The Cruel Education Farce: American Democracy and Alternatives
Introduction: Fire in the library
The national student debt recently hit $1.5 trillion in May 2018, more than doubling from $600 billion just ten years ago. It is difficult to grasp the scale of these numbers. If a thousand seconds is about 17 minutes,
a million is 12 days,
600 billion is 19,000 years,
and 1.5 trillion is 48,000 years.
Quite simply, this indicates a society that is at best apathetic, and at worst, disdainful towards its educational functions. Education plays a critical role in a democracy. In addition to the media, it is responsible for the dissemination of information and the cultivation of an inquisitive citizenry that applies itself to various economic, political and social problems in society. As discussed last week, the media has completely failed to fulfill its responsibilities due to structural causes, and education is no exception.
Education: Two outlooks
“Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” The accuracy of this H.G Wells maxim depends on how ‘education’ is defined, and for whom it is developed. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin have often been shimmeringly quoted to convey how an educated public would fortify the American republic, and how only literate minds can resist oppressive ideologies. The shimmer is never dulled by bothersome truths of the oppressive design of the American republic itself, and even more bothersome questions about the true role of education in such a design.
Broadly, after all the theories are churned, and all the seminar lights are turned off, we are left with two opinions on education, as described below. Today, the blind exaltation of education without factoring in these conflicting opinions is setting the stage for catastrophe to win the race.
Plato vs. Cicero
Cultural critic and author Neil Postman summarized the opposing viewpoints on education in Defending Against the Indefensible by noting that “the idea that schooling should make the young compliant and easily accessible to the prejudices of their society is an old and venerable tradition. This function of education was clearly advocated by our two earliest and greatest curriculum specialists, Confucius and Plato. Their writings created the tradition that requires educators to condition the young to believe what they are told, in the way they are told it.”
Postman continues by noting the intellectual antithesis to this view, “But the matter does not rest there. We are fortunate to have available an alternative tradition that gives us the authority to educate our students to disbelieve or at least be skeptical of the prejudices of their elders. We can locate the origins of this tradition in some fragments from Cicero, who remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present.”
Purest propaganda is self-taught
The process of education is not limited to relationships of parent and child, or teacher and pupil. Most importantly, the process primarily operates between the elites and the outside majority. The elites under consideration are the “responsible men,” as James Madison described.
Walter Lippmann, a leading political commentator in the first half of the 20th century, remarked, “The public must be put in its place, so that the responsible men may live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd, ignorant and meddlesome outsiders whose function is to be interested spectators of action, not participants, lending their weight periodically to one or another of the leadership class (elections), then returning to their private concerns.” (Year 501, Chomsky) These “responsible men” influence how parents and teachers condition the next generation.
In a similar vein, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Reinhold Niebuhr elaborated, “The great mass of the population, ignorant and mentally deficient, must be kept in their place for the common good, fed with necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications.” (Year 501, Chomsky)
Such attitudes have manifested themselves by attacking education in contemporary times, till present day. Elite concerns about losing outsider tranquility are often directed at the education institutions. As Alternet described in 2012, the Trilateral Commission — a nongovernmental policy group from which the Carter Administration was largely drawn — issued stern warnings in 1975 that there is too much democracy, in part due to the failures of the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young.”
In addition, an important 1971 memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Lewis Powell (1971-1987), wailed that radicals were taking over everything — universities, media, government, etc. — and called on the business community to use its economic power to reverse the attack on our prized way of life — which he knew well.
Plummeting public school funding, student debt that cannot be defaulted on, elimination of university degree programs in favor of video games and an Education Secretary whose tenure is best symbolized by her yacht adrift at sea; these are not accidental and disconnected consequences. These are outcomes of actions that are bound by strong ideology and burdened by heinous purpose.
Such ideology demands that:
- Education must be regarded as a system that produces professionals, nothing more, nothing less. As Thomas Frank describes in Listen, Liberal, the capital class avails of the services of the knowledge class to generate more wealth by developing or privatizing intellectual property, financial engineering, running various services and other profit-seeking adventures. For this purpose, it is paramount to cultivate an obedient, unquestioning and diligent workforce that is adept at following instructions and dutifully navigates through industries developed by other obedient, unquestioning and diligent professionals. Referring to the routine churning of thousands of students a year who yearn for a place in the labor market, sometimes with dreams of making it to the capital class, as education is an abuse of the word. This is specialization. A 4-year Engineering degree, a 2-year Masters in Business Administration degree, or a vocational program for assembly line operations is hardly education; rather, it is specialization to create useful labor. A common response to such ideologically limited ‘education’ is to discard schooling entirely, and replace it with more targetted training programs, such as coding boot-camps. Proponents of such programs often criticize higher ‘education’ for its narrow imagination and its deficient scope. It is true. It is also true that their solution is to make it even narrower and more deficient.
- Another demand is that students internalize the individualistic doctrine of our present-day global capital markets, or as Adam Smith described in Wealth of Nations, “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” The maxim commands society to relentlessly scratch and claw to find a place in the knowledge class or the capital class, gaining wealth, forgetting all but self. A consequence of this maxim is that no intrinsic personhood remains, and the only extrinsic value that can be gained in society is by specializing and finding a place in the labor markets. Failure to do so gets one discarded into the black-hole of unpersonhood.
- Such an outlook also requires that the meddlesome outsiders, to the extent that they are educated in the right way, boost the elite political and economic agenda — profit maximization, power consolidation and so on. Activities beyond these are considered downtime, or worse, radical and disobedient enough to be cause for termination.
- Finally, the most expansive and insidious of all consequences is that such an approach to education results in transforming young minds into compliant members of society, deprived of even a possibility to consider broader political, economic and social questions in a democratic society. A quick scroll through your LinkedIn homepage is sufficient evidence. Ralph Waldo Emerson discussed the fact that the political leaders of his day were calling for popular education, and that the motivation for such a call was fear. “They say this country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.”
The “responsible men” who require these ideologies be maintained have a spectacular record of flawed ideas — including designing a technopoly that thoughtlessly uses our technical prowess in destructive ways, setting us on a path to global ecological destruction in the next 50 years, or indeed, designing a republic that structurally creates grotesque wealth inequality that rivals the Gilded Age.
Worse, when faced with such challenges of prodigious magnitude, the complacency of the “intelligent minority” exhibits boundless flexibility to squeeze through any mental pretzel. The intelligent minority aims to not only command an intellectual monopoly on the school system, but also an economic one.
Charter schools and the rapid privatization of various school programs have resulted in increasing the cost of school with poorer outcomes, hence contributing to the aforementioned wealth mono-polarity. However, such truths hold no sway over the responsible men.
Alternatives: Building a new library
Before embarking on a journey to reconfigure education, it is important to note that specialization that endows students with the deep knowledge to solve problems in physics, mathematics, linguistics, philosophy, engineering, social sciences and countless other fields of study is a critical pursuit, should the interest in the student arise, and a key component of a broader education.
The components that are predictably missing from present-day pedagogy and tuition are those of civic activation and creative exploration that challenge present-day ideologies, biases and intellectual limitations. Such a version of education does not demand recklessly rebelling against the accumulated body of knowledge; rather, it questions fundamental properties and institutions of our economic, social and political lives with the central goal of challenging authority to improve our systems.
Tuition-free college and teacher strikes are strong causes to support for the purposes of wrestling control back from private and state concentrations of power that wish to impose intellectually and economically bankrupt education. In addition, campus cooperatives and industry worker-cooperatives reject the hierarchical structures of privately-owned companies, freeing students and labor to pursue explorative and collaborative exercises.
Jonathan Rose, in Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, studies the reading habits of 19th-century British workers and contrasts the passionate pursuit of knowledge by the proletariat auto-didacts and the pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy.
Drawing on workers’ memoirs, social surveys, library registers, and more, Rose discovers which books people read, how they educated themselves, and what they knew. Similar trends were alive in the US. For example, factory workers would gather after work to discuss literary and scientific works, and the labor press was lively. In addition, leading mathematicians and scientists wrote books for the masses — such as Mathematics for the Million and One Two Three…Infinity were extremely popular amongst the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders.”
In addition, student unions should organize and operate periodic discussions around the underlying philosophies of education — to formulate a new vision for their own education. As history has shown, the difference between a group conversation and policy changes primarily lies in the number of people. Defiance must be tactical and insightful — that also considers the world as is, and not just how the world should be. In other words, proposals to develop alternatives will vary across communities, given varying circumstances.
In their infinite wisdom, the intelligent minority has been able to convince elders of their infallibility — even turning parenthood into a docile act of raising children that are compliant and diligent soldiers for capital. Barring rare exceptions, creative and experimental pursuits are blocked and redirected to activity considered valuable by the labor markets.
John Dewey, the leading American intellectual in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, described in American Democracy, “It is illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the work earned, in which case their activity is not free, because it is not freely participated in.” The path to implementing a system that does not commit these immoral acts requires attacking the neoliberal model of education.
“Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” Yet, if education is defined as a system of indoctrination of the young, hyper-specializing students for the labor markets so they can satisfy the wildest dreams of capital to rape the Earth for its own interminable greed, then H.G Wells has been proven inaccurate for our times. Our civilization is a race between education and advancement.