John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down

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Parents love to be scared. The news industry feeds on parents who want to be scared and then ‘protect’ their children. News is full of stories about things that could harm your children, like hot dogs or Marilyn Manson. If Stranger Danger was a band, it’d be the best-selling artist. It was a shock that no one told us we should stop going to rock concerts after the Eagles of Death Metal.

For some reason, no one started a moral panic around schools. No news media ever tried to scare parents about what goes on in schools and how terrible they are. I think it’s because parents love schools. Schools make raising children very easy. Let a bunch of strangers raise your child and grade them. They even do the job of telling you how good your kid is.

Although this book is pretty well-known, it hadn’t started a moral panic. Why? Could it be that parents don’t mind that their children are taught confusion, antisocial behavior, that their brains are being ruined by the confining environment of schools?

Gatto later says that the essay about the seven lessons isn’t the central essay. It is. It’s perhaps the definitive text about the wrongs of schooling. It lays down what schools actually teach, and asks us whether we want it or not.

He sometimes slides into conspiracy thinking. One of the introductions name-drops Cuckoo’s Nest and the Combine. Besides missing the point of the novel (It’s about how we must subjugate women), Gatto is never as paranoiac. He doesn’t talk about a huge organization controlling everything behind the scenes. Rather, our society is moving towards this.

It’s not because people are just power hungry, like a cliched villain. Our society moves towards this centralized structure because we think it’s efficient and will give us what we want.

What makes Gatto’s position worthwhile is because he’s not talking just about schools, but the worldview that gave birth to them. This comes to light in the last essay, the one that strays most from Gatto’s criticism of schools.

It’s one that’s destined to failure. Gatto waxes nostalgia about some past when we all lived in a small town and were a ‘community’. While he doesn’t go deep enough into describing the differences between networks and communities, his view isn’t black and white.

In fact, he addresses the flaws of these small towns. They cast out people. They caused great harm to those they deemed unfit. But, according to him, they did not have that much power. A person could have chosen to join that community to leave it.

In reality, it’s harder than it seems since we’re forced into existence, and born into a community that might not fit us. If it doesn’t, how do we know there’s something beyond it? Tolerance that people reach on their own is better, but I’d rather enforce tolerance than risk the damage the Quakers suffer. Even if it will slow the process a little, I’d rather illegalize these acts than wait until people decide to be tolerant.

While it may seem like he’s a religion apologist, he’s not. What he takes from religion is the sense of community. This is one of the most important ideas in this book. He demonstrates that the church was an environment where everyone took part – the old, the young and the in-between. Yes, they had roles but they were more connected than we are right now.

The problem with secular living, especially in big cities is how segregated we are. We are put into classes or schools or companies, all of which have a cause none of us agree with. He’s also wrong about the military. The military is intense. It creates an emotional experience that connects people. These networks don’t offer that.

He doesn’t view networks as completely useless. His problem with networks is that they serve a specific purpose, and can’t do more than that. The military can defend the country, but it’s not enough to bring meaning to a person’s life. We need networks to accomplish some objectives, but they must never be our whole lives.

The best part is Gatto’s criticism of schools. He uses the good old method of analyzing the form. Schools must, first of all, have a structure that encourages learning. Some may criticize Gatto’s anecdotes, but he describes in detail the type of ‘psychopathic school’. If your school functioned differently, then you’re lucky.

Humans are curious by nature. The reason parents have to scare us all the time is because we’re curious about what the fire feels like. Everything in the school structure goes against it. Standardized test limit what you can learn. You’re trapped with the same people in a setting where you’re punished for socializing.

The idea that we need schools to teach ‘basic skills’ is moronic. Reading and arithmetic don’t take too much time, and schools don’t teach basic skills anyway. How many schools teach cooking or fixing or building things?

It’s such a focused attack on the school structure that I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a splash. Sure, Gatto’s tone is often bitter and he sometimes repeats himself. It would have been helpful if there was more research involved, but then again these are speeches. He’s successful at explaining the exact problem and offering solutions. He never descends into black-and-white thinking, although he’s close to it. The idea of demolishig schools may seem radical, but some radical ideas have basis.

It’s not a perfect book. It’s a collection of speeches so it often slides into bitterness. Gatto’s dissection of the school structure is a brilliant one, even if Postman had better solutions. People often tell me that we can’t do anything about schools or that there aren’t any alternatives. Well, here they are. Even if it’s not the definitive text about education, it’s full of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 psychopathic schools out of 5

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Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5