When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force. I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history. Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology. Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex. My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.
College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in. In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends. Maturing.
You rarely know what your career arc will be. What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32. A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along. All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.W.J. Astore
An Education Worth Having
My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.
As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.
When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.
I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”
I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”
Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”
When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”
In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.
As millions of Americans lose their jobs due to Covid-19 disruptions, they also lose their health care, which is tied to their jobs. Only in America is health care contingent on employment. Efforts to create a national, single-payer, health care system have failed since the Truman administration in the late 1940s. Americans have been sold on the idea that health care is best administered by “the free market,” which of course is neither free nor much of a market.
The American health care system puts profit over people; in short, it’s wealth care, not health care. This is simply fact. Health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, are motivated by money. Indeed, health insurers make money by denying you coverage, not providing it. They raise co-pays and deductibles to unbearable limits. Meanwhile, they spend liberally on lobbyists to keep Congress in their pockets, as well as on advertising to persuade Americans that health insurers are always on your side. Until you file a claim, that is, or need expensive treatment.
Health care should be about health, not wealth, and people, not profit. Back in 2013, I wrote the following article on health care for Huffington Post. Of course, the system has only grown worse. America faces a crisis today, driven by a deadly pandemic. Isn’t it time to embrace single-payer health care for all?
Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.
And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.
Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).
Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.
America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.
Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.
But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.
Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”
So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.
I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.
A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.
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.
Perhaps the profession that requires job security more than any other is teaching, especially college teaching. Tenure traditionally meant that a teacher/professor could be terminated only for moral turpitude (e.g. sexual abuse of students), blatant racism, unfair or unjust grading, gross incompetence, failure to obey basic institutional rules such as not showing up to class on time, or not teaching the subject matter he or she was hired to teach. Nowadays, however, “Just Cause” is often grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member. But “Just Cause” in any work contract is far too flexible an instrument for employers and far too vague for employees who rightly worry about job security.
Job insecurity prior to acquiring tenure and tenure granted with a “Just Cause” basis for termination of employment work to stifle academicians’ free expression of creative ideas, theories, and perspectives in and outside of the classroom. Any psychiatric or psychological clinician knows, or should know, that the threat of losing one’s livelihood produces stress and anxiety. Going to work each day, knowing your job is “contingent,” can become a dreaded and stressful experience.
Not only does academic tenure reduce or eliminate anxiety and stress: It ensures the free expression in the classroom of controversial and unorthodox ideas and pedagogical methods. Colleges, all schools for that matter, should remain faithful to the ultimate purpose of education, to bring students out of darkness—e-ducare in Latin. It therefore should be difficult to dismiss a teacher/professor once that person has acquired tenure.
Alas, much has changed in the groves of academe. “Make America Great Again” has come to mean—long before Trump—make life easier for administrators of educational institutions, especially those who primarily view education as preparation for the world of work. Colleges and universities are top-heavy with administrators. In fact, it’s easier to find employment as an administrator than it is as a full-time faculty member.
Colleges are also becoming increasingly technocratic in their organizational structure. Form is becoming more important than content. The typical teacher/professor is expected to be virtually robotic in his/her performance. (God help a member of a college faculty nowadays who does not know the finer points of PowerPoint or refuses to use technology at all in the classroom.) Scores on multiple-choice faculty evaluations are more valued than what students are learning. The goal (often unstated) of pedagogy is to prepare students for becoming employees who will fit neatly and quietly into niches in the business and corporate world. Professors are subtly urged, sometimes threatened, to become unindicted co-conspirators in what appears to be the ultimate purpose of education in contemporary American society: to produce graduates who will unreflectively accept the status quo.
Today’s system of compromised tenure limits the ability of teachers/professors to encourage students to question and challenge the status quo. At its best, traditional tenure promoted an atmosphere in the classroom where teachers felt free to discuss contemporary political, social, and science/technology issues. Job security encouraged teachers to provide the cognitive tools for what Neil Postman called “crap detecting” (critical thinking) in his book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” Education for Postman included the ability to distinguish reality from propaganda—and it often worked. For example, college-educated students were more likely to resist the draft, protest the Vietnam War, and oppose Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. In short, they questioned authority because they had the tools, mindset, and commitment to do so.
In his 1923 book, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education,” Upton Sinclair had this to say regarding colleges and universities: “Suppose I was to tell to tell you that this education machine has been stolen? That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor for the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for an end very far from these? That our six hundred thousand young people (supposedly in higher education) are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.” Worshiping or conforming to a socio-economic system based on the values and goals of capitalism is the leading obstacle to an education that promotes democratic and humanitarian values, according to Sinclair.
Sinclair further argued that college professors should not “merely have job security” but also should have “collective control of that job.” He insisted that the faculty “must take from the trustees, and from the man they hired, the president, the greater part of their present functions.” Sinclair’s message is telling: It’s undesirable for democracy for administrators to treat professors as employees who are readily dismissible.
“Readily dismissible” is an apt description of adjunct/contingent faculty today. The number of adjuncts teaching college courses now outnumbers full-time tenured faculty. On the adjunct level there is no job security from semester to semester. The academic goosestep is always outside the door.
Teachers on all levels of formal education have vital roles to play in getting all of us to question authority. How can they do that, however, when their jobs can be eliminated by administrators whose first loyalty is often to an establishment that sustains that authority? To challenge hegemonic social systems and structures, teachers and professors need job security. They need tenure. Is that why they’re not getting it?
Richard Sahn, a retired professor of sociology, taught at the collegiate level for four decades.
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?
Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.” Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers. And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons! And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.
I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students. (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.) Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks. Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”
One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality. We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening. We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally. (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)
Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools? They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms. Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.
I don’t have a smart aleck observation here. Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.
So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor. What a surprise. According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing. Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”
I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania. Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry. My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class. I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.
Of course, America will always have the Ivy League. Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton. You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money. But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.
When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience. I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too. Why? Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.
The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry. Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority. Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.
Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.” Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.
An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce? As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product. One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.” Another big push when I was a professor was on retention. Keep those students in college! If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.
We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor? It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.
When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter. This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda. Become critical thinkers, I told them. And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.
Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today. This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned. In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni. On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation. The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.
A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education. Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!). Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com. I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding. But stupid is as stupid does. (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!” Yes, hmm, yes.)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
In May 2003, Chris Hedges gave a controversial commencement speech at Rockford College (Rockford University since 2013) in Illinois. Back then, Hedges was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times who had recently completed a book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), which I highly recommend. Earlier that month, President George W. Bush had given his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq war, and patriotic pride was riding high. Hedges had the foresight to recognize the mission had not been accomplished, and that the cost of war (all wars) would be high to the United States as well as to the countries purportedly liberated.
Booed and interrupted on several occasions during his speech, Hedges persevered. His words from 2003 are well worth reading again, especially as President-elect Trump assembles a team of former generals and hardline rightists with the promise of obliterating ISIS and of “winning” conflicts around the world.
Here is his speech, in its entirety. I have bolded one passage on Athens and the poison of war that is particularly telling for the current American moment. W.J. Astore
Chris Hedges at Rockford College, Commencement Address, May 2003
I want to speak to you today about war and empire.
Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spill — theirs and ours — be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.
We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep.
The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth of the world’s population which is Muslim, most of whom I’ll remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess — the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq — we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past.
“Modern western civilization may perish,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good.”
The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.
Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. We have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor, the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus.
The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands in defiance of Saddam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of those who challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away. The looting of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with the exception of the oil ministry and the interior ministry — the only two ministries we bothered protecting — is self immolation.
As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in the Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we come only for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war of attrition; it is how they drove the British out and remember that, when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted by the dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months, when the Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators but occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah and was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.
As William Butler Yeats wrote in “Meditations in Times of Civil War,” “We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fair.”
This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq.
We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides’ history. Read how Athens’ expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war — if we do not understand how deadly that poison is — it can kill us just as surely as the disease.
We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.
We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity — for evil — and in this we understood not only war but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.
War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press — remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem — have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence — death — is hidden from public view.
There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have perfected the appearance of candor.
Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.
The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true — it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of our life, feel we belong.
War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.
Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all is one heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of itself. We feel in wartime comradeship. We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love — the exotic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, one entity, is real, but this is part of war’s intoxication.
Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.
As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends are predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But comradeship — that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime — is within our reach. We can all have comrades.
The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy does not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime are deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once the threat is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers to us. This is why after war we fall into despair.
In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about; we find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause — a common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self that is part of friendship.
In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone but as a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death. And this is what the god of war demands of us.
Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship or, let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.
Dan White’s article on Admiral (retired) McRaven’s new job as Chancellor of the University of Texas system provides a warning that must be heeded. There is dangerous intent behind the appointment of military flag officers and national security operatives to leading public college and university leadership positions. The political elites, who usually appoint their like-minded allies to the governing boards of these institutions, see students in these public institutions of learning as potential activists against the status quo (as they were during the Vietnam War era). The governing boards usually vet the candidates for this office and thus want the candidate to mirror their own views of “national interests.” Those “interests” don’t include critical thinking or the idea of questioning authority.
Appointing a proven supporter (like McRaven) of the elites’ view of “national interest” in times like these, when their “interest” involves issues at variance with the common good, is looked at as a judicious decision. That means putting people into these offices who support the Patriot Act and its assault on citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly. It also means appointing people who support the government in its pursuit of perpetual war.
McRaven’s appointment to the University of Texas and the ridiculous appointment of Janet Napolitano, former head of the police state agency known as “Homeland Security,” as President of the university system of California are prime examples of this tendency. These selections show absolutely no interest in education but rather in administering and enforcing a sheep-like faculty and student body in these important institutions that otherwise could and should foster the serious questioning of our government and our oligarchical elites.
The elites know that stuffed shirts like McRaven and Napolitano can be counted on to foster bland conformity and blind compliance. That’s exactly why they’re hired for these offices. They work to ensure the subservience of higher education to the national security state. California and Texas are two of the biggest public university systems in the country. Is it any accident they are controlled by Napolitano and McRaven, both former operatives and enforcers in the national security state?
Not only does the national security state conspire to control higher education but national sports as well. Consider the recent revelation of Department of Defense payments to NFL teams for on-field ceremonies in honor of the troops. These ceremonies, used for recruitment and propaganda purposes, were meant to seem free and spontaneous on the part of the participating football teams, even as behind the scenes the Department of Defense was feeding the teams taxpayer money in the millions for these ceremonies. It’s all about extending the reach of the national security state into all realms of life, to include sports. That’s the real NFL scandal of today, not Tom Brady’s “Deflategate.”
Be afraid, America, as the national security state reaches out to control the message of higher education as well as professional sports. High culture, low culture, it doesn’t matter. The power elites want to control it all.
Awaken, patriotic American citizens, and resist. Don’t let the national security state’s tentacles reach into more and more aspects of your and your children’s lives.