The Death of Education in America

zombie-grads
Is American education becoming an exercise in mind-consumption? (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

W.J. Astore

Trump!  Mueller!  Collusion!

I know: who cares about the education of our kids as the redacted Mueller Report dominates the airwaves on CNN, MSNBC, and similar cable “news” networks?

I care.  I spent fifteen years as a history professor, teaching mostly undergraduates at technically-oriented colleges (the Air Force Academy; the Pennsylvania College of Technology).  What I experienced was the slow death of education in America.  The decline of the ideal of fostering creative and critical thinking; the abandonment of the notion of developing and challenging young people to participate intelligently and passionately in the American democratic experiment.  Instead, education is often a form of social control, or merely a means to an end, purely instrumental rather than inspirational.  Zombie education.

Nowadays, education in America is about training for a vocation, at least for some.  It’s about learning for the sake of earning, i.e. developing so-called marketable skills that end (one hopes) in a respectable paycheck.  At Penn College, I was encouraged to meet my students “at their point of need.”  I was told they were my “customers” and I was their “provider.”  Education, in sum, was transactional rather than transformational.  Keep students in class (and paying tuition) and pray you can inspire them to see that the humanities are something more than “filler” to their schedules — and their lives.

As a college professor, I was lucky.  I taught five classes a semester (a typical teaching load at community colleges), often in two or three subjects.  Class sizes averaged 25-30 students, so I got to know some of my students; I had the equivalent of tenure, with good pay and decent benefits, unlike the adjunct professors of today who suffer from low pay and few if any benefits.  I liked my students and tried to challenge and inspire them to the best of my ability.

All this is a preface to Belle Chesler’s stunning article at TomDispatch.com, “Making American Schools Less Great Again: A Lesson in Educational Nihilism on a Grand Scale.”  A high school visual arts teacher, Chesler writes from the heart about the chronic underfunding of education and how it is constricting democracy in America.  Here she talks about the frustrations of classes that are simply too big to teach:

[Class sizes grew so large] I couldn’t remember my students’ names, was unable to keep up with the usual grading and assessments we’re supposed to do, and was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Worst of all, I was unable to provide the emotional support I normally try to give my students. I couldn’t listen because there wasn’t time.

On the drive to work, I was paralyzed by dread; on the drive home, cowed by feelings of failure. The experience of that year was demoralizing and humiliating. My love for my students, my passion for the subjects I teach, and ultimately my professional identity were all stripped from me. And what was lost for the students? Quality instruction and adult mentorship, as well as access to vital resources — not to mention a loss of faith in one of America’s supposedly bedrock institutions, the public school…

The truth of the matter is that a society that refuses to adequately invest in the education of its children is refusing to invest in the future. Think of it as nihilism on a grand scale.

Nihilism, indeed.  Why believe in anything?  Talk about zombie education!

What America is witnessing, she writes, is nothing short of a national tragedy:

Public schools represent one of the bedrock institutions of American democracy. Yet as a society we’ve stood aside as the very institutions that actually made America great were gutted and undermined by short-term thinking, corporate greed, and unconscionable disrespect for our collective future.

The truth is that there is money for education, for schools, for teachers, and for students. We just don’t choose to prioritize education spending and so send a loud-and-clear message to students that education doesn’t truly matter. And when you essentially defund education for more than 40 years, you leave kids with ever less faith in American institutions, which is a genuine tragedy.

Please read all of her article here at TomDispatch.com.  And ask yourself, Why are we shortchanging our children’s future?  Why are we graduating gormless zombies rather than mindful citizens?

Perhaps Trump does have some relevance to this article after all: “I love the poorly educated,” sayeth Trump.  Who says Trump always lies?

29 thoughts on “The Death of Education in America

  1. A few thoughts. the private schools were a method to separate the classes, the children of the wealthy from those who were not. Intellect was not an important barrier to entry into the private school but, money was. We can see this in the recent scandals where the wealthy bought the entry for their children into prestigious schools.

    The other purpose was to defeat school desegregation. The “private academy” movement always existed, it exploded in the South once the Federal Government enforced the Law to integrate schools. Side Bar- the Rednecks and Neo-Confederates have never forgiven the Feds for this, in time this morphed into a fear of “Big Government” and all it’s manifestations. Especially, those manifestations like the EPA, and the breaking of “whites only” areas.

    Then we have the Profit Motive. School Privatization, has a hallmark of no political accountability to the voters. There is an expansion of vouchers and charters in K-12 schools. The non-public schools K-12 operate like a big business franchise. The difference is in the business world if a franchise fails it goes out of business. The world of non-public charter and vouchers schools has no rigorous evaluation of failure, instead they are allowed to keep failing with no consequences.

    One of the other benefits for the Education for Profit ideologues is the destruction of Teacher’s Unions.

    I know through my Baby Boomer years critical thinking was not taught or allowed to express itself. Perhaps English Literature was the exception where you could analyze the poem or short story. It was rote memorization of facts for the most part.

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  2. I remember one of those classes at Penn College, Technology and Society. As a non-traditional student (very much so), I realized there were some classes/instructors more memorable than others. This class (and its instructor–“Professor Astore”) was one of those. And some instructors, when they leave the hallowed halls, leave the educational environment that much poorer and lacking. I had a number of those teachers–men and women who cared about their subject matter and tried their best to pass that feeling along. You were one.

    I remember a paper the class was asked to write on one of two books, and sadly, right now I cannot recall the name of the one that I picked. I do remember the other, Standage’s “The Victorian Internet.” I choose the work about the Monitor, believing that the bulk of the class would opt for the other, much thinner book; I think I was correct. I also believe I made the right choice in my selection. The book about the Monitor made me think and work harder to understand the technology and issues of such an invention. Thank you for offering me the opportunity to think more deeply than I realized I could.

    Since 2010, I have worked part-time as a tutor in the Writing Center, so I get to see the products of the educational environment and hear stories of some of the trials faced by both students and instructors. I see students who are almost doomed to failure to begin by the poor preparation in the public schools they attended and who are now overwhelmed by the fact they are expected to think and reason, let alone be able to form a coherent and complex sentence. Some pass from one major to another because they have neither the intellect nor the ability to “make it.” Yet, they are there. As you noted, “Education, in sum, was transactional rather than transformational. Keep students in class (and paying tuition) …” The prayer of getting them inspired does not seem to matter much anymore. The money via open enrollment does. I have heard that some instructors are called to task for their grading and student outcomes. So, we see students pass certain classes that require an understanding of literature and writing with A’s and B’s but are clueless, as evidenced when they come in with papers later on full of sentence fragments/run-ons, those who lack any understanding of their topic and are absent even the ability to follow the instructions and meet the requirements of the assignment. Yet, they are still there, because the money continues to come in.

    I see students who are great with their hands, who understand the workings of engines fully, who have such insight and ability in the craft they have chosen, and who may not succeed because they are technically proficient but lack the skills necessary to understand textbooks. Is this perhaps one of the reasons the PCT suicide rate is above the national average?

    In fairness, some may not be ready for college at the time they enter, but some may also never be. They will be able to train for that vocation, and that’s good. We need people who can repair our cars and fix our plumbing, but we also need them to understand the workings of government in order to make good choices of leaders. We need to get real education back in the schools earlier than college. We need people who can think, but to regain that ability, we need to make changes not just in education but in the political system itself. The “powers that be” need to understand that they need us much more than we need them. They are really almost a dime a dozen. They have just forgotten that

    I bet they can’t fix their own toilets.

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    1. Thank you. Yes, we need plumbers, electricians, welders, heavy equipment operators, auto repair technicians, and so forth. And they deserve a broad-based education that includes the humanities. We want not just doers but thinking doers. And thinking doers who are in touch with the human condition. This applies to the military as well, which is all about “can-do.” But what if what you’re trying to do is unethical, immoral, or just plain dumb? What if it’s contrary to the lessons of history?

      Administrators, sadly, are narrowly focused on the bottom line. At PCT, the focus was on growth — getting more students — and retention, i.e. keeping them in class. Growth for growth’s sake is unwise, and retention of students who either don’t need college or who aren’t fit for it is also unwise. But the budget drives all …

      At the same time as we were driving for NCAA sponsorship, which cost money, we we cutting hours for adjuncts so we wouldn’t need to give them benefits under the criteria of Obamacare. And we even claimed we were doing it for the benefit of the adjuncts!

      But this stuff happens everywhere, in colleges and universities across America, and in far worse ways. Look at the amount of money spent on sports at the collegiate level at football schools. Staggering! When college coaches are paid 50 times as much as professors, well, it tells us what our society truly values.

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    2. Miscellany51’s comment strongly reflects my own experiences teaching at university (Grad teaching assistant and Instructor in Geography).

      I came away feeling like the US education system fails students at every stage, and the political economy of the academy is so deeply dysfunctional that we all ought to be suspicious of anyone claiming an Ivy League pedigree as evidence of anything relevant in the real world.

      American education is more about socializing students to think and act in a certain way than promoting curiosity or teaching analytical skills. It is a pathway to elite-ness, provided you can (Obama is an excellent example of this in practice) learn to speak and act like a white suburbanite.

      A huge part of why “white people lacking a college degree” are playing such a powerful role in American politics is that the education system in the country is a proxy for the underlying class system. Those who can game their kids’ way into the “elite” schools (my own, Berkeley, counts, and that degree has opened more doors for me just because of the name, but I digress) automatically have better life chances, and so half of high school “education” is now simply preparation for getting into college. Actually learning essential skills? Not so much. Just pass a standardized test and all is well.

      This is why I’m trying to “teach” through writing fiction.

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      1. robert strange mcnamara wrote he thought it imperative to look at the situation from the viewpoint of your adversary. it is thought this was one of the reasons the cuban missile crises didn’t get to the launch point.

        i wonder how many reading and commenting here consider why white people lacking college degrees have had it up to you know where with the ones who call them clingers, deplorables and all the other trash talk so smugly sneered their way.

        the good news the left has removed it’s facade. the guys who did build that still won’t go for the dream of socialist utopia sold by their betters.

        cal poly engineering
        san jose regional vocational center, a few years before

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        1. OG: Hillary’s comment about her “basket of deplorables” was worse than many remember. She said these “deplorables” were “irredeemable” — lost causes. And that’s the main reason she lost in 2016: her own elitism, her own smugness, that she still refuses to own up to.

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          1. WJAstore: I’ve sometimes ranted, (maybe bragged), about my so called “expertise” in advertising & public relation “skills” on your site, but you hit the nail on the head. I’ll keep it clean, unlike some rap music, but to me ‘Deplorable’s” is as insulting as the “N” word. I was SHOCKED when she said it! It shows her lack of tact and just plain meaness and contempt for normal people; some hit with hard times. Fortunately it hasn’t happened to me – but it could: I’m no clairvoyant.
            We old graphic artists still laugh at her dismal advertising campaign: really stunk.
            So I’ll tell you about a successful story: Wrangler Jeans. My (high) boss dreamed that up. It has no history, like Levi’s or Lee’s, but felt America could use a 3rd brand. Invented in our art dept., no history. No gold mining or real cowboys, he concentrated on “suburban cowboys”, including women where “nice” girls all wear jeans. He found an “old lady” 40?, to put the pallet of “girls” colours together; beiges, pale green, pale blue. We had 30% of the market in 3 years! It’s a mess today, due to buyouts and just people retiring.
            But it’s a great chance to younger people to follow old leaders, not these nasty politicians who only want war & plunder. It’s really not necessary! America without an enormous military budget can support itself!

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          2. quite so. fwiw she wasn’t the first and there are academies full to follow.
            white people lacking a college degree was at one time known as the american middle class. back then it was thought to be one of the salient features of stability in this country.

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    3. some of the best comments i have seen from the people who regularly reply are here for this subject, and i very much agree with them this time ( my lack of capitalization is stylistic used to denote humility, i try anyway ).

      your comment about run on sentences spoke to me, personally. i was dinged there repeatedly. even before i ran my eyes over keynes and marcuse. now there were writers who knew how to run.

      og,
      ex machinist … among other exes

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  3. Why Our Children Might NOT Believe Us

    Now we have the Mueller report and, depending on what position on the spectrum you reside, the battle lines are drawn. What must the children think?

    Do you think that asking that question would quell the skirmishes? Step back for a minute. Responsible adults, with or without children, want for themselves and all children a safe environment in which to thrive. That safety does not come only from material things but from how we relate to each other. Relationships and how we treat one another are at the core of a democracy. Don’t expect your legislators to abide by the rule of law if you don’t. Absent that perhaps we want a different form of government and that’s a different discussion.

    So, we teach children to self-regulate, abide by the rule of law a morality that hopefully imbues our existence and without it–chaos, a breakdown of society that will continue to erode what might be left of democracy.

    Another question: Do we want children to regulate themselves only to avoid prosecution or do we want them to regulate because less chaos provides us safety and an environment in which to thrive?
    And it needs to begin before formal education:

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    1. Ah, WJAstore, your site always brings back memories. In PUBLIC school a teacher, a tough old dame who, once a Nun, quit, dyed her hair blond, became our English & Latin teacher. She used to complain at our laziness, exclaiming one day: “Now I know why they paint on the road out front “SLOW SCHOOL”!” I’m sure she came from dough, (glitzy cars & dress) so could have taught at private schools, but she chose our Long Island suburb. Years later we adored her the most: she was funny & fun afterwards at reunions, but said “I had to be that way in class. Your parents were paying for it!” Now we’re all old, but our spelling is still amazing: we’ve all found mistakes in ‘spell check’! Thinking we’re going nuts, we check the Dictionary – we’re right ‘spellcheck’ wrong.
      A word about ‘plumbers’, always mentioned in many sites. Here too. I could live OK without electricity, but can’t imagine life without plumbing. Why do so many hate them, complain about their prices? Maybe because they know something we don’t.
      We’re all “plumbers” is the truth: solving a problem. In multinational advertising agencies we graphic artists referred to ourselves as “plumbers”. Years ago! While the big shots drank martini’s in fancy clubs, we “plumbers” ate a sandwich on the street devising a new logo. Pay-scale 10 to 1, but who cares? We did a good job & 1% was; we lived well.
      A lesson to any “Billary” supporters on this site. Her logo dreamed up by slobs Podesta Bros & obviously approved by HRC, made us laugh! 2 columns with an arrow going through them, is an abstraction of 911!

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      1. Great point about Hillary’s logo! I never thought of that — but I didn’t like the logo, so maybe on a subliminal level I did “think” of it.

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  4. great comments. May I add (raising a millennial); just how quietly angry they are (at us).
    They articulate this anger via subtle and not so subtle contempt for us. My interpretation
    is they feel we are leaving a World to them in far worse condition. We were given so much and leaving “a Mess” they have to “deal with”. They resent it and us. Environment to student debt and the lack of jobs to pay for it. Our politics, largely due to the GFC imo, has created the divide we all know. Big difference sharing a growing pie vs a shrinking one and it does feel many are fighting for crumbs.
    In closing, my son has a vision to dramatically change Education. Starting in kindergarden; compound interest via penny a day individual savings account/health care account, home economics including the aforementioned plumbing, HVAC even wiring. Further, he says programming teaches a discipline and mind set useful in all fields and must be taught early. I agree with him.

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