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To the Tenth Anniversary Edition

GREETINGS! As I sit here trying to think of something to say that might illuminate the effect Dumbing Us Down continues to have on my life and the lives of others, faxes, letters, e-mails, notes, and manuscripts have completely taken over my six-room apartment in Manhattan as well as my 128-acre farm in upstate New York, each and every one bearing on some aspect of the institutional soup I began to stir with the publication of that book.

My correspondents honor me with words I hardly deserve: “Thank you for your dedication to the task of unraveling this pestilence. Tears come to my eyes from an odd mix of joy and anger.” A former teacher had this to say: “This book tied together many loose ends that I felt intuitively but could not pin down. I bought twelve copies, sharing them with co-workers and many friends. Because of your book, one of these families has made the decision to homeschool while several others are now contemplating doing so.” Over the years I’ve had nearly a thousand letters like that, from all over the world, tying the decision to homeschool to a chance encounter with Dumbing Us Down. From Cuajimalpa, Mexico, came this one: “I had refused my wife’s idea to homeschool our children until I read your book. What an impact it made in my life! Now I’m happy to see the rapid development of my daughters in the loving environment of our home.”

So is it false modesty that forces me to say that I hardly deserve such praise? Not so, for only I can be aware of how little I had to do, consciously, with the writing of this book; more honestly it should be seen as a book that wrote itself, using me as scribe and confessor.

Over the decade since Dumbing Us Down first saw the light of day, a full fifteen thousand of its readers took pains to see that I knew their personal reactions to the book’s ideas and to augment my insights into the dismal reality of forced schooling with their own. A dazzling, exhausting, humbling, exhilarating torrent of protest — an outrage distilled from years of confinement, limitation, and humiliation, years of intimidation, of chasing prizes not worth winning, of lost opportunities, of ruined relationships, often with one’s own parents, family, neighbors, friends, and self, that came, at times, close to drowning me in grief.

I could answer only a fraction of these communications, yet their cumulative presence and continual arrival, year after year, makes me conscious of just how widespread the harm institutional schooling inflicts really is — and of how grimly aware its victims are of the things it has caused them to lose, the greatest of which is self-knowledge, along with, perhaps, the capacity to fully love. Dumbing Us Down has been the catalyst that floats buried memories to the surface: it reminds thousands of men and women of the moments when they struggled to be themselves, only to be broken to a meaner destiny by bells, insults, and standardized tests. The otherwise silent majority wrote to me because they wanted at least one other person to know how they had been wronged.

How did I come to write Dumbing Us Down? When I won the first of my Teacher of the Year awards in 1990, I intended to do nothing at the ceremony except to thank the presenter and to wave at my daughter in the audience or, if I were bold enough, to ask her to the podium for a public hug (I was; I did). But on the evening before the ceremony, a student from many years past called to offer congratulations. He casually asked what I intended by way of remarks.

Remarks? I set him straight, or so I thought. “Nobody,” I told him, “wants to hear a public school teacher make a speech.” There would be no remarks.

“But you have to make speech,” he demanded. “You have to speak for me, for Wendy, for Amy, for Bruce, for Tamir, for Janet, Jane, Jill, Andy; for all your classes over the years you have to sum up what it’s all meant.”

“No one will listen,” I said.

“I’ll listen,” he said.

And so that’s how “The Psychopathic School” came to be written, in one blaze of all-night coffee-drenched passion. As I expected, the officials of the school district (which actively disliked me) presenting me with the plaque in a Harlem school the next evening neither listened nor commented on my words. But over the next six months I received hundreds of requests to reprint the text. A chunk of it was even entered into the Congressional Record by Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

“The Psychopathic School,” the key essay in this book, deals with a number of pathological patterns I had noticed in schoolchildren over the years, in rich kids as well as in poor. My speech’s rapid dissemination all over the land, by word of mouth and small journal, quickly led to requests for an explanation of what specific mechanisms might account for these pathologies.

It was a worthy challenge that took eighteen months of wrestling with myself to answer. Just in time for the ceremony in Albany naming me New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991, I began to see clearly my own role in the crime. Thus parts of “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher” comprise my acceptance speech before the state commissioner of education — and soon, that one, too, was reprinted in hundreds of journals, op-ed pages, and homeschool magazines. Both of these talks were finished at the last minute, cost me a groaning to write, and did not arise from any process of ratiocination that I had been familiar with. They “emerged” from my fingertips in the wee hours of the morning, surprising me as much as they did my audience.

Giving these speeches (and there were others, each a chapter in this book) led directly to another phenomenon, which challenged some of my most dearly-held assumptions: there was an outpouring of invitations to speak to groups so diverse that, had they been assembled together in one room, they surely would have killed one another! Suffice it to say that in short order a fellow from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, who had spent most of his adult life speaking to 13-year-old children found himself speaking in the western White House, in the Old Senate Office Building, to the Cato Institute, the Nashville Center for the Arts, the NASA Space Center’s “Engineers’ Colloquium”, Apple Computers, the Eagle Forum, the United Technologies Corporation, and the Farm Commune as well as before government bureaus in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bogota, and elsewhere — enough places to account for one and a half million miles of travel in the past ten years.

Although I altered the rhetorical clothing to fit the various audiences and situations, my core message was (and remains) that forced institutional schooling is absolutely unreformable because it is already an unqualified success! It does brilliantly precisely what it was originally designed to do, that is, to be the “educational” component of a centralized mass production economy directed from a handful of command centers. Such an economy has desperate needs: in order to work, it requires a particular kind of “human resource,” specifically one driven to define itself by purchasing things, by owning “stuff,” by evaluating everything from the perspective of comfort, physical security, and status.

Schools are a great mechanism to condition the onrushing generations to accept total management, to impose a kind of lifelong childishness on most of us in the interests of scientific management. Efficient management requires incomplete people to manage because whole people, or those who aspire to wholeness, reject extended tutelage. It’s impossible to grow up under total management, whether that’s total quality management or any other version. Centralized mass production economies, however, can demand no less than this if they are to survive.

The piece “Green Monongahela,” like the others, was written in response to my auditors’ constant questions about who I was and how I’d come to think this way. It has a hidden agenda that I’m now prepared to expose: I wanted to show all the people who bore scars from their upbringing (that experts of various stripes spin theories of lifelong limitation about), that social “science” is mostly hooey — and dangerous hooey at that. It exists to justify pseudo-scientifically the multiple subordinations which modern management imposes on the managed. If I could demonstrate through my own example that I turned out okay, even though I sprang from a family of eccentric geniuses who fought one another tooth and nail on a daily basis; that I became independent, self-reliant, civil, and reasonably principled even though, had the authorities known some of the events which transpired behind our doors, we would have been in deep trouble, I might become a mirror in which others could see their own stories reflected. And affirmed. By my own example I hoped to become a living refutation to the cult of anointed expertise which has poisoned every aspect of our liberties. Time we were done with this thing. This was once a land where every sane person knew how to build a shelter, grow food, and entertain one another. Now we have been rendered permanent children. It’s the architects of forced schooling who are responsible for that.

I credit any success I had in finding a way to be valuable to young people to the accident of my family and the accident of growing up in a place — Monongahela — where people punched anyone who minded their business too closely. And to the fact that my libertarian upbringing turned me, inadvertently, into a saboteur of oppressive schemes. Lest that pass as idle hyperbole, let me confess that every single day of my life as a schoolteacher I chanted a litany to myself while shaving in the morning. In it I pledged to find, that very day, a way, however small, to throw sand in the gears of the system. Someday I’ll write about the particulars, but probably under a nom de plume because the details would surely result in a stretch behind bars! I urge all of you who ask me about what to do in your own schools to become such saboteurs, to become little drops of water that erode this waste land of forced institutional schooling.

The last two essays in the book, “We Need Less School, Not More” and “The Congregational Principle,” represent my attempts to find the broad outlines of a solution to the problem of modern schooling. Once, long ago, we had the problem solved and became a beacon of hope to others because of it. The rise of industrial society — with cheap, unlimited energy promising riches without precedent, if only the liberty impulses of ordinary people could be reined in — covered the traces of those earlier discoveries, yet not so deeply that they can’t be unearthed again, that they can’t be resurrected and become the banner to follow. Read these essays slowly, forgetting how comprehensively schooling destroyed your grasp of the vital nature of historical understanding, argue with the nuances of my reasoning — the best America is about argument, not about premature consensus. Both pieces explore inexpensive alternatives to the inane institution that chokes the life out of our children.

Since Dumbing Us Down, I’ve written four other books, one an epic poem, still unpublished, called “The Adventures of Snider, the CIA Spider.” But Dumbing Us Down remains my favorite because it opened my eyes to the harm I had caused in order to make a living.

These days I’m trying to build a rural retreat and library on 128 acres I own in upstate New York. I want to call the place “Solitude,” and that name will explain almost everything about it. If I hadn’t owned that land and been able to escape the cacophony of New York City to be with myself from time to time, my spirit would surely have perished, my soul been mutilated beyond repair. I’m only a hundred thousand or so short of finishing the thing, so if you hear of an angel, let me know. I’d hope to use the first Solitude Retreat to show every town and village, every big city neighborhood, how easy and valuable it is to provide such a public resource — a place where one can be alone with oneself, with no schedule, no agenda, no lectures, no classes, no planned recreation.

And I’m up to some major mischief, trying to produce a long definitive documentary film about the history and the anomalies of (as well as the antidotes for) modern institutional forced schooling. I’m only six or seven million short on that project — but a script is in hand, a national network of assistants created, a production crew organized, and a sample made. If you think of Ken Burns’ Civil War, you’ll get an idea of the scope of the project. Incidentally, the former student who badg- ered me into writing “Psychopathic School” — and through it, this entire book — is a fine filmmaker; he’ll be the director.

Both these undertakings are discussed at some length on my website (www.johntaylorgatto.com), where, if the daemon overtakes you, you can also send me your thoughts from time to time. I can’t promise to answer because, like you, I’m often overwhelmed, but I do promise to read every communication twice and to think hard about what you say — and if our paths ever cross, the first Iron City is on me.

God’s mercy on us all,

John Taylor Gatto Oxford, New York January 2002

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