The Failure of Mass Education
What are our public schools but an instrument of the state? Our students are not taught the skills of critical thinking that would serve them well as citizens in a free society for the entirety of their lives. Mass education focuses upon memorization and scoring well on exams. Our schools do not promote independent thought or independent actions–they teach conformity and control of the masses. Every student is taught virtually the same thing in essentially the same way–much of it untrue; especially history and economics. Our students are not educated to become useful and creative members of society; they are programmed to be unquestioning conformists and mindless consumers of goods and propaganda. Thus we are creating a society of automatons who will never challenge authority, who will behave predictably and will be staunch defenders of the status quo. In other words, they will become the passive core of American Society.
The state is thus assured that the vast majority of our youth will never make trouble and will never pose a serious threat to power. They are raising a crop of non-creative robots that will always do what they are told without question. Most of these students will buy into the American dream, only to find it elusive when the end of life draws near. They will work hard at jobs that drain their spirit of life and vitality, most of them earning little more than subsistence wages, many of them at multiple jobs. I know much of this only too well through my own experience and personal failures.
The idea of measuring the progress of millions of individual students by subjecting them to standardized tests is absurd. This doest not measure the progress made by the student; it measures the progress made by the system. Our schools are really factories of mass production where the object isn’t to educate and inform, but to produce a homogenous culture of non-thinking conformists and consumers. The finished product is like a fast food hamburger from McDonald’s. It’s uniformly the same no matter where you buy it from.
Thoreau said, “Education makes a straight ditch of a free meandering brook.” Schools are effective institutions for controlling the masses. It is no coincidence that they closely resemble the factory system in their methods of production. A homogenous population is easier to control than a diverse, free thinking population. A critical thinking society is downright dangerous to the rule of those in power. I doubt whether this is done by conscious design; but nevertheless the results speak for themselves.
There are just enough free thinking non-conformists among us to innovate and to move society slowly forward. The most important changes never occur at the center of society–they occur on the radical fringes. This is the place where people still ask relevant questions, examine historical events critically and speak with candor about them. It is where the risk takers are. It is the sphere where people refuse to believe what they are told without question; a place where people refuse to conform for the sake of conformity. It is the sphere from which our greatest citizens have always come.
One of the greatest benefits to the corporations that run the country is that they receive not only an easily controlled work force, but also a work force that takes orders well and does what it is told without question. Business requires conformity more than it needs innovation. And most of the innovation that we have in this corporate oligarchy is to improve the methods of mass production of goods. These innovations are rarely purely scientific or humanitarian in nature–they are for the improvement of the bottom line.
The system of education in our schools tends to be self policing. It not only demands conformity, it openly disdains radical thought and dissent. If you think differently and behave differently from the multitudes you will be labeled as ‘different'; you will be viewed with suspicion and contempt. You will be seen as an oddity, scorned by your fellow classmates. If you are different enough from the masses and these traits persist into adulthood, you might even fall under the surveillance of the FBI and be targeted as an enemy of the state or a terrorist. When you are targeted for imprisonment or assassination, you know you have reached the pinnacle of success.
The mass education system in the US exists primarily for the benefit of business. The advantages to business are that they have a constant supply of inexpensive semi-skilled and skilled labor that can be easily exploited.
The curriculum that is taught in our public schools comes from a perspective that is very favorable to business and commerce. It is by nature exclusionary to contrarian views. This way of teaching portrays capitalism in the most favorable light possible. It gives an especially fanciful rendition of history that bears little resemblance to reality or fact.
The great people that have emerged at the forefront of our society are there not because of the educational system but in spite of it. They are the exception, not the norm. Some of these people include: June Jordan, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, Cynthia McKinney, Malcolm X, Tim Hermach, Ambrose Lane, William Blum and Amy Goodman, to name a few. Yet society has benefited immensely from the courage and wisdom of a small minority of its citizens. We are better as a culture because of contributions to society made by these critical thinking people. And if our public education were structured differently, these people might be the norm rather than the exception. Imagine what might be possible if we had a system of education that produced thousands more of these people every decade or so instead of only a dozen or so.
Of course it is not in the self interest of capitalism to educate people who can see capitalism for what it is, to think critically about it, and perhaps even do something to change it. Corporate education exists to promote programming consumers and providing an obedient work force to an unfair slave wage system, not to provide society with a well informed and politically active citizenry. In fact these are the things that pose the greatest threat to America’s corporate oligarchy.
The continued programming of malleable young minds for the purpose of promoting capitalism paves the way for a poorly informed, passive society capable of believing any lie, accepting any atrocity and calling it liberation, democracy or justice–calling it anything but what it really is. If we are ever to have a peaceful and just society that values the contributions of its citizens equally, we have to begin by first educating ourselves and then our youth. Self deceit does not work in the public interest. It never has.
CHARLES SULLIVAN is a veteran wild forest activist, writer and cabinetmaker who resides on twenty acres of land in the rural countryside of West Virginia.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org