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.


Noam Chomsky’s Prediction

I have decided to borrow the following article from a site called “Salon” despite the fact that Chomsky worries about the rise of an “honest” charismatic character and what we have is a dishonest charismatic character in Donald Trump (who, admittedly appears to be honest to the blind mice who follow him). But the prediction is remarkable and worth pondering. Can anyone still have doubts about this nation being a de facto oligarchy?

In an interview with Chris Hedges in 2010, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and dissident intellectual, remarked that he has “never seen anything like this.”
By this, he meant the state of American society, relative to the time in which he was raised — the Depression years — and to the tumultuous state of Europe during that same period.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky said. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”
For decades, Chomsky has warned of the right turn of the Democratic Party, which has, in an effort to win elections, adopted large swaths of the Republican platform and abandoned the form of liberalism that gave us the New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“Trump has been viewed with bewilderment by politicians who have divorced themselves from the needs of the people and who have sold them false goods to get ahead. But Trump, as Chomsky’s prescient interview demonstrates, was inevitable.”
This new approach was canonized by Bill Clinton, who triumphantly declared that the “era of big government is over.”
With this declaration, Clinton ushered in a new era of the Democratic Party (the so-called New Democrats), which left behind the working class and cultivated amiable relationships with corporate executives and Wall Street financiers; many of them would eventually occupy key positions in Clinton’s government, and many of them emerged once more during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The philosophical bent of the New Democrats was best summarized by Charles Peters in “A Neoliberal Manifesto,” in which he defines neoliberalism as an ideology perfect for those who “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Democrats, since Peters penned his manifesto, have far exceeded the bounds of this seemingly neutral stance.
Bill Clinton, for his part, destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, worsened the growing mass incarceration crisis, and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping deal that harmed millions of workers, in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Today, President Obama, in partnership with congressional Republicans, is lobbying aggressively for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been deemed by critics “NAFTA on steroids.” The agreement, if made the law of the land, will encompass 40% of global GDP and will grant massive companies unprecedented power.
Despite President Obama’s promises of transparency, the public has been forced to rely on leaked information to glean any specifics about the deal — and, based on the information we have, the agreement is a disaster for workers and the environment and, unsurprisingly, a boon for multinational corporations.
Democrats, in short, have left the working class in the dust, often using “the excuse,” as a recent New York Times editorial put it, “that they need big-money backers to succeed.”
Republicans, meanwhile, as Chomsky has observed, are “dedicated with utter servility” to the interests of the wealthy, and their party, with its longing for war and denial of climate science, “is a danger to the human species.”
So we are faced with a political system largely devoted to the needs of organized wealth, which leaves working people anxious, worried about the future, and, as we have seen, very angry. In essence, political elites — on both sides — have created a vacuum into which a charismatic and loudmouthed demagogue can emerge.
As Chomsky noted in his interview with Hedges, “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response.”

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.”