I wanted to share this editorial by Joseph Natoli, published on truthout.org (Monday, February 7, 2011). Natoli rightly questions much of the philosophical underpinnings of our public education system:
(Photo: Claremont Colleges Digital Library)
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” -John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644.
“The mind is a dangerous thing.”- Former Vice President of the US Dan Quayle, classroom address.
If we accept the assumption that we think inside a personally determined box which is itself inside a “Let Markets Rule” larger box, we need to acknowledge that such a state of affairs has much affected conditions “here on the ground.” I mean that what we think comprises a “good education” has already been affected by market values.
An example: we think of “problem solving” and not “critical thinking.” A corporation has a “human resources logistics problem,” or a computer engineer has a programming problem or an institution has a “cash flow” problem. And so on. The point is that in order to satisfy goals and objectives, certain problems that arise have to be overcome. Organizations come into being by solving problems. The problem solver is a corporate asset.
Critical thinking, on the contrary, may create problems for an organization because it neither works toward any goal other than understanding nor accepts any limitations on its skepticism. We wanted to solve the problem of 9/11 terrorism and accepted a bomb solution. Critical thinking or any interpretation of the event in the hope of understanding, which would then be the intelligent basis of action, was suppressed. The Tea Party wants to solve the problem of Big Government, focused now on the so-called socialism of Obama. Critical thinking about the Great Recession of 2008 and the failure of a so-called “self-correcting” market displayed in that event is not part of any Tea Party candidate’s platform. We want to solve the problems that WikiLeaks, the Egyptian people’s revolution, global warming, Obamacare, the “welfare” state and its entitlements, outsourcing, a serious wealth divide, foreclosures, unemployment, terrorism and a public education collapse – to name some of the most pressing problems – have created.
Ironically, our “problem solving” mode of corporate origin has already done much to create our problems, while at the same time limiting our capacity to solve them. Within the powerful regime of market rule, we can easily identify problems because that regime establishes a mutuality of insight. In other words, when we are all in a “profit to shareholder” boat, we can recognize what problems are and where they might arise. We also share a mutuality of blindness. For instance, I’ve listed outsourcing, global warming, Obamacare and wealth divide as serious problems, but they are only recognized as such within regimes of perception that counter in whatever feeble ways market rule. We must rely on a critical thinking that attaches the identification of problems and the proposed solutions to the predominating priorities of time and place. Whose problem is it and what existing conditions does it threaten? Have we constructed and invested in a hierarchy of desires, truths and perceptions which have by their exclusions and partialities defined as problems what would, under different priorities, not be problems at all?
The nature of critical thinking is not to pursue a logic which is impeccable and unimpeachable within the regime of being and knowing that has credentialed it. Rather, critical thinking observes the dimensions of the reality frame we have constructed for ourselves, the box of being we are in, and seeks other and different framings within which other logics emerge. Other and different problems emerge, but the goal of critical thinking is to enable a comparative weighing of consequences, so that less threatening problems emerge and less disastrous solutions are offered. There’s neither need nor time in the present to be less than direct about the lethal logics and politics of our regime of globalized technocapitalism. It shapes what we perceive as problems as well as what we don’t.
How to teach this on any educational level when our market priorities are not directed toward an interrogation of how they constrain what we learn and how we learn? Are we positioned to bring “free market solutions” under investigation, or, are we already only investigating, only questioning, only prepared to learn and teach, within the domain of “free market solutions”? I recognize that critical thinking is a potential danger to any order of things whose sway over hearts and minds is so deep and pervasive that what lies outside its order is inconceivable.
We were so deeply into the cold war that the Soviet Union’s collapse … so deeply into our own unblemished white plume of American Exceptionalism that 9/11 … so deeply into the self-correcting beauties of unregulated free enterprise that the Great Recession of 2008 … so deeply into our ever-aggrandizing “creative destruction” of Nature, that global warming … Inconceivable all. Never problems, and no solutions necessary. We have narrowed our scope of knowing, uttering and arguing, of learning, within very narrow confines indeed.
Another example: “innovation” and not “imagination” is now part of what we are educating toward. Innovation brings new products and services to life and, thus, maximizes profit. Imagination may “innovate” nothing of use or profit. When we exercise the imagination the poet Shelley tells us in “A Defense of Poetry,” we extend and deepen our capacity to understand others and empathize with them and therefore legislate on behalf of not only ourselves, but others as well. All the fine arts offer this exercising of the imagination, but within the regime of technological and product innovation. painting and drawing, music and dance, sculpture and theatre and Shelley’s own beloved poetry have no place, no value. When you narrow the imagination to the dimensions of a particular need or demand – a voice activated gadget, a collapsible widget, a smaller cell phone, a bigger SUV – you are more of an advocate of computer literacy than music appreciation. That preference is already installed in what we think of as education. While technical innovation leads to an iPod and an iPad – both of which we believe will lead to that utopian prosperity for all that globalized capitalism promises – we have not the imagination to see our own extinction or the critical powers to examine conditions that truly exist.
We know that the US ranks 16th among 30 countries in reading, but we no longer know what we mean by “reading.” More precisely, we don’t know if reading text messages, Tweets, blogs and email deliver any deep level of either transmission or reception. And we don’t know whether we have already recalibrated both the complexity of what we transmit and the complexity we can receive to a Tweet level.
We don’t know if Tweeting is the new norm of literate representation. We do know that critical thinking, imagination and reading are analog and old school, and that math and science are digital and millennial. Cyberspace has enabled globalization and, therefore, computer science is the new literacy. Mathematical hedge fund management is, oddly enough, at the very heart of our stochastic, casino logic capitalism. Thus, our “race to the top” in math and science is so designed.
A generational observing serves here: those whose reading could descend no lower than the comics, neither held comic books as a profound reading venture nor was comic book reading a widespread educational goal. The book was never endangered by comics. Millennials, however, are engaged in widespread, hand-held device “reading.” They transmit and receive some abbreviated form of language as an effective means of communication. There is an expressed hope that Twittering and emoticons will generate transcultural talk and that that is a wonderful thing. Printed page books join retirement pensions and “public” anything in the Jurassic age. Whether or not e-readers, like the Kindle, will entice millennials from Tweets to Thackeray remains to be seen. But what we can see now is that “reading,” which doesn’t rank as high as “doing science and math,” is presently undergoing a major transformation. At the same time that the complexity of the “offline world” is being shadowed and challenged by the endless seductions of the “online world,” the power to represent and to critically interpret and understand those representations are at emoticon and Tweet levels.
You can neither Tweet Milton’s Areopagitica nor can a lapsed capacity to read and think critically – a Tweeting mentality – serve us. It is only because we have narrowed our intellectual range to the boundaries of market values and meanings that our critical thinking and our imaginations have fallen so disastrously. Let’s say, quite polemically, that free enterprise requires instantaneous, reliable communication and that technology is offering that and in some way education should further this and that deep interpretations of Faulkner or close following of Kant or a long wrestling with the Federalist Papers or Supreme Court issues are not required. Technology is “innovating” toward voice-activated computers with no need to tap the alphabet and type words. We are returning to an oral culture status. Sarah Palin may be semi-literate but a future Sarah Palin can be completely illiterate and pass unobserved in a future where no one has to read beyond the level of Tweet.
Markets are more interested in numbers than words and yet education seems not to know how to teach the algorithm. The language of science is mathematics; the minion of science is technology and technology innovates the new products and services that lead to expanded profits. Words, on the other hand, are slippery, unreliable and possibly dangerous. The oral society that we are becoming prefers to hear Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck than read The New York Times or the NY Review of Books. Spectacle, images, views are what most powerfully reach us now, thus the popularity of YouTube. A picture may be said to be worth a thousand words but those whose literacy doesn’t go beyond pictures wouldn’t have a thousand words.
Right now we are more attuned to hear someone talk about what they’ve written than to read what they’ve written. We tolerate a text message and a Tweet, a Facebook status report and update; but those, unfortunately, confine us within a “regime of Me and My Friends” that augments a mutuality of blindness especially disastrous in a country in which the never mentioned “underclass” lie outside our virtual social communities. Note that it is the young of the bottom 40 percent of the population, a population that holds only 0.3 percent of US wealth, who can neither critical read and think or satisfy the need of a market regime for math and science competence. They are casualties not only of poverty, but of a market privatizing assault on public education. In the muddle of bombastic pretense and education to fulfill corporate needs, the poor are wasted.
In an age of spectacle, the image makers of Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Fox TV rule. The kind of education market values pushes us toward, pays only lip service to words and reading, but values numbers and images. What we want to finesse in the present is how to educate around words and reading and retain what we traditionally consider to be education. The stupefying impasse here is that the market doesn’t want critical reading and thinking, an impasse that will dissolve as those accomplishments transmute into a millennial palpability.
A revolution now taking place in regard to reading and education is not taking place in schools, but in cyberspace as millennials find their way to the world through Google and Wikipedia and YouTube and blogs and Tweets – all delivered to something they hold in the palm of their hand. Institutionalized classroom, teacher administered education is going Jurassic and that may be the fatal problem no one wants to face. Private enterprise already controls the technology and may hold on to a privatized education when it gets it – if the profits prove large enough. The future of education then would be a competition between profit and greater profit, the free and public brand of education “creatively destroyed.”
Let’s now assume that the way we think about things, in this case education, is not held captive within a market regime and that public education is not being set up for privatization. Let’s play out a different hand.
Let’s assume the 2008 Great Recession right up to the “Flash Crash” of May 2010 in which the Dow Jones dropped 600 points in five minutes for no reason that has been accepted initiated a skeptical attitude, which extended to a market-values approach to education. What would education mean then?
Such skepticism would summon immediately its own minion – critical thinking, the bedrock of that being critical reading. One reads not only to understand, but to relate what one is reading to a wider cultural context. Following Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depended upon an educated populace, we would now place political literacy in a prominent educational position. Such literacy would pre-empt any satisfaction with, say, the Tea Party’s reading of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the continued history of states’ rights and Federal authority. Because understanding depends upon both an historical frame and a comparative frame, historical literacy and global literacy, which includes geographical literacy, become part of our skeptic’s education. What is left out in the present or poorly understood or a mere repetition of what has failed in the past can only be discovered through a knowledge of history.
The arts, music and literature are reintroduced in importance because we can only see through and go beyond the limitations of any value and meaning regime, whether market-based or socialist or religious or pragmatic, and so on, via the imagination. “What is real today was once only imagined,” in the words of William Blake. To this list I would add philosophical literacy, sufficient to question the limitations and constraints of “free to choose,” personal responsibility and the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public responsibilities and the relationship between reality and representation, truth and words, sentences and world.
Market values have little interest in history which is no more than yesterday’s stock returns, yesteryear’s horse race. History may also, as it does, harbor values and meanings that directly oppose the supremacy of market values. And needless to say, if we educated and graduated critical thinkers, supermarket cereal aisles would be smaller, Obama wouldn’t be called both a socialist and a fascist; we wouldn’t be holding Creative Design and Darwin as equally valid theories; we wouldn’t be driving SUVs in the face of global warming; we’d be taking measures to reduce global warming regardless of a loss in profits to shareholders; we wouldn’t be blaming unions for keeping salaries at 1973 levels; we wouldn’t be repeating Vietnam in Afghanistan right now; we would recognize the play of chance in everyone life and, therefore, adjust our notions of winners and losers accordingly; we wouldn’t follow Oprah in the belief that personal will puts checks in the mail; we would connect the illiteracy of the poor with our astounding wealth gap – we would, at the end of this long list, realize that we shouldn’t be waiting for Superman when we think about education.
We need to just look back and see what was meant by education before we went inside the big box of market values and collapsed our sense of a “good education” to the needs of our market regime.