Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: Dumbing Us Down

Book: Dumbing Us Down
Author: John Taylor Gatto
Length: 106 pages
Published by: New Society Publishers
Year of Publication: 2005
Paperback ISBN: 0-86571-448-7

John Gatto is a celebrated teacher of the New York City with decades of teaching experience. He was awarded the New York City Teacher of the Year in 1990 by the New York State Senate where he gave a memorable speech. From the sedate and laid back beginning of life in the river town of Monongahela, he switched to the field of teaching after aborting a fledgling, yet profitable career as copyright writer in advertising (much to the consternation of his employers). His pursuits in teaching were initially set back the baptism he received in one of his earliest encounters with pupils as a substitute teacher where he came close to getting struck by chair by retaliating, jeering students in his class. He almost gave up the field in a few months when he was disillusioned by the pitiful state of affairs in the schools with disinterested students, lackluster teachers and a monolithic regime of powers in control. However, an event in which he featured as a courageous change agent in the life of a distressed young girl and her subsequent admiration for him convinced him to cling onto the field. “That simple sentence made me a teacher for life”

John Gatto wrote this book to publicize to parents and educationists alike that centrally controlled mass-schooling school is the root cause for the malice of the modern day generation. He refutes reforms at improving schools as futile because the very foundation on which the schooling system rests is unnatural and detrimental to real learning.

Dumbing Us Down is a chilly account of a teacher stuck at the crossroads between the demands of his chosen profession and the call of his conscience and integrity. It is a slogan of rebellion against the mass schooling system (and by that token the entire schooling system) It is an inside story of an educationist that reveals the dark and murky side of the schooling system. He is blunt about confessing the “pathologies” spread by schooling system captured and stabs at the beliefs that schooling is education. He questions the very fundamentals of the schools: the confusion spread by the disconnected theories, the abstraction of concepts from real life. He exposes how children become emotionally and intellectually dependent on the grades, the stars, the report cards. How the society is divided into castes and strands by the concept of “classes”. He highlights how the children are deprived on solitude and privacy by the constant surveillance in the schools and shorn of quality time at home by the “extension of the school, the homework”. He argues that the modern schooling system is at the helm of the disintegrated family unit. It separates children from parents and deprives them of meaningful opportunity to serve community and experience life.

Gatto not only highlights the issues but also offers the alternative of a free-market in schools where there is competition and also plentiful choice for the thoughtful; “A free market where family schools and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government education”. He stresses the need to return to the core of family unit and strengthening communities. He advocates a 'local' influence as opposed to a global perspective which he states is opportunistic anyways. John Gatto quite reasonably believes that this book has made the required tremors in the sphere of parents. His powerful narrative, convincing arguments backed by historical anecdotes and events lead the reader to question the modern education system

A key feature of the book is short length with eloquent style of writing. It is arranged in 5 chapters of varying length. Some of the content is repeated in chapters because of the speeches he gave at various occasions. The last chapter on The Congregational Principle is too grounded in American history and without much historical or religious background can be underwhelming for some audience. Almost always the book addresses the mass-schooling or public schools in America but due to the similarities can be easily extended to schools everywhere.

This book read is a must for an insight into schooling for anyone who has children or is concerned about them. In fact, so many of our modern problems are associated with schooling that anyone who has concern about human race and would be glad to have read this book.


  1. You wrote in email to me: "Some 4 years after you shared this book with me, I finally managed to read all of it (I had only read a part of it back then). I am sharing the link of the book review I wrote for it as part of the assignment in PTCC. Thought you would be glad to know".

    I think it is fascinating to see people eventually getting around to reading the important stuff. I have many a times delayed some important books, but eventually when I read them, I could see how important those were. One such book was "Made in America" an autobiography of Sam Walton which my friend Imran Baqai asked me to read in 1992 when it came out. I eventually read it in 2007. I have been quoting from this book ever since.

    John Gatto's other books are also phenomenal.
    Please do read them. Underground History of American Education, Weapons of Mass Instruction among them.

    1. Thank you Sir for your kind words. I have heard about Made in America from other worthy people as well. Will definitely read it. I found John Gatto's style of writing very readable and I am sure there would be little overlap between them and this book.