Excerpts on Education

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.

Chapter VII

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 general, 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.

Chapter XV

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.

Comments 116

  • Jean, we are the same latitude as Barcelona, and we grow through the winter in our greenhouse without heat. Brassicas, and frisee grow best in the cold. Also find yourself some ramps, sorrel, lovage, chives, asparagus, good king henry, sweet cicely and get it in the ground now. Perennials all of them, and already up, and cleansing the system.

  • Jean, you put the next financial collapse 2 months away. Mike Ruppert recently predicted a financial collapse this July, after the next wave of quarterly financial earnings reports.

    I did not know what to make of Ruppert’s prediction, personally. I guess I should be more… frantic, for lack of a better word. But as one who has been preparing in various ways for the past 3-4 years, I do not know what can possibly be done in 2-3 months for such an eventuality. My brain is become wired to think in terms of long-term projects like soil-building and establishing fruit trees and shrubs and other perennials. I watched Ruppert’s latest video thanks to Dave Cohen’s site http://www.declineoftheempire.com, and was left feeling, well, nonplussed.

    At this late stage, I don’t know how those who have not yet accepted the inevitability of Collapse will make it. It is too late for the lot of them, I think. Those who will make it will only do so because of the generosity of those who have been trying to adapt to a post-Collapse lifestyle already. I have a number of friends and family members I fully expect to have to help in the years to come, who have as yet given maybe only a cursory nod towards my warnings.

    BTW, I noticed in the grocery store this morning that cucumbers are going for nearly $2 each. Amazing.

  • Christopher:

    In 2-3 months time we shall see a financial crash not, the end of industrial civilization. So, if you’re living in a city, get a good stock of food (2000 dollars or so), bottled water, some firearms and ammunition and avoid walking the street during the most tense moments. That’s SHORT TERM.

    LONG TERM: Find cheap lands, far away from cities, build a farm and change your chip.

    If you have the possibility of changing the city for a small village right now, do it NOW. It’s much safer. Food supply is always better in a village, even if transportation fails.

  • Hehe Victor, I see your point. And while it’s going to be hard, humans tend to be a tough bunch. We did it without all the amenities you mention far longer than with. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with you that going backwards technologically will be devastating, and for a long time, but stone age is a pretty big jump. I would hardly consider Biblical times “Stone Age” nor would I the early 1000’s and we didn’t have the amenities you’re describing.

    Granted those farmers aren’t going to be feeding the population, they will have a family farm, and SCRAPE by. My father grew up dirt poor in the late forties outside Blytheville Arkansas with zero electricity, no heat, and no indoor plumbing. Again, granted they had *SOME* infrastructure to fall back on such as hospitals, etc, but people got by without those too.

    As for guns and ammo, it probably doesn’t take all that much ammo if you’ve already set yourself up with enough social distance. (And I’m a total gun nut) Guy’s Mud Hut is far enough out that for you to even get there you’re going to know where it is and have a car. You aren’t going to be walking through the desert out there. Even if you did, I believe he’s got a barky dog or two to clue him in that someone’s on the way, and a scoped rifle to “Dissuade” people who might do him harm from getting too close.

    Jean: Two or three months? Wow. The day I’m forced to shoot a fellow American on my street we’ve got far bigger problems than economic collapse. At that point, we’ve entered Victor’s doomsday scenario, and the fecal matter has officially impacted the spinning air displacement unit. When it gets there, it’s simply not coming back.

    I it’s going to be far longer than two months, maybe two years. There’s far too much technological momentum. Be careful about making calls like that.

    I *DO* recommend getting protection and PRACTICING with it. Protection can be had cheap these days, and a good handgun in the initial collapse will be a lifesaver (A Glock three magazines and a thousand rounds of ammo are right around $600) and later on, a rifle can put food on the table and keep badguys off your back.

  • Just got a bunch of stuff planted.

    Jean, tell tales about us around the fire on the other side of the bottleneck….

    Victor, beer? rum? whiskey? No forget the rum, that’s all mine. Been booze free for about 4 years now. But when TSHTF the booze is waiting :)

  • Ed, don’t worry about answers and questions. Just keep on. You should see the blueberries we get every year from the bushes my husband’s father planted in 1975 and the fig tree from the same time. Pecans galore around here but they don’t bear heavy every year and if they don’t bear heavy it is hard to beat out the crows and squirrels. Squirrels got almost all my muscadine grapes last year too…… Armadillo getting past my defenses this year too.
    First hatch of chickies tomorrow (from the eggs that survived the weasel attack).

  • @ Nicole
    Ashoka/ Laxman. Wow, what a wonderful story of what is possible when one sane person finds ways to convince the surrounding population. Although this situation might have been very special from the beginning, it shows how many aspects have to considered to make it into that great success it is.
    Thank you very much for this.

  • Victor:

    No offense meant, but you’re not a keeper.


    RE: “Jean is far more realistic than you IMO, in fact Turboguy is more realistic too and expressed why I shouldn’t wish for collapse – murder, rape.”

    You don’t say. I’m glad my military training didn’t drum that into me.

    RE: “Since cancers take time to grow enough to be known and since other exposures cause cancer we don’t know if that increased risk has affected you or not.”

    You’ll be happy to hear that I didn’t do the work “blind.” In fact, there’re hundreds of people today continuing where I left off. None of us created the problem. But there was a mess, and we stepped forward to clean it up. Your support is appreciated.


    Now I’m finished.

  • For those that didn’t see it. Saudi cuts extraction in March, 900,000 barrels a day because the market is over supplied: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/oil-market-oversupplied-saudis/article1988603/
    Kathy for future reference how did end the weasel attacks? We have a drake and a hen that survived, just barely, another mink attack, that are just getting back to normal. They have been getting $11/pound greens for the past 2 weeks, and a separate “spa” area to recuperate.
    Two other food items that may be of interest are cordone, and dried stinging nettle leaves. Google the first one. I’m trying to get some of our restaurant customers interested. What an amazing idea for a weed. Jean, in Europe, I think you would use artichokes. We have always stirfried nettles. Recently read where the dried leaves have more protein than soy beans, with a more complete amino acid offering. Cut them off at the ground, and dry them. Great for soups, and they grow back in a couple of weeks.

  • Ed, one weasel killed by dog. Left eggs in that place and in a few others at night. No takers so I am hoping it was a loner. Moved the momma into the main coop out of that large cage. Pulled an egg out from under her tonight – peck peck peep. 8 eggs left under her so hoping for most of them to hatch.

  • Resa, since you have had military training, what makes you think that your re-woven community will be immune from attack. Are you very remote? Are you armed to the teeth? 800,000 killed with machetes in Rawanda, look at all the rifles, semiautomatics, hand guns here. Look at all the anger boiling just below the surface. What about all the ex marines, ex-soliders, and soon to be unemployed Blackwater folks etc. What about the mafia.

    As I have noted before I have a neighbor whose father was the head of the Klan (before he got sent to jail for drugs). She has said in my hearing that the Klan was good and should be brought back. I don’t want to re-weave anything with the Klan so no doubt instead of crosses on my lawn I will end up with a noose around my neck if I have the courage of my convictions to aid anyone targeted by the Klan. I have also noted that through history when hard times come, the church finds people to blame. Since I will be branded a heretic if I can’t stomach pretend, I might well be burned. I like a bunch of the churchy crowd but if they start targeting non-believers, gays, etc. well I don’t want to re-weave with them either. This isn’t going to be Little House on the Prairie with people dying in the cities and food and water scarce.

  • No offense meant, but you’re not a keeper.


    None taken…. ;-)

  • Ed

    Nettles are no weed! They are highly rich in silica, iron, formic acid and protein. If you grow tomatoes, or potatoes, or horseradish they are particularly good companion plants as they help these in several ways. A tea made with nettles can be sprayed on plants as a fungicide – or you can drink it…. ;-) If you set nettles in water for a couple of weeks, it makes a fair fertiliser as it is high in nitrogen and minerals.

    My wife, who is Russian, almost salivated when we moved to this house only to find a nice little patch of nettles growing. In Russia they used them extensively for all kinds of purposes.

  • On the subject of oil. It is true that because oil is priced in US Dollars, and the dollar is weakened, there will be a corresponding increase in the price of oil. Whilst this is an important and significant point, this does not account fully for the increased prices of oil.

    One must consider the oil available on the market rather than the total production levels. This point is at the heart of the Export Land Model derived by Jeffery Brown. There exists total production. There exists internal use by the exporting country. As the exporting country’s population rises and its inhabitants’ standard of living is increased, more of their produced oil is consumed internally. The oil not used internally by the exporting country is the amount actually placed on the market and exported.

    Here are the numbers for the years 2005, which presents the peak “Available Net Exports” through 2009. You will see a definite trend here, will you not?

    2005 46.0 mb/d
    2006 46.0 mb/d
    2007 45.2 mb/d
    2008 45.2 mb/d
    2009 42.8 mb/d

    But there is another factor – the China/India effect. As these heavily populated countries develop economically, their oil imports have risen dramatically out of proportion to the rest of the world. Factor their increases into the mix, and the result is the Available Net Exports for the rest of the world:

    2005: 40.8 mbpd
    2006: 40.5
    2007: 39.1
    2008: 38.6
    2009: 35.5

    Now you begin to see the real trend. The decrease in ANE for that period and the ensuing oil price spike was surely the trigger for the financial implosion in 2008.

    The ANE is still decreasing, and according to westtexas, a major contributor to the OilDrum, might see a level of only 27-30 mb/d by 2015. If true, this is a very serious problem for the industrial economy of the world.

    Read more about this in the article and the comments area of the OilDrum:


    BTW – Saudi Arabia lies on a frequent basis.

  • oh Nicole… how i miss my Lillipilli tree and fresh berries. dang.