“Teaching children to acclimate is necessary to some degree, of course, but that currently comprises well over ninety per cent of educational effort ‘cross the country, ‘cross the board. And very little energy is devoted to how youngsters can alter society radically, which is what will be necessary, of course, if they are to inherit a world worth living in. Acclimate today seems to mean avoiding our collective crises. — one of the author’s home schooled charges, having just completed a traditional college Liberal Arts program at nineteen-years-old… at home.

“I can tell you that the vast majority of educators nationwide have given up on the Big Picture, or falsely believe that Science and Technology, without our having to undergo radical personal transformation, hold the key to collective survival.” — Iris Chang, just prior to her suicide, 2004

Skip the asterisked paragraph-after-next below, if you’re in a rush. The important thing about this article is to get with new action which will transform your local educational scenes as soon as this piece has been read. It’s important to not get bogged down with peripheral differences; the thrust of what’s below is what I’d like to see brought up in all academic circles. Post haste.

At least since the Enlightenment, education has been seen as one of the few opportunities for humanity to lift the veil of ignorance and create a better world. The actual state of education in the U.S, today has both positive and negative elements. The former are cited daily and enthusiastically reported via mainstream media outlets (reaching the vast majority of the public), whereas the latter are given short shrift, if that.

*Everyone seems to know about how high tech gadgetry (often donated in self-serving fashion by Silicon Valley entities) makes certain information more accessible, and enables academics to honor their agendas expeditiously. But the dangers of, say, Wi-Fi are not even discussed, nor are the most popular sources of students’ information sufficiently questioned, if at all. And this dynamic does not cover the vast realm of important issues which are ignored by design, as they have been for generations. No one would dare to seriously question the intentions of our Founding Fathers or the true raison d-etre of today’s EPA at most schools, not in depth.

An educated public is surely a prerequisite for a functioning democracy– where “educated” means not just informed but enabled to inquire freely and productively, the primary end of education. That goal is sometimes sometimes advanced, sometimes impeded, in actual practice, and to shift the balance in the right direction is a major task — a task of unusual importance in the United States, in part because of its unique power and international reach, in part because of the way in which it differs in so many respects from other developed societies.

In the early days of the modern educational system, two models were sometimes counterposed. Education could be conceived as a vessel into which one pours water — and a very leaky vessel, as we all know. Or it could be thought of as a thread, laid out by the instructor, along which students proceed in their own ways, developing their own capacities to “inquire and create” — the model advocated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university system.

The educational philosophies of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and other advocates of progressive and critical pedagogy can, I think, be regarded as further developments of the Humboldtian conception — which is often implemented as a matter of course in research universities, because it is so essential to advanced teaching and research, particularly in the sciences. A very famous physicist was known for telling his freshman charges that “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.” And the same ideas have been quite imaginatively developed down to the kindergarten level (sometimes under the Montessori, Reggio-Emilia and Waldorf umbrellas to various degrees); they are quite appropriate everywhere in the educational system, of course, not just in the sciences.

Currently, fashionable programs of teach-to-test which embrace the water-in-the-vessel model present enormous problems for one and all, as they do not focus sufficiently on addressing our collective crises, assuming — wrongly — that someone else is taking up that challenge effectively… or potentially effectively. That is not the case, and I can definitively document my claim, upon request.

Alternative approaches provide the models that should be pursued if there is to be some hope that a truly educated population, in all of the dimensions of the term, will be able to face the very critical questions that should be on the agenda in academia… and everywhere.

The market-driven education tendencies are unfortunately very real and harmful. And pervasive. They should be regarded as part of the general neoliberal assault on the public. The business model seeks “efficiency,” which means imposing “flexibility of labor” and what Alan Greenspan hailed as “growing worker insecurity” when he was praising the great economy he was running (before it crashed). That translates into such measures as undermining longer term commitments to faculty and relying on cheap and exploitable temporary labor (adjuncts, graduate students). The consequences are terrible for the work force, the students, research and inquiry, in fact all the goals that higher education should seek to achieve.

Sometimes, according to Noam Chomsky, such attempts to drive the higher education system toward service to the private sector take forms that are almost comical: “In the state of Wisconsin… governor Scott Walker and other reactionaries have been attempting to undermine what was once the great University of Wisconsin, changing it to an institution that will serve the needs of the business community of the Badger State, while also cutting the budget and increasing reliance on temporary staff (‘flexibility’). At one point the state government even wanted to change the traditional mission of the university, deleting the commitment to ‘seeking truth’ — a waste of time for an institution producing people who will be useful for Wisconsin businesses. That was so outrageous that it hit the newspapers, and officials had to claim it was a clerical error and withdraw it.” [The author’s freshman year was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1960]

This is all, sadly, illustrative of what is happening, not only in the United States but also in many other places. Commenting on  these developments in the UK, Stefan Collini concluded all too plausibly that the Tory government is attempting to turn first-class universities into third-class commercial institutions. So, for example, the classics department at Oxford will have to prove that it can sell itself in the market. If there is no market demand, why should people study and investigate classical Greek literature? That’s the ultimate vulgarization that can result from imposing the state capitalist principles of the business classes on the whole of society.

We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.

Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator for half a century. He can be reached at aptosnews@gmail.com. This was written with the input of the Oxman Collective.


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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    As long as education is limited to rote learning and reproducing, the society will only produce ‘ robot ‘ intellectuals. But if education is creativity, questioning and opposing established views, the students coming out into society will be genuine scientific analysts – cum – intellectuals