Dumbing Us Down

There is a maxim attributed to the Jesuits that goes: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”, meaning that the childhood years are formative. More ancient philosophies going back to to the Greeks and Chinese voice a similar outlook. Modern psychology, thanks in large part to Freud, supports this outlook.

I want to show how the bad stuff we learn at school harms us as individuals, in our relationships, in the workplace and how it damages society as a whole.

So its frightening when that principle is used for subversive ends. We feel horrified when we hear of children being recruited by rebels and terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, being armed with automatic weapons or being used as involuntary human bombs. What frightens us most, perhaps, is that their minds and outlook are being perverted, just as in another age children living in totalitarian societies were encouraged to “report” the “subversive” activities of their parents and other adults.

We, especially in the contemporary West, value our children and their innocence. We take the view that crimes against children, exploiting them or abusing them is particularly pernicious.

Why then, asks John Taylor Gatto, do we do so systematically, and have this deeply embedded in our culture and educational system? Gatto has written books and essays on this subject. The essay you can read on-line, the book is worth reading in its own right.

The sad thing is that while Gatto is right, and I will shortly look into the details of his assertions, I also want to show how they are true, false and necessary. I want to show how the bad stuff we learn at school harms us as individuals, in our relationships, in the workplace and how it damages society as a whole.

In “Technics and Civilization”, Lewis Mumford puts forth the idea that “the clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age”[1]. Many others have written on how the industrial world required the conversion of the agrarian mind-set which was based on the sun and the seasons into a “factory” mind-set where the workers’ day is regimented by the clock. Many of Gatto’s points are in accord with this point of view.

But the other great marker also emerges from works like Mumford. We live in a very complex and interconnected society. For it to function and hence for it and its members to survive in good health and comfort requires that we submit to the “greatest good”. On “space-ship Earth” which is more like “life-boat Earth”, we can’t afford to have people rocking the boat. We are no longer in the situation of being small tribes of hunter-gatherers, and if you don’t like the current leadership or prospects you can go off and form your own tribe.

That’s one view. Another sounds more like a conspiracy theory, but is really just an ‘emergent property’ – that the situation emerged naturally from the demands of the environment. Gatto and others subscribe to that idea, but never the less view it as less than harmonious.

ISBN Hardcover 0-86571-519-X
ISBN Paperback 0-86517-231-X

1 Page 14 of the cited paperback edition.

Sixes and Sevens

Lets look, then, in datail at the six lessons that Gatto describes in his essay:

  1. “Stay in the class where you belong.”
  2. “Turn on and off like a light switch”
  3. “Surrender your will to a predestined chain of command”
  4. “Only I determine what curriculum you will study. (Rather, I enforce decisions transmitted by the people who pay me).”
  5. “Your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth”
  6. “You are being watched”

The book puts it differently:

  1. CONFUSION: Everything I teach is out of context, disconnected facts that have little to do with living.
  2. POSITION: Know your place and stay in it
  3. INDIFERENCE: Nothing matters but everything is important; show enthusiasm but drop everything when the bell rings
  4. EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCY: No rights, not privacy, not even free speech, exist unless they are granted by authority.
  5. INTELLECTUAL DEPENDENCY: Students wait for the teacher to tell them what to do and adults wait for ‘experts’ to tell them what to do.
  6. PROVISIONAL SELF-ESTEEM: Self-respect depends on the opinion of others, of experts, and you are constantly being evaluated and judged
  7. YOU CAN’T HIDE: You are always being watched. This extends into the home with ‘homework”

Oh, that’s seven!


Pro and Con

Mass education designed for the industrial age meets the needs of neither the pre-industrial village nor the post-industrial future… indeed, all education—has to be totally reconceptualised.
Alvin Toffler

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