Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

Consumerism1

W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets
The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war).  They are Archimedean.  They focus on engineering and the machinery of war.  But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.

There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations.  But they do not.  I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years.  My experience?  The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.  Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.

A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.  Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.  Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.

Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse.  U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables.  They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.

Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics.  Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized.  Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.

When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?”  They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders.  They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.

As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history.  (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects.  Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air.  Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.

Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity.  Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws.  A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.

Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them.  Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.

Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta.  Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens.  Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.

But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory.  Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.

The Education Business: Money, Money, Money (Updated)

W.J. Astore

As a college professor, I’m in the education business, a word that repels me but which nowadays is undeniably true.  One of the marketing slogans where I teach is “A degree is measured by its success in the workplace.”  In other words, if a college degree leads to a decent salary in the “workplace,” it’s worth it, but if the “workplace” does not reward you with a position with good pay and benefits, your degree is without merit.

Education in America has become just another business.  It’s increasingly monetized and corporatized.  Hence it’s unsurprising that educational results are measured increasingly by standardized tests developed by corporations.  If education is reducible to standardized metrics, you can run it and control it just like a business.  Professors become providers, students become consumers, and education becomes a commodity which is marketed and sold to consumers. Administrators are the middle managers who ultimately answer to corporate-dominated boards. “Success” for an administrator is measured mainly by money: funding drives, corporate donations, endowments, and similar issues related to budget and “the bottom line.”

As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score.  And he knew how to express it in pungent prose:

Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job-training mills, ranging from the truck-driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.  Education is not supposed to be an industry.  Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry-purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug.  Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture.  This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information or facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical, and human context or priority.

Consider the harsh reality of Bageant’s statement: America “is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.”  It’s impossible to deny this statement, especially when institutions of higher learning use the “workplace” as the measure of success for their degree programs.

Education today is disconnected from democracy.  It’s disconnected from producing an educated citizenry with critical thinking skills.  Rather, it’s connected to consumption; indeed, education is just another ephemeral consumable in a world of goods.  It’s valued only for its monetary fungibility, i.e. how much money can I make with this degree?  Alternatively, from a provider’s perspective, how much money can I make from offering these degrees?

Increasingly, there’s only one true degree offered by American colleges and universities: the business degree.  Such is the uniformity of market-driven ideology applied to education.

Say what you will of “diversity” in higher education as measured by differences in age, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, and all the rest.  Such diversity doesn’t matter much when all these “diverse” students are striving for the same thing: a fungible degree that’s translatable into money, money, money.

Show me the money!
Show me the money!

Update (12/4): When you treat students as consumers, there’s a tendency to buy the idea that “the customer is always right.” In other words, don’t offend the customer with disturbing ideas, such as the legacy of structural racism in society. Better to ignore such topics, especially when the “customer” complains about being offended by the ideas the professor (whoops — I meant the provider) introduces in class. See this story from Slate for more details.

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.

Education, Thoughtlessness, and the Golem

The Golem, fed by our thoughtlessness (Source: Wikipedia)
The Golem, fed by our thoughtlessness (Source: Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Hannah Arendt, the famous philosopher and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote that “thoughtlessness“–the inability of people to think deeply and critically and reflectively–was a defining characteristic of our times.

Thoughtlessness is characterized by the repetition of certain “truths,” often defined by the state, that are not meant to be questioned.  Contemporary examples might include the idea that “America is the greatest country,” with no thought given as to what greatness really means, or whether it’s even desirable to be “the greatest” in categories such as military power.  Americans are not encouraged to think about such things; indeed, if you dare question such things, you risk being labeled “un-American.”

Education has a powerful role to play in either making us more thoughtful or in reinforcing our tendency toward thoughtlessness.  What concerns me about higher education today is its tendency toward banality, as represented by the idea of diplomas as passports to jobs.  When education is subsumed by careerism, when it becomes little more than an exercise in gaining credentials for “success,” it reinforces thoughtlessness.

Consider the big trends in higher education today.  In the name of “relevance” and greater national competitiveness, colleges and universities pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in place of liberal arts and boast about the virtues of vocational training that turns students into reliable and obedient employees.  Such monomania for STEM and vocational relevance is perfectly consistent with thoughtlessness, a key feature of authoritarian political systems in Arendt’s view.

Let’s not forget that totalitarian systems love education – of a kind.  They love education when it exalts the state, when it’s apolitical training, whether technical/scientific or in terms of conditioned “thought,” and when it’s manifested by duck speak: the quacking of state-sanctioned pieties.  Pieties like “America is the greatest country.”

Thoughtlessness goes hand-in-hand with powerlessness.  The less we think as citizens, the less power we have.  And the less power we have, the more power the state grabs for itself.  As the state grows in power, it increasingly ignores puny citizens (that’s us).  Eventually, the state can only be manipulated by other powerful entities (multinational corporations, big finance, and the like) with deep pockets, far deeper than any citizen or coalition of citizens.

In such a scenario, not only do individuals become thoughtless; the state does too.  It morphs into a golem, a soulless monster of our own creation, one that we soon discover we can no longer control, as noted in this powerful article by finem respice.

To keep the shambling monster happy, both political parties end up feeding it.  It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, whether you’re a rich supplicant or a poor one: everyone looks to the golem for care and feeding.  The rich and powerful just have an advantage because they have bigger sticks with which they can prod the golem in a direction favorable to them.

An education that refuses to provoke thought, that refuses to challenge the status quo, is an education that feeds the golem.

And golems have a well-known tendency to bite the hands that feed them.

A Bumper Sticker Collage

A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.
A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.  Photo by the author.

A sequel to our recent article, Dueling Bumper Stickers

I remember making collages in grade school; they were always good fun.  I came across this collage of bumper stickers yesterday at the Gypsy Joint Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass.  (They make scrumptious sandwiches and salads, by the way.)

It’s a representative sample of sentiments that are common to progressive places.  (But note the “Don’t mess with Texas,” which is representative of, well, Texans.)

It’s hard to argue with “Teach Peace” or “Peace Is Patriotic.”  “Folk the War” is pretty straightforward.  And I do like the idea of living the life that I love.  And I hope that the more I know, the less I need.

Now I need to find a similar collage of conservative stickers.  Will those stickers be as idealistic, as upbeat, as focused on sustainable food and education and music and peace?

I’m betting not.

W.J. Astore

Yes, Education is about Social Control

Don't ask questions. Don't seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)
Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)

W.J. Astore

Education in my sense of liberating and strengthening (making articulate and uncompromising) the intellect is of course antithetical to much of what is going on in our schools and universities, which I would rather refer to by such terms as training, molding, socialization, mystification, memorizing of facts, obfuscation of meaning–all processes designed to produce intelligent citizens who are ready to execute jobs faithfully and not ask any questions about their meaning or purpose or value to fellow human beings.

(Christian Bay, Strategies of Political Emancipation, 1981)

Corporate society takes care of everything.  And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions. 

Mr. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) in Rollerball, 1975

As a professor and lifelong learner, I see education as equal parts empowering and enlightening.  Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and the lamp of learning helps to illuminate our lives.

But is education also about social control?  Sadly, the answer is “yes.”  Education that is simplified and standardized is often little more than indoctrination.  Education that is too regimented, too centralized, too much like a factory, prepares students for a life of unquestioning obedience and unreflective conformity.

Authorities have often been keen to restrict or outlaw forms of knowledge that they see as undermining their privileges and power.  Writing from Australia, Dr Teri Merlyn reminded me that:

There have been very direct, coordinated battles [against knowledge and reformers] – witness the censorship battles over Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’, when you could go to gaol for simply owning a copy, and the 19th Century ‘Church and King’ mobs sent to punish radical writers and publishers by burning down their houses … There are powerful social forces at work that have their self-interest at heart and see what they do in that context.  Witness the great educator of the working class, Hannah Moore, writing to her Bishop at the turn of the 18th Century, assuring him whilst she was teaching these working class girls to read, sufficient for their service duties, they would never learn to write, for that would encourage them to aspire beyond their station.

Education today still largely teaches students to stay within their station.  Today’s focus on vocational education is both salutary and one-dimensional.  Students are told to get degrees as passports to a job.  They’re not told to aspire to be skeptical citizens who dare to question (or even to supplant) authority.

And there’s the rub.  We face difficult, seemingly intractable, problems in the world today.  Global warming.  Fossil fuel dependence.  A widening gap between rich and poor.  A military-industrial-intelligence complex that dominates our foreign policy as well as much of our domestic policy.  Worrisome budget deficits.  Unaffordable health care.  The list goes on.

But our students are not being educated to address these challenges, at least not in any radical way, in the sense of getting to the roots of the problem.

Education, in essence, has largely become training, just another form of careerism.  And the high student debt that many students incur in obtaining their “passport to success” ensures they are essentially indentured servants, forced to keep working to pay off their debt (and often to keep their health care benefits as well).

Even as students incur debt in the process of training for a career, higher education brags most loudly about its close ties to business and industry.  Yet business and industry, as Teri Merlyn notes, “has effectively [outsourced] its responsibility to train its workforce, diverting that cost onto the public purse.  In order to do that, it has infested educational language with its own terminology.  The dominance of the Business Paradigm is now absolute.”

Just as college football is a feeder to the NFL, higher education is increasingly a feeder to business and industry.  It’s a Rollerball world dominated by violent sports and corporate conglomerates.

Education, in short, has lost any sense of higher purpose.  “Adapt to the world as you find it” is both the implicit and explicit message. And whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.

Part of the method is to destroy any sense of class identity among students.  Today, virtually all my students self-identify as being members of the “middle class,” even though many are working class (just as I am a son of factory workers).  In American society, we’ve lumped blue-collar with white-collar jobs, so that now janitors and fast-food workers (for example) think of themselves as middle class.

This is not to denigrate janitors or fast-food workers.  Rather, it’s to highlight the calculated decline of class identity and solidarity in the U.S.  If we’re all middle class, if we’re all bourgeois, why bother uniting in unions to fight for our rights?  If we allegedly inhabit a post-class society of social mobility, education can then ignore ethical and societal questions of fairness to focus on workforce training and professional development.

As my Aussie correspondent, Dr Teri Merlyn, astutely noticed:

“That phenomenon of working class identity is a most unwilling one, so the strategy to co-opt the working class as nominal members of the owning class through the share and property markets was very successful.  One might even suspect this recent ‘economic crisis’ [of 2008] as the ‘owners’ simply taking back what they see as rightfully theirs.”

Put differently, you can’t see you’re being screwed as a worker when you view yourself as an “owner” in your own right.  And when you’re educated to conform, to produce the standard answer, to aspire to a respectable job (with your identity confined to that job), your consciousness will never be raised to challenge the system in any radical way.

In fact, your goal is to become the system, to reap its rewards for yourself, just as those that you now work for have done and are doing.

As we witness uprisings around the world, from Egypt to Greece to Brazil and elsewhere, we should ponder why there are not similar uprisings in the U.S.  Is it because the U.S. really is, pardoning Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds?  Or is it because our educational system immunizes us against any form of “socialism” (a curse word in American politics) or class consciousness?

Education, when it’s about getting the right answer that leads to the right job without ever questioning prevailing authority, becomes a status quo operation in social control.

To recognize that is not to surrender to it.  Rather, it’s to begin to fight it.