Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Skills Required By Democracy

My post yesterday was essentially a link to Mark Slouka’s Harper’s magazine article entitled “Dehumanized: When Math And Science Rule the School." It’s a thought-provoking, albeit time-consuming read, well worth the effort however for anyone at all interested in the role of education in our democracy. For me, his argument essentially boils down to the question: Does our educational system exist primarily to train workers or educate citizens?

I assume we still want to be a democracy. Yes I know, the US is technically a republic with a democratically elected representative government, but for the sake of simplicity, and because I personally hold democratic values, I’m going to continue to insist that the way forward is always in the direction of more democracy, not less. When I refer to the ongoing experiment of our nation as a democracy then, it’s with the full awareness that I’m speaking as much from my aspirations for us as a nation, as it is from the reality of where we stand today.

Most of us agree that the core democratic value is the essential equality of all citizens. I also assume that most of us agree, at least in principle, that we are at our best when we, as Soulka puts it, “ . . . teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment.”

What we seem to disagree about is Soulka’s next sentence: “In that order.”

As I’ve already shared here I’ve intuitively bridled at the vocational aspects of education my whole life. This isn’t to say that I don’t understand the necessity of living a part of my life as an economic being, it’s just that when it comes to education, I believe that the overwhelming emphasis on job training is undermining our democracy.

I’ve lived my entire life against the background of the ever-urgent lament that we’re falling behind. First it was the Soviets, now it’s the Chinese. “Falling behind” has always referred to falling behind economically, of course. People rarely pointed out that our “enemies” were falling behind us when it came to “the pursuit of happiness.” The reality is that no matter how far ahead the Chinese get, few of us are packing our bags to move there.

We grew up being taught that democracy and capitalism go hand-in-hand, and with the rise of neo-liberal economic theory (e.g., the Chicago School, Milton Friedmanism, Trickle-Down, Supply-side, Reaganomics, or any of the other economic theories derived from the writings of Ayn Rand) we were assured that the more “pure” our capitalism, the better our democracy would be. What China is teaching us today is that one does not need a democratic government in order for capitalism to thrive. In fact, the Chinese government, which is inaccurately described as “communist,” is much closer to a fascist state. As one of the original fascists, Benito Mussolini famously said, “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” This is exactly the state of affairs in China today and indeed they are surging economically. As long as they can prevent the rise of a large, educated middle class to agitate for their rights, they will continue as an economic powerhouse. (Whether they can do this or not remains to be seen.)

There is no way we can compete with China in purely neo-liberal economic terms without giving up on democracy. When corporate interests are merged with those of the state, those interests inevitably come to control the focus and direction of education. When the primary role of the “citizen” is to serve the state’s interest (in this case economic interests) rather than “the pursuit of happiness,” giant corporations get exactly the kind of worker they need to be competitive, which translates into a large pool of individuals (to keep downward pressure on wages) with marketable skills (largely those needed for the rote tasks of mass production) and a low degree of independent mindedness (boat-rockers and whistle-blowers are bad for business). It’s not an accident that our formerly middle class jobs are increasingly being shipped over to the capitalist paradise of China, which is home to exactly the kind of labor force most coveted by corporations.

Every time I hear one of our political or economic leaders call for improving our educational system based upon economic arguments, it sounds to me like a call to merge state and corporate interests to create a labor pool more like China's, which is fundamentally anti-democratic. At a visceral level, I desire government “of, by and for the people,” not government “of, by and for the corporations.”

For the past 30 years in our country we’ve seen a pell-mell rush into neo-liberal economic theory, which has lead directly to increasing consolidation in our major industries very similar to the monopoly capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the era of Oliver Twist and the robber barons. It was a time that essentially destroyed the middle class and lead to an extreme re-distribution of wealth into the hands of a few. During the 40 years of relative prosperity between the Great Depression and 1980, we grew the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world by rigorously regulating business and trade to serve democratic interests. Today, after three decades of neo-liberal economic policy, we are again seeing government “of, by, and for the corporations." It ain't pretty.

Those forty years that followed the end of the depression were the hey-day of humanities in our educational system. Subjects like history, civics, literature, writing, and art were taught on par with math and science. Everyone seemed to understand the importance of a well-rounded education. The difference is palpable whenever I find myself in a discussion with someone educated during that era. It’s striking how much more they know about the world beyond themselves than those educated after 1980. Yes, by the end of this era we were growing obsessed with our competition with the Soviet Union, but it was much more of an ideological, political and cultural struggle than the purely economic one we’re being told we have with China.

I assume we still want a democracy and that’s why I stand so strongly opposed to our educational system being turned primarily into vocational training. A well-rounded education is the foundation upon which democracy is built.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

When the people are only educated in the skills needed to make money, when even the disciplines of history, civics, literature, writing, and art, are only valued for their capacity to turn a profit, then democracy itself is threatened.

In many ways the interests of big business (I’m not talking about entrepreneurs here) stand diametrically opposed to those of a living, vital democracy. Corporations thrive best in a state of loyalty (the glamorous cousin of laziness), predictability and stability. The larger they become, the more important this is to them. Democracy on the other hand thrives best in a state of debate, change, and even, at times, upheaval.

As Soulka points out, the study of humanities require us to constantly, rigorously, and critically examine ourselves our beliefs and our assumptions and not just in the narrow band of what’s good for the our own or society’s economic well-being. He writes:

. . . upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.

Upset people are bad for business, but good for democracy.

The work of democracy involves espousing those values that in a less democratic society would get one sent to prison. To maintain its “sustainable edge,” a democracy requires its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable; the “trajectory of capability-building” they must devote themselves to, above all others, is the one that advances the capability for making trouble. If the value you’re espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you’re useless.

Frankly, as a preschool teacher, it’s easy to push all this aside, since after all, the children are so far away from being expected to function fully as either citizens or workers. At the same time, I know that our curriculum of “free play” is an exercise in pure democracy. I know that each time a child is not “corrected” for somehow misusing art supplies, she learns a little bit more about what it means to be free. I know that each time a child raises his hand to make a rule it is an exercise that brings him one step closer to being a citizen who will not sit idly by and suffer injustice to himself or others. I know that once a child learns the power of holding her hands in front of herself and demanding that the person who is hurting or scaring her, “Stop!” she has learned a fundamental lesson of citizenship.

These are not skills sought by business, but they are the skills required by democracy.

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Unknown said...

I wish I could leave a deeply moving comment to all this, however, as a child raised in 80's education (: ) I must just go and read the first in your series!

Democracy is very important to me also.

Teacher Tom said...

I graduated in 1980. I remember spending a lot of time on things like the labor movement, civil rights, and all kinds of other "radical" aspects of our history.

As I understand it, they really don't teach much of this any longer in public schools. I also recently learned that because of corporate consolidation, almost all of our text books are being published in Texas and must be approved by the Texas board of education. Nothing against Texas, but that bothers be a great deal. Why doesn't my own state have a say in what's in the text books?

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I just had a chance to read the article and your post. Thoughts are flying around in my head, so this won't sound intelligent in the least, but more of a stream of consciousness. I couldn't agree more about a well-rounded education, but I do disagree that our current system is about teaching our kids how to get a job through math and sciences. I wish that's where we were with the current system. It's much worse than that. Education, at this time, is about high stakes testing. I spend most of my day teaching skills and the format those skills will be seen on the test in May. I am not going to defend what I do because that's what we have to do. I wish it weren't that way, but it is. This doesn't come from my school admin. or school district, instead it comes from bureaucrats who, for some reason, believe that testing is what is going to make us compete with places like Singapore. If we don't do it the government takes money away from our schools.
These are the same bureaucrats who make "deals" with the government that ties schools hands with their budget. Requiring text books to be purchased more often than needed to create revenue for the text book companies and paying millions and millions for testing companies to give us those testing results are just two of the ways that government f@$&s up education. Until the government starts asking the people who know what is best for education - the people who actually teach children - instead of the people who make money on it, it won't matter what we teach. It's not going to get any better.
I'm not sure if you've researched much about education in Singapore, but based on some readings I've done, those amazing test scores come from tracking kids. Only those who are high achieving take the tests. Well duh, no wonder they do well.
In the US it's one size fits all in education. A wealthy, cultured, English only kid has the same set of standards as the struggling, immigrant English language learner, and they all take the same test.
While I do agree with state standards for each grade level and high expectations for every student, I disagree with the way our government chooses to assess a child's progress at those standards.