But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world's financial architecture, when anything seemed possible. [ ... ] Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?” [ ... ] Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they’d been before.
Why did this happen? Obviously there are far more reasons than a mere blog post can address, but one of them is surely rooted in the education system. We are not put through that system to become critical thinkers, to question, to carry on learning. We are compulsorily put through that system to have our independence of spirit broken, to be made compliant, obedient, susceptible to advertising, propaganda, to fail to care enough about the indignity of factory-line work and consumerism. Consequently, faced with the challenge of creating a new model, we balked. We don’t have it in us. Not after our ‘education’ knocked it out of us, that is.
Now, those are aggressive and sweeping words, but I suggest they hold generally (there are always exceptions). Before I go on, I’d like to point out I do not believe in ‘control’ by supremely gifted puppet masters of some lumpen mass. I do not believe in Us and Them projections. As far as I’m concerned, it’s “We, the 100%,” at least, as a mode of perception more constructive long term than “We, the 99%,” as important as that perception is right now. Our predicament, our reality, is far subtler than Us and Them. Nevertheless, it does serve to look at broad brushstrokes sometimes, especially by way of guidance and as a process for encouraging critical thought.
John Taylor Gatto wrote a paper back in 2003 called, “How public education cripples our kids, and why.” He has written books too, which I strongly recommend. Gatto thoroughly researched the origins of public education, in particular the sort of thinking behind its design and purpose. He singles out Alexander Inglis and his 1918 book, “Principles of Secondary Education”. For Inglis, public education was to be “a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table.” Gatto then describes the six core functions of public education as understood by Inglis:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.
And it makes sense to the mindset of that era. Sir Ken Robinson campaigns vigourously for a revolution in the education system, as his talk to the RSA a short while ago attests. In the talk I link to, he says:
It [the education system] was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. [ ... ] I believe we have a system of education which is modeled on the interests of industrialism, and in the image of it. [ ... ] We still educate children by batches, we put them through the system by age group. Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?
Gatto would answer that it serves the interests of industry. Lewis Mumford would point out that the ‘owners’ of the machinery hold the machinery in higher regard than the people it is supposed to serve. Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is replete with imagery conceived and composed in angry reaction to this basic truth.
Buckminster Fuller’s account of a childhood experience demonstrates clearly that mode of thinking (scarcity- and fear-based, mixed with what I think of as paternalistic and patrician pragmatism):
Just before I went to Harvard University in 1913 [ ... ] an “uncle” gave me some counsel. He was a very rich “uncle.”[ ... ] “Young man, I think I must tell you some things that won’t make you very happy. [ ... ] Those few of us who are rich and who really have the figures know that it is worse than one chance in one hundred that you can survive your allotted days in any comfort. It is not you or the other fellow; it is you or one hundred others. [ ... If] you have a family of five and wish to prosper—you’re going to have to do it at the expense of five hundred others. So do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how and as your conscience will allow.”
“Utopia or Oblivion”, pp161-2
If you have the responsibility of keeping things going, if you know for certain there’s not enough to go around, of course you need to control the beast that is The Proletariat. The alternative is anarchy and revolution, a bloody waste of time since the outcome can only ever be the rebuilding of the same system with a different ‘elite’ at the helm.
I see no evil here, only people working with what they have. And that’s what we all do. Only, for various reasons I won’t go into here—apart from to again mention that nothing lasts forever, not even paradigms—we are confronted with the challenge of changing course. Our dying (or dead) paradigm is causing terrible damage to the environments which sustain us, social and ecological, and we need new tools and technologies (I use those words in the broadest possible sense) that were not taught us in a school system designed not only to perpetuate the status quo, but also to prevent critical thinking, as well as retard emotional and political maturity.
At the moment I’m studying to become a teacher (oh, the irony). The coursework has brought me again to my John Holt books. In “Instead of Education”, Holt has this to say:
You cannot have human liberty, and the sense of all persons’ uniqueness, dignity, and worth on which it must rest, if you give to some people the right to tell other people what they must learn or know, or the right to say officially and “objectively” that some people are more able and worthy than others. Let any who want to make such judgments make them privately and in the understanding that such judgments can only be personal and subjective. But do not give them any permanent or official position, or the liberty and dignity of your citizens will soon be gone.
For these reasons and others I often shout that we must self-educate, and support each other in our efforts. This is not an easy undertaking, and of course people will, and must be free to wander different paths. While we are engaged in this stage of our journeys and encouraging others to leave the existing paradigm and join us in creating the new, we must bear in mind that we are like a walking wounded, that self-education is also self-healing; that it must be, in some way, about community, and that we need each other too.
Meanwhile, we need not beat ourselves up about not having a ready plan to kick into gear, that our nerve failed, that our beaten down imaginations are having a hard time seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Nor need we despair (though that is part of growing out of the safety of the devil you know), for we can create, we can think critically, we are intelligent, we can find friends and like minds; wisdom is something we can all develop.
Indeed, there is wisdom everywhere we look. We just need to acquire the imagination to see it.