A brave man once wrote that independent thinking and the ability to criticise are ‘the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary’. It cannot be a coincidence that what is called ‘education’ today generally encourages neither.
A revolutionary, after all, is one who illuminates the cankers that blight a system, and one who threatens to smash them. It is not in the interests of the currently prevailing system to be so struck, and it is not in the nature of those who prop it up to do as Ajax nobly did.
Thus the successful continuation of the status quo consists at least partly in keeping the population from awareness. ‘Education’ is but one enforcer. Not only does it forestall the luminescent red flames of Orc, or drench them on their first flickering, but it serves to put us all in chains.
We may turn to the venerable Noam Chomsky for a clear and basic statement of the problem with schools and universities. As it stands, education—certainly in the social sciences and humanities—‘kills interest, deadens the mind, but makes students more passive and obedient and less trouble’.
But how? In the United Kingdom at least, the examination is very much the centrepiece of primary and secondary education. It is the system’s heftiest mace, the principal means by which the ordinary child is stultified. All else is subordinate to it. Indeed, by many accounts, British youngsters are among the most tested in the world.
And around the dreaded exam, a necessarily crustose National Curriculum has formed. Yet it does not matter what is taught, so long as it continues to be purveyed in the current manner. Teaching at present consists largely in bombarding reluctant children with copious amounts of dreary information, the memorisation of which alone determines success or failure and therefore worth. There is no scope or support for creativity, for independent thought, for understanding; passivity and tedium rule. Those who struggle at school leave the system early. In many cases, their doing so consigns them to the rubbish heap of society.
Their less benighted peers, however, may pay to attend some or other university. One might think that qualities suppressed or left unformed in classrooms are somehow vivified in lecture theatres, in these august seats of learning. But of course, this, for the most part, is simply not what happens.
In the universities, exams are still the same: still crude, still nothing more than gauges of memory. Above all, they continue to hold sway. And the generality of students leave their respective institutions without a critical understanding of the world about them.
This latter point is of special importance, and Chomsky can assist us in enlarging upon it. ‘[C]ertain topics,’ he once said, ‘are unstudiable in the schools—because they don’t fall anywhere’. It hardly requires a detailed analysis to see that he is right. After all, where in academia can one be taught about the true nature of a world run by multinational corporations, about its systems of propaganda, about its grotesque, toxic and often murderous excesses? Chomsky went on:
[T]here is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society… nobody [in the academic departments] is going to tell you what’s really going on in the world. And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions — because if there ever were such a field, people might come to understand too much, and in a relatively free society like ours, they might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that.
Of course, there are other reasons for the reticence of universities on certain matters, as Chomsky well knows:
Universities do not generate nearly enough funds to support themselves from tuition money alone: they’re parasitic institutions that need to be supported from the outside, and that means they’re dependent on wealthy alumni, on corporations, and on the government, which are groups with the same basic interests. Well, as long as the universities serve those interests, they’ll be funded. If they ever stop serving those interests, they’ll start to get in trouble.
The function of universities, then, is simply to administer the finishing touches to batch after batch of young people who are essentially being ‘educated’ for a lifetime of servility:
[G]iven the external power structure of the society in which they function now, the institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity and to make them controllable and indoctrinated — and as long as the schools fulfil that role, they’ll be supported.
A rather more poetic rendering can be found in D. H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious, where, amid much exquisite claptrap, passages like the following veritably gleam:
The fact is, our process of universal education is to-day so uncouth, so psychologically barbaric, that it is the most terrible menace to the existence of our race. We seize hold of our children, and by parrot-compulsion we force into them a set of mental tricks. By unnatural and unhealthy compulsion we force them into a certain amount of cerebral activity. . . . All that they have learnt in their heads has no reference at all to their dynamic souls.
But one need not confine oneself to critics of education when searching for its defects. One can even look to politicians. For instance, all of the above is seemingly borne out in the United Kingdom by the verbiage of the Conservative Party, and in particular by that of the oleaginous Education Secretary, Michael Gove. In all his and their talk of a ‘global race’ is contained a frightful reality: we, the people, the standardised citizenry, are mere objects and commodities.
We have hitherto seen only what education is, and not, at least in any explicit sense, what it ought to be. The time has come for a very brief exploration of this second question.
The ideas of John Dewey must surely inform any respectable vision of education. For Dewey, schools are not hatcheries that churn out children en masse, but strong communities in which all should be attuned to the psychology of the individual child and also to his place in the whole. Dewey abhorred the ‘deadness and dullness, formalism and routine’ that infected education and stressed instead activity, expression and the sensitive observation of childhood’s interests. Above all, Dewey saw the school as the best way of instigating social progress and reform, rather than as the most formidable hindrance to those things.
It can quite clearly be seen, even through this rather slapdash jaunt through Dewey’s work, that his pedagogy is directly opposed to that which festers in our schools today. And only one of these conflicting conceptions of education appears to value and cultivate the gaiety, curiosity and creativity that children so often tend towards. Thus, only one — Dewey’s — ought to be considered before any renovation of the system.
But to what extent can any such renovation occur without a wholesale structural transformation of the society and economy in which we live? This is an interesting question and one to which there is no definite answer. Nevertheless, we, the young, should emerge from the deadening vapours, from our inculcated passivity, and start to heave the huge round stone.
There need to rise in the campuses and colleges a hundred thousand Mario Savios, who each believe, as Byron did, that the days of our youth are the days of our glory, and who must together cry: ‘Away with this degradation!’