Noam Chomsky has recently written an editorial attacking the American educational system for its many failures, not the least of which is the rise in tuition costs by 600% at public colleges and universities since 1980, driving many prospective students to on-line “education,” or mundane jobs. The public colleges and universities have indeed ceased to be public institutions, in fact, since students now pay for more than half of the cost of a degree at a public college or university. And they leave college with huge debts. This contrasts interestingly with neighboring countries like Mexico where tuition costs in higher education are nominal or even free.
But Chomsky’s is a broader concern than the cost of public higher education, and his attacks on the education establishment for focusing attention on job training are on the money. As Chomsky says, “Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American society. It has had many dimensions. One purpose was to prepare independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate what they regarded as virtual slavery.
“The coercive element did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way [they thought]: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”
This is precisely what job training does. One might quibble about whether America’s public education system is a “great achievement,” but leaving that aside, Chomsky’s charges are for the most part well founded. Indeed, he sounds much like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian radical socialist, in seeing the present emphasis on job training as turning out obedient followers who would do what their bosses tell them to do. This was Gramsci’s charge in the 30s in Italy — and we know how things turned out there! It remains true today in America.
Chomsky is also correct in seeing one of the main problems with education of late as “the corporatization of the universities. That has led to a dramatic increase in layers of administration, often professional instead of drawn from the faculty as before; and to imposition of a business culture of “efficiency” – an ideological notion, not just an economic one.” This, of course, explains much of the rise in tuition that Chomsky mentions above. I have addressed this in a previous blog, pointing out among other things how dangerous it is to allow the corporations into the schools under the pretense of wanting to help balance tight budgets. Corporations will at some point want to dictate curriculum, eliminating “useless” courses. Schools run as businesses with an eye on the bottom line will be “forced” to cut the programs that are the least popular — and most likely to educate the young (like physics and philosophy). As Chomsky notes in this regard, “The decision harms the society but conforms to the business ideology of short-term gain without regard for human consequences, in accord with the vile maxim.” In a word, schools err in blindly adopting the business model and in focusing their attention almost exclusively on job training. It benefits business but it does not benefit society. Detractors will insist that what benefits business benefits the country — echoing Milton Friedman — but this is arrant nonsense.
Education is about helping young people take possession of their own minds, to become free and independent thinkers who can see through the bloat and rhetoric to the tender truth that hides within, or who have the wisdom and courage to reject out of hand the absurdities and blatant nonsense that overwhelm us in a “commodified” culture. Education is precisely the opposite of job training that stresses “know-how” and is designed to place a straight-jacket on the minds of the young so they can do one thing and do it well enough to please those who call the shots. When Chomsky suggest that American public education was a “great achievement” he forgets that it has always been geared to turning out workers, not thinkers — as his own comment above about farmers as slave-laborers suggests. It’s just gotten worse of late. As Robert Hutchins said long ago, “we have no idea what education could do for us, because we have never tried it.”