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?

The Attack on Critical Thinking

obey
Critical thinking?  Forget that.  Obey!  (Inspired by the movie, “They Live”)

W.J. Astore

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.)

Education Ourselves to Oblivion (TomDispatch.com, May 2009)

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.

Nonsense.

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.

Freethinkers Fighting for Fair Play: The True Goal of Higher Education

Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights?  (Movie poster from "Flash of Genius")
Do you have what it takes to fight for your rights, and to fight for what’s right? (Movie poster from “Flash of Genius”)

W.J. Astore

A New York Times editorial back in February caught two trends in higher education today: the proliferation of underpaid adjunct professors as well as the expansion of administrative positions within America’s colleges and universities.  These trends are unsurprising.  America’s colleges and universities are becoming more and more like businesses every day, with a small legion of administrators being hired in fields like assessment, retention, recruitment, student affairs, workforce development, and the like.  Adjunct faculty, meanwhile, are treated as interchangeable providers of ephemeral product, to be hired and dismissed at the whim of administrators.

As faculty increasingly inhabit lower niches within higher ed, students’ aspirations are increasingly shaped by the pursuit of high salaries.  How else to obtain “aspirational products” such as the latest Kate Spade handbag, the latest Apple iPhone, perhaps a BMW or even an Ivy League degree if you’re truly seeking to flaunt “success.”  An inherent contradiction in higher ed today is the way colleges and universities flaunt their success in helping graduates to get high-paying jobs, even as these same colleges and universities underpay adjunct professors.  Contradiction – what contradiction?

Administrative bloat and faculty contingency (“contingency” as in no job security for adjuncts, therefore little in the way of academic freedom, i.e. speak your mind, lose your job) are contributing factors in the loss of purpose within higher ed.  After all, if not for higher salaries or aspirational credentials, what is the higher purpose to higher ed?

Critical thinking should be one such higher purpose.  Alerting students to societal inequities – maybe at their very own colleges, perhaps even staring back at them in their dormitory room mirrors – is a start.  Remediating these inequities should be a goal.

Education, after all, should wake us up.  It should disturb us.  It should also strengthen our democracy.  It should reinforce our freedoms as defined in the Constitution.  It should counter prevailing anti-democratic trends toward plutocracy and authoritarianism within American society and government.

Too many students today are apathetic because they see little connection between their “higher” education and living a life that is fulfilling in wider settings.  They lack a compelling vision of what education is all about.  It doesn’t help when colleges and universities focus on making the educational money train run on time with little thought given to the passengers on board and their ultimate destination.

So, what should be the ultimate destination?  A questing and questioning mind.  Critical and creative thinking.  Curiosity about the world.  At the same time, students need to think and act to preserve what’s best about our world: our freedoms.  Fairness.  Fighters for fair play: that’s what we need more of in America.

Let me give you an example.  One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes in “Flash of Genius” (2008).  It’s about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.  His idea was stolen from him by the Ford Motor Co., and he takes them to court (true story).  When he’s asked why he’s fighting so desperately hard against Ford, why he’s risking everything, he replies: That idea was my Mona Lisa.

That line has always stayed with me.  Not only because it highlights the fact that technology is an act of creation, a work of art (or artifice).  But also because it highlights the need to be a fighter, the need to fight for what’s fair.

I like to tell my students that they too are society’s creators, that they too can create their own Mona Lisa (even if it takes the form of a new windshield wiper).  But that they too may also need to fight for their rights, and to fight for what’s right.

Motivating and equipping them for that fight: That’s what higher education should be all about, Charlie Brown.

Placing Too Much Faith in Technology in the Classroom

Stare at the screens, you zombies!
Stare at the screens, you zombies!

W.J. Astore

Americans put a lot of faith in technology.  Nowadays, we see computers, one-gun projectors, Smart boards, and similar technologies as essential to education.  But are they really?

In many cases, computers and PowerPoint and one-guns are simply fancier overhead projectors.  And when you show a video, does it matter if it’s from YouTube or from a DVD or from an old film projector?  Many of the new technologies allow us to make slides or show videos with more ease, but they don’t change education in any fundamental way.

Take calculators.  When I was in middle school in the 1970s, electronic calculators were taking over from slide rules as the new shortcut calculating device.  I wouldn’t want to go back to slide rules, but calculators didn’t make us any smarter.  Indeed, by focusing on getting the right answer as an exercise in operating the calculator, the new devices tended to obscure the meaning of the answer.  You learned to operate the machine and not necessarily the concepts behind the mathematics.  It was all solution, no understanding.

I didn’t like it at the time, but I learned long division, how to do square roots, how to solve quadratic equations, how to plot a graph without a calculator doing the heavy lifting for me.

Classrooms themselves are fascinating areas where “old” technology often lingers.  I still use chalk boards (or white boards), and I still occasionally use those old overhead projectors.  I was using slide projectors as late as the year 2000; in some ways, they were better than PowerPoint (e.g. brighter images and no worries about gigabytes of memory or backwards compatibility).

All this is to say that I’m skeptical when someone touts a technology as revolutionizing education.  It’s true that students need to know about computers and the Internet; the so-called Digital Divide is a real thing, with disadvantaged students suffering in a world driven by computers.

But education itself remains a process that is personal, creative, imaginative; education is an exercise in alchemy, the mixing of minds in the classroom that sometimes creates dross, but other times leads to – well, maybe not gold – but to exciting new ideas.

If technology can serve as a catalyst in this creative endeavor, that’s great.  But oft-times I see students in a PowerPoint-induced coma, staring at slides and images and thinking that the only thing that matters is memorizing the words on those slides.  An overuse of PowerPoint reduces teaching to briefing; the instructor becomes the “sage on the stage” and the students become unthinking zombies.   And it can be highly tempting as an instructor to fill that role – just give the students what they want, a simple template to memorize the course material so they can do well on the tests and jump through the hoop that is your course.

But that’s not education: it’s training.  Or worse: it’s conditioning.

Real education is not about the technology.  It’s about creating a dialogue; it’s about stimulating critical and creative thinking.  And to do that, the best “tools” are fully engaged human beings, teachers and students doing an alchemical dance of the mind in the crucible of the classroom.