The blogosphere is rife with discussion of education, with a particular focus on higher education. In the spirit of
beating a dead horse joining the fray, I’ve dredged up a few excerpts from Letters to a Young Academic, a book I wrote in 2003-2004 (and which was published in 2006).
This book is my most comprehensive piece of social criticism. Reading these excerpts gives a glimpse into how well I fit into the academy, even though I’m leaving out the parts about an empire in decline (which was obvious even in 2003).
I appreciate your tolerance of references to earlier chapters (which were written as a series of letters). If you find these references too onerous (or better yet, too tempting), feel free to track down the book at your local library.
According to Louis Schmier, Valdosta’s inspiring teacher and philosopher, “Education boils down to acquiring the desire, confidence, and courage to question the answers.” Good teaching instills these traits, thereby encouraging students to a life of intellectual inquiry. Such inquiry requires that each of us admit our ignorance, and relish the opportunity to overcome it. We are all ignorant, albeit about different things. Learning from each other allows us to employ collective action in the battle against individual ignorance.
Whether two heads are better than one depends on the heads in question. But it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a dozen humble, appropriately motivated heads are not better than one. This is essentially the idea of a “corps of discovery” to which I referred in my description of subject-centered education, but with a good dose of humility tossed in to the mix.
As I mentioned earlier, the “sage on the stage” philosophy of teaching has been largely abandoned by contemporary educators in this country (if not in China, Africa, and England), in part because students do not learn particularly well from this approach. In addition, there is every reason to believe we can all learn more by starting from a point of humility that recognizes and values knowledge from all points in the classroom. If you are more intelligent than students in some sense, you likely are less intelligent than some of them in many other arenas. For the most part, it is your persistence rather than your intellect that is rewarded by a position in academia.
With that in mind, I encourage you to remember who works for whom in the academy. For starters, you serve the students (and through your scholarship, the remainder of society), and so on, down to the university president. You will not be surprised to learn that administrators often forget how this works: As you’ve likely heard, power corrupts, thereby turning educational hierarchy on its head. Ideally, a department head works at making it easy for you to work for your students. (In my case, the opposite is true. But I know there are department heads who follow this model.) Higher-level administrators, in turn, work for the administrators “below” them on the organizational chart, securing funding, buildings, and infrastructure to support higher learning.
What is higher learning? My favorite definition was provided by Thomas Angelo in a 1993 issue of the bulletin of the American Association of Higher Education: “Higher learning is an active, interactive, self-aware process that results in meaningful, long-lasting changes in knowledge, understanding, skills, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and/or values — that can not be attributed primarily to maturation.” This seems a reasonable definition for all education, instead of simply the “higher” variety.
The goal, according to this view, is to produce long-lasting change in our students. Notice that knowledge and skills represent only a portion of higher education’s broad goal. Ultimately, the primary focus is on changes well below the surface: understanding, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and values. If all goes according to plan, we change ourselves in the process of changing our students. In the best of all possible worlds, we all learn empathy, that rarest of attributes that, in sufficient quantities, would eliminate racism, sexism, inequity, poverty, and war from the planet. Personally, I’ve rarely had an argument or taught a class in which I was not changed by the experience.
As with much of what we do, when we are acting in the best interests of our students, we will meet considerable resistance. The difficulty and discomfort associated with learning makes many people quite averse to it. Further, as former President Bill Clinton used to say, “People like change in generation, but not in particular.” Most people especially dislike changes that strike closest to them, and there is little doubt that learning is on this list. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to serve as role models, reveling in the experience of learning and hoping students will follow.
On specific role we can serve is that of inquisitor (with a small “i”). By constantly probing, and encouraging students to do the same, we often discover that we know more than we first imagined, especially collectively. In addition, the practice of posing questions and using evidence to answer them is a valuable exercise in and of itself.
Perhaps the greatest source of humility surrounds us every day. When I was a child of about ten years, I used to lie on the backyard lawn nearly every summer night, staring at the haunting mystery of the starlit sky. The Idaho town of a few hundred people in which I lived produced little light pollution, so with unaided eyes I could see the stars of Pleiades and all the brighter stars. Many of these nights under the stars I wept uncontrollably at my insignificance in the universe. I had never heard of Carl Sagan, but I knew I was cosmically inconsequential, dwarfed as I was by the “billions and billions of stars” above me.
I am humbled that, like the millions of other species on planet Earth, we find ourselves in the magnificent position of occupying the only planet in the universe known to support life. My humility grows deeper when I realize that we have no idea how many species share the globe with us, not even within an order of magnitude. I marvel at the beauty, wonder, and complexity of each one of these species. Then I marvel at our power as we single-handedly drive half the species with which we share the planet to extinction.
That we have this power is truly awesome. That we use it to exterminate the species with which we share the world is the height of hubris.
These days, I rarely cry when I gaze upward at the night. But I often weep when I realize how badly we are misusing our power.
Life, in its myriad forms, is almost certainly the greatest wonder in the universe. In the universe, as far as we know, life is restricted to planet Earth. Arguably, the other great wonder of the universe is the human mind, that complex product of natural selection that allows us to ask who we are, how we came to be, and why we are here. It’s the mind, in other words, that inspires sufficient awe to bring us to tears in the face of nature’s grandeur.
The entire system of public education in the United States was designed specifically to prevent students from thinking for themselves. That’s a pretty strong assertion, so I will review the evidence that supports it.
In an earlier letter, I quoted Jules Henry’s book, Culture Against Man: “School is indeed a training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less) but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Henry reached this conclusion after spending hundreds of hours in the classrooms of our public school system and reviewing a mountain of published evidence. His scathing critique of American culture strongly supports the notion that individuality and creativity are purposely eviscerated from students well before they complete high school.
The roots of the cultural crisis run much deeper than the counter-culture days of the 1960s, and well beyond the sphere of education. But education has long been fundamental to the destruction of individuality, creativity, and, for lack of a better word, soul. Consider, for example, a few words in a speech to businessmen by President Woodrow Wilson: “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Wilson’s sentiments echoed those of William Torrey Harris in his 1906 book The Philosophy of Education: Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” In vogue with his time, Harris extended the idea of subsumption to the land as well as the individual: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places …. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature.” As I indicated in previous correspondence, Harris was the U.S. commissioner of education from 1889 to 1906.
Harris was not the only influential educator willing to express his desire for docile American citizens during 1906. That same year, the Rockefeller Education Board, a major advocate of compulsory public education, issued this statement: “In our dreams … people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poet or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple … we will organize children … and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
The statement by the Rockefeller Education Board and the book by Harris were preceded a year earlier by Elwood Cubberly’s dissertation at Columbia Teachers College. The future dean of education at Stanford University wrote that schools should be factories “in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products … manufactured like nails, and the specification for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”
Tracing these ideas further back in time, we find the 1888 Report of the Senate Committee on Education, a summary of which is provided by a single sentence on page 1,382 of this gargantuan document: “We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.” According to John Taylor Gatto, award-winning educator and author of the 1992 book Dumbing Us Down, the committee was justifiably nervous about the high qualify of education provided by nonstandardized, local schools where students were actually taught to think for themselves. The Senate Report parallels the 1897 writings of famous philosopher and industrial educator John Dewey. Dewey’s famous pedagogic creed, first published in The School Journal, included this thought about the role of teachers in society: “I believe that every teacher … should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.” Cubberly provided the “proper social order” and the “right social growth” less than a decade after Dewey and the U.S. Senate supplied the rationale for herding the masses on behalf of business.
In other words, the captains of industry and leaders of government set out to create an educational system that would maintain social order (and increase their profits). How? By teaching students just enough to serve industry but not enough so they could think for themselves. Questioning the sociopolitical order and communicating articulately were not part of the plan. Americans were to become drones in a government-subsidized country ruled by corporations. While Reagan-era neo-conservatives were excoriating communism as a system in which government controls industry, they were promoting a system built on an even worse idea, one in which industry controls government.
Mind you, the development and implementation of K-12 concentration camps is not part of some giant conspiracy. Rather, it is the outcome of the way our educational system was created. Most of the people who originally developed the system believed they were doing the right thing, and they did not try to hide their plans or intentions. It was completely consistent with the perspective, derived from religious organizations, that the domination, cohesion, and vitality of society were inversely related to individualism; permitting free inquiry and action were anathema to control by religious societies and also by corporate society.
Today, the blueprint of “education to serve corporations” remains unchanged. Although the reasons behind the blueprint have been largely obscured by history, they are still known by many contemporary educators. As clinical psychologist Bruce Levine wrote in Commonsense Rebellion: “I once consulted with a teacher of an extremely bright eight-year-old boy labeled with oppositional defiant disorder. I suggested that perhaps the boy didn’t have a disease, but was just bored. His teacher, a pleasant woman, agreed with me. However, she added, ‘They told us at the state conference that our job is to get them ready for the work world … that the children have to get used to not being stimulated all the time or they will lose their jobs in the real world.’” In other words, citizens who are capable of thinking for themselves cannot properly serve the corporations that run the country.
The main point of this history lesson is simple, and you’ve heard me say it before: Get used to swimming upstream. Most people do not want to think for themselves (or perhaps they actually think they are doing so, which is even more terrifying). In fact, they have only rarely been asked to think for themselves. A century of standardized education in support of business pushes society ever closer to corporate hegemony and therefore, in the case of American-style capitalism, ever closer to exterminating the world’s cultures and species. A fine recent example of standardization at the expense of thoughtful reflection is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a bill strongly supported by Business Party I and Business Party II before being signed in January 2002 by self-proclaimed “business” (and later “wartime”) president, George W. Bush.
None of which gives you the right to surrender, of course. If resistance is futile, all hope is lost.
I think the short video below gets it right, for the most part, in a palatable manner. Thanks to now-and-then commenter bubbleboy for sending it my way.
This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin. They like my writing, especially if it has nothing to do with energy and the consequences of expensive energy for the industrial economy.
My monthly essay for Transition Voice is out today: If the Earth could talk.