Dumbing Us Down is a collection of essays, mostly speeches (indeed, virtually sermons), on the evils of “monopoly schooling” (the compulsory mass public education system of the United States). It is written by a veteran school teacher who taught in the New York schools for thirty years.
As a collection of essays, the book doesn’t develop an argument systematically and doesn’t offer particularly detailed solutions with practical methods for implementing them. Instead, like many sermons, it sets forth an ideal, rails against the sin, and leaves the hearer to grope for its almost impossible realization.
Gatto believes it is time to try something radical, to “break up these institutional schools, decertify teachers, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize the whole business.” I do agree with Gatto that children spend too much time in school overall, that “monopoly schooling” fails to encourage critical thinking, that strict age segregation for twelve years of a child’s life has its pitfalls, and that mass public schooling encourages too much conformity. Mostly, I don’t like the government limiting the choices of parents when it comes to educating their own children. I don’t like powerful unions preventing the opening of a market that would allow for greater educational diversity. I don’t like the central control inherent in monopoly schooling. These are all things Gatto dislikes, too, but his objection to “monopoly schooling” is much deeper and much darker than that.
Virtually all of his criticisms of monopoly schooling could apply to most individual private schools as well. It is, in the end, “schooling” its very self to which he objects, for he sees “schooling” as inherently incompatible with real “education.” Schooling, he believes, destroys community with its “vampire networks,” contributes to the deterioration of family, and imprisons children; school is a place that “grinds out” a “relentless message of anger, envy, competition, and caste-verification,” creating complacent consumers to serve as cogs in the corporate machinery of a vapidly materialistic society. Dumbing Us Down has the same failings as do so many books of its type: it overly romanticizes the past, it paints the current generation with an unnaturally large brush, and it attributes problems that have complex and multiple sources to a single cause (in this case, “schooling.”)
One must also question whether America really has “compulsory schooling” by definition. In most states, any parent with at least a high school diploma could pull his or her child out of public school tomorrow and send in a letter of intent to home school. Parents are not compelled by the barrel of a gun to send their children to public schools. Of course, if they are poor, it would be a considerable challenge to home school and work to feed my family simultaneously. It would be less challenging if the poor had the $11,000 or so a year the government currently spends per pupil per year in the local public schools. And parents (as well as nonparents) are compelled to pay for public education regardless of whether or not they wish to consume it. So my beef is not with the “compulsory” part of schooling so much as with the “monopoly” part.
Yet even behind that monopoly, I do not see the manipulative, dark motives that Gatto beholds. I see only the tendency of all bureaucracies to maximize their budgets and maintain their influence and the tendency of all industries to offer poor products in the absence of real competition. I see, too, a great deal of necessity: conformity may not be the motive of mass education, but mass education is nearly impossible to conduct without it.
I would like to see the end of schools of education and the end of certification of teachers. I would like teachers to be evaluated by parents and students and communities based on their reputation for delivering decent education, not on whether or not they hold a papered credential acquired after jumping through a series of Mickey Mouse hoops. I’d like to see parents voting on the issue with their pocket books. I would like to see parents given a yearly stipend for every child to spend on education however they see fit (this stipend would possibly be equivalent to local spending per pupil per year in public schools–currently the national average is about $10,500–but it could also be scaled to family income). The government schools need not be outright abolished as a result. The government schools could begin charging tuition (just as the post office charges for stamps and shipping), and students could go to them if they wished. If the public schools cannot compete with the private schools in the absence of a government-enforced monopoly, then the government could begin renting out the unused school buildings to new private schools that actually can attract students. The result would likely be more competition, greater variety, education more highly tailored to individual needs, and a lower cost per student for the provision of education. I would like to see it, much as I would like to see a custom built, two-story library in my house. I know it isn’t going to happen any time soon. I know, in all likelihood, it will never happen at all. Nevertheless, I would like to see it.
In the single above paragraph, I have outlined a far more detailed proposal than anything Gatto suggests; he preaches “tear down, tear down, tear down,” but doesn’t offer tangible suggestions for building up, and he doesn’t address solutions to the problems that will inevitably arise in the wake of tearing down an institution that is deeply engrained in society and has been deeply engrained for over a century. I do think there are ways to address such problems; I am merely disappointed that he does not address them other than to say ‘” watch out!
In the end, Gatto is a hopeless prophet of doom.