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.