Elementary Remarks on the Education System
The university education system is a primary obstacle in overcoming the apathy and conformism which is gripping our generation. If we dislike the fact that for the last seven years most of us have passively accepted one of the most violent, undemocratic presidential administrations in American history, we should be concerned about our university’s role in promoting this passivity.
Unfortunately, instead of fostering creativity, our classes cultivate conformism and privilege obedience. The ways they do this are straightforward. They are so obvious, in fact, that in order to miss them we must either have warped ideas of freedom, or we are willfully ignorant.
From kindergarten to now, teachers have flooded us with stupid, meaningless assignments. Those who “succeeded”—all of us—are those who actually did the assignments. We’re the ones who didn’t care that we didn’t like math or literature or whatever. We sat down and did the work anyway because that’s what we were supposed to do. Those who didn’t do the work, or had the insane notion that they had the freedom to speak and move in class were weeded out and labeled stupid or behavior problems.
I don’t want to gloss over this too much. There are medical behavior problems and some people do suffer from retardation, but that’s not most of society. If children won’t sit still for eight hours a day it’s because they weren’t meant to sit still for eight hours a day. And it’s likely that if people aren’t making high grades, that the material they’re being taught is meaningless to them and they don’t understand why they should pay attention to it.
The result is that school dulls your creativity and teaches you to accept authority regardless of reason. Much of what passes for learning—in all levels of education—is clock watching, waiting for the day to end. School teaches you to endure boredom. It takes the best, most lively parts of you and tries to destroy them. As many authors have documented, this system was created for the sake of industrial capitalism. If people were to work in factories, their wandering impulses had to be squashed. Here’s an excerpt about this from Juliet Schor’s excellent book, The Overworked American (p. 60- 61, excerpted from Chomsky’s Understanding Power):
“Employers found the first generation of industrial workers almost impossible to discipline. Attendance was irregular, and turnover high. Tolerance for the mindlessness and monotony of factory work was low. “The highlander, it was said, ‘never sits at ease at a loom; it is like putting a deer in the plough.'” Employers devised various schemes to instill obedience. They posted supervisors, levied fines, and fired their workers. Beatings were common, especially among slaves and child laborers. One early factory owner explained: “I prefer fining to beating, if it answers . . . [but] fining does not answer. It does not keep the boys at their work.” Many employers and social reformers became convinced that the adult population was irredeemably unfit for factory work. They looked to children, hoping that “the elementary school could be used to break the labouring classes into those habits of work discipline now necessary for factory production. . . . Putting little children to work at school for very long hours at very dull subjects was seen as a positive virtue, for it made them ‘habituated, not to say naturalized, to labour and fatigue.'””
Universities continue this same system of dominance.
If we wish to overturn this state of affairs, if we are frustrated with our lives and the way our country is moving, the education system—the first 22 or so years of most of our lives—must be drastically reformed. In my next article I’ll expand on some more problems in the system, and I’ll try to give a thumbnail sketch of what a rational education system should look like. In the meantime, I hope you discuss this with each other. The first step of any change is figuring out what we think, and that can only happen through conversation. This means we must overcome the toxic anti-socialism that is also a byproduct of this education system.
The University of Texas at Austin Students for a Democratic Society