Training Followers

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.”

2 thoughts on “Training Followers

  1. Thoughtful, as always, Hugh. Let me add a couple of comments.
    First, both you and Prof Chomsky are products of the very educational system you both claim is in such disrepair. You have been trained by your former professors, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels of your schooling, to ask good questions, to investigate, to take nothing at face value. Possessing the ability to be critical of the very system that produced you (and Chomsky) would suggest that something was done properly; something has gone very, very right. Perhaps the American educational system is not in such bad shape after all.
    Secondly, since you have quoted Emerson in your short essay, this is suggests a couple of things to me. Those who would copt the liberal arts education and turn it into vocational training have not done so in the past 150 years or so. If they have not completely changed the system in those 150 years, maybe they do not know what they are doing or how to “work the system.” Perhaps they really are not as good at this copting of the system as you are suggesting.

    It also suggests that perhaps the reason this copting of the system has not been any more successful is because there are people within the system, people like Emerson, Chomsky and Curtler, who have been struggling against the educational reformers who would turn public, liberal arts education into a meat cutters academy. Perhaps the Emersons, Chomskys and Curtlers have prevailed up to this point, but that is no guarantee they will succeed in the future.
    Hugh and I have watched the university we both have ties to, Southwest Minnesota State University, slowly and steadily become a vocational training center for the Schwan’s Corporation. The “meat cutter academy” was no arbitrary or accidentally conceived witticism. It was intentionally aimed at my alma mater, Hugh’s former employer. At SMSU, Hugh and his colleagues in the philosophy dept introduced me to the great works of philosophy. I read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Sartre and even Heidegger within the halls of that institution. I read Dostoyevsky, Turgenov, Hobbes, Rousseau and Pierce, all under the watchful eye of Hugh Curtler. It would sadden me if the corporate powers that are exerting its influence upon SMSU would someday view the work of the philosophy department as “useless.” It would sadden me even more if the decision makers at SMSU would begin to agree with them in the pursuit of corporate dollars. Will they cut out the philosophy, literature, sociology and anthropology in order to make more room for business administration, accounting, meat cutting and automobile mechanics courses? They will without Emerson, Chomsky and Curtler stemming the tide against such changes.
    Thank you, Hugh Curtler.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Paul. There are always a few who slip between the cracks — like you! But on the whole I think my analysis (and Chomsky’s) is sound, sad to say. More to come.

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