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2009

Tomgram: William Astore, Educating Ourselves to Oblivion
Thursday, 04 June 2009 03:47
by Tom Engelhardt

Can there be any doubt that education matters not just in how we view the world, but in what kind of world we create -- or simply accept? And can there be any doubt that, despite a massive educational infrastructure (admittedly now fraying badly), Americans remain remarkably poorly informed about the world? Last year, Rick Shenkman, the editor of the History News Network website, published a book (now out in paperback), Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, excerpted at this site. Stupid enough (or ill-informed) was the answer.

Since Barack Obama's election, many readers wrote Shenkman asking him if he still believes that "the voters are uninformed. Didn't Obama's election mean they were pretty smart?" In a recent post, he answered regretfully in the negative and here's just a little of what he had to say:

"The highlights of the 2008 election included controversies over Obama's bowling score, his middle name Hussein, and Hillary's crying. These were not exactly issues of much weight at a time when the financial collapse of the country was happening before our eyes. And yet they drew extended media commentary… The media was to blame for the deplorable low quality of much of the campaign. But I am firmly convinced that you get the campaign you deserve… "Take the question of Obama's religion. Millions of voters paid so little attention to the news that they were easily bamboozled into believing that Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. On the eve of the election, confusion reigned. Polls indicated that 7 percent of the voters in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio and 23 percent in Texas believed that Obama was a Muslim. In addition, and worse, more than 40 percent in Florida and Ohio reported that they did not know what his religion was. The arithmetic is horrifying: 7 percent + 40 percent = a near majority guilty of gross ignorance.

"Americans did not come by their confusion by accident. A deliberate campaign was launched by Republicans to convince people that Obama's faith was in question. But what are we to make of voters who could be so easily bamboozled..."

It's sobering to consider just how many Americans can't sort out propaganda (or simply fiction) from fact in the media madness that passes for our "information age." It's no less sobering to consider a corollary possibility: that we get the society we deserve; that, in fact, our youth in college today are being prepared, as TomDispatch regular William Astore (who has taught at both the Air Force Academy and the Pennsylvania College of Technology) suggests, to enter a world in desperate shape, but not to challenge it. Tom

Selling Education, Manufacturing Technocrats, Torturing Souls

The Tyranny of Being Practical

by William Astore

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.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught for six years at the Air Force Academy. He currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. A TomDispatch regular, he also writes for History News Network and Nieman Watchdog. His essays have appeared in The Nation, Salon.com, Asia Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, and elsewhere. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.
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