Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?

19 thoughts on “Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

  1. My take is that parents are THE influence. So much of what a person becomes is due to seeing what parents do, being impressed by it and unconsciously modeling oneself on that exposure.

    I attended one of the best and biggest high schools in the country but let it blow right by me as I preferred to hang out, taking pride in never taking home schoolbooks for homework, with the grades you would expect from that. My career was founded on electronics and radio that fascinated me completely apart from school. I was a dedicated learner on my own, still am, and it paid off. But formal schooling through college is just a foggy memory of boredom.

    These days it must be so much harder for teachers to compete with the online/iphone world that makes the distractions of my day look like nothing. That world could greatly enhance education but the appeal to just hang out, now possible without being present in person, and have fun beckons like never before.

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    1. Yes — As a professor I had to fight personal digital devices. But I “retired” in 2014. As these devices continue to grow more powerful with more apps, I’m sure it’s a tougher fight today.

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  2. My public education took place in a highly-regarded school system in a virtually lily-white (at the time) suburban environment. Looking back (many decades!), I still feel I got a pretty good education on the whole. Instruction in critical thinking skills? Well, I’m afraid those have been lacking in American “higher” education for just about forever. A docile workforce is always the goal of an exploiting social system. “White-collar office drones” are part of this workforce, regardless of how firmly they may delude themselves into believing they are terribly “special.” I make no attempt to disguise that I am a Marxist, very much self-taught. Any reference to Karl Marx’s ideas in public education–and I do recall hearing his name in elementary school–I’m sure is aimed at dismissing his analysis of class society. It will be said that all his ideas must be dismissed because none of his “predictions” of how society would evolve came to fruition. Needless to say, that was not the fault of ol’ Karl (1818-1883) and his co-thinker, Friedrich Engels. (I always feel compelled to mention Engels, perhaps the most brilliant polymath of the 19th Century, since his name tends to be neglected.) One thing you seem to have neglected to mention, Prof. Astore, is that a concentration on STEM is a focus the Military Establishment relishes having young people pursue. Because what this decaying empire most needs is improved assassin-drones, right? Climate crisis? What’s that??

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  3. in the 1970’s, an 8th grade level American history textbook, Land of the Free was introduced in California and there was an uproar so powerful that the book never made it into the curriculum in any other state. John Hope Franklin, the noted historian who happened to be black, was one of the three authors.

    Curious to see what the fuss was about, I ordered a copy and have read it through. The book is excellent but I can see why it raised a fuss. It never fails to mention social problems that occurred through the years. Blacks, Native Americans, women and immigrant and labor activists have a place and the text never fails to highlight the fight for the expansion of rights, in particular the right to vote. It is a warts and all book which I’m sure brought out the love-it-or-leave-it crowd that now is a big part of Trump’s base, the folks you can count on to start shouting USA! USA! at the drop of a hat.

    Given this segment of American society, how would it be possible to create a pathway in education that educates for citizenship that is not in the line of charter schools that reach only a few? It scares me that rigid institutions such as Liberty University and Bob Jones University are out there.

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    1. The First Amendment supports the right of “Liberty” University and Bob Jones to teach whatever nonsensical, raving rightwing BS they wish to. However, it also “suggests”–and these matters will continue to be contentious in courtrooms across the nation–that not a bloody penny of PUBLIC (taxpayer-derived) funds should be allotted to such institutions. I will rage about this issue until I draw my final breath!!

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  4. The on line courses remind me of self check out lanes in the big box stores.

    Cliff, the uproar over Land of the Free, was duplicated some what here in Indiana by former Governor, now President of Purdue Mitch Daniels. Mitch had a case of the ass over Howard Zinn’s book Peoples History of the United States, which describes American history from the perspective of black people, women, low-income workers and others whom Zinn argued were ignored in more mainstream history.

    Shortly after Zinn died in 2010, Daniels e-mailed various education officials about Zinn, the AP said. His e-mail said: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book A People’s History of the United States is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
    “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?” Daniels wrote. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/17/e-mails-reveal-mitch-daniels-governor-tried-ban-howard-zinn-book

    Greglaxer, here in Indiana in Pastor Pence land, we had a huge expansion of voucher schools which are overwhelming religious schools, when Pastor Pence was governor. They receive state taxes, through the convoluted reasoning that taxes for schools follow the child so if the parents select a religious school, state taxes are used to subsidize the school.

    My Baby Boomer education concerning history was primarily wars. Social issues like Reconstruction, Unionization and the effects of panics, recessions and the Great Depression were taught as the Yin and Yang as the price we Proles had to pay for this “successful” system of Capitalism. There was no mention in our history books of Jim Crow – I suppose we did not want to offend the George Wallace’s of the South.

    After my Vietnam Tour, I used the G.I.Bill to go to College. Vietnam opened my eyes, and ears to the young Professors in College that taught us – All was not Well in America and it never had been. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee revealed a a truth we were not taught in Grades 1-12.

    I think Philosophy was a very instructive course. Plato and all the others who came before and after him, trying their best to explain – How is we Here, Why are we Here, and Where do we Go from Here?? What Philosophy teaches us is to question our beliefs and values – Critical thinking in other words.

    Critical thinking is the last thing the religious schools will teach. STEM has Critical thinking of course but it is welded to Capitalism. The exploitation of the Proles by the 1% has no place in a STEM heavy curriculum.

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  5. It’s 0815 Tuesday morning here in the shadow of Rotterdam. I read this latest offering yesterday and thought, “well, let’s see how this goes over.”

    There is no mention of the current occupant of the White House or any of his minions.
    There is no mention of either of the Clintons, Barack Obama, or anyone named Bush.
    There is no mention of Russia or any former Warsaw Pact country.
    There is no mention of China, North Korea or, for that matter, the Middle East.
    Any and all “terrorist” organizations also get the day off.
    There is no reference to next year’s election or any of those who wish to get their name on the ballot.
    No mention of The Pentagon, the military’s bottomless budget, or its endless, undeclared wars.

    And as of this moment, it has generated a grand total of eight (8) comments which, though few in number, are revealing, thoughtful, and concise. None stoop to junior high-level invective, spew conspiracy theories, or list/quote from “reliable and authoritative sources” who possess The Revealed Truth, if only others had eyes to see and ears with which to hear.
    All in all, I’d say that’s a sad but accurate representation of the general “So what?” attitude toward the state of Education in this year of grace.
    It’s a small sample size to be sure, but it doesn’t obviate the truth my contention.

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    1. Yes. Education has become an exercise in training and indoctrination. To a certain extent, this has always been so. What’s been added is the drive to reduce/eliminate unions while simultaneously making teaching more of a corporate/religious/private concern.

      We used to think education was a public good, and that the health of democracy depended on active, thinking, citizens. We just don’t think this way anymore. Private gain has replaced the notion of public good. Passive consumers have replaced active citizens.

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  6. Will–
    You had to know I would chime in on this one, since I was by your side for the strong public education you accurately describe and I spend my days laboring in the vineyard of a public high school.

    I’ve been waiting all week. Papers may not always exist on paper anymore, but their electronic versions haunt my early mornings and my nights.

    I spent a few years teaching before my kids were born and was pretty disillusioned. I was home with them and educated them at home until early adolescence. They all went to a solid public high school where they did well, but were able to look school’s priorities with a skeptical eye. They had had the time and the brain space in early childhood to figure out who they were without being overscheduled and lessoned to death. (More like our own childhoods than that of most kids their age.)

    The answer to your final question is definitely yes. Historically, though, it has always been the case.
    American schools were explicitly designed to produce the workers American industry needed and to assimilate waves of immigrants as seamlessly as possible. Look up the work of John Taylor Gatto if you’d like to read more.

    My school has a heavy STEM emphasis, which makes parents and students regard English as a frippery and a GPA trap. Last year, I had student write an impassioned plea to her parents because she wanted to study history and they were refusing to help her pay for college unless she majored in something more STEM oriented. You would have thought she wanted to run away and join the circus. I have yet to have a single student say they want to a major in English or philosophy.

    All of the best jobs in our area (maybe everywhere) are defense industry jobs. Parents work for Raytheon and BAE Systems and angle for coveted summer internships for their kids. The military industrial complex pays for the nice houses and vacations and the fancy cars. Military recruiters are frequent and honored guests. (That’s for the kids not quite bright enough for engineering.) The biggest applause at graduation is always for the small handful of kids who have enlisted. Nobody applauds harder than the parents of those kids who are safely enrolled in college, where the biggest dangers are partying and professors who expect too much.

    So where does that leave teachers? Doing the best we can, as always. Older teachers have more freedom than younger ones. The young teachers are so burdened with student loans that they keep quiet, even when they know they could challenge kids more by doing thing differently. We all know that we serve at the pleasure of the school board.

    Students know that the way to succeed is to parrot back exactly what the teacher has said. They are bewildered by invitations to reflect, think or discuss. They wait for me to tell them what to think and are frustrated when I refuse. I do everything I can to get them to put their cell phones down and look around at the world.

    Here’s the thing–there’s always hope when you are working with young people. I love my job. I feel cynical about a lot of it, but I’m not ready to not do it. I read lots and encourage my students to read and think. I help them learn to express their thinking as clearly as they can. I encourage them to register to vote as soon as they turn 18 even though I fear what they will do with that vote.

    Sigh. We do what we can.

    Katie

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    1. Katie: Your experiences match mine. Often when I tried to get students to think for themselves, they thought it was a trick or a trap. C’mon, professor, just tell us what we need to know for the test. I can see why more than a few teachers take the easy way out. They teach by rote, nowadays with PowerPoint and the like, and many students are happy because they know what’s expected of them. They don’t learn much, but then again they don’t want to.

      Education should be transformative, a way toward self-discovery but also a means by which one’s eyes are opened to the world around us, in all its glory and horror. But I think many kids are being taught to keep their eyes shut, or they’re being fitted with blinders, so they can keep their eyes on the prize and get that internship and excel at BAE Systems. (I remember when it was Lockheed Sanders.)

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      1. Malvina Reynolds expressed it beautifully in her song, “Little Boxes,” about a zillion years ago.

        “And the people in the houses
        All went to the university
        Where they were put in boxes
        And they came out all the same
        And there’s doctors and lawyers
        And business executives
        And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
        And they all look just the same.”

        I guess the situation has merely intensified (decayed, deteriorated, spiraled downward, etc.) in the intervening decades.

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    2. Kind of brings to mind an old joke: “What do you call a guy with a Masters in English Lit.?” Answer: “Waiter!” … “We do what we can.” Indeed, and should we beat ourselves up for not being able to do the impossible? I think not. Stay calm, and carry on.

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      1. Well, pursuing a graduate degree in English Lit. is fairly esoteric, but an undergraduate degree in English or history or classics is not nearly as impractical as parents seem to think. Evidence? Here’s a recent article:

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  7. “Endure” = “straggling/struggling along, waiting tables while awaiting that ‘big break'”! I’m not applauding the situation, just observing. As a college dropout, I never had any of these concerns.

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  8. Viewed from far away in Ireland, this all gives me hope. (Well, just a little, perhaps.) Dissing official history myths may not doom one to repetition, for, as your own Mark Twain once noted: “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
    Humankind lives in a continuum, a process of unending transitions – but the differing stages – the moments of these phases of process do end, with transformation to a new moment. Quantum physics offers reveals new concepts of how the laws of universal development occur.
    All things come into being, have a contradictory existences as phenomena, and pass away, their energies transforming. And this process does not depend on individual consciousness of its existence. It’s the intrinsic nature of nature.
    These contradictions of objective development are reflected in the cognitive process of individual human persons. And it is the combining these which give rise to the social or societal cognitive fact of the “Ideal” as social knowledge, the intellectual and emotional resources which exist as our culture, our understanding, and which also changes over time.
    And yes, of course, the ruling elite attempt to obfuscate this reality, transforming education into dogmatic trivial misrepresentation. But this only allows the contradiction between truth and lie to build up to its moment of extreme irreconcilability.
    The seduction of the poorly educated sheeple on my neighbouring island, Britain, with the hysterical delusion of Brexit, offers, perhaps, an object lesson of the impasse which awaits U.S. communities when the inevitable $ financial collapse curtails their hope for survival. Here too, we Irish have our own “History which rhymes” in the rapidly evolving disintegration of the complex notion of “Northern Ireland”. Long believed conceptions no longer hold water for either of the two disputatious communities.
    The disintegration of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as Scottish Nationalists seek to remain in the EU – and now for the first time in a millennia, the Welsh Assembly considers a similar option, marks the end of an historic era, driven by the economic reality of a global capitalist systemic insolvency.
    Massive global corporate debt cannot be redeemed, even by the potential entire World GDP, and the capital form of money is finding its value content becoming evaporated. With uncomfortable consequences for the circulation form of money in all currencies.
    As this happens, I am wondering which of your States might be first to become Disunited?
    And this is my point. Quite regardless of any consciousness of it, an historic process is underway, and humankind, whether educated with sophistication or not – will have to deal with it. So keep speaking truth – not necessarily to power which doesn’t want to listen anyway, but to the woman on the bus, and the man in the filling station. And to the child returning from school (such as it may be).
    Gretta Thunberg has seen through the lies. The Park Children’s nationwide protest marks a generational maturity beyond their tender years. As did the young on the Arab Street of Tunisia, some of whom I met in Sidi Bu Said.
    And so, in due course and wisdom, will your children and grandchildren see reality – if you engage with them honestly and respectfully. Don’t be afraid to, our curious children may yet save those of us left from the generations damned by Milton Friedman’s stupidities.

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