dumbing down

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Mon Oct 16 11:56:12 PDT 2000

Doug Henwood wrote:

> Carrol Cox wrote:
> > Criticisms of the educational system (in the sense of assigning to it the
> >*cause* of any social phenomenon) are unavoidably grounded in an
> >individualistic
> >metaphysic.
> Why's that? Why can't you criticize the U.S., or any other,
> educational citizen for socializing people into conformity and
> choking any remnants of intellectual curiousy? Why can't you draw
> connections between that educational system and the whole apparatus
> of capitalist culture that continues the work? Political candidates
> address the public as if they were simpletons because that's the way
> the ruling class wants the public to be (except on the job, of
> course).

With minor variations, education as it exists now and as it will continue to exist consists of a number of children being exposed to a single adult for several hours a day in a context totally separated from the rest of their lives. You can add (or subtract) all sorts of bells and whistles (as they certainly do in Northbrook where my sister-in-law teaches) but they don't change that fundamental structure. Since the relationships inside the classroom are cut off from any direct inter-relationship with events or social relations outside the classroom, the relationships inside the classroom (or school) are arbitrary and do *not* form network of relationships of which teacher-pupil is only a part. So the results of education are a result of simple aggregation: the results for pupil A + the results for pupil B + plus the results for . . . pupil (k+1).

I would presume that the social relationships that determine the meaning/results of these individualized relationships within the school exist primarily *outside* the school, and that very little can be done to the educational system to change this fact. (It might make a difference if schools kept no records and refused to pass on information about students to other schools or prospective employers. The result would not be, as might seem at first blush, to further segregate schools from the total life of the community but to force much fuller and more complex relationships. For one thing, it might make corporations desperate to have their taxes raised to improve schools, once schools could no longer be used as merely an adjunct to the personnel office but had to be depended on to provide actual skills. It would make everyone begin to think. I would of course extend this to medical schools. Responsibility for competent medical care would be borne collectively by local hospitals and medical associations, with no med school degrees to hide behind.)

I need to reread Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses, but my suspicion is that the main way in which the educational system does its ideological work is not through anything that happens in the schools but through the very existence of the school system -- its impact on the general public consciousness. I would also suppose that the school building, the equipment available, etc. etc. has an ideological impact, not through how they effect teaching but because of the implicit message they carry to the pupils as to the greater social order's respect or lack of respect. Inadequate equipment in a ghetto school operates not so much by damaging instruction as in carrying a general fuck-you message to the students.

"Political candidates address the public as if they were simpletons because that's the way the ruling class wants the public to be (except on the job, of course)." True -- but how does that necessarily bear on the effects of the educational system. Consider the disagreements among progressive economists on pen-l and this list. The point is that the "issues" that can be discussed in a national campaign for political office *cannot* be discussed in an intelligent way to a mass audience, regardless of how much or how little "good" schooling that audience has had -- they are too widely separated from human practice. And it's you and Lou, not me, who continually argue that "we" (leftists) should develop a rhetoric or message or something or other that can reach the masses. My argument has been that we don't need new arguments -- that all leftist arguments delievered to a mass audience will fail to communicate. The message of the left has to be conveyed more or less person to person in small groups. Hence what we need is neither smarter audiences nor better leftists but a context of mass struggle (which seems always in part to come from nowhere, to be a matter of sheer contingency) within which small groups appropriate for receiving leftist messages can arise.


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