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Teaching for subservience

Murphy's Golden Rule:
Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

In Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond Truthout, June 1, 2013, legendary scholar and linguist Chomsky observes:

... it [mass public education] was partly concerned with taking a country of independent farmers, many of them pretty radical. You go back to the late 19th century, the Farmer's Alliance was coming out of Texas and was the most radical popular Democratic organization anywhere in history, I think. It's hard to believe if you look at Texas today.

And these were independent farmers. They stick up for their rights - they didn't want to be slaves. And they had to be driven into factories and turned into tools for someone else. There's a lot of resistance to it. So a lot of public education was, in fact, concerned with trying to teach independent people to become workers in an industrial system.

And there was more to it than that. Actually, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on it. He said something like this: he hears a lot of political leaders saying that we have to have mass public education. And the reason is that millions of people are getting the vote, and we have to educate them to keep them from our throats. In other words, we have to train them in obedience and servility, so they're not going to think through the way the world works and come after our throats.

Is the Common Core just one more war in this battle in turning independent Americans into believers instead of thinkers? I am genuinely saddened when reading about huge technology initiatives like those of the Los Angeles school district spending $30M on iPads to "support the common core" instead of using them as tools for creativity. Technology in many places seems to be just one more nail in the coffin of conformity into which we are placing our students.

I gave my keynote presentation on creativity earlier this week, around the same  time I read the article from which the quote above was taken, and one of things we talked about is how truly creative students make educators uncomfortable. Like all innovators, they challenge the status quo. And that's the same status quo that made we who are a part of the establishment, even a small part, successful. (One of my favorite columns, The Illusion of Change that I can't get published talks about this.)

I suspect it is my cynical side, but I truly worry traditional education will never create the kinds of divergent, independent thinkers that are really successful in today's increasingly automated and out-sourced economy. As long as school effectiveness is determined by a "one right answer" mentality, schools will, at best, give lip service to creativity and innovation.

Again, Chomsky:

Schools are designed to teach the test. You don't have to worry about students thinking for themselves, challenging, raising questions. ...

And that's happening all over. And it has the obvious technique of dumbing down the population, and also controlling them. And it's bipartisan. The Obama administration is pushing it. Also, an effort to kill the schools - the charter school movement vouchers, all this kind of stuff is nothing but an effort to destroy the public education system. It claims that it gives the parents choices, but that's ridiculous.

For most people, they can't make the choices; there are not any. It's like saying everyone has a choice to become a millionaire. You do, in a way: there's no law against it.

I don't know a pragmatic solution to this problem. Period. Subversive teaching, charter schools, home schooling, or better arts programs  (although I worry that a school can claim they support creativity by simply pointing to having a good "arts" program) will work for some, perhaps. Perhaps "mass creativity" is an oxymoron.

What I do know is that we cannot rely on traditional schools, no matter how well-regarded, to promote the kinds of creative, divergent, critical thinking our students will genuinely need to be successful and happy. Sorry. And I say this being part of the system. 

In 1991 Jonathan —Kozol wrote in Savage Inequalities that there are two kinds of schools in the U.S.: 

... children in one set of schools are educated to be governors; children in the other set of schools are trained for being governed. The former are given the imaginative range to mobilize ideas for economic growth; the latter are provided with the discipline to do the narrow tasks the first group will prescribe.   

I just wonder how many schools for the governors truly exist?

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Reader Comments (5)

Interesting points made. This idea has been a discussion point with some of my friends. I'm wondering if the Makerspace movement is a bit of a reaction to the standardization?

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Hi Donna,

I think this all in how one defines "maker space." Many of the definitions I read have something to so with 3-D printing and it looks to me at the most basic level, a 3-D printer is about as creative as a photocopier. But if the makerspace include tools for students to produce original work, I'm good with that!


June 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Donna,

I think this all in how one defines "maker space." Many of the definitions I read have something to so with 3-D printing and it looks to me at the most basic level, a 3-D printer is about as creative as a photocopier. But if the makerspace include tools for students to produce original work, I'm good with that!


June 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug:

Wow, so cynical! : )

Kozol's right about the huge inequalities in the system, though I'm not quite so disenchanted as to think it's a deliberate separating of the governors from the governed. There are always haves and have nots, and we have to do our darndest to minimize that difference, though given the current state of politics that's growing increasingly difficult. (And I don't mean that to be as complacent about the disparities as it sounds.)

I also don't think any system can "produce" creative thinkers--but it CAN lay the groundwork that allows students willing to put in the time/effort to push beyond those limitations.

As to Makerspaces, as someone involved in putting one together for this fall (I'll have a blog post on that this week!), I'm interested on your thoughts on 3D printers. We will not have one in ours (the school already has two in the Design Tech program); when I mentioned in to our DT teacher, she told us not to bother, that they were a huge waste of time/money. I wonder if they are just the current iteration of SmartBoards--tools schools buy to show they are "tech forward," without actually using them appropriately...or even needing them.

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeri Hurd

Hi Jeri,

I often think of Lily Tomlin's line "No matter how cynical I become, it's never enough to keep up."

Individuals within education work provide learning opportunities for all kids, but politicians and other policy-makers are all about keeping the status quo - or even widening the gap. If you're in power, you do what you can to stay there. If you are rich, you do what you can to keep your wealth. As much as we admire the few altruists that get some press, that's human nature.

Oh, 3-D printers can be tools of creativity if the kids can program and design what they will be "printing."

Hope you are having a good summer,


July 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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