The population of the US seems to be experiencing a kind of national awakening regarding the harsh and endemic inequalities of our “Us vs Them” economic reality. Though it seems possible that our bail-out and bubble-induced slogans of solidarity will fade into our historical moment to be studied by the future (should there be one for humans)–put our “we are the 99%” beside “eat the rich” and “make love not war”–we might still push as hard as we can against the reigning ideologies that protect business interests as the “greatest good to all.”
Currently there is a systemic “war” on public education that appears more “hot” than our military murdering via drone proxy in the Middle East. Primarily Republican-controlled state legislatures have been passing laws designed to undermine the funding of our public education system. But we should note that the current national administration which calls itself Democrat is pushing the same agenda. Our public school system is one which many among us would point to as the most “equalizing” institution in our nation–the cornerstone of a democratic politics. This is undermined in various ways:
Voucher programs send kids to private religious schools; corporate industrial charter schools serve to defund existing school districts; testing programs are used to “fail” schools and place them in the hands of the state so that the state might sell their operation to “turn-around” corporations; teachers are singled out as the decisive factor in student success outcomes in order to place the blame for the “failure” in testing on them and so downsize them and replace them with corporate labor (Teach For America). I could go on with particulars, but ultimately these “reforms” are intended to achieve the end of “freeing” the educational “market.” That is, the educational system is simply becoming more purely a factory for the replication of people who privilege private property as the ground of freedom. This kind of person would extol property as an absolute, whereas a collectivist or communitarian would treat property as a relationship.
The system of private ownership was developed gradually with the rise of the commercial ethic. The merchant-landlords, aided by the judicial interpretations, fought long and hard for the “right” to make property “alienable” (that is, to withdraw this means of production from communal use and reserve it exclusively for private exploitation). After 1688, in the English Acts of Enclosure, judicial complicity in the development of these “rights” was reinforced by explicit legislation. Eventually the serf was “freed” and “mobile.” The two-way relationship, whereby he was bound to his land and his use of the land was bound to him, had been dissolved. Many of the people thus “freed” died in abject poverty. Many migrated to the cities, where the new industries absorbed them. Many came to America, to dispossess the Indians and set up the same system of private ownership that had victimized them abroad.*
If all the world were crooks, and the ideal of crookedness were enshrined in all its institutions, would you prepare a youth for citizenship by condemning thievery or by teaching him to steal? Would you ask him to work for a better world, or to get ahead by the standards of this one? There are many scrupulous people who might choose the more Machiavellian course as regards the individual. But the cooperative virtues form an important aspect of our equipment for survival as a race. And since “goodness” is fundamentally so close to social utility, when considering youth as a group (as educational theory must) even the toughest Realpolitik can lead to the conclusion that the young must be taught to reject the status quo. for in the end, a considerable percentage of “civic virtue” must be embodied in a society’s methods of production and distribution if that society is to be workable–and there are times when people must endanger themselves as individuals to benefit themselves as members of a group.
Hence the predicament in which the proponents of the “new” education have always found themselves. They begin by noting that the economic system under which we live comes pretty close to organized crookedness–i.e., the systematic effort of individuals to draw more from the communal pile than they put into it. Yet educators are by trade a peaceful lot–and here enters Anomaly One: That even in a world highly militant, the educator may most easily set himself at peace with his fellows by subscribing to the rapacious values in authority and training his students to accept things as they are. To be sure, he need not deny the evidences of trouble all about him. He may parade some modicum of discontent with the present. It is even advisable that he call for a better future, if only his pleas do not imply a basic attack upon current institutions which, if preserved, would make this better future possible. “Futurism” of this sort may be in exceptionally good repute, if the several complimentary tributes to the forward-looking uttered by the authors of Redirecting Education are evidence.
Unfortunately, it is quite reasonable that an educator’s attempts to alter the social framework in any serious respect should be resisted. A society which believes in itself and its values will insist that its schools be used to perpetuate these values. A society of crooks which firmly believed in crookedness as a “way of life” would probably insist that its children be taught how to steal. And similarly a society built around the expropriative devices of capitalism will insist that the fundamentals of expropriation be taught and hallowed. In the natural order of events, education is a function of society. If we imagine an ideal world, for instance, we think of a just and stable economic structure, with a system of education designed for teaching youth how to maintain this justice and stability.
But insofar as society is in disorder, and a group arises which questions the set of values in authority, we may expect at tendency to reverse the relationship between education and society. The dissident group wants to make education an instrument of social change. Or, in Dewey’s terminology…it wants to make society a function of education. It would make education evangelical or reformative, rather than conservative. To educate for socialism in a capitalist country, for instance, would be a schismatic, evolutionary, or revolutionary act, designed to make society a function of education. But to educate for socialism in a socialist country would be a conformist and conservative act, designed to make education a function of society.**
When thinking about perpetuating the “crook’s way” of life I am reminded of a recent series of books for the “Young Adult” consumer fiction market–The Ranger’s Apprentice. The series is very effective and while reading them aloud to my children I found myself entertained and as well wishing to identify with the principle male characters…to “be” them the way I might imagine myself a type of Jason Bourne (in the movies, 1-2-3). What the fictive emotionalism and identification does is elide all the extremely important considerations of what these men are doing, why the do it, what kind of society they perpetuate, and so on. This is a series based on the chivalric code and one which pushes for a strong and benevolent monarch. The men with whom we identify are actually spies and enforcers of “law” within the kingdom and even well beyond its borders (as it serves the interests of the state, er, Kingdom). Further the “code” of individual “honor” taught by these “self-reliant” men (though obedient to a higher law) extends to other men of similar stamp in other nations. One nation, for example is indeed a nation of “crooks”–a nation of sea pirates from the “north.” These are hardy and rugged men (giants really) who master the sea to raid nearby “merchant” states. This nation and our “good” nation form a kind of alliance after they band together to fight another people who (much like the Mongolian Khans–in fact given the birth name of Genghis Khan, Temujin–these are Temujai raiders) are invaders by war (making whole peoples assimilate to their ways) and not by trade (which is an acceptable non-violent way to lose your nation and way of living to another people and “idea”).
I felt it worth the time here to use this example of a kind of education to point out the way our very corporate, mercantile ideologies are put to use in the fictions (smuggled in) sold to our children. This is one of myriad ways we are teaching our children that success as a human being must be equated with being an economic victor: successful is the owner, the buyer, the landlord. It is further important to note that these “winners” are all protected by the state and that in reality they ARE the true state as they embody and compose the “state” in both ideology and in flesh and blood.
When it is said above that “a society which believes in itself and its values will insist that its schools be used to perpetuate these values” we can readily conceive how what is called the “attack” on public education is not at all an “attack” but rather a fuller conveyance of the values that our society wishes to perpetuate. Corporate schools will teach, not only in their curricula but also in their very existence (the medium creates the message) what we must readily concede is and has been the social “good” of capital expropriation. We might as well label them, in a jovial and sunny way, institutional Lemonade Stands. In any event the goal is clear: citizens must conform to the business state as the only business of state. The continuing enforcement of this social ideal embodied in all our external circumstances from “social media” to popular novels, movies, video games and music as well as the infotainment we call “news” will continue to “create” the stupefied human as subject to systems of economic dominance.
J.S. Mill, illustrating this in On Liberty, expanding on some remarks of Wilhelm von Humboldt, says “two things [are] necessary conditions of human development, because necessary to render people unlike one another; namely, freedom, and variety of situations. The second of these two conditions is in this country every day diminishing. The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimilated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighborhoods, different trades and professions lived in what might be called different worlds; at present, to a great degree, in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have ceased. And the assimilation is still proceeding. All the political changes of the age promote it, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences, and gives them access to the general stock of facts and sentiments. Improvements in the means of communication promote it, by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into personal contact, and keeping up a rapid flow of changes of residence between one place and another….The combination of all these causes forms so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality, that it is not easy to see how it can stand its ground.”
We see this conformity of common influences, necessitated by the disjunctions of mobility–always being on the way to somewhere else–, being pushed to even further extremes with the creation of a “Common Core State Standards” (adopted by nearly every state government–not by the people of the state, it should be noted) which asserts, as Susan Ohanion characterizes it “that schools need to deemphasize fiction and obliterate any semblance of reader response. No feelings, no imaginations, no speculations: Just the facts, kid. What children need, asserts Coleman, is a close reading of “informational text.” That’s what he calls non-fiction. No opinion, no flights of fancy. No creation of new worlds. The teacher’s job is to make sure kids stick just to the text. Informational text, pronounces Coleman, is what will give students the world knowledge necessary to compete as workers in the Global Economy…”
How is that folks believe that the interpreting animal should be educated to eliminate the single factor that makes it special? People are messy (and inefficient and inexpedient) and our improvers and managers stand very much against that very quality that might be best expressed in a state of liberty. That is, the freedom to discover and express the self in relation to other selves.
*Burke, Kenneth. “Property as an Absolute.” 1936
**Pulled whole-cloth from a book review by Kenneth Burke called “Renaming Old Directions” published in The Nation in 1935.
photo credit: USAG-Humphreys’ photostream