By David Barber, a Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin and is the author of A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed
I am struck by the variety of ways in which the actual spiritual state of Americans is denied by people who have every reason to know what that state is: our educators, artists, and politicians. It is hard for me to believe, for example, that educators do not know the sorry truth behind the lack of real education here. It seems very clear to me that until the educators themselves believe in what they teach, there is no hope for their students. But the educators cannot accept this, because in order to do so they would have to overhaul every aspect of their private lives, which effort would hurl them forever beyond the bounds of the academic life.
James Baldwin, 1961
The catastrophe which is education in this country is not new. For the majority of students in the United States, black students in particular, education has never meant anything more than a training to stay in one’s place. Over the past several decades, however, with the American Empire in an accelerating free-fall, American education, ever the handmaiden of society’s rich and powerful, has in tandem spiraled downward: our schools endlessly drill our children with boring and meaningless “worksheets”; we subsidize and celebrate the digital economy by “teaching” children with computers and computer programs; we script our teachers to guarantee a minimum of human interaction in the classroom; we strip our schools of art and music, making sure that our students never see beauty or truth in the world; and, of course, we drill our students for weeks and months on end with testing, and more testing, and still more testing, lest our students find any joy whatsoever in learning. In short, our schools dull the intelligence and curiosity of our young people such that they will never question the meaningless and unpleasant lives they will be forced to lead in a society that is everywhere falling apart around them.
In higher education, too, we see this dramatic narrowing of the already slim chances that any of our students will achieve a real education. Our state legislatures, in the most telling example, cut state support for higher education requiring that university administrations jack up tuition, tuition that rises far more rapidly than does inflation. Higher tuition yields both higher student debt and more students working twenty, thirty, or forty hours a week in paying jobs while they attend school. Our indebted students then must hew as closely as they possibly can to career paths which enable them to minimize and pay back their debts; and the long hours of minimum wage work taken on by our students all but guarantee that they cannot be serious students, cannot devote the hours they need to study and reflection, cannot, in short, do the work most necessary for them to become educated, mature, human beings. But then educated, mature human beings do not fit well into our global economy.
In the face of this disaster, our university faculty refuse to take any stand against the strangling of education in this country. We mouth words in our classrooms about truth, and the search for truth, and the value and necessity of honesty and ethics, and democracy, and responsible citizenship. Privately, we condemn the various assessment schemes we’re compelled to carry out; privately, we denounce the rapid multiplication of educationally meaningless administrative and compliance positions on our campuses. And privately, we bemoan the ignorance of our students, their lack of curiosity and their lack of academic preparation. But when it comes to denouncing all the various assaults upon education occurring across the entire spectrum of our educational landscape, when we are compelled to speak to the reasons why our students enter our universities uneducated, and still more seriously, why they leave our universities uneducated, we lose our voice. As more than one of my colleagues has said to me in explanation of his silence: “I don’t want to stick my neck out.”
Of the relatively small number of academics attempting to defend the liberal arts, we find two predominant approaches. The first approach I call the American Liberal approach. Here, as is typical of our Liberal, we sing bright and cheerful songs about the value of education – to the employer. We do not challenge the corruption and smothering of education so much as we claim that real education, education which develops critical thinking, for example, is what employers are really after. That this approach accepts the fundamental premise of its opponents – that a genuine education has little intrinsic value outside of its ability to train workers – needs scarcely be said. And I would add that as an individual I myself entered academia after nearly a quarter of a century of working in a wide variety of jobs. Never once did I find that any of my bosses valued “critical thinking.” Hell, for that matter, I’ve never found my superiors in academia valuing critical thinking, either. Not once.
Conservatives proffer a second, more meaningful critique of our educational system. In a February 2016 article, “How a Generation Lost its Common Culture,”for example, Patrick Deneen offers a telling but flawed understanding of American education, a criticism characteristic of the conservative understanding of our educational system. Deneen begins by describing the students he teaches (at Notre Dame) as “exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned … utterly decent … know-nothings.” Of course, if Notre Dame teaches and graduates “know-nothings” (and, as Deneen tells us, at the other schools he’s taught at – Princeton and Georgetown), this is true many times over for the less prestigious public universities in which most of our students are trained.
Unlike the American Liberal critic, Deneen insists that the ignorance he sees in his students “is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement .… [it] is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success.” In other words, argues Deneen, our educational system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do in producing students who rarely read, who are not engaged in the issues confronting our country and our species, and who are largely ignorant of our history.
Deneen also grasps the bottom line of this educational system, its goal: the bottom line. Our educational system, says Deneen, is designed to produce “individuals without a past … cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes ‘flexibility’ (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).” Certainly, Deneen correctly understands that the folks who shape our part of the global economy are the driving force shaping our educational system. Today’s economy needs, from top to bottom, workers, managers, who can shift from one place to the next, on command and without question; who can, without fuss, move from one task to another; and who can ignore or be oblivious to the moral character of the work they are doing, or the meaning or lack of meaning that that work has for them as individuals.
I know, for example, that the public university in which I teach, like most public universities, has as its chief product students who have spent 16 or 17 or 18 years seated behind their desks, engaged, more, but usually less, in the classes they’ve taken. They have learned to manipulate the data they’ve been presented with – without necessarily understanding why they manipulate that data in the particular ways demanded by a given discipline – and they’re capable of getting the correct answers to the questions asked of them 70 percent or maybe even 80 percent of the time. And as stultifying as this may sound – and it is stultifying – working with data and subjects in which the student has no real interest, which the student may find boring or confusing, still, to get in these circumstances the right answer is a valuable skill: labor discipline. Such labor discipline puts the public university graduate in a good position to do the variety of jobs he or she will have over the forty or fifty years following college, and probably allows that graduate to pay most of his or her bills during that time. A diploma from my public university proves that our graduate is trainable in a wide range of tasks, tasks whose ultimate purpose our graduate may have little or no understanding of, and, especially, after sitting passively in classrooms for nearly two decades, tasks which our graduate will not question
But it’s in Deneen’s characterization of our students as “individuals without a past … cultureless ciphers” that Deneen misunderstands both history and culture and its implications for the content and methods needed for a real education.
Our students are “cultureless”, in Deneen’s view, because they haven’t been taught and don’t know anything about Plato or the Bible or the founding documents of the United States of America. Deneen believes this because in his mind our culture has a distinct and narrow history and content – Western Civilization, Greek, Christian, English and American-rooted.
But Deneen labors under a false understanding of culture and history here. Culture is the way people live – no one is “cultureless” – and the way people live is the product of history, real, lived history – the product of the myriad struggles nations wage with other nations and people within nations wage with each other. In the ways that they live, people largely accommodate, and must accommodate themselves, to the outcomes of these struggles, to the dominant strains of power in a society and in the world at any given time. “The ruling ideas of an age,” intoned Marx in The Communist Manifesto, “are ever the ideas of those who rule.” History lives in our culture in the ways we shape our thinking, our values, and our lives, to accord with the power relations of our own society.
Deneen wants us to “inherit” what he considers to be the foundational stones of “Western Civilization.” Absent the will to teach young people what Deneen sees as their true inheritance, they become cultureless. But, of course, we have inherited, here in America, as our culture, the beliefs, the attitudes, and the values of a society that has builded itself in very particular ways, in the first place, upon Native American genocide and African American slavery. We have inherited the real Western Civilization, as it has acted in the world here on this continent, and not how it presents itself in the eyes of some of its leading thinkers.
Our values, our beliefs today, are, I suggest, those same values that sanctioned our crimes of the past, values modified only by the ever changing relations of power in society and in the world. Education for young people in this country today must start by “excavating” (Baldwin’s term) those values and the history that created them.
An illustration: Most American Christians today would, I hope, reject the notion that Christianity approves the despoiling of Native American societies. But in the first 350 years of Anglo-American society American Christianity not only approved that despoliation, but justified and championed it. Perhaps Patrick Deneen might be able to connect Martin Luther, for example, to Anglo-America’s assault on Native Americans, but I’d like to suggest that for Anglo-American settlers in the New World the ease with which land could be taken from Native Americans far outweighed Martin Luther’s theology, or even the Biblical teachings of Jesus Christ, and these settlers spun Luther and Calvin and Christ to accommodate their desires for Native land.
That other Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, criticized the American Church as promulgating a Christianity that he could not recognize. Referring to the Church’s relation to the great struggles against racial injustice going on in the 1960s, King said:
I have heard many ministers say ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Indeed, King, in seeing and naming this “other worldly religion,” was observing the real inheritance of a Christian culture which accommodated itself to the greatest of sins. “As you have treated the least of thee,” warned Jesus, “so you have treated me.” To rob Native Americans of their land and their lives, to enslave and brutalize millions of African American people, American Christianity had to put that Jesus, the Jesus who was the least of thee, onto a cross, yet again. The American Church then had to define Christianity not by the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, but by an individual’s personal relationship to Jesus alone, by how loudly and how often that individual shouted Jesus’s name. That Christianity, the Christianity that justified theft, and genocide, and torture, and murder, and slavery, and rape, that Christianity lives yet today in this country, and it serves the same ends now as it did in the past.
“Cultureless ciphers”? No, the students Patrick Deneen characterizes as polite “know-nothings” are young folks who have inherited and been trained to accept as natural or divinely ordained a culture characterized by vast inequalities and injustices, and the primal right of the powerful to put an individual’s own comfort above and at the expense of the lives and well-being of the far greater part of humanity. Educating these young people is not a matter of dragging out a “greatest hits of Western Civilization.”
In any case, our young people, in their mass, to the extent that they can read a Plato or a John Locke and not see these authors simply as required readings that they must slog through, will read what they’ve been given through the prism of the values their society has raised them with; and those values, unquestioned, will continue to define who they are. I suspect that those great enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson and Madison, for example, were educated in much the same fashion that Deneen insists is necessary for the salvation of our civilization. All their education, however, did not prevent them from owning human beings.
Or, on the contrary, would people looking at a UTM diploma see in the individual whose name appeared on that diploma a person who had simply “soldiered” through four or five or six years of schooling beyond high school? Would they see a person who, when he graduated, was a few years older, but not significantly wiser or even different than the person he had been when he entered the university? Would people looking at that diploma see in our graduate an individual who was not in any significant way conversant and engaged with the issues confronting his society? Is this what our diploma represented?
When I posed this question to my school’s SGA representatives, presumably the most engaged students on our campus, not one single representative believed that our university diploma reflected the first diploma I described, the diploma of an educated, mature human being. All but two or three representatives agreed that the diploma issued by my university far more closely reflected the “soldiering” diploma I had described.
To be sure, I am not here singling out my school. What’s true at my school is, I am convinced, true at almost every other public university in the United States, and, if Deneen is to be believed, as I think he should be believed, almost every private university as well.
Over one-half century ago Baldwin had already denounced the irresponsibility of educators in this country – people who knew that our schools were graduating a mass of uneducated young people and who said and did nothing to change that reality. Today, as American society tailspins into an ever greater and ever more dangerous chaos, we educators are confronted by an urgent choice: will we continue to plod along doing our teaching, our scholarship and our service, soldiering, as it were, ignoring the moral responsibility we have to ourselves, to our students, and to our society; or will we, on the contrary, take up our role as moral leaders, forcing the issue and meaning of education before American society and beginning to produce the only hope that this society and this world has for human survival: an educated people?