Gatto’s 7 Lessons of Compulsory Schooling

One of the most influential books I’ve ever read is John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling in which he describes the fundamental lessons he was required to teach during his 26 years as a schoolteacher. The book is adapted from a speech given at a ceremony in which Gatto was named the New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991.

What Students Learn from Compulsory Schooling

Here are the seven truly awful lessons of compulsory schooling — see if you recognize any of them from your own school experiences.

  1. Confusion: “Everything I teach is out of context . . . A close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions.”
  2. Class position: “Students must stay in the class where they belong . . . [they learn] how to envy the and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes.”
  3. Indifference: “I teach children not to care too much about anything . . . Nothing important is ever finished my class nor in any class I know of . . . Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.”
  4. Emotional dependency: “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender . . . Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal . . .”
  5. Intellectual dependency: “Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do . . . It is the most important lesson that we must wait for other people . . . to make the meanings of our lives.”
  6. Provisional self-esteem: “A kid’s self respect should depend on expert opinion.”
  7. One can’t hide: “The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.”

The reason I share these seven lessons here is to remind each of us not to replicate these unfortunate lessons of compulsory schooling in our own homes. When I talked with college admissions counselors while I was writing Transcripts Made Easy, almost every one of them spoke positively of some of the key differences they’d seen in homeschoolers. These included a lack of peer dependence, the ability to self-motivate, perseverance, independent thought, and often, a lively interest in life and learning. Let’s keep it that way!

More from John Taylor Gatto

If the state of modern education has puzzled you, you might want to watch this five-hour Ultimate History Lesson with John Taylor Gatto. In it, he shares how America’s public education system has gotten where it is today.

The Underground History of American Education (PDF)

The Six Lesson School Teacher” (article that first appeared in the Whole Earth Review).

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