By Adam Marletta
The recent outcry over three South Portland high school students’ attempts to educate their fellow students of their constitutional rights by encouraging them to stand for the daily Pledge of Allegiance “if you’d like to,” reveals some bitter truths about our country’s education system.
But first, it is worth noting this childish, thoroughly anti-democratic worship of The Flag—and the misplaced association so many Americans make with patriotism and militarism—is not exclusive to high school. I have been publicly reprimanded for refusing to stand for the obligatory Pledge of Allegiance during Portland City Council meetings.
As it is, I would gladly stand for the Pledge if we followed Ralph Nader’s suggestion and amended the final sentence–“…with liberty and justice for all,”–to “some.” Then, perhaps, the words would more accurately reflect the reality of this country.
But then, the Pledge was never intended to convey any sort of reality or historical truth about America. It has always been a tool of propaganda, designed to instill in citizens a cheap (and false) sense of patriotism.
And, when seen for what it is, it makes perfect sense to begin every school day—from Kindergarten up through high school—with the Pledge of Allegiance. School is, after all, little more than an indoctrination center.
It is not just that our public schools do such a lousy job of truly educating our young people. It is that so much of what passes for “education,” does little to cultivate critical thinking, moral attributes, and, ultimately, produce intelligent, creative, civically-minded young people. Instead, students are taught from an early age to conform and to obey.
Our education system, with its narrow focus on standardized tests, rote memorization, and its overall emphasis on skills and technical proficiency over a deeper, more meaningful sense of education, serves as little more than indoctrination into the capitalist system. Schools provide employers with the next generation of subservient, unquestioning workers–what Chris Hedges calls “systems managers.”
As Hedges writes in a 2011 article for Truthdig.com titled “Why the United States is Destroying its Education System,”
Passing [multiple choice] tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs… They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts… are weeded out.
In fact, public education is a relatively recent institution, having developed in the mid-19th century alongside the rise of industrial capitalism. Prior to compulsory education, the family served as the primary transmitter of knowledge and learning.
As the anarchist-collective authors, CrimethInc., write in their anti-capitalist manifesto, Work, “Once limits were put on child labor laws, kids had to spend the day somewhere” (Italics theirs).
The authors go on to note the way the education system serves to maintain distinct class divisions. They write:
Early in life, children are put on one of two education tracks according to social class; these can take the form of private and public schools, suburban and inner city schools, or classes for “advanced” students alongside classes for everyone else. For the majority foreordained to fail, the school system is a gigantic holding tank; the ones who rebel are shuttled directly from detention to prison. Many schools now resemble prisons, with police officers, metal detectors, and other mechanisms to normalize authoritarian control from an early age (Italics in original).
The implementation of national and state education standards like Common Core and George W. Bush’s ironically-named, “No Child Left Behind Act,” has only furthered the overall corporatization of public education. Common Core–which 44 states, including Maine have essentially been forced to adopt, as implementation is tied to additional federal education funding–is bankrolled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ExxonMobil, and the ultra-secretive corporate lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the latter of which Gov. Paul LePage is a member of.
By the time students get to college they have internalized the basic assumption that the sole purpose of higher education is to become proficient in a specific set of skills in order to obtain a job–preferably a high-paying one. To wit, Business Administration & Management remains the most popular college major. This college-as-job-training mentality has led to a sustained, decades-long attack on the liberal arts and humanities. Liberal arts majors like Philosophy, Women’s Studies, English, and Theater are deemed “impractical” because, so students are told, “you cannot do anything with them.”
Translation: Degrees in these fields will not make one rich. Therefore, according to the logic of the market-oriented university, they are a waste of time. And with colleges like the University of Southern Maine under increasing budget constraints, humanities departments and faculty are always the first to be eliminated.
As it is, the majority of college professors are adjuncts or part-time “lecturers,” making as little as $1,000 per semester. These glorified contract workers have no benefits, no union representation, and no guarantee of work from one semester to the next. Only 24.1 percent of professors, or one in six, currently have tenure.
Consider this the “Wal-Mart-ization” of higher education.
Thus, the corporatization of our universities has perverted the entire purpose of education which is inherently political, critical of authority, and even, at times, subversive. “Education is not the filling of a pail,” W.B. Yeats wrote, “but the lighting of a fire.”
Those who learn to think critically and independently are truly free. Education unchains one from Plato’s allegorical cave of darkness, where a captive citizenry is manipulated by shadows and trickery on the walls. The educated can see the world as it truly is. They become their own moral agents.
This is the empowering gift of a genuine education. And it is precisely what our corporate masters fear the most.