|Learning to be stupid in the culture of cash
by Luciana Bohne . 12 August 2003
You might think that reading about a Podunk University's English
teacher's attempt to connect the dots between the poverty of American
education and the gullibility of the American public may be a little
trivial, considering we've embarked on the first, openly-confessed
imperial adventure of senescent capitalism in the US. Bear with me. The
question my experiences in the classroom raise is why have these young
people been educated to such abysmal depths of ignorance.
"I don't read," says a junior without the slightest self-consciousness.
She has not the smallest hint that professing a habitual preference for
not reading at a university is like bragging in ordinary life that one
chooses not to breathe. She is in my "World Literature" class. She has
to read novels by African, Latin American, and Asian authors. She is not
there by choice: it's just a "distribution" requirement for graduation,
and it's easier than philosophy--she thinks.
The novel she has trouble reading is Isabel Allende's OF LOVE AND
SHADOWS, set in the postcoup terror of Pinochet's junta's Nazi-style
regime in Chile, 1973-1989. No one in the class, including the English
majors, can write a focused essay of analysis, so I have to teach that.
No one in the class knows where Chile is, so I make photocopies of
general information from world guide surveys. No one knows what
socialism or fascism is, so I spend time writing up digestible
definitions. No one knows what Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" is, and I
supply it because it's impossible to understand the theme of the novel
without a basic knowledge of that work--which used to be required
reading a few generations ago.
And no one in the class has ever heard of 11 September 1973, the
CIA-sponsored coup which terminated Chile's mature democracy. There is
complete shock when I supply US declassified documents proving US
collusion with the generals' coup and the assassination of elected
president Salvador Allende.
Geography, history, philosophy, and political science-all missing from
their preparation. I realize that my students are, in fact, the
oppressed, as Paulo Freire's THE PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED pointed out,
and that they are paying for their own oppression. So, I patiently
explain: no, our government has not been the friend of democracy in
Chile; yes, our government did fund both the coup and the junta
torture-machine; yes, the same goes for most of Latin America. Then, one
student asks, "Why?"
Well, I say, the CIA and the corporations run roughshod over the world
in part because of the ignorance of the people of the United States,
which apparently is induced by formal education, reinforced by the
media, and cheered by Hollywood. As the more people read, the less they
know and the more indoctrinated they become, you get this national
enabling stupidity to attain which they go into bottomless pools of
debt. If it weren't tragic, it would be funny.
Meanwhile, this expensive stupidity facilitates US funding of the bloody
work of death squads, juntas, and terror regimes abroad. It permits the
war we are waging-an unfair, illegal, unjust, illogical, and expensive
war, which announces to the world the failure of our intelligence and,
by the way, the creeping weakness of our economic system.
Every man, woman, and child killed by bomb, bullet, famine, or polluted
water is a murder--and a war crime. And it signals the impotence of
American education to produce brains equipped with the bare necessities
for democratic survival: analyzing and asking questions.
Let me put it succinctly: I don't think serious education is possible in
America. Anything you touch in the annals of knowledge is a foe of this
system of commerce and profit run amok. The only education that can be
permitted is what acculturates to the status quo, as happens in the
expensive schools, or what produces people to police and enforce the
status quo, as in the state school where I teach.
Significantly, at my school, which is a third-tier university, servicing
working-class, first-generation college graduates who enter
lower-echelon jobs in the civil service, education, or middle
management, the favored academic concentrations are communications,
criminal justice, and social work--basically how to mystify, cage, and
control the masses.
This education is a vast waste of the resources and potential of the
young. It is boring beyond belief and useless--except to the powers and
interests that depend on it. When a Ukranian student, a three-week
arrival on these shores, writes the best-organized and most profound
essay in English of the class, American education has something to
answer for--especially to our youth.
But the detritus and debris that American education has become is both
planned and instrumental. It's why our media succeeds in telling lies.
It's why our secretary of state can quote from a graduate-student paper,
claiming confidently that the stolen data came from the highest
intelligence sources. It's why Picasso's "Guernica" can be covered up
during his preposterous "report" to the UN without anyone guessing the
political significance of this gesture and the fascist sensibility that
Cultural fascism manifests itself in an aversion to thought and cultural
refinement. "When I hear the word 'culture,'" Goebbels said, "I reach
for my revolver." One of the infamous and telling reforms the Pinochet
regime implemented was educational reform. The basic goal was to end the
university's role as a source of social criticism and political
opposition. The order came to dismantle the departments of philosophy,
social and political science, humanities, and the arts--areas in which
political discussions were likely to occur. The universities were
ordered to issue degrees only in business management, computer
programming, engineering, medicine, and dentistry-- vocational training
schools, which in reality is what American education has come to
resemble, at least at the level of mass education.
Our students can graduate without ever touching a foreign language,
philosophy, elements of any science, music or art, history and political
science, or economics. In fact, our students learn to live in an
electoral democracy devoid of politics--a feature the dwindling crowds
at the voting booths well illustrate.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that, in the rapacity that the
industrial revolution created, people first surrendered their minds or
the capacity to reason, then their hearts or the capacity to empathize,
until all that was left of the original human equipment was the senses
or their selfish demands for gratification. At that point, humans
entered the stage of market commodities and market consumers--one more
thing in the commercial landscape. Without minds or hearts, they are
instrumentalized to buy whatever deadens their clamoring and frightened
senses-- official lies, immoral wars, Barbies, and bankrupt educations.
Meanwhile, in my state, the governor has ordered a 10% cut across the
board for all departments in the state-- including education. #
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University in