Educators and Academics: Educate Yourselves as Americans Turn to the Right

Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley campus

Thousands of faculty and students staged a walkout on September 24, 2009, to protest dramatic budget cuts, layoffs, and tuition hikes at the University of California, Berkeley. Until students go door-to-door and convince taxpayers that their education has higher societal value than training people to compete for the best jobs, even liberal legislators may perceive no political alternative to cutting public sector funding. Credit: Creative Commons/Ben Chaney.

As Americans increasingly buy into political notions that prioritize budget cuts over the provision of necessary human services, educational institutions across the country find themselves facing severe economic crises. Teachers face layoffs. College professors witness their students increasingly distracted by economic fears. Classes at all levels are overpacked, making individual attention to students’ needs increasingly difficult to supply. From kindergarten to graduate and professional schools, the threat of online or computerized teaching replacing face-to-face teaching puts the very future of the education profession in doubt. The resulting economic insecurity pervades teachers’ consciousness.

And yet, educators and academics in some ways helped to create this crisis by failing to introduce students to a different worldview that would have protected education and prioritized caring for others over maximizing the bottom line and looking out for number one.

Few of us have any ability to offset the massive indoctrination toward materialism and selfishness offered by the mass media. The call to maximize self-interest at the expense of others and the belief that success is measured by how much money or power you can accumulate, how many consumer items you possess, how much fame you garner, how many sexual conquests you can boast about, or how much your looks conform to popular images of beauty—these are drummed into our heads by the media in subtle but persistent ways, day in and day out.

There’s only one group in society that has similar access and ability to shape the worldviews and belief structures of most Americans: teachers and academics. The vast majority of Americans go through school, and many go through colleges and professional schools, where they have an opportunity to learn a different set of values. But most don’t. And this is the fault largely (not entirely) of the teachers and academics who play a major role in shaping what those students learn.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a college professor for many years and I know how difficult it is to counter the dominant ideology that has already been internalized in the consciousness of most Americans. They believe that they live in a meritocracy, that they are going to “make it” if they really try, that the system is fundamentally fair or can easily be reformed if enough people want to make changes, that class background is irrelevant to future success, and that the world is made up of people who are fundamentally selfish and hence unreliable as potential allies. By the time students reached my classroom, these ideas were not only deeply ingrained—they were also experienced by most students as a “personal” outlook that they had come to by themselves. Most were unaware of how much these ideas had been drummed into their heads and shared by almost everyone around them.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

But it wouldn’t be impossible to challenge these ideas if schools and colleges were interested in doing so—that is to say, if schools and colleges were to help students reach a more accurate understanding of the world in which they live. Students could be taught that billions of people on this planet want a world based on love, kindness, generosity, caring for each other, environmental sustainability, and joy, but that these same people have come to believe that nobody else really wants that kind of a world. Most people believe that they are being foolish, naive, childish, or unsophisticated if they act to bring such a world into being. And many fear that they will be humiliated, lose economic opportunities, and find themselves isolated, lonely, and abandoned should they act on these desires. Education ought to help students develop confidence in their own capacities to work for a world based on caring and to develop the skills needed to make such a world work.

For students to believe that such a world is possible, thereby rejecting what their parents and their favorite TV shows have taught them, they would need to have transformative experiences in their educational institutions. Educational institutions would have to intentionally counter the dominant ethos of materialism and selfishness, and replace it with an ethos of empathy. They’d have to foster a genuine understanding that there is no such thing as “human nature” but only the choices that we make together and have made in the past that validate one set of feelings (those that lead us to believe we are alone, surrounded by selfish others, and possibly undeserving of success) and tend to discount another set of feelings (our yearning to live in a world of kindness and generosity in which we have time to take in the beauty and grandeur of the universe). Educational institutions would have to focus on validating the strengths and goodness of students; help them to see the strengths and goodness in each other; reward them for their capacities to cooperate and create new realities with their fellow students; and open them to the long and marvelous history of human beings who have cooperated with each other in creating science, agriculture, cooking, music, literature, ethics, ecology, dance, film, and wisdom traditions that manifest in religions and other philosophies of being. And schools would have to raise students’ consciousness about the injustices of global inequalities of power and wealth, as well as inequalities in access to health care, education, clean air, pure water, healthy food, and land.

Students would also have to unlearn messages they had gotten from parents and fellow students that made them feel undeserving of love, friendship, and attention. And they’d have to be freed from the societal messages that told them that learning itself is less valuable than its practical uses—i.e., that learning is only good if it is useful for some external purpose. In short, they’d have to learn the pleasure of learning.

In such a school system, students would learn how to mentor each other and how to educate their parents and their neighbors about the nature of the world and the need for greater caring and generosity, greater sharing of what we have, and more trust and hope in what we can become. And they’d learn how to deal with the tremendous resistance those parents, friends, and neighbors are likely to show when confronted with students who have these ideas.

Students in a school system, college, or university oriented in this direction could be taught how to go door-to-door in their own neighborhoods or in other areas to help fellow citizens understand why social services and education should be funded more fully. They’d make the case for why tax breaks for the rich and for corporations should be replaced by a system of taxation that explicitly seeks to generate greater equality and greater funds for the priorities generated when a society has caring for each other and caring for the earth as its highest goals.

“But this is impossible,” you may object. “We can’t possibly teach values in our school systems, much less prepare students to be advocates for those values in our public arena. You are talking about indoctrinating others with your values, and thereby undermining the two-hundred-year struggle of liberals and progressives to get religious indoctrination out of schools. What you are advocating is really dangerous.”

This line of argument seems persuasive only to the extent that we are unwilling to acknowledge the values already underlying our own educational experiences. We’ve come to believe that the schooling we receive is value-neutral—that its values are really not values at all but the manifestations of the highest development of rationality. But in fact the alleged ideological neutrality of contemporary social and economic institutions, including our educational system, is a thin veneer covering a powerful commitment to competitive individualism, scientism, materialism, and selfishness.

The alleged neutrality of contemporary education is a sham that covers up the systematic indoctrination of students into the dominant religion of the contemporary world: the slavish subordination of everyone to the idols of the marketplace. Indeed, contemporary education indoctrinates students to believe that it is “common sense” that all people should seek to maximize their own advantage without regard to the consequences for others; that only that which can be validated through sense observation is real; that it is only human nature for people to compete with each other and seek “individual excellence”; and that schooling should aim to promote economic success, which is supposedly available to anyone who has accumulated the requisite skills and has the requisite intelligence.

In fact, the entire school system in the United States teaches a competitive ethos in which students soon learn that there are only a limited number of places in undergraduate institutions and in graduate or professional schools that open access to the most financially competitive positions. So they must either learn the skills to compete effectively or doom themselves to lower positions in the economic hierarchy. In this setting, the message that we are in a war of all against all is relearned daily in each classroom. The view that human beings are “naturally” competitive and self-seeking seems to students not an imposition from an external ideology, but merely the rational formulation of the life they are experiencing daily in school.

It was not always this way. A spate of recent books, including Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization; Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness; Martin Marty’s Building Cultures of Trust; and Sarah Scuzzarello, Catarina Kinnvall, and Kristen R. Monroe’s On Behalf of Others: The Psychology of Care in a Global World are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging understanding that the competitiveness and selfish materialism that surround us were not always the dominant aspect of civilized life. The current prominence of materialism, these books argue, is the result of a process and struggle, not the flowering of rationality or wisdom. True, contemporary benevolence and altruism are often dismissed as unrealistic or even utopian. As Taylor and Phillips report, “Most people as they grow up now secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” Yet when Nietzsche and the Nazis who later drew on his work were putting forward that idea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was widely challenged at first as being “unnatural.” It is only as the marketplace has permeated our educational institutions that these ideas now appear to be “common sense.”

Once one recognizes that public schools today are set up to both embody and teach the dominant values in this society, it seems a bit less outrageous to suggest that there are other values around which schooling should be structured. And that is precisely what we need to do.

An educator might reply, “Well, even if you are right, I’d lose my job if I started trying to organize my school in this direction. We just can’t do that without generating tremendous opposition.” We need to help our friends in academia and educational institutions face a stark reality and tell them: “If the dynamics of the competitive marketplace continue to shape mass consciousness, you are going to lose your job anyway. This is because most of what teachers do in the narrowly constructed jobs they are being offered can be taught by robots and mass classes on the internet. You will be replaced, and doing so will be done in the name of “progress” and “rationality.”

Moreover, if you are a teacher in your forties, fifties, or sixties and think that you will be able to retire before all this happens, please note that one of the first assaults made by the political Right, acting as the representative of the capitalist class, is on retirement benefits, pensions, and social security. So even if you get to retirement, as the current dynamics continue, your retirement funds may easily be withdrawn in the name of societal frugality—and you may be blamed for having been part of the generation that spent too much money creating deficits.

Those educators who just continue to “go along in order to get along” are surely in denial about how much peril they face, unable to see that unless they act now and get their peers to act now with the one thing they have under your control—their school system itself and what is taught in their classrooms—they and their colleagues are doomed.

All this is going to happen whether or not Obama is re-elected. The indoctrination that leads to the present cutbacks in social services and education shapes the range of alternatives that Democrats and Republicans both believe to be “realistic”—they do not favor the continued funding of education except in the narrowest possible terms. In short, educators and academics are already under a massive attack, and the attack will succeed unless they organize to fight back.

To this you might say, “So why can’t we just appeal to the populace on the grounds that everyone should see the benefits of the educational system as is? Why do we have to make the kind of huge changes you are calling for?” The reason is twofold. First, most people do not have fond memories of their years in school, college, or university, or if they do, it is usually about the social life, sports, and community experiences that took place outside the classroom. Bad memories persist because schooling has been so closely tied to the society’s competitive ethos, and many people felt that the main thing they learned was that they weren’t smart enough or good enough to be a real success. Moreover, most students endured lessons presented in ways that were alienating, non-engaging, and irrelevant to their lives. Finding that their schooling did not clarify any of the major questions in their lives—how to find meaning in life, what values to embrace while trying to live a good life, how to understand oneself and others, or how society could work differently—and believing that their schooling experience constituted “intellectual life,” many people came away from their educational experiences as anti-intellectuals uninterested in opening a serious book.

The second reason why many citizens feel little interest in funding education is that as most adults look around, they see themselves surrounded by others whose education has given them skills to compete. “Fine, that’s reality,” they may tell themselves, “but why should I be funding that kind of education for others? What’s in it for me? If they are going to get the skills they need to compete, possibly against me and certainly against each other, why should I be paying for that? Let them pay for it themselves, and meanwhile reduce my tax burden!”

Those who think this way didn’t get an education that made them feel deeply appreciative of its content or deeply understanding of the need to build a new societal ethos of mutual caring. And that, in short, is why the current mess is not something independent of what educators do and is at least in part a product of educators’ willingness to go along with the competitive marketplace’s ethos of selfishness. But now, before it’s really too late to save their own jobs or pensions, educators need to take on the system directly and change what education is all about.

Of course they can’t do that by themselves. They will need to build allies in the rest of society. Still, teachers and professors have a huge advantage over everyone else, because they have direct access to the next generation and can affect their thinking directly if they dare to do so.

So, if you are involved with a school—as a professor, teacher, student, staff member, school board member, or even a student’s parent—please take this essay and circulate it to everyone in that school or college or university, and invite people to a meeting to discuss the ideas. If they don’t come, call them and ask them if they’d be willing to meet with you one-on-one.

Second, if you are an educator who belongs to a union, please take this essay and these ideas to that body. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are filled with decent and principled people who would love to be able to have schools do what they really ought to be doing. But they believe that to be utopian. Your task is to convince them that not creating a different ethos and orientation in schools is actually more utopian and unrealistic if they want to preserve the education profession over the next decades. Of course the leadership of the unions both locally and nationally are going to resist passionately; they have found that union members don’t come to meetings and don’t seem to care much about the union except when it comes to bargaining for higher wages and benefits, so they are going to believe that your vision represents only a few extremists or spiritual nutcases. So you have to be prepared to challenge them at every turn, if you can’t convince them to be your real allies in this. You (yes, you!) will have to run for union leadership to replace those who don’t get on board to change the educational system in this fundamental way.

Still, opponents will have a powerful argument: “If we do this,” they may say, “the local school board will fire us for politicizing our classrooms and for not giving enough time to develop the skills that are needed to compete globally.” And there’s only one reasonable response to that: the union has to run candidates for the school board and change its direction. Now, that is a big task, but not an impossible one. Unions can’t win such elections if they are seeking power on the school boards to advance their personal interests (namely, getting better wages and benefits for teachers, more money for education, and smaller classroom sizes). All these sound to the public like an agenda of self-interest. If self-interest is what the campaign is about, why should the public back such candidates when they believe their own self-interest would better be served by lower taxes and less money for education? It’s only if the union (or a group of educators acting independently of the union) puts forward candidates who want to change the school system so that it trains students to be more caring and socially responsible that Americans are likely to respond in a positive way.

Similarly, college faculty who nominally are in charge of curricula can begin to organize to change the fundamentals of what a college, graduate, or professional school education should be about. The first step might be to convene a mandatory first week of each semester dedicated to educating students (and faculty) on the notion of a caring society. Since the ideas of selfishness and materialism are so deeply ingrained, this week should not be structured as a debate between what will be perceived as utopian ideas versus rationalist common sense. Instead, it should be overtly aimed at raising consciousness about a different worldview, albeit one that has deep roots in humans’ intellectual, cultural, spiritual, religious, and psychological heritage.

“Whoa,” you might respond, “I am not a political person and your agenda would force me to be involved in struggles that would make me feel uncomfortable.” Well, yes, that is true. But you will be more uncomfortable facing the kind of society that’s in store for all of us unless we stand up against it together.

“Still can’t I get through on my own? Aren’t you painting a dark picture? Surely what you are predicting is not about to happen in 2013 or 2014?” Maybe you are right on that count. The destruction of our educational system has been moving apace in bits and pieces, and the process may take many more years. But if the worldview of materialism and selfishness continues to dominate the public sphere as it has in the past thirty years—with Democrats arguing for education funding solely on the grounds that it will make the United States “better able to compete in the international marketplace”—then the logic of cutting educational expenses and commodifying and rationalizing skills until they can be taught by a robot is likely to be unstoppable. When those same values enter public life, they inspire a shrinking of the government because too much government means serving “someone else” in addition to our own personal interests—and then the public demands to spend less money on education.

Of course, this process will not happen all at once. But it is happening very quickly. Perhaps it will first be pensions that get attacked, or maybe the public universities and colleges, or maybe the transformation of the workday and work year for teachers. Bit by bit, education will be transformed, and the careers of educators or academics will be far more precarious, if not totally ended.

So, educators and academics: educate yourselves! And then, start promoting the kind of changes needed to build schools, colleges, and universities filled with students who will join you in challenging the dominant ethos and championing the caring society. Let me know when you’ve got a group of educators together in your geographical area who agree with this analysis and want to move forward with it. I’d be happy to brainstorm with them about next steps!


(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


One thought on “Educators and Academics: Educate Yourselves as Americans Turn to the Right

  1. I think the ideas of people like John Hunter with teaching fourth graders the “world peace game” will help societies on the whole. @Tedtalks Sir Ken Robinson also comes to mind as someone who is on the pulse of changing the way educating is done. Both these teachers are eloquent on the subject.