Another brick in the wall (with apologies to Pink Floyd in more than one sense)

What if education is not the solution?

I remember my favorite professor at CSU East Bay saying that all he wanted was a ten-point increase in the IQ of the general population. I’m sure that was a bit facetious. With a Ph.D. in education, he was as well aware as anyone of the difficulties of standardized testing and I seriously doubt that he, who recommended qualitative research methods to me, would attempt to define intelligence in quantifiable terms.

That professor also recommended Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed,[1] which I read and which has affected my thinking on education in ways I can recognize and probably in ways I don’t. I’m revisiting that book now because chapter one has been assigned for a class I’m in this semester.

One of the messages that emerges with painful clarity from Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? is that many people in the United States valorize what they see as common sense and the ordinary, and that they demonize any thinking that doesn’t fit in with that notion of common sense, a notion that presupposes capitalism, individualism, patriarchy, white dominance, and conformity to hegemonic notions of sexuality and aspiration.[2] That those presuppositions introduce their own form of complexity simply means that they must be placed beyond challenge.

Just under 30 percent of the U.S. population has graduated from college,[3]. As I noted last year,[4]

Steven Bartlett criticizes a shift in emphasis to vocational education, preparation for careers, in “highly industrialized nations . . . that marks the reestablishment of a primitive view of man and of a fundamentally barbaric attitude concerning the purposes of living;”[5] condemns what might be viewed as an assembly line approach to education, conducted in the name of equality of opportunity, as devaluing individual talents; and notes that:

To be tolerable in our egalitarian democracy, intellectual superiority must be excused, disguised, and brought down to a commonplace level. The only intellectuals who are really acceptable in America are those with dirt under their fingernails, who speak like any Joe, who possess no unusual qualities of personal distinction, who would, in short, make good drinking buddies.[6]

I’ve previously observed that our school system treats children as prisoners rather than human beings, and perceived that just as shopping at Wal-Mart, which profits from the impoverishment both of its employees and of customers who feel they cannot afford to shop elsewhere, participating in our education system contributes to an anti-intellectualism that valorizes stupidity[7] and functions to lend credibility to Bill Gates’ claim that the country is not producing enough scientists and engineers,[8] a claim which must be viewed in light of the high technology industry’s campaign in favor of more H1B visas that permit the import and hiring of cheaper workers from overseas.[9] (Full disclosure: having worked in high technology on and off since 1979, I have been unable to find gainful employment since the dot-com crash in 2001, and I have heard more stories than I can count of high tech workers whose final assignments for their employers were to train their replacements who have come over on H1B visas).

Charles Reich observes in Greening of America that there are two educational systems in the country, one for the elite, who are to be prepared for success; and the other for everyone else, who are to be prepared to be cogs in the corporate wheel, pacified with televised illusions of prosperity.[10] A message for some, particularly of color in poor neighborhoods, is that they are unworthy of investment.[11] And so it is unsurprising when Frank observes that so many who have turned conservative against their own interests have had an overwhelmingly negative experience with the educational system,[12] their only experience with intellectual authority, an authority which should be self-actualized rather than coercive but manifests in compulsory K-12 education.

Education, it seems, cannot be separated from the larger problems of society, from issues of social inequality, or of social mobility. In our society, education is corrupted by its role in oppression and it reproduces that oppression in its compulsory aspects. For me, Freire’s critique reaches far beyond its appearance so early in his book before he really begins to discuss pedagogy when he writes,

Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity,” the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity,” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty.[13]

Remember, of course, that compulsory education is purportedly for the benefit of children. Instead,

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.[14]

But of course, world transformation would affect the social order (hierarchy) reified in “law and order” that the coercive aspects of our society strive so mightily to protect. And poorly-paid teachers should be particularly mindful as Freire points out that

It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself.[15]

Freire perceives a false dichotomy—which he recognizes as such—between oppressors and oppressed which, he asserts, comprises a total experience of the oppressed of possibilities in power relationships that leads them to reproduce those relationships both in their ideals and in their actions at the first opportunity. Teachers and administrators, once subject to the very educational system they now act as authorities in, reify that dichotomy in their transition from pupil to intellectual authority.

Freire’s project, humanization in contrast to dehumanization, therefore cannot be realized in any hierarchical environment. And indeed he advocates that “teachers” should go to the people, rather than having the people come to hierarchical institutions, that they should be co-learners with those people with a pedagogy defined in collaboration with those people.

It’s unclear how such an approach can succeed on global issues which are not apparent to local populations. But if anything is apparent with. for example, the so-called global warming debate, a debate which is only a debate in the minds of deniers, the present approach is a dismal failure.

  1. [1]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th ann. ed. (New York: Continuum, 2008)
  2. [2]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  3. [3]Census Bureau, “The 2011 Statistical Abstract,”
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Anti-intellectualism,”, October 6, 2010,
  5. [5]Steven J. Bartlett, “Barbarians at the Door,” Modern Age 35(4): 296,
  6. [6]Bartlett, 298.
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Law of the Jungle Education,”, December 24, 2010,
  8. [8]Bill Gates, “How to Keep America Competitive,” Washington Post, February 25, 2007,
  9. [9]PC World, “H1-B Visa, China Trade Bills Stumble,” July 25, 2000,
  10. [10]Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970).
  11. [11]Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperPerennial, 2006).
  12. [12]Frank.
  13. [13]Freire, 44.
  14. [14]Freire, 45.
  15. [15]Freire, 46.

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