Hannah Arendt, the famous philosopher and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote that “thoughtlessness“–the inability of people to think deeply and critically and reflectively–was a defining characteristic of our times.
Thoughtlessness is characterized by the repetition of certain “truths,” often defined by the state, that are not meant to be questioned. Contemporary examples might include the idea that “America is the greatest country,” with no thought given as to what greatness really means, or whether it’s even desirable to be “the greatest” in categories such as military power. Americans are not encouraged to think about such things; indeed, if you dare question such things, you risk being labeled “un-American.”
Education has a powerful role to play in either making us more thoughtful or in reinforcing our tendency toward thoughtlessness. What concerns me about higher education today is its tendency toward banality, as represented by the idea of diplomas as passports to jobs. When education is subsumed by careerism, when it becomes little more than an exercise in gaining credentials for “success,” it reinforces thoughtlessness.
Consider the big trends in higher education today. In the name of “relevance” and greater national competitiveness, colleges and universities pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in place of liberal arts and boast about the virtues of vocational training that turns students into reliable and obedient employees. Such monomania for STEM and vocational relevance is perfectly consistent with thoughtlessness, a key feature of authoritarian political systems in Arendt’s view.
Let’s not forget that totalitarian systems love education – of a kind. They love education when it exalts the state, when it’s apolitical training, whether technical/scientific or in terms of conditioned “thought,” and when it’s manifested by duck speak: the quacking of state-sanctioned pieties. Pieties like “America is the greatest country.”
Thoughtlessness goes hand-in-hand with powerlessness. The less we think as citizens, the less power we have. And the less power we have, the more power the state grabs for itself. As the state grows in power, it increasingly ignores puny citizens (that’s us). Eventually, the state can only be manipulated by other powerful entities (multinational corporations, big finance, and the like) with deep pockets, far deeper than any citizen or coalition of citizens.
In such a scenario, not only do individuals become thoughtless; the state does too. It morphs into a golem, a soulless monster of our own creation, one that we soon discover we can no longer control, as noted in this powerful article by finem respice.
To keep the shambling monster happy, both political parties end up feeding it. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, whether you’re a rich supplicant or a poor one: everyone looks to the golem for care and feeding. The rich and powerful just have an advantage because they have bigger sticks with which they can prod the golem in a direction favorable to them.
An education that refuses to provoke thought, that refuses to challenge the status quo, is an education that feeds the golem.
And golems have a well-known tendency to bite the hands that feed them.
In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.” McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:
1. In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war. They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
2. Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture. Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.
3. Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable. Enemies can and will adapt.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”
The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.
But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal. Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic. Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?
McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability. The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.
If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.
So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s. They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.
1. Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us. To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.
2. The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback. Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.
Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.” But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower. Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence. Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop. But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”
3. We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us. Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?
Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently. These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.
Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.
Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether? As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.
My wife and I recently visited the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. At the shrine, there’s a simple, moving, memorial to the Sandy Hook children (see photo above). Rarely has the Biblical phrase, “Jesus wept,” been sadder or more appropriate.
And the people said, See how much He loved them.
Message? I don’t know. But I think these children are martyrs to a society that’s saturated in violence. A society that claims to put its trust in God, even as it resolutely ignores His teachings.
Jesus said: Suffer the children to come unto me. Of these are the kingdom of heaven.
Somehow we have to do a better job of protecting our children from humanity’s all-too-violent tendencies. The agony of more lost innocents is too much to bear.
I remember making collages in grade school; they were always good fun. I came across this collage of bumper stickers yesterday at the Gypsy Joint Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass. (They make scrumptious sandwiches and salads, by the way.)
It’s a representative sample of sentiments that are common to progressive places. (But note the “Don’t mess with Texas,” which is representative of, well, Texans.)
It’s hard to argue with “Teach Peace” or “Peace Is Patriotic.” “Folk the War” is pretty straightforward. And I do like the idea of living the life that I love. And I hope that the more I know, the less I need.
Now I need to find a similar collage of conservative stickers. Will those stickers be as idealistic, as upbeat, as focused on sustainable food and education and music and peace?
In the preface (dated 1907) to the first German edition of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw issued a warning about trends that he saw in German character and culture. What struck me upon reading them was not just their insight into the Second Reich (1871-1918) and their prescience about the Third Reich to come (1933-45), but their insight into certain aspects of American character and culture today.
The worst fault of the “typical modern German,” Shaw wrote in 1907, “is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessively. He commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink …”
Yes, a craze for doing one’s duty in the name of a state-defined and state-glorifying patriotism can be taken too far, as events were to show. Shaw went on to say that he struggled himself with the “mania” of wanting to be seen as “loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of.” But the typical German abandoned himself to this mania, or so Shaw argued.
The result, Shaw warned, “may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal.”
That is a remarkable line: the suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions. It’s exactly how the Nazis couched their radical and murderous tyranny – as an experiment in greater freedom (for the Aryan elite, naturally, not for “inferiors”). And most “respectable” Germans went along with this; they saluted the Leader smartly and obeyed. Or they dared not outwardly to disobey, which had the same effect.
It’s easy to slough off Shaw’s words as a period piece, words that applied to certain Germans at a certain point in history. But there’s more here than that. Shaw is warning us that unthinking allegiance to state-defined duty, loyalty, patriotism, all in the name of “respectability” as defined and judged by supposedly sober superiors, is open to exploitation as well as perversion by authoritarian interests.
Subsequent German history proved Shaw to be right. Tragically so.
But what about the typical modern American? Are we immune from this exaltation of the self in the service of state interests? An exaltation that takes its meaning from toil and conformity? Are we as unwilling as most Germans were to challenge authority before it becomes corrupt and authoritarian?
Consider these words of Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch.com about the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and around the world, as our government hunts the dissident Edward Snowden:
“It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”
Yes, the echoes are eerie. Part of the answer is to listen to Shaw. Better to act as a “rascal” in pursuit of a more equitable and ethical society than to crave respectability as defined by the state. The rascal challenges state authority. The dutiful man? As Shaw argues, the latter may commit hideous crimes simply because some authority figure told him to do so.
In these days of increasing governmental authority and state intrusion into individual privacy, it may well be wise for us to tap our inner rascals.
Education in my sense of liberating and strengthening (making articulate and uncompromising) the intellect is of course antithetical to much of what is going on in our schools and universities, which I would rather refer to by such terms as training, molding, socialization, mystification, memorizing of facts, obfuscation of meaning–all processes designed to produce intelligent citizens who are ready to execute jobs faithfully and not ask any questions about their meaning or purpose or value to fellow human beings.
Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.
Mr. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) in Rollerball, 1975
As a professor and lifelong learner, I see education as equal parts empowering and enlightening. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and the lamp of learning helps to illuminate our lives.
But is education also about social control? Sadly, the answer is “yes.” Education that is simplified and standardized is often little more than indoctrination. Education that is too regimented, too centralized, too much like a factory, prepares students for a life of unquestioning obedience and unreflective conformity.
Authorities have often been keen to restrict or outlaw forms of knowledge that they see as undermining their privileges and power. Writing from Australia, Dr Teri Merlyn reminded me that:
There have been very direct, coordinated battles [against knowledge and reformers] – witness the censorship battles over Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’, when you could go to gaol for simply owning a copy, and the 19th Century ‘Church and King’ mobs sent to punish radical writers and publishers by burning down their houses … There are powerful social forces at work that have their self-interest at heart and see what they do in that context. Witness the great educator of the working class, Hannah Moore, writing to her Bishop at the turn of the 18th Century, assuring him whilst she was teaching these working class girls to read, sufficient for their service duties, they would never learn to write, for that would encourage them to aspire beyond their station.
Education today still largely teaches students to stay within their station. Today’s focus on vocational education is both salutary and one-dimensional. Students are told to get degrees as passports to a job. They’re not told to aspire to be skeptical citizens who dare to question (or even to supplant) authority.
And there’s the rub. We face difficult, seemingly intractable, problems in the world today. Global warming. Fossil fuel dependence. A widening gap between rich and poor. A military-industrial-intelligence complex that dominates our foreign policy as well as much of our domestic policy. Worrisome budget deficits. Unaffordable health care. The list goes on.
But our students are not being educated to address these challenges, at least not in any radical way, in the sense of getting to the roots of the problem.
Education, in essence, has largely become training, just another form of careerism. And the high student debt that many students incur in obtaining their “passport to success” ensures they are essentially indentured servants, forced to keep working to pay off their debt (and often to keep their health care benefits as well).
Even as students incur debt in the process of training for a career, higher education brags most loudly about its close ties to business and industry. Yet business and industry, as Teri Merlyn notes, “has effectively [outsourced] its responsibility to train its workforce, diverting that cost onto the public purse. In order to do that, it has infested educational language with its own terminology. The dominance of the Business Paradigm is now absolute.”
Just as college football is a feeder to the NFL, higher education is increasingly a feeder to business and industry. It’s a Rollerball world dominated by violent sports and corporate conglomerates.
Education, in short, has lost any sense of higher purpose. “Adapt to the world as you find it” is both the implicit and explicit message. And whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.
Part of the method is to destroy any sense of class identity among students. Today, virtually all my students self-identify as being members of the “middle class,” even though many are working class (just as I am a son of factory workers). In American society, we’ve lumped blue-collar with white-collar jobs, so that now janitors and fast-food workers (for example) think of themselves as middle class.
This is not to denigrate janitors or fast-food workers. Rather, it’s to highlight the calculated decline of class identity and solidarity in the U.S. If we’re all middle class, if we’re all bourgeois, why bother uniting in unions to fight for our rights? If we allegedly inhabit a post-class society of social mobility, education can then ignore ethical and societal questions of fairness to focus on workforce training and professional development.
As my Aussie correspondent, Dr Teri Merlyn, astutely noticed:
“That phenomenon of working class identity is a most unwilling one, so the strategy to co-opt the working class as nominal members of the owning class through the share and property markets was very successful. One might even suspect this recent ‘economic crisis’ [of 2008] as the ‘owners’ simply taking back what they see as rightfully theirs.”
Put differently, you can’t see you’re being screwed as a worker when you view yourself as an “owner” in your own right. And when you’re educated to conform, to produce the standard answer, to aspire to a respectable job (with your identity confined to that job), your consciousness will never be raised to challenge the system in any radical way.
In fact, your goal is to become the system, to reap its rewards for yourself, just as those that you now work for have done and are doing.
As we witness uprisings around the world, from Egypt to Greece to Brazil and elsewhere, we should ponder why there are not similar uprisings in the U.S. Is it because the U.S. really is, pardoning Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds? Or is it because our educational system immunizes us against any form of “socialism” (a curse word in American politics) or class consciousness?
Education, when it’s about getting the right answer that leads to the right job without ever questioning prevailing authority, becomes a status quo operation in social control.
To recognize that is not to surrender to it. Rather, it’s to begin to fight it.
Being Catholic, I’m a big fan of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s teaching that “blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet in American history it seems that “forgotten are the peacemakers” would be a more accurate lesson. We’re much more likely to remember “great” generals, even vainglorious ones like George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur, than to recognize those who’ve fought hard against long odds for peace.
Elihu Burritt was one such peacemaker. Known in his day as “The Learned Blacksmith,” Burritt fought for peace and against slavery in the decades before the Civil War in the United States. He rose from humble roots to international significance, presiding over The League of Universal Brotherhood in the 1840s and 1850s while authoring many books on humanitarian subjects.
Interestingly, peacemakers like Burritt were often motivated by evangelical Christianity. They saw murder as a sin and murderous warfare as an especially grievous manifestation of man’s sinfulness. Many evangelicals of his day were also inspired by their religious beliefs to oppose slavery as a vile and reprehensible practice.
Christian peacemakers like Burritt may not have had much success, but they deserve to be remembered and honored as much as our nation’s most accomplished generals. That we neglect to honor men and women like Burritt says much about America’s character.
For if we truly are a peace-loving people, why do we fail to honor our most accomplished advocates for peace?