Friday, May 29, 2009

Tomgram: William Astore, Educating Ourselves to Oblivion

by Tom Engelhardt

Can there be any doubt that education matters not just in how we view the world, but in what kind of world we create -- or simply accept? And can there be any doubt that, despite a massive educational infrastructure (admittedly now fraying badly), Americans remain remarkably poorly informed about the world? Last year, Rick Shenkman, the editor of the History News Network website, published a book (now out in paperback), Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, excerpted at this site. Stupid enough (or ill-informed) was the answer.

Since Barack Obama's election, many readers wrote Shenkman asking him if he still believes that "the voters are uninformed. Didn't Obama's election mean they were pretty smart?" In a recent post, he answered regretfully in the negative and here's just a little of what he had to say:

"The highlights of the 2008 election included controversies over Obama's bowling score, his middle name Hussein, and Hillary's crying. These were not exactly issues of much weight at a time when the financial collapse of the country was happening before our eyes. And yet they drew extended media commentary… The media was to blame for the deplorable low quality of much of the campaign. But I am firmly convinced that you get the campaign you deserve…

"Take the question of Obama's religion. Millions of voters paid so little attention to the news that they were easily bamboozled into believing that Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. On the eve of the election, confusion reigned. Polls indicated that 7 percent of the voters in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio and 23 percent in Texas believed that Obama was a Muslim. In addition, and worse, more than 40 percent in Florida and Ohio reported that they did not know what his religion was. The arithmetic is horrifying: 7 percent + 40 percent = a near majority guilty of gross ignorance.

"Americans did not come by their confusion by accident. A deliberate campaign was launched by Republicans to convince people that Obama's faith was in question. But what are we to make of voters who could be so easily bamboozled..."

It's sobering to consider just how many Americans can't sort out propaganda (or simply fiction) from fact in the media madness that passes for our "information age." It's no less sobering to consider a corollary possibility: that we get the society we deserve; that, in fact, our youth in college today are being prepared, as TomDispatch regular William Astore (who has taught at both the Air Force Academy and the Pennsylvania College of Technology) suggests, to enter a world in desperate shape, but not to challenge it. Tom

Selling Education, Manufacturing Technocrats, Torturing Souls

The Tyranny of Being Practical
By William Astore

Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don't perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.

Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today's so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today's collapsing job market.

Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life -- 20 years' service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level -- I'm convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It's simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)

And here's one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job -- if it's merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods -- you've effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.

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