Same All Over??

As readers of this blog know, I have gone on (and on) about the deteriorating condition of education in this country. I have tended to focus on the United States because that is where I live and our system is the one I know best — from reading and from personal experience. But I find that things are not much better in many other parts of the world (except Finland, apparently) and have read timely criticisms from other bloggers in England, Canada, and most recently in India where I read a couple of entries written by a blogger who calls himself “MrUpbeat.” In one of those posts he noted that:

“Our education system is still teaching us how to become clerks and do what [we are] being told to do. Have we become habituated to do what is commanded to us ?”

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist I do wonder aloud if there is a concerted effort being made in this country to keep the young dumb and obedient (“clerks”) so they can do the jobs allotted to them and Heaven forbid they be made to think.  Years ago, In Italy, one of the leading radicals,  Antonio Gramsci, insisted that students be taught the classics that make them think rather than the grunt courses that teach them only how to make widgets and follow orders. Gramsci was convinced that in his day and in his country the wealthy had developed a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Those in power, he noted, propagate their own values and norms so that those values become the common sense values of all and thus maintain the status quo.  Noam Chomsky would agree, as he told us not long ago, referring to America:

“[Officials insist] 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: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”

I know my complaints against an obdurate educational system in this country that has serious problems become tiresome. I do apologize. But this is a pattern that is developing around the world and it does not bode well. We need folks who can think and solve problems now more than ever — and in a democracy we need citizens who will elect the wisest leaders (not fools even if they claim to be a “genius”). So many of the complaints we all have and which we air from day-to-day come down to an uneducated electorate that is frustrated and acts on impulse and is finding it increasingly difficult to find its way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In one sense it is reassuring to read blogs from around the world that reinforce one’s own thoughts. But when those thoughts are based on a deep concern for the system of education that is unable to turn out thoughtful young people it is disheartening to hear others around the world share the same concerns.

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Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.

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.”