We have been converted from citizens to consumers. That conversion has been helped along by the dumbing down of education in the waning decades of the industrial era. The once lofty goal of building a viable democratic society by assuring that citizens were adequately educated in all things human, including art, science, music, culture, and political economy – the full range of human knowledge – has been replaced by narrow technical training for those willing to be trained to be obedient employees rather than be educated as citizens. It’s flipping Big-Macs for the rest.
The ‘captains of industry’ realized along time ago that they only needed obedient workers and ready consumers – active citizenship would be a major inconvenience. No need for civic participation in an oligarchy – better, in fact, to restrict it. No need for an engaged thinking public if the plutocrats are in charge. [Plutocracy: “a country ruled by the richest people” Miriam-Webster online.] The power elites have known all long that the general population, for the most part should be kept as ignorant and subservient as possible. At the same time, a big part of American culture was a vision of a growing energetic entrepreneurial spirit spurring innovation and the potential for anyone to succeed. That, of course, is a rather large contradiction. Nevertheless, education was seen as the path to achieve the “American Dream.”
Most of the “educational reforms” over the last century have served the purpose of generating profits for consultants, salaries for bureaucrats, and the management of students moving through the system until at some point most jump or are pushed out. When I was in college, I thought that if we just got everyone properly educated we could solve all the world’s problems and live happily ever after. I think I still held on to that hope, tempered by a certain realism, when I began teaching university courses. Gradually, though, it became clear that education was failing America, or maybe America was failing education.
Bottom line: bureaucracy grew and teaching and learning declined as the key elements of the process became “objectified” by various “standards” and procedures (mostly formal “objective” testing and formal “learning objectives”), all of which distract from and consume the funds needed for the actual engagement of teacher and student. More and more pressure, especially on primary and high school teachers, forced them further from direct personal engagement with students, which is the essence of effective teaching and learning.
In thirty-five years of teaching in the California State University system I watched it decline in budgeted support and grow in diverse bureaucratic distractions from the reason we professors thought we were there: teaching and research. At the same time, I learned more and more about how the primary and secondary systems were destroying the chances of very bright individuals in the poverty ridden central areas of Los Angeles. The university students I taught were increasingly unprepared for the work. The hardest part was realizing that innately intelligent individuals simply had not been prepared with the skills needed to succeed in college and there was little I could do about it by that stage. I also discovered that colleagues in other cities and states were experiencing the same decline on their campuses as I was, including some of the nation’s most elite institutions.
Now, the power elites have just about what they want, except for an adequate supply of technical drones for their operations. Today, the plutocracy’s growing problem is that people are not as stupid as the elites expect them to be by depriving them of a real education; they are increasingly angry at being effectively cut off from even modest economic success, and they are ready to do something about it. As in other areas – the economy, politics, community relations – people are organizing themselves to achieve what the conventional institutions have failed to make possible. No, I’m not talking about corporate ‘charter schools’ or ‘privatized’ trade schools. Community based schools are emerging with a human focus. That is where the defense of education will be based and where the full education of citizens will be found.
The massive problems of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty wages caused by the trajectory of the failing growth economy will not be solved by education alone, despite pundits’ claims that workers are not prepared for the good jobs, which are insufficient in number anyway. The larger question is whether we are willing to support the broad public education that is necessary if we are to transition to a new ecological economy as a strong democracy, or whether we will fail entirely and devolve into social chaos. We must choose, and act now, because we have a long way to go.