Book Review: Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2009)
Blurb for the 2009 edition: ‘Thirty years of award-winning teaching in New York City’s public schools led John Gatto to the sad conclusion that compulsory government schooling has nothing to do with education, doing little but teach young people to conform to the economy and the social order. Dumbing Us Down reveals the shocking reality of today’s school system and has become a beacon for parents seeking alternatives to it. This edition celebrates the fact that the book continues to be highly relevant in setting the agenda for a complete overhaul of how we educate our children – and for what.’
The author: John Taylor Gatto is an internationally renowned speaker who lectures widely on school reform. He taught for 30 years in public schools before resigning on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal during the year he was named New York State's official "Teacher of the Year." On April 3, 2008, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard credited Mr. Gatto with adding the expression "dumbing us down" to the school debate worldwide.
Since its first publication in 1992, John Taylor Gatto’s damning exposure of compulsory schooling (not “education”) in America has sold over 150, 000 copies, and by writing this book review I would like to see that number rise further, as the information this rather short book contains opens one’s eyes and explains why school, especially in America but also Canada and the United Kingdom, was a miserable experience for so many of us and is now a miserable experience for our children. Furthermore, we can’t actually recall what we were taught that was of any benefit.
The 2009 edition includes a brilliant foreword by Thomas Moore, who mentions that Gatto’s understanding of education is that it should include the community: ‘John Gatto makes the important point that a community needs old people and children mixing together.’ For Muslims, this is extremely relevant for a number of reasons. First of all, it is very common in Muslim households, throughout the world, to find three generations living under one roof. One of the benefits of this is that the children can benefit directly from their grandparents. For example, while the father is at work, the son can spend his time with his grandfather, who has most likely retired after living a long life full of experiences and stories. Also, in addition to being retired, the grandfather is approaching the end of his life and is preparing himself to meet his Lord, so he is devoting more of his time to supererogatory acts of worship, such as extra fasting, night prayers and recitation of the Qurʾān. Think of the benefit that the grandchildren obtain by watching their grandparents doing these things, by watching them in this state. What better education could there be for children at that age? As a second point, Muslim institutions of learning have never (until the colonial age) categorised their students according to age, i.e. the grade classification system. How can children grow, develop and mature when they are constantly around their own age group? As a former schoolteacher in the UK, I myself have seen children behave horribly while at school but then behave the complete opposite later that same day while attending a class with adults at a community centre.
The book itself is a collection of five lectures and essays delivered and/or written by Gatto. The first lecture is called ‘The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher’, in which Gatto explains the seven lessons that teachers actually teach. The first is confusion. How is this so? Gatto says: ‘Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections…’ In other words, it’s all information with no meaning. Gatto states: ‘I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work, or because of too many job changes or too much ambition, or because something else has left everybody too confused to maintain a family relation, I teach students how to accept confusion as their destiny. That’s the first lesson I teach.’
The second is class position, i.e. teaching children their place in society. The third is indifference, in which children are taught not to care too much about anything. Gatto makes an interesting point about bells: ‘Indeed, the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and the future, rendering every interval the same as any other, as the abstraction of a map renders every living mountain and river the same, even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.’ Isn’t it interesting that in the Muwaṭṭa of Imām Mālik and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, and other collections, there is the ḥadīth: “The angels do not accompany a group that has a dog or a bell.”?
The fourth and fifth lessons are emotional dependency and intellectual dependency. The first is a direct attack against individuality. Pupils are not allowed to express any form of individuality but instead must conform to the system. As for the latter, intellectual dependency, Gatto says: ‘This is the most important lesson of them all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.’ Please see the article below ‘The religiosity and idolatry of the AGW movement’. Is it any wonder that so many of these brainwashing organisations exist and are flourishing in the west; from Greenpeace to Salafiyyah to a whole host of ‘sufi’ tareeqas? As Gatto says: ‘Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends on this lesson being learned. Think of what might fall apart if children weren’t trained to be dependent: the social services could hardly survive – they would vanish, I think, into the recent historical limbo out of which they arose. Counsellors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply of psychic invalids vanished. Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun. Restaurants, the prepared food industry, and a whole host of other assorted food services would be drastically down-sized if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to plant, pick, chop, and cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go too, as well as the clothing business and school teaching, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people continued to pour out of our schools each year…We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know how to tell themselves what to do.’
The last two lessons are provisional self-esteem, so that children’s evaluation of themselves is based on certified officials as opposed to parents, families and friends, and one can’t hide, so that children can be groomed into accepting constant surveillance throughout their lives.
In the next chapter, ‘The Psychopathic School’, Gatto enumerates eight pathologies of the children he teaches, which are: they are indifferent to the adult world, they have almost no curiosity, they have a poor sense of the future, they are ahistorical (i.e. have no understanding of how the past has affected the present), they are cruel to each other, they are uneasy with intimacy or candour, they are materialistic, and, last but not least, they are dependent, passive and timid in the presence of new challenges. Is this really what we want for our children? To fix this, Gatto suggests: ‘Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships – the one-day variety or longer – these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling.’ In other words, education should be taken out of the hand of so-called experts, who really know nothing about children and education, and be put back into the hands of families and communities.
The third chapter, entitled ‘The Green Monongahela’, includes the beautiful story of a girl called Milagros, of student of Gatto’s who was a brilliant reader but put in a low-level reading class, because the ‘administration’ had deemed that that was her place. After much struggle, Gatto finally managed to get her into the advanced reading class, and that same girl went on to become an award-winning teacher herself.
The fourth chapter is called ‘We Need Less School, Not More’, in which Gatto says: ‘No one survives these places with their humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators, and not parents.’ He then goes on to discuss the key differences between communities and networks. ‘A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible – lives of engagement and participation.’ Networks, on the other hand, divide people and make them feel lonely, because they are inhuman mechanisms. Belonging to various networks eventually makes one feel alone in the middle of a crowd. For further discussion on this matter, read this article by Malcolm Gladwell. How human is Facebook, really?
The final chapter is called ‘The Congregational Principle’, in which the author condemns the idea of central planning and explains how the early European settlers in New England were Congregationalists and strictly individualistic. Each congregation has its own way of raising and educating children and even within each congregation there was a lack of uniformity. This allows for people to do their own reading and research, but still within set parameters. Orthodox Muslims (Ahl us-Sunnah wa Al-Jamāʿah) have the set parameters of the four madhabs and the creedal disciplines of the Ḥanbalīs, Ashʿarīs and Maturīdīs, while it is the Salafī cult that advocates central planning and ‘one right way’ of doing things. Central planning always stunts and numbs people because it prevents them from growing and developing naturally. Imam Muhammad Saeed Ramaḍān Al-Būṭī, in his great work Fiqh As-Sīrah, explains why the prohibition of alcohol in Islām worked and why it failed miserably when the US government tried to do it from 1919 to 1933. The key is that love of Allah and His Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was planted firmly into the hearts of the Companions first, so that when the prohibition came they readily and willingly accepted it. In the US, the love of alcohol hadn’t been removed from the people’s hearts, so they resorted to clandestine methods of acquiring booze, which led to the formation of bootlegging syndicates and people like the notorious gangster Al Capone. Grassroots, family-based and/or community-based education, produces genuine, long-lasting changes in people, whereas government education and moralising, planned from central headquarters and issued from the top, always fails miserably.
In conclusion, Muslims living in the US, UK or Canada, and other countries, should consider the options of homeschooling or founding their own schools. In addition to the harms and dangers that Gatto mentions in his book, we should also be wary of the content that is taught, the beliefs and values that are being inculcated, such as atheism, secularism, evolution theory, the unity of all religions and other brands, forms and doctrines of kufr. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that our great scholars and jurists, such as Imam Ibn Al-Ḥājj , the great Maliki, Imām Yūsuf an-Nabahānī  , the great Shafiʿī, and Imām Aḥmad Shākir , the great Ḥanafī, have declared it impermissible for Muslims to send their children to such schools, and their ruling is the consensus of the Ummah.
The consensus of our scholars should be enough to dissuade us from sending our children to these schools, but for people who may think that it is pragmatic or practical, or even beneficial to do such a thing to their children, Gatto’s work should leave them in no doubt as to what is the best option for them. Furthermore, for Muslims who think it would be a good idea to borrow the western model and call it ‘Islamic’ when setting up their own schools, Gatto’s work comes as a stark warning and admonition. It is not just the content of these schools’ curricula that is the problem; the methods and means used are also damaging.
And with Allah alone is every success!
Dumbing Us Down is available from New Society Publishers as well as Amazon US and Amazon UK.
UPDATE: A podcast based on this post is available here.
 See Al-Madkhal under the chapter ‘The Prohibition of sending Muslim children to Christian schools’
 See the Imām’s book Taḥdhīr ul-Muslimīn ʿan Madāris in-Naṣārā (A Warning to the Muslims about Christian Schools)
 See the Imām’s book Al-Khawātir fī At-Taʿlīm (Dangers in Education)