Dumbing Us Down
Economics of Place
Dumbing Us Down
Cover: Illustration: Corbis
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Two young students asleep at a desk in the classroom. Photograph: Blend Images/Photoshot
IN THOMAS JEFFERSON’S opinion, one of the few clear justifications for a scheme of universal instruction for the young would be if it existed as a warning about the pitfalls on the road ahead through life; if it taught caution at the prospect of encountering cheats and sceptics. Warnings about the enemy within, too, those silent patterns of self-destructiveness which ignorance, laziness, or cowardice inflict on the unwary: failure to understand one’s rights and how to defend those rights; failure to master fundamental competencies needed for independence, like rational argument, good judgement, physical vigour and powerful skills like homebuilding, growing food, and the like. If schooling didn’t concentrate on these tangible goods, it would deteriorate into a “mere civil religion”.
Jefferson’s idea of schooling aimed at making good people, good citizens, and good lives based on development of individual talents to the maximum degree, was overwhelmed (except in rhetoric where it remains ensconced) as governments and corporations became committed to a novel purpose – serving business: the new age of institutionalised children was at hand.
In my book Weapons of Mass Instruction I examine the history, sociology, psychology and politics of modern schooling misidentified as education, from the perspective of thirty years as a New York City public schoolteacher, who became an international lecturer on school reform, speaking out on the ‘dark side’ of institutional schooling. On April 3, 2008, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, credited me with the phrase “dumbing us down” to describe the principal function of forced schooling.
Weapons of Mass Instruction asks the reader to see institutional schooling as a device to perform five essential functions in the social and economic order we have inherited. The functions are these: to convert human variety into a unitary set of human resources, whereby young people are de-natured to become predictable, impressionable and fearful; to stabilise the orders of society, sorting the great majority of the young into social and economic classes which will endure; to serve as a powerful vehicle of social engineering, exercising purposeful power over the minds and bodies of children, for ends known only to policy makers; to replace faith-based religions with a rational pseudo-religion driven by rewards and punishments, so that tules, examinations and obedience to authority are the objects of ‘worship’ in schools; and on its most basic level, school allows many people and businesses to profit from the long-term confinement of children.
Weapons of Mass Instruction is divided into eleven parts: Against School, deals with the original official battle-plan to ‘Germanise’ and systematise schooling which was drawn up at key universities like Harvard and the offices of corporate foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller.
Everything You Know About School is Wrong exposes the role of government in forced schooling, including the mass-drugging of student populations with Ritalin, Dexedrine and a palette of other psychotropic chemicals.
Walkabout which categorises the unseen but impressive army of unschooled billionaires and influential men and women like Ingvar Kamprad of Ikea who stepped off the school assembly line and re-assembled their own lives.
Fat Stanley and Lancaster Mash. Fat Stanley told me he cut school almost every day because he didn’t want to end up like me, working for someone else. He was thirteen years old when he said that.
David Sarnoff’s Classroom David Sarnoff, founder of RCA, dropped out of elementary school to sell newspapers on the street when he realised that school was determined to force him to be a clerk.
Hector Isn’t the Problem. I was the official New York State Teacher of the Year when I quit. I was driven from my job by the memory of Hector, who was classified on the school books as a dangerous loser when he was on of the most obvious winners in Nature’s lottery I had ever known. I quit because I couldn’t stand to hurt kids any longer.
Weapons of Mass Instruction. The familiar procedures of mass schooling are told to refashion children into the human resources a high-powered market economy needs.
What is Education? The architects and managers of schooling would rather submit to torture than allow such a subversive question to be taken up in school.
Letter to Krisrtina you’ll be leaving the nest for college soon, granddaughter. I wish you wouldn’t. 35% of all college graduates regret the waste of time and money it cost and 50% more say they didn’t learn anything useful there. The founders of Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Oracle, CNN, Avis and many more people of moment took no college degree; neither did George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. College isn’t very important to our future it’s a deliberate illusion to ensnare you. Don’t worry about it.
Incident at Highland High, In January of 2007, a sixteen year old German girl was arrested at her home in Nuremberg, Germany by fifteen policemen for the crime of home schooling; on March 5th, 2005 I was almost arrested at wealthy highland High School in Rockland County, New York when a squad of police invaded a lecture I was giving to the Senior Class there and shut it down with whistles and bull horns. I had just finished reading off a long list of the low grade and test scores of American presidents and prominent businessmen when police burst into the auditorium, summoned by the district superintendent. I thought things like that only happened in Germany.
Invitation to a Conspiracy: the Bartleby Project
In honour of Herman Melville’s immortal character, Bartleby the Scrivener, I invite every young person with self-respect and courage to politely decline to take any more standardised tests on the grounds the tests mean them harm, not good. Simply write boldly across the test sheet, “I would prefer not to take this test.” If you dislike what school has done to you, withdraw any further cooperation with it. The forces which will threaten you for doing this have no more power than the house of cards in Alice and Wonderland to harm you. Your fear is their deadliest weapon. •