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Forum Post: The Assault on Public Education by noam chomsky

Posted 2 years ago on April 7, 2012, 10:59 a.m. EST by flip (4949)
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

Public education is under attack around the world, and in response, student protests have recently been held in Britain, Canada, Chile, Taiwan and elsewhere.

California is also a battleground. The Los Angeles Times reports on another chapter in the campaign to destroy what had been the greatest public higher education system in the world: “California State University officials announced plans to freeze enrollment next spring at most campuses and to wait-list all applicants the following fall pending the outcome of a proposed tax initiative on the November ballot.”

Similar defunding is under way nationwide. “In most states,” The New York Times reports, “it is now tuition payments, not state appropriations, that cover most of the budget,” so that “the era of affordable four-year public universities, heavily subsidized by the state, may be over.”

Community colleges increasingly face similar prospects–and the shortfalls extend to grades K-12.

“There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education, to a belief that it’s the people receiving the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the bill,” concludes Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a trustee of the State University system of New York and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

A more accurate description, I think, is “Failure by Design,” the title of a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, which has long been a major source of reliable information and analysis on the state of the economy.

The EPI study reviews the consequences of the transformation of the economy a generation ago from domestic production to financialization and offshoring. By design; there have always been alternatives.

One primary justification for the design is what Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called the “religion” that “markets lead to efficient outcomes,” which was recently dealt yet another crushing blow by the collapse of the housing bubble that was ignored on doctrinal grounds, triggering the current financial crisis.

Claims are also made about the alleged benefits of the radical expansion of financial institutions since the 1970s. A more convincing description was provided by Martin Wolf, senior economic correspondent for The Financial Times: “An out-of-control financial sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.”

The EPI study observes that the “Failure of Design” is class-based. For the designers, it has been a stunning success, as revealed by the astonishing concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, in fact the top 0.1 percent, while the majority has been reduced to virtual stagnation or decline.

In short, when they have the opportunity, “the Masters of Mankind” pursue their “vile maxim” of “all for ourselves and nothing for other people,” as Adam Smith explained long ago.

Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American society. It has had many dimensions. One purpose was to prepare independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate what they regarded as virtual slavery.

The coercive element did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.

The “vile maxim” and its implementation have regularly called forth resistance, which in turn evokes the same fears among the elite. Forty years ago there was deep concern that the population was breaking free of apathy and obedience.

At the liberal internationalist extreme, the Trilateral Commission–the nongovernmental policy group from which the Carter Administration was largely drawn – issued stern warnings in 1975 that there is too much democracy, in part due to the failures of the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young.” On the right, an important 1971 memorandum by Lewis Powell, directed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the main business lobby, wailed that radicals were taking over everything – universities, media, government, etc. – and called on the business community to use its economic power to reverse the attack on our prized way of life – which he knew well. As a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, he was quite familiar with the workings of the nanny state for the rich that he called “the free market.”

Since then, many measures have been taken to restore discipline. One is the crusade for privatization – placing control in reliable hands.

Another is sharp increases in tuition, up nearly 600 percent since 1980. These produce a higher education system with “far more economic stratification than is true of any other country,” according to Jane Wellman, former director of the Delta Cost Project, which monitors these issues. Tuition increases trap students into long-term debt and hence subordination to private power.

Justifications are offered on economic grounds, but are singularly unconvincing. In countries rich to poor, including Mexico next-door, tuition remains free or nominal. That was true as well in the United States itself when it was a much poorer country after World War II and huge numbers of students were able to enter college under the GI bill – a factor in uniquely high economic growth, even putting aside the significance in improving lives.

Another device is the corporatization of the universities. That has led to a dramatic increase in layers of administration, often professional instead of drawn from the faculty as before; and to imposition of a business culture of “efficiency” – an ideological notion, not just an economic one.

One illustration is the decision of state colleges to eliminate programs in nursing, engineering and computer science, because they are costly – and happen to be the professions where there is a labor shortage, as The New York Times reports. The decision harms the society but conforms to the business ideology of short-term gain without regard for human consequences, in accord with the vile maxim.

Some of the most insidious effects are on teaching and monitoring. The Enlightenment ideal of education was captured in the image of education as laying down a string that students follow in their own ways, developing their creativity and independence of mind.

The alternative, to be rejected, is the image of pouring water into a vessel – and a very leaky one, as all of us know from experience. The latter approach includes teaching to test and other mechanisms that destroy students’ interest and seek to fit them into a mold, easily controlled. All too familiar today.

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[-] 3 points by francismjenkins (3713) 2 years ago

Yeah, which is why I'd love to see more discussion on tangible proposals to fix these sort of problems. I mean, states have a revenue problem (no doubt about that), and California is probably worse off than any other state in this regard. We obviously need to normalize the upper tax rate, cut things like military spending where we can, but these things alone will not give us the revenue we need.

I think it's time to think about a value added tax. Maybe we could allow a revenue split between the federal and state governments. This not only fixes the revenue problem at both levels, but it would also allow us to pass a fiscal stimulus.

We need to expand our state colleges, we need to modernize airports, bridges, water lines, etc. We could also do something like put together a loan program for small businesses, particularly employee owned companies, with a focus on manufacturing.

Not exactly the focus of OWS, but it's related to all the issues we're concerned about.

[-] 2 points by jojo (16) 2 years ago

The education issue will always be hard to win because it is impossible to disentangle 1) the need to learn, pass on technique, etc. (what we want)

and 2) the need to justify our hierarchy, legitimize why some people get good jobs with high rewards and others don't (what we oppose)

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[-] -1 points by HCabret (-327) 10 months ago

He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson. That is funny....

RWE=Individualist who was against socialism and collectivism and encouraged people to think and live for themselves.

NC=Collectivism who is in favor of socialism and encourages people to think and live for other people.

Why arent people outraged at the closures and limited access of public libraries?

Education isnt like tv, you cant just sit there and soak it in.

[-] 2 points by flip (4949) 9 months ago

Falcone: Yes, right. Well before I would go into discussing the 21st century, can you comment on this country's history with education, and what tradition do you think we have grown out of in terms of education?

Chomsky: That's an interesting question. The US was kind of a pioneer in mass public education. Actually, this here is land-grant university which is part of the big 19th-century expansion of our education through federal grant. And most of them are out in the West, but this is one. And also, just-for-children mass public education, which is a pretty good thing. It wasn't a major contribution, but it had qualifications. For one thing, it was partly concerned with taking a country of independent farmers, many of them pretty radical. You go back to the late 19th century, the Farmer's Alliance was coming out of Texas and was the most radical popular Democratic organization anywhere in history, I think. It's hard to believe if you look at Texas today.

And these were independent farmers. They stick up for their rights - they didn't want to be slaves. And they had to be driven into factories and turned into tools for someone else. There's a lot of resistance to it. So a lot of public education was, in fact, concerned with trying to teach independent people to become workers in an industrial system.

And there was more to it than that. Actually, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on it. He said something like this: he hears a lot of political leaders saying that we have to have mass public education. And the reason is that millions of people are getting the vote, and we have to educate them to keep them from our throats. In other words, we have to train them in obedience and servility, so they're not going to think through the way the world works and come after our throats.

So, it's kind of a mixture. There's a lot of good things about it, but there were also, you know, the property class. The people who concentrate wealth don't do things just out of the goodness of their hearts for the most part, but in order to maintain their position of dominance and then extend their power. And it's been kind of that battle all the way through.

Right now, we happen to be in a general period of regression, not just in education. A lot of what's happening is sort of backlash to the 60s; the 60s were a democratizing period. And the society became a lot more civilized and there was a lot of concern about education across the spectrum - liberals, conservatives and bipartisan. It's kind of interesting to read the liberal literature in the 70s, but there was concern about what they called, at the liberal end, "the failures of the institutions responsible for indoctrinating the young." That's the phrase that was used, which expresses the liberal view quite accurately. You got to keep them from our throats. So the indoctrination of the young wasn't working properly. That was actually Samuel Huntington, professor of government at Harvard, kind of a liberal stalwart. And he co-authored a book-length report called The Crisis of Democracy. There was something that had to be done to increase indoctrination, to beat back the democratizing wave. The economy was sharply modified and went through a liberal period, with radical inequality, stagnation, financial institutions, all that stuff. Student debt started to skyrocket, which is quite important. But that's a technique of indoctrination in itself. It's never been studied. Important things usually never get studied; it's just putting together the bits of information about it. One can at least be suspicious that skyrocketing student debt is a device of indoctrination. It's very hard to imagine that there's any economic reason for it. Other countries' education is free, like Mexico's, and that is a poor country.

Finland's, which has the best educational system in the world, by the records at least, is free. Germany's is free. The United States in the 1950s was a much poorer country. But education was basically free: the GI Bill and so on. So there's no real economic reason for high-priced higher education and skyrocketing student debt. There are a lot of factors. And one of them, probably, is just that students are trapped.

The other is what's happening to teachers like you. They're turning into adjuncts, temporary workers who have no rights, you know. I don't have to tell you what it's like, you can tell me.

But the more you can get the graduate students, temporary workers, two-tier payment, the more people you have under control - and all of that's been going on. And now it's institutionalized with No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top; teach to the test - worst possible way of teaching. But it is a disciplinary technique. Schools are designed to teach the test. You don't have to worry about students thinking for themselves, challenging, raising questions. And you see it down to the lowest level of detail. I give a lot of talks in communities and places where people are concerned about education and I've had teachers come up to me and say afterwards, you know, I teach sixth grade. A little girl came up after class and said she was interested in something that came up in class, and wanted to know how to look into it. And I tell her, you can't do it; you got to study for the test. Your future depends on it; my salary depends on it.

And that's happening all over. And it has the obvious technique of dumbing down the population, and also controlling them. And it's bipartisan. The Obama administration is pushing it. Also, an effort to kill the schools - the charter school movement vouchers, all this kind of stuff is nothing but an effort to destroy the public education system. It claims that it gives the parents choices, but that's ridiculous.

For most people, they can't make the choices; there are not any. It's like saying everyone has a choice to become a millionaire. You do, in a way: there's no law against it.

Falcone: You have indicated in some of your writings the effects of Taylorism - a management method that breaks tasks down into small parts to increase efficiency - as a form of on-job control. Does our educational system foster a form of on-job control?

Chomsky: Off-job control. Actually, the term is sometimes even used - Taylorism - by the business press. Taylorism gives on-job control, but we have to be careful to have off-job control and there are a lot of devices for that: education is one. But advertising is another. The advertising industry is a huge industry, and anyone with their eyes open can see what it's for. First of all, the existence of the advertising industry is a sign of the unwillingness to let markets function. If you had markets, you wouldn't have advertising. Like, if somebody has something to sell, they say what it is and you buy it if you want. But when you have oligopolies, they want to stop price wars. They have to have product differentiation, and you got to turn to diluting people into thinking you should buy this rather than that. Or just getting them to consume - if you can get them to consume, they're trapped, you know.

It starts with the infant, but now there's a huge part of the advertising industry which is designed to capture children. And it's destroying childhood. Anyone who has any experience with children can see this. It's literally destroying childhood. Kids don't know how to play. They can't go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you're finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can't do anything like that. It's got to be organized by adults, or else you're at home with your gadgets, your video games.

But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that's gone. And it's done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts. And that means you're out for yourself. You got the Ayn Rand kind of sociopathic behavior, which comes straight out of the consumer culture. Consumer culture means going out for myself; I don't give a damn about anyone else. I think it's really destroying society in a lot of ways. And education is part of it.

Falcone: Do we as a nation have a reason to fear an assault on public education and the complete privatization of education?

Chomsky: It's part of the way of controlling and dumbing down the population, and that's important. Much has to do with the catastrophe that's looming, mainly environmental catastrophe. It's very serious. It's not generations from now; it's your children and your grandchildren. And the public is pretty close to the scientific consensus. If you look at polls, it will say it's a serious problem; we've got to do something about it. Government doesn't want to, and the corporate sector not only doesn't want to, it's strongly opposed to it. So now, take for example ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It's corporate funded, the Koch brothers and those guys. It's an organization which designs legislation for states, for state legislators. And they've got plenty of clout, so they can get a lot of it through. Now they have a new program, which sounds very pretty on the surface. It's designed to increase "critical thinking." And the way you increase critical thinking is by having "balanced education." "Balanced education" means that if you teach kids something about the climate, you also have to teach them climate change denial. It's like teaching evolution science, but also creation science, so that you have "critical thinking."

All of this is a way of turning the population into a bunch of imbeciles. That's really serious. I mean, it's life and death at this point, not just making society worse.

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[-] -1 points by hchc (3297) from Tampa, FL 2 years ago

More money to shrink class sizes. And get DC the hell out of the way. There is nothing some fat cat beaurocrat knows on how to teach my kids.

Unitl then, it will get worse. And most of the parents dont really care.