Education for pacifying the population with illusory promises of prosperity

From the headline, one might take it as yet another unwarranted slam on Bernie Sanders: “Young voters embrace Sanders, but not democracy.” Read the article, however, and it turns out that its author, Christopher Beem, actually sees young voters’ attraction not only to Bernie Sanders but to Donald Trump as well as a sign that these voters may be attempting to reclaim ‘democracy’ from partisan gridlock and unresponsive politicians.[1]

So this is an unpardonably poorly chosen headline. And Beem confounds ‘democracy’ with the republican system that James Madison endorsed, in part to protect the minority rights not of any subaltern group but rather the property rights of wealthy white males.[2] And I’ve long argued that that means our political system is working exactly as intended.

But Madison also had other reasons for embracing republicanism. A big one, and one that I think remains salient, is that a republican system can scale to large populations while a true democracy, directly involving everyone in everything, might not.[3] Some of my friends think that the Internet opens up the possibility of direct democracy by allowing everyone to participate in debate and voting without all congregating in a single physical location.

There are a few problems with that, some of which can probably be overcome, and some which might not. One of Beem’s complaints is that

Beginning in the 1990s, many school districts turned to “service learning” as a replacement for traditional forms of civic education. Offering students the chance to help their neighborhoods through spring cleanups and food drives was seen as a way to instill community spirit.

And it worked. Millennials do indeed appear to be extremely generous and socially conscious. But service learning hasn’t promoted an interest in politics.

In fact, precisely because so many schools focus on service learning, many students have not learned how to connect underlying problems to politics: that is, through voting, organizing and petitioning. Acquiescing to students’ distaste for politics, schools offer students a deficient understanding of what it means to be a citizen, thus reinforcing and sanctioning their attitudes.[4]

I’m only partly able to respond to this. I had a civics class when I attended George Washington High School in San Francisco. For my class project, I constructed a parody of bureaucracy involving a made-up “federal prostitution agency.” I got an ‘A’ because we graded each other, so I had an early introduction to quid pro quo: One of my fellow students explicitly informed me that he was giving me an ‘A’ and expected me to do the same for him (and I think I did). My project might have been hilarious (it probably wasn’t), but is this the sort of civics that helps students learn to ethically navigate a republican system? I’m thinking probably not.

My experience was also more limited than that of most of my fellow students. California began offering a proficiency examination that enabled me to leave high school a year early and qualify for admission to community college (I started at Sacramento City College the following fall semester). This was also a long time ago. My final semester at Washington High was in Spring 1976.

That said, I’m inclined to view the problem as more fundamental than a dichotomy between “service learning” and “civics.” First, it’s fairly clear that the politics of K-12 education favor funding with severe class and race discrepancies, based on bigoted notions “of what children of the poor are fitted to become, and what their social role should be. This role has always been equated with their usefulness to us [the wealthy]; and this consideration seems to be at stake in almost all reflections on the matter of the ‘minimal’ foundation offered to schoolchildren, which in a sense, is only a metaphor for ‘minimal’ existence.”[5] This is nothing new: Charles Reich wrote about this discrepancy in The Greening of America in 1970, noting even then that the wealthy were protecting themselves (in multiple ways) from challenges to their position. Television was supposed to be good enough for the working poor and they were expected to be so exhausted after work that they would be uninterested in and certainly lacking the energy for a challenge to the status quo.[6]

Traditionalist conservatives have a word for this that I’m coming to appreciate more and more: instrumentalization. They mean by this—and I think they mean it broadly—that we have a problem with, as an old saying puts it, “the ends justifying the means,” even when those means run roughshod over people, culture, or the environment in a blind quest for profit.[7]

Which is to raise a much broader charge against the U.S. system of education than the one Beem levels against “service education” as occurring at the expense of civics. Ironically, traditionalist conservatives, thinking that education should emphasize discipline and rote learning,[8] fail to appreciate how such an education turns children into tools for employers.

The instrumentalization of education appears in the current emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and on job training, even at the college level, which occurs explicitly at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts.[9] This is, in effect, a positive (destabilizing) feedback:

After a fashion, then, the austerians, greed-heads, and STEM geeks are right. The humanities are a luxury. They are the sort of activity humans undertake when their waking lives are no longer consumed exclusively with the struggle to secure some kind of future for themselves and their families. That is, they are an expression of civilization.[10]

Which is to say that the very critical thinking skills needed to contest social inequality lose importance against a sheer struggle for mere survival. And the rich think this is just fine, as students graduate with barely enough learning to enhance employer profits or serve the rich:

A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—just not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns.[11]

STEM education, then, becomes just another way of, as Reich wrote of television,[12] pacifying the population with bipartisan promises of prosperity, which may never be fulfilled, especially when the alleged shortage of tech workers is overstated in order to support H-1B visas for ‘skilled’ but cheaper migrant labor.[13] Even better, from a wealthy perspective, students take on a lot of debt that generally cannot be excused through bankruptcy. Even if these students graduate and find middle class jobs, the debt they have accumulated handicaps them in seeking a middle class lifestyle.[14]

So as much as I cherish education and detest the anti-intellectualism that prevails in the United States, I have to acknowledge that by devaluing the humanities and liberal arts and by burdening students with heavy debts, education has become something of a scam. For too many students, it not only fails to challenge social inequality, but devalues the fields that might enable an effective form of the very challenge that so many Sanders and Trump supporters seem to want.[15]

  1. [1]Christopher Beem, “Young voters embrace Sanders, but not democracy,” Conversation, January 29, 2016,
  2. [2]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  3. [3]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  4. [4]Christopher Beem, “Young voters embrace Sanders, but not democracy,” Conversation, January 29, 2016,
  5. [5]O. Z. White, quoted in Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 216.
  6. [6]Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970).
  7. [7]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  8. [8]see especially Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  9. [9]Thom Hartmann, “Why the right hates American history,” Salon, February 26, 2015,; Scott Jaschik, “Obama becomes latest politician to criticize a liberal arts discipline,” Inside Higher Ed, January 31, 2014,; Mark Keierleber, “Obama Ramps Up Federal Focus on Job Training,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2014,; Tom Kludt, “Marco Rubio Thinks It’s ‘Pathetic’ That Obama Apologized To Art History Majors,” Talking Points Memo, February 19, 2014,; Edwin Lyngar, “The right’s fear of education: What I learned as a (former) conservative military man,” Salon, February 26, 2015,; Valerie Strauss, “Jeb Bush has a liberal arts degree. It didn’t stop him from belittling liberal arts majors,” Washington Post, October 28, 2015,; Beckie Supiano, “No Laughing Matter: President’s Quip About Art History Pricks Some Ears,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2014,
  10. [10]Alexander I. Jacobs, “The Humanities at the End of the World,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 28, 2015,
  11. [11]O. Z. White, quoted in Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 216.
  12. [12]Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970).
  13. [13]Josh Eidelson, “The Tech Worker Shortage Doesn’t Really Exist,” Business Week, November 24, 2014,; Karin Klein, “The truth about the great American science shortfall,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2014,,0,6706502.story; Kyung M. Song and Janet I. Tu, “Do visas for skilled foreigners shut out U.S. tech workers?” Seattle Times, May 5, 2013,; Jordan Weissmann, “The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage,” Atlantic, April 29, 2013,
  14. [14]Tim Donovan, “Profiting off your student debt misery?: America’s little-discussed conflict-of-interest,” Salon, November 27, 2013,; Nancy Folbre, “Mortgaged Diplomas,” New York Times, June 3, 2013,; Yves Smith, “The Student DebtCropper System: Even the Destitute Hounded by Debt Collectors,” Naked Capitalism, January 2, 2014,; Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream,” New York Times, May 12, 2013,
  15. [15]Dan Balz, “What have Bush, Clinton learned from voters’ attraction to the outsiders?” Washington Post, September 5, 2015,; Dan Balz and Scott Clement, “Trump leads, Carson second as GOP voters favor change over experience,” Washington Post, November 21, 2015,; Alexander Bolton, “In wake of Sanders standoff, key DNC official warns of schism,” Hill, December 19, 2015,; Ben Casselman, “The Economy Is Better — Why Don’t Voters Believe It?” FiveThirtyEight, November 12, 2015,; Chris Cillizza, “Democrats are WAY angrier than Republicans about the political system,” Washington Post, September 29, 2015,; David Frum, “The Great Republican Revolt,” Atlantic, January, 2016,; Nick Gass, “Poll: GOP three times as angry at government,” Politico, November 23, 2015,; Patrick Healy, “Democrats Find That Anti-Establishment Isn’t Just a G.O.P. Theme,” New York Times, October 3, 2015,; John Heilemann, “Insurrection Erupts at the Democratic National Committee,” Bloomberg, October 15, 2015,; George Packer, “The Republican Class War,” New Yorker, November 9, 2015,; Janet Hook, “Voters’ Mood: Surly Side Up, With a Side of Optimism, Poll Shows,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2015,; Kim Phillips-Fein, “Obama’s true heir is Hillary Clinton. But that is a blessing for Bernie Sanders,” Guardian, January 31, 2016,; Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015,; Kelly Riddell, “Democrats fear Sanders’ supporters won’t back Clinton if she wins nomination,” Washington Times, January 19, 2016,; Eugene Robinson, “What Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common,” Washington Post, January 28, 2016,; Eli Yokley, “Anti-Establishment Mood Doesn’t Stop ‘Invisible Primary’,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, October 8, 2015,

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