Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?