Anti-schooling Society

Anti-modern and errant pilgrim priest Ivan Illich writes in his galvanizing Deschooling Society that the agenda of modern education consists of the following: “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” Such crippling success is “accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities….” For these behaviorist alchemists, this is the true occult learning or “the hidden curriculum of schools.” This last indictment would be further revealed in John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto’s thesis is that institutional schooling has not been the abysmal failure that is decried by the run-of-the-mill conservative; rather, it has been a smashing success, for it has accomplished what it was designed to do: to manufacture a class of compliant citizens who will then depend upon the state for all their needs, having had all natural curiosity and drive “schooled” out of them. (For those interested, check out JTG’s YouTube channel.)

These statements, all made on the first page, were enough to convict me. I have taught in higher education for the past eleven years. How infuriating, at first, and how depressing, currently, to encounter students who have endured twelves years of ostensible education and who are still incapable of stringing together correctly a subject and a predicate or incapable of following simple instructions, e.g., “Copy and paste one of these three sentences–choose from these three sentences only. It will become the topic sentence for a paragraph that you will then develop in class. Choose from only these three sentences.” Moving beyond basic composition, angels fear to tread into the territorial gaps of knowledge that darken students’ mental maps regarding history, literature, religion, geopolitics, etc.

Teaching in Mississippi, I could easily give any curious person politically inconvenient statistics regarding classroom performance (and behavior) that teachers in other states may not be able to provide. Of course, one common denominator is I. I may be, simply, an ineffectual teacher who could not do anything else in life–though I was not too shabby a cook at a Thai restaurant or a bartender/server at a craft beer joint. However, my (academic) colleagues can give comparable statistics, so unless we are failing in tandem, the blame may lie elsewhere. Perhaps I am mellowing with age, but dead-end discussions about race–and most are–no longer interest me. I acknowledge that systemic abuses will always be present in any institution, though our mistake is to see these abuses only in terms of race or sex or sexual orientation. I also acknowledge that racial differences manifest themselves, among other ways, in both academic achievement and behavior. Beyond that, I am ready and willing to let most people prove themselves individually and am willing to work with most anyone. (One exception concerns having to make a split-second decision regarding a potential threat, especially if my family is with me. When that occurs, I rely upon stereotypes [codified group experience] and personal experience, like most do.)

This live-and-let-live-and-fail-if-need-be-or-succeed-if-possible attitude is not what characterizes education. The reason for this may go back to modern education’s founding purpose: to form a very particular type of person. Thus, from its inception, modern education’s purpose has been ideological. That being the case, it follows that ideologues are drawn to education. Do I include myself? I hope to God not, but only I can answer that question. Currently, we see ideology framing practice in the push for equity. According to Merriam-Webster, equity can mean “justice according to natural law or right, specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.” What does this mean in practice? The demand to allocate more institutional resources and faculty energy to ensure that low-performing students’ outcomes approximate high-performing students’ outcomes. This is insidiously more than an attempt to help all students excel, which should be the aim of all educators. The latter allows for the very real possibility that not all students will excel. However, the former makes as its measure of success that which is, as demonstrated in nature, impossible: equality of performance. The irony of basing a program that is violently unnatural in natural law eludes most administrators who have studied neither literary terminology nor philosophy.

The home-and-hearth rogues at Front Porch Republic descend into the morass of higher ed in their Fall 2021 issue. With nearly every paragraph, I found myself saying, “That’s right!” Jeff Polet writes that the “sensible interest in equality has yielded to the absurd demand for ‘equity.'” Absurd is the best way to label it. He continues: “These mission statements are now so vague in their definitions and so broad in their aspirations, a veritable blizzard of instinct words, that they allow faculty and administrators to employ them as cover for anything they want to do, or nothing at all.” The phrase “instinct words” captures the method perfectly. For example, without considering whether equity can be achieved or at what cost it could be simulated, we use that term because, well, it just makes us feel good and just and progressive to use it. These driving minds (using “minds” very generously) behind these reforms “are for the most part professional carpetbaggers who need to put together a record of successful program development as a means of padding their resumes as they climb institutional hierarchies.” These administrators’ allegiance is to a vision, not a community. Like a woman who is willing to monkey-branch swing from one man to another in pursuit of perceived greater opportunities, administrators chase that golden banana, forever just beyond their reach. As an aside, no one should be surprised that women are occupying more and more administrative roles in higher ed. (Well, that and feminine men with the speedy serpentine smile.) Along the way to larger points, Mr. Polet brings up two thorny features of current higher ed that particularly stick in my craw: the use of the expression “best practice” and the use of jargon. To the first, he notes, “You can propose anything so long as you call it a ‘best practice.’ ” Typically, the adjectival coating “data-driven” is not too far away. Given our public disdain for hierarchical thinking, I find it amusing that we will label a practice the best, especially one that by its very novelty lacks the sober evaluation of time. My suspicion is that “best” functions as a substitute for “newest,” which, to most, is the routine conversion. To the second, he points out that the “use of jargon is always a substitute for thinking, not an expression of it, and higher education has turned into the most jargon-laden enterprise in society today.” Though I may quibble that modern military endeavors are the most jargon-laden, the point of his quill remains sharp.

Given the annually declining rates of fresh meat puppets being plunged into the collegiate grinder, editor of the aforementioned journal, Jason Peters, promotes the idea that maybe students are not the ones to blame for their failure to embrace the best practices: “[T]he education on offer is not worth being curious about; it is a tuition that offers no meaning to people who need it desperately, many of whom even want it.” This is not to say that until modern theories of education became dominant and the managerial state assumed control that students leapt from their beds each morning, eager for another academic odyssey. There have always been those students who never cared to exert themselves or students who would have been better served by focusing on a trade. Yet, the once reigning model of education in the West, based on the trivium and the quadrivium, whether accepted or declined, at least extended the offer of transformation. Sister Miriam Joseph, C. S. C., in her magisterial work The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, remind us that “both the utilitarian arts and the fine arts are transitive activities, whereas the essential characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are immanent or intransitive activities.” She develops this further: “The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant… and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.” I do not know who would push me out of the classroom first if I were to say something similar: administrators or students. Yet, this is exactly what students ultimately desire, regardless of whether they recognize that desire, for their minds bear an indelible imprint, one that seeks to be filled with truth. Unfortunately, for them, the education currently advanced is one, as Peters notes, that promises only opportunities for self-realization and a paycheck. Neither of which concerns transforming the person.


About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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