial musicians.

Diane: So how are we going to change this?

John: We’re not going to change it. This system will overthrow itself.

There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that that is happening right now.
But it isn’t going to happen in the halls of Congress. We think it’s useful to argue in the streets, but that also has limited utility, and it’s too easy to cripple the few leaders. The system will come apart because it has become so anti-life that it now has to spend huge amounts of its energy watching out for people like me. The saboteurs.

If you want to accelerate the procedure, you absolutely have to do it individually, on a family-by-family basis. And maybe in little neighborhoods or private associations, but not by linking together in a big countersystem.

That can be self-defeating.

Diane: And you say it’s already happening.

John: Yes. There is already quite a snowball effect happening. For example, there can’t really be anyone who thinks standardized tests measure what they purport to measure. Not the people who make the tests, and not the people who administer them. Bill Bradley—who’s considered the intellectual of the Democratic Party and graduated from Princeton—had a 480 on the language SAT.
That’s a moron’s score.

Senator Paul Wellstone had a combined total score in math and language of 800, an astonishingly low score. I could go on and on with examples like that. Bush had a 550, and he graduated from Yale! If you can be a Senator, a Governor, or the President with these numbers, why not anything else? Why the atmosphere of threat and fear schools use as ‘’motivation’’? And there have been regular ‘’test revolts’’ for the past ten years. But the papers, which are owned by those few corporations we talked about, were not allowed to report them for fear that it would give other people ideas. Then recently, a hundred mothers in Scarsdale, the richest community in the United States, have refused to allow their kids to take standardized tests.

Diane: And that’s having an effect?

John: That’s made the front page. When a hundred mothers in Scarsdale—every one of them in a $2 million home or better—make a stand, then the papers can no longer refuse to cover it. Because now the decay has reached the very group that supposedly protects the system. So a lot has happened. I cast my own lot 40 years ago as a saboteur, and it would be difficult to quantify the damage I’ve done, but I know that it’s been considerable.

And there’s more to come. As I travel around the country I find people of every persuasion who are doing it—they probably don’t think they are sabotaging, but that’s what it is. When you react against a system’s directives, you’re sabotaging the system. That system may be a million times stronger than you. But it’s not unlimited. It doesn’t have an unlimited ability to suppress all these reactions.

Diane: So it will be family by family making a stand?

John: It’s going to be conversations like you and I are having right now.

And passing that on.