Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is Our Children Learning? (Why Education is Always Worth It)

People often ask me whether I believe obtaining my master’s degree was “worth it.” It’s a question I dread. Not because I do not know the answer. I dread it because the nature of the question presupposes a particular view of education that I thoroughly reject.

First, let me address the question itself: Yes, my MA was absolutely worth getting. I love education and believe it is never a “wasted” endeavor.

My master’s program did all of the things higher education should do. It enlarged my reading, expanded my knowledge, exposed me to new ideas and perspectives, and allowed me to contemplate the critical, philosophical questions we are so often discouraged from asking in our day to day lives. For all of these reasons I believe my MA was indeed worth pursuing. In fact, I have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing a PhD at some point.

But I fear many would regard such strictly academic benefits in our market-oriented society as “abstract,” “idealistic,” perhaps even “frivolous,” if not downright silly. This is because, as a society, we have completely degraded the goal of education.

A college education is no longer about teaching students to become critical, independent thinkers. It is about training them in a specific, narrowly-focused skill so they can get a job—preferably a high-paying one. Universities no longer educate students in the traditional sense of the word—they train them for work.

According to this skills-oriented, strictly utilitarian view of education, degrees that do not directly lead to a tangible, specific career—such as those in English, Philosophy, or Women’s Studies--are branded “worthless.” Knowledge and appreciation of great literature won’t make you a ton of money, the thinking goes, so why bother studying it? And the economic crash, which has led to increased enrollment in vocational schools and community colleges, has only reinforced this attitude. (And as someone who has taught at community college, I can assure you students there have zero interest in any liberal-arts based learning—even if they are enrolled in a Humanities course.)

“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life,” writes Neil Postman in his book, The End of Education, “which is quite different from how to make a living.” Postman echoes the view of Socrates who understood the difference between teaching a skill and teaching one to be an autonomous, independent thinker. Socrates, of course, famously proclaimed education to be, “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

An educational curriculum that focuses only on skills creates a society of what Chris Hedges calls “systems managers.”

In his 2009 book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges notes how the recipients of such a skills-based education—most of whom end up working in the financial sector—engage in narrowly focused papers or exercises, standardized tests and rote memorization. Upon graduating, these students can regurgitate mass amounts of information, but they rarely learn to challenge authority, social norms, or power structures.

As a result, Hedges explains, they have “been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.” He writes:

These elites are not capable of asking the broad, universal questions, the staples of an education in the humanities, which challenge the deepest assumptions of a culture and examine the harsh realities of political and economic power. They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil. They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.

Such students are ultimately, Hedges claims, “products of a moral void.”

While many college professors refuse to give up on these loftier educational ideals, those in the liberal arts departments are finding it increasingly difficult to justify such curriculum goals to their university superiors. This is particularly true as so many colleges face mounting budget shortfalls which inevitably result in cutting courses and non-tenured faculty. And since one “can’t do anything” with a Humanities degree, those courses are typically the first to go.

Add to that the mounting pressure on professors not to get “too political” in their teaching—a potentially career-ending taboo, which free-market-oriented Business and Economics professors are curiously exempt from. Yet intellectual inquiry, like art, is inherently political in nature. Those who doubt this claim should consult another excellent book by Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

Our nation’s education structure, like our health care system, is another casualty of unfettered corporate capitalism. Education has been reduced to a commodity. College administrators now view students as customers who are essentially paying for a degree.

“Most of these students are so conditioned to success that they become afraid to take risks,” Hedges writes of the modern college student.

They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors... The point is to get ahead, and getting ahead means deference to authority. Challenging authority is never a career advancer.

Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Those who learn to think critically and independently are truly free. They can see through White House lies and media spin. These individuals are their own moral agents.

So, no—I do not regret any of my education. It may not have made me monetarily richer, but it has enhanced my life with a richness of purpose.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Green Party Still Too Radical For ABC

ABC News political correspondent Matt Negrin is at it again.

In a new post ("Green Party Candidate Jill Stein's Running Mate is not Roseanne Barr," 7/11/2012) on the Green Party's national convention in Baltimore (which starts today), he again goes out of his way to mock and belittle the Greens and third-parties in general.

Negrin calls Jill Stein's recently announced running mate, Cheri Honkala "so obscure that Wikipedia doesn't have a page for her..." Such a juvenile jab says more about Negrin's complete lack of actual research abilities than Honkala's perceived level of notoriety. In other words, this "reporter" was unable to learn anything about Honkala since Wikipedia is, apparently, the only source he consults.

His inability to conduct rudimentary background research on his subject is further displayed in his attribution of Honkala's work as an advocate for the homeless to Stein. Negrin writes, "Long-shot Green Party candidate Jill Stein has chosen her running mate: Cheri Honkala, who, Stein said, is "the nation's leading anti-poverty advocate." (Italics mine.) Yet, this awkward phrasing suggests Honkala does not, in fact, hold this position--that it is merely Stein's opinion that she is an anti-poverty advocate. This is a subtle way of de-legitimizing Honkala's activist work. It's also just shoddy journalism.

Negrin then has to get on his high horse with his outrageous claim that third-parties "are a fun footnote in U.S. presidential elections..." And, of course, he is obligated to rehash the tired, baseless claim that Ralph Nader "spoiled" the 2000 presidential election.

Hey, here's a "fun footnote" Negrin is clearly unfamiliar with: The Republican Party began as a (wait for it...!) third-party. And how about all those antiquated concepts like workers' rights, a five-day, eight-hour work week, workers' compensation and time-and-a-half pay on holidays? The fight for all those things came, not from either of the major parties, but from members of the Socialist Party. That's right--a third-party.

Finally, Negrin once again labels Stein a "radical" for running on a platform that includes creating 25 million jobs, legalizing marijuana, curbing military-spending and instituting universal college education. These may be "radical" policies for corporate news outlets like Disney-owned ABC, but for the majority of Americans they are just common sense.

I am really uncertain what Negrin's aim is with these articles. The Daily Show already has a corner on making fun of progressive politicians. Maybe he should go write for them.

For more on the role of third-parties in American history, check out this clip from the "Bonus Features" of the Ralph Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bill Moyers: "Thomas Jefferson's Betrayal"

If you are not watching veteran reporter Bill Moyers' new show, Moyers & Company, you should be. This week, he delivers an eloquent, thought-provoking essay on why the American revolution, 236 years later, is still in many respects a work in progress.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Left's New Crush: John Roberts is No Hero

Is Chief Justice John Roberts the Left’s new hero? Many have embraced him as such in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act.

First, however, let’s look at the law itself.

Back in March I expressed mixed feelings toward the fate of “Obamacare,” and my sentiments remain largely unchanged. The law is little more than a massive giveaway to the health insurance industry—another fine example of the corporate welfare I wrote about last week, in fact. Citizens will now be required to purchase private coverage from a for-profit corporation. And given that the ACA does little to control costs or manage care, Americans are essentially being forced to buy a largely defective product.

The law does nothing to alter the fundamental structure of the for-profit health care industry, which is at the heart of our dysfunctional system. True reform would be adopting a single-payer or Medicare for all health care system, like nearly every other industrialized nation in the world. Even Iraq, under the U.S.-installed Maliki government, has established universal health care for all in its Constitution. In other words, single-payer is good enough for the countries we illegally invade under false pretenses, but not for our own “democracy.”

Still, the new law does contain some positive provisions like allowing young people to remain on their parents’ insurance until they are 26-years-old, and prohibiting insurance companies from denying care based on a patient having a “pre-existing condition.” How carefully these provisions will be enforced, however, remains to be seen.

Overall, Thursday’s decision was a sort-of win for citizens and a major win for Corporate America. I’d give it two out of four stars, Ebert.

With that in mind, this ruling was delivered by the most radically conservative Supreme Court in decades and Roberts’ “betrayal” of the Right does nothing to change that. That is because, despite what the talking heads on TV say, the Chief Justice’s ruling upholding the ACA was not a betrayal at all. In fact, Roberts’ argument was well within his recent ideologically-driven opinions granting increased rights and powers to corporations.

This is a Supreme Court it is worth remembering, which equates the spending of vast sums of money with “free speech.” Indeed, this thinking was at the crux of the Court’s now infamous Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010. As a direct result, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have both raised over $330 million to date for their respective campaigns, according to financial reports.

But try explaining that to liberals. Many are now praising Roberts as having saved health care reform, by “throwing out partisanship,” and in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, “taking one for the country.” In his latest Op-Ed (7/01/2012), Friedman applauds the Chief Justice’s “virtue of audacity,” and “inspired…simple noble leadership.”

“…I found myself applauding for Chief Justice Roberts,” he writes, “the same way I did for Al Gore when he gracefully bowed to the will of the Supreme Court in the 2000 election and the same way I do for those wounded [U.S.] soldiers.”

As usual, Friedman’s choice of words here is instructive: Gore “bowed to the will of the Supreme Court,” rather than the will of the voters who elected him president in that much-maligned election. (As for Friedman’s applauding the wounded troops, he damn well better. His militant, uncritical reporting was largely responsible for sending them to Iraq in the first place.)

Other commentators have suggested Roberts—who made his personal opposition to the Affordable Care Act evidently clear in his written argument—was spurred to support the law by a recent Pew Research Poll that found overall trust in the Supreme Court’s supposed legal objectivity at an all-time low. As The Nation’s David Cole writes of the ruling (6/28/2012):

…I cannot but think that at the back of Roberts’s mind was the Court’s institutional standing. Had the law been struck down on “party-lines,” the Court’s reputation would be seriously undermined… Sharply divided partisan opinions like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United appear to have done damage to the Court’s legitimacy—and ultimately, its legitimacy is the source of the Court’s power.


But John Roberts’ concern for his own historic legacy on the Court does not make him any sort of a progressive champion—or, for that matter, make the health care law any better. If anything, Cole’s reasoning only confirms what many like me have long suspected: Members of the Supreme Court are just as self-serving, calculating and opportunistic as members of Congress. It means the Chief Justice did not vote to uphold “Obamacare” out of any great concern for Americans’ access to health care and well-being. He did it to secure his own place in the history books.

Roberts is no hero, and progressives who now seem eager to adopt him as such are, as usual, missing the broader picture. We still need to fight for real health care reform in this country. The ACA is a pyrrhic victory at best, and a minor step toward universal health care for all.

You will excuse me if I find little worth applauding here.

One of several Internet "memes" to emerge in celebration of Roberts' vote.