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America’s Colleges at a Crossroads – Part 2

crossroad-signsIf you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you might want to go back and catch up before reading this one.

Trashing education

A few weeks ago I posted a link to the article that forms the backbone of part one of this series — which, again, is “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” by Peter A. Facione — at a very popular online doomer forum. (For the uninitiated, that’s a forum devoted to discussing economic collapse, peak oil, global warming, the nexus of famine and water shortage and disease due to ecological overshoot in the human population, and other cheery topics clustered around a central theme of possible civilizational doom.) It sparked a lively discussion in which many participants expressed their disdain for the corporatization of America’s higher education system.

This is a criticism with which I heartily concur, but then it became apparent that a number of participants in the conversation were expressing their disdain not just for college in its current American form but for the idea of a college education at all. One person even mentioned that, as a professional accountant, he/she had never been obliged to “use” the knowledge of Shakespeare that he/she had gained in college literature courses, and therefore those classes “were a waste of time and money.” Some other people vigorously responded in protest, but the ideological meme was still out of the bag, and the idea that the imminent partial implosion of many of America’s colleges and universities is something to rejoice over because college is just a useless diversion from “real life” — and is inherently nothing more than this — was an in-my-face claim that demanded a response.

I don’t claim any special revelatory knowledge that qualifies me to offer such a response, but here goes:

As somebody who taught high school English for six years, currently teaches reading and writing at a community college, and has been building a career as a writer of fiction, reviews, essays, blogs, and scholarly work for the past 10 years or so, I’m painfully aware that the “Shakespeare is a waste of time” comment opens a proverbial can of worms that can’t easily be dealt with. I don’t know that anybody really has an answer to where the divide should lie or the divisions be made between education as job training and education as the informing and shaping of a person’s soul. But this difficult division is definitely the issue to which the claim in question points.

What’s not controversial, or at least it shouldn’t be at this late date, is the recognition that education in America at both the high school and college levels has been definitively conquered and shaped by two reigning ideologies: first, the attitude that equates education with job training, and second, the market-driven consumerist model, which mainly reigns at the college level.

Both are a form of brainwashing when applied universally and uncritically the way they are now. They have resulted in (so-called) educational institutions that are not only administered according to business-and-market principles but are administered for and by these principles. To run a college or university according to sound economic principles is necessary. To run it as a business and let its fundamental mission and outlook become market-driven is the death knell for real education.

The school of economic indoctrination

Factory SchoolAs a minority of the population already knows, the education-as-job-training meme was established at the public school level in the early 20th century. The model of today’s American public school system — with its strict age and grade divisions and its warehousing of kids into institutional settings where they’re isolated in separate rooms and moved around at the ringing of a bell — comes to us via a joint effort between the federal government and big business in the early 1900s that invented a system to assimilate immigrants, domesticate rustic farm kids, and prepare all of them for the drudgery and rigors of urban living and factory work. The idea that public schools are properly about job training has dominated our collective thinking ever since, and was given a huge boost by the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under LBJ in the 1965, which really was the defining moment in solidifying the policy-based idea that everybody ought to graduate from high school (even though in actual practice this had already taken root in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, when economic recovery and advancement became linked for many people to the idea of a high school education). Before that, the stigma of not having a high school diploma was much less intense, and the relative economic value of such a diploma was much higher, owing to the simple workings of supply and demand. More high school diplomas means less value attaching to each one of them.

Then the idea arose from the 1970s up to the present day that, just as everybody ought to graduate from high school, everybody also ought to go to college or at least “some form of post-secondary training” (to quote the formulation that politicians repeat ad nauseam these days) in order to advance his or her economic status and help “keep America competitive in a global economy.” (Note that the “global economy” was only born circa 1970 anyway, largely due to policy decisions in the Nixon administration. But that’s another — but closely related — story.) Naturally, this devalued the high school diploma even further by transforming and demoting high school to the status of preparation for the real job training that was to come later.

Education vs. training

Just as significantly, the idea that what comes after high school — even four-year college degrees — is primarily about job training represents the most serious revisioning of collective attitudes toward education that has ever happened in this country. It’s emblematic of the total subjugation of our sense of self and our national identity to the market-driven, money-and-economy-centric model of life on earth. And since our brand of economics is pure consumerism, higher education has become the embodiment of that.

You don’t have to fancy yourself a bookish intellectual to recognize that the takeover of higher education by market models and values really is at odds with the idea of the traditional “liberal education.” This is a huge loss. In fact, as Albert Jay Nock argued so powerfully in the early 20th century, it really isn’t even correct to call such an approach “education,” since “education” properly means the inculcation of a certain sensitive, critical, and able cast of mind, informed by important and profound ideas, and this is an entirely different animal from education-as-job-preparation, which ought to be called what it is: training, not education.

Moreover, Nock offended militant democratic sensibilities everywhere by arguing that not all people are educable in that higher sense. The thing is, he was right, and that’s no slam to the uneducable, nor is it some special praise to the educable. It’s just a fact. Some people, it seems, are suited and even intended, via their natural abilities and inclinations, for education in the proper and high sense. Others aren’t. And our collective, robotized “send everybody to high school and college” attitude is absolutely toxic to the ideal of true education, and effectively kills the chance of its happening at either level, except as an exception. Real education in the current system happens not because of the system but in spite of it, among individuals whose need and desire and capability to be truly educated can’t be wiped out by a system that earnestly seeks to do so while refusing to see or acknowledge this unfortunate truth about itself.

(Note that I say this in full awareness of the damnable dangers and difficulties involved in trying to distinguish between people along these lines, and also in full awareness of such things as Earl Shorris’s brilliant work that led to the establishment of the still-astonishing Clemente Course in the Humanities, which exposes the cultural and institutional mechanisms that serve to maintain a permanent impoverished underclass in America by denying some people access to a liberal education and shunting them instead toward job training with fatuous “good intentions.” See Shorris’s classic 1997 essay for Harper’s, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.”)

Required reading

Not incidentally, there’s a wide field of worthy writings about this very subject that ought to be ingested by anybody who wants to think about it with breadth and accuracy. Some of the ones that have informed my personal thoughts and feelings about this issue in a big way, and to which I direct interested all-comers, are:

Note that Berman’s book contains the single passage that stands as the most compact and quintessential statement of the problem with current American educational ideology and praxis. It’s one that longtime readers of The Teeming Brain will remember from my previous references to it. And it’s one that confronts the “Shakespeare is useless” claim head-on.

Berman describes a job interview that he had for the position of publications editor with a large national education organization (almost certainly the NEA, as he only barely avoids stating outright) that proudly states its overall mission in terms of preparing students for social action and whatnot — a move for which it receives heavy corporate funding. The interview was conducted by the organization’s president. Berman says at one point in the interview he brought up the idea of knowledge for its own sake, “of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick.” The president opined that such knowledge could only be useful as preparation for a contemplative and withdrawn life, which would of course conflict with the organization’s goal of encouraging an education that produces engaged citizens. In response, Berman proceeded to explain — “Much as I might have to explain it to a college freshman,” he says — that he didn’t think this type of knowledge and the type of education designed to inculcate it is useless at all, since its goal is to expand and deepen a person’s sensibility, so that he or she can then participate vigorously in life but with a much better and broader understanding of the big picture and how he or she fits into it. He describes how the interviewer became almost angry at this and obviously couldn’t comprehend it. And he concludes:

This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.

Coda: The upside of destruction

Destruction EdenAs for me, I can personally verify from my aforementioned six years in public high school teaching that nearly all teachers and administrators — but with a wonderful minority of dissidents — are caught up in the mindset Berman describes. (I can also verify that the students are as well, and this applies to my current college students, too.) When asked if they really think money and material comfort and making a living are the be-all, end-all of life, they vigorously say no. But their guiding attitude toward education, and toward the goals they articulate for their students or themselves as a result of this so-called education, belies that denial. And who can blame them? Economic times truly are difficult for so many people, and students really do want and need something to lift them out of their troubles. And the merciless assault of the propaganda about “improving education” (defined as raising test scores) in order to “increase/maintain/preserve America’s economic competitiveness in a global economy” is practically impossible to resist.

Still, I’m hoping that some of this attitude may be knocked out of the education scene by the convulsive economic troubles that have descended upon it. That’s the positive result we can hope, root, and work for, as distinct from the attitude that says, “Shakespeare is useless, college is stupid, let’s blow ’em all up and get back to what’s really important: Getting a ‘good job’ in the ‘real world.'”

But more realistically, I expect colleges, universities, and public schools to respond initially by continuing to play their market-oriented game, and to make all of their decisions amid the economic turmoil based on their tightly held self-image as big businesses instead of educational institutions properly conceived.

See the other installments in this series: