Gatto has some interesting ideas. I was first turned on to what he had to say when I read his essay “Against School” published in Harpers of September 2003. Dumbing Us Down is a collection of his speeches. I’ll be amending this post as I read the book.

gatto’s seven lessons of schooling

The front matter and the first chapter of Gatto’s book is enough to make one yank their kids out of school and run for the hills. He minces no words and invokes the most inflammatory language at times to make his point. Undeniably, Gatto stomps far left of the center, but his points, just the same, make sense. He asserts quite compellingly that “schooling” has little to do with education. He speaks from his more than 30 years of experience as an award-winning New York City schoolteacher, and as such, he confesses to having taught seven basic lessons again and again over those 30 years.

  1. Confusion
  2. Class Position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional Dependency
  5. Intellectual Dependency
  6. Provisional Self-Esteem
  7. One Can’t Hide (or have any kind of inner- or private life)

In detail he explains how systematically children are taught these lessons in school–and, furthermore, he contends that teaching these seven lessons are the very purpose for which public schooling has been designed. The disturbing thing, as Gatto points out, is that just about everyone who has been institutionalized in this way by public schooling cannot imagine any other way. “‘The kids have to know how to read and write, don’t they?’ ‘They have to know how to add and substract, don’t they?’ ‘They have to learn how to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job’”(11). He later states that what cumpulsory public schooling supposedly takes 12 years to teach–reading, writing, and arithmetic–can be transmitted in one hundred hours if the person is eager and willing to learn (12). His implication is a sinister one–that public schooling stretches this out so it can further the agenda of its seven lessons as stated above. The true aim is, of course, to engineer a populace of workers and consumers that is compliant, predictable, and easily controlled.

Gatto’s vision is a bleak one, but what struck me as most encouraging (as my wife and I pursue child-led learning with our own son) was the alternative that he suggests. Despite the culture of fear and constant global and economic crisis that the media spins around us, Gatto has the following to say. Allow me to quote at length:

Global economics does not speak to the public need for meaningful work, affordable housing, fulfilling education, adequate medical care, a clearn environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common human reality that I am convinced it is wrong and that most people would agree with me if they could perceive an alternative. We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning 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 services 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–then we would be so self-suficcient we would not even need the material “sufficiency” which our global “experts” are so insistent we be concerned about. (15)

So, it seems that the issue is not how we are teaching our kids in schools, but what we are teaching them. Fundamentally, it seems that our schooling institutions are instilling the wrong values. Whether this is by insidious design, as Gatto asserts, or by mistake, I find myself in agreement with his assessment of the outcome thus far. No child should be left in the hands of an institution as he or she wants to grow into a fully-developed human being. Gatto reminds us that the teaching function in a healthy community belongs to everyone (16).