"Learning to Be Stupid in the Culture of Cash"
By Luciana Bohne
You might think that reading about a Podunk University's English teacher's
attempt to connect the dots between the poverty of American education and
the gullibility of the American public may be a little trivial, considering
we've embarked on the first, openly-confessed imperial adventure of
senescent capitalism in the US, but bear with me. The question my
experiences in the classroom raise is why have these young people been
educated to such abysmal depths of ignorance.
"I don't read," says a junior without the slightest self-consciousness.
She has not the smallest hint that professing a habitual preference for not
reading at a university is like bragging in ordinary life that one chooses
not to breathe. She is in my "World Literature" class. She has to read
novels by African, Latin American, and Asian authors. She is not there by
choice: it's just a "distribution" requirement for graduation, and it's
easier than philosophy, she thinks.
The novel she has trouble reading is Isabel Allende's "Of Love and
Shadows," set in the post-coup terror of the Pinochet junta's Nazi-style regime in
Chile, 1973-1989. No one in the class, including the English majors, can
write a focused essay of analysis, so I have to teach that. No one in the
class knows where Chile is, so I make photocopies of general information
from world guide surveys. No one knows what socialism or fascism is, so I
spend time writing up digestible definitions. No one knows what Plato's
"Allegory of the Cave" is, and I supply it because it's impossible to
understand the theme of the novel without a basic knowledge of that work -
which used to be required reading a few generations ago.
And no one in the class has ever heard of 11 September 1973, the CIA-sponsored
coup which terminated Chile's mature democracy. There is complete shock when
I supply US de-classified documents proving US collusion with the generals'
coup and the assassination of the elected president, Salvador Allende.
Geography, history, philosophy, and political science - all missing from
their preparation. I realize that my students are, in fact, the oppressed,
as Paulo Freire's "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" pointed out, and that they
are paying for their own oppression. So, I patiently explain: no, our
government has not been the friend of democracy in Chile; yes, our
government did fund both the coup and the junta torture-machine; yes, the
same goes for most of Latin America. Then, one student asks, "Why?" Well, I
say, the CIA and the corporations run roughshod over the world in part
because of the ignorance of the people of the United States, which
apparently is induced by formal education, reinforced by the media, and
cheered by Hollywood. As the more people read, the less they know and the
more indoctrinated they become, you get this national enabling stupidity to
attain which they go into bottomless pools of debt. If it weren't tragic, it
would be funny.
Meanwhile, this expensive stupidity facilitates US funding of the bloody
work of death squads, juntas, and terror regimes abroad. It permits the war
we are waging - an unfair, illegal, unjust, illogical, and expensive war,
which announces to the world the failure of our intelligence and, by the
way, the creeping weakness of our economic system. Every man, woman, and
child killed by a bomb, bullet, famine, or polluted water is a murder - and
a war crime. And it signals the impotence of American education to produce
brains equipped with the bare necessities for democratic survival: analyzing
and asking questions.
Let me put it succinctly: I don't think serious education is possible in
America. Anything you touch in the annals of knowledge is a foe of this
system of commerce and profit, run amok. The only education that can be
permitted is if it acculturates to the status quo, as happens in the
expensive schools, or if it produces people to police and enforce the status
quo, as in the state school where I teach. Significantly, at my school,
which is a third-tier university, servicing working-class, first-generation
college graduates who enter lower-echelon jobs in the civil service,
education, or middle management, the favored academic concentrations are
communications, criminal justice, and social work--basically how to mystify,
cage, and control the masses.
This education is a vast waste of the resources and potential of the young.
It is boring beyond belief and useless--except to the powers and interests
that depend on it. When a Ukrainian student, a three-week arrival on these
shores, writes the best-organized and most profound essay in English of the
class, American education has something to answer for--especially to our
But the detritus and debris that American education has become is both
planned and instrumental. It's why our media succeeds in telling lies. It's
why our secretary of state can quote from a graduate-student paper, claiming
confidently that the stolen data came from the highest intelligence sources.
It's why Picasso's "Guernica" can be covered up during his preposterous
"report" to the UN without anyone guessing the political significance of
this gesture and the fascist sensibility that it protects.
Cultural fascism manifests itself in an aversion to thought and cultural
refinement. "When I hear the word 'culture,'" Goebbels said, "I reach for my
revolver." One of the infamous and telling reforms the Pinochet regime
implemented was educational reform. The basic goal was to end the
university's role as a source of social criticism and political opposition.
The order came to dismantle the departments of philosophy, social and
political science, humanities and the arts--areas in which political
discussions were likely to occur.
The universities were ordered to issue degrees only in business management,
computer programming, engineering, medicine and dentistry - vocational
training schools, which in reality is what American education has come to resemble,
at least at the level of mass education. Our students can graduate without ever
touching a foreign language, philosophy, elements of any science, music or
art, history, and political science, or economics. In fact, our students learn to
live in an electoral democracy devoid of politics - a feature the dwindling
crowds at the voting booths well illustrate.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that, in the rapacity that the
industrial revolution created, people first surrendered their minds or the
capacity to reason, then their hearts or the capacity to empathize, until
all that was left of the original human equipment was the senses or their
selfish demands for gratification. At that point, humans entered the stage
of market commodities and market consumers--one more thing in the
commercial landscape. Without minds or hearts, they are instrumentalized to
buy whatever deadens their clamoring and frightened senses--official lies,
immoral wars, Barbies, and bankrupt educations.
Meanwhile, in my state, the governor has ordered a 10% cut across the board
for all departments in the state - including education.
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University in
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