JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Philosophy of Anti-Education
How Conservative Anti-Intellectualism Suppresses Free Thought and Critical Thinking to Maintain the Status Quo
by Johnny Reb
Capitalists, militarists and ecclesiastics co-operate in education because all depend for their power on the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement. - Bertrand Russell
If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.” - Bertrand Russell
Throughout history every effort toward justice, equality, free inquiry and progressive advancements in education such as bringing critical thinking into the curriculum have been resisted by conservative forces both religious and secular. Bertrand Russell, one of the great mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th Century was also a champion of progressive education.
Although particularly harsh in the United States, conservative attacks on public education have been ubiquitous throughout the world and continue unabated. Privatization movements and charter schools are rising up everywhere as public school teachers have been under vicious and sustained attack by reactionary and regressive conservative groups, both political and religious. These attacks have accelerated during the past three or four decades, particularly since the onset of the Reagan and Thatcher era. This neo-conservative juggernaut has imposed itself not only on economic life but on every aspect of our cultural, social and political lives.
Right wing "think tanks" in Canada such as the Fraser Institute have been for some time now imposing their doctrines of draconian high-stakes standardized tests, intensifying their influence on school boards. And conservative politicians and pundits raise the question once again as to why we need useless "unmarketable" liberal arts courses. To them education is merely training and preparation for the workplace. Where's the profit in history, classic literature, philosophy, art, logic or critical thinking?
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” - John Kenneth Galbraith
One must understand the conservative world view. Conservatives hold to the notion that thinking ought to restricted to power and privilege (the real "entitlements") - the owners of wealth and holders of political power. Throughout history, and our sham democracies are no exception, conservatism's bankrupt ideology of authoritarianism and penchant for closed systems of thought and epistemological and ethical absolutes has held firm. Conservatives fear ambiguity, difference and the cultural norms of "the other", believing in concert with famous conservative American propagandist Walter Lippmann, that "the public must be put in its place...so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd." Needless to say, conservatives have never believed in any power to the people, which is the real essence of democracy. So how is it that ordinary working people vote for conservative candidates who don't give a damn about their aspirations and concerns? As the father of Conservatism, Edmund Burke proclaimed, the "swinish multitude" (Burke's terminology) must be relegated to its rightful place at the bottom of the economic and intellectual hierarchy. These are the principles that motivate their educational philosophy. It ought to be of no surprise that their inflexible moral codes, rigid rules and medieval punishments apply only to others, never themselves. Organized religion is the most conservative of institutions, so Christian missionaries never set up any dialogue with indigenous tribal leaders; instead they threatened them with eternal damnation, rewarded or punished them with material goods and salvation through baptism. When that didn't work, force and coercion did, as the military did the dirty work of facilitating the journey of their depraved souls to heaven (or hell). This was the intolerant austere world view that was inflicted on indigenous peoples, who were depicted as "savages" during the five centuries of colonial oppression, exploitation, persecution, slavery and systematic genocide. This ethnocentrism, bigotry and racism continues unabated today, albeit in more subtle and nefarious ways. This ought to surprise no one. There are three things that stand out in any reading of the Bible: there is not a single word in praise of (1) toleration, (2) the intellectual life - and (3), perhaps most depressing of all, humor.
But intolerance and conformity of opinion and action, the foundation of uniformity, law and order, are at the core of conservatism. Christians in particular have demonstrated this by their predilection for burning: primarily heretics and books. All authoritarian systems eschew divergence of thought. Christianity was civilized, not by anything intrinsic to it, but by the tidal wave of reason, skepticism, free thought and "classical" liberalism", sparked by the secular Enlightenment that challenged the authority of the church, monarchy and feudal system. But even rare pockets of so-called "democracy" such as in pre-Christian Athens vilified and charged some of its greatest citizens, including Anaxagoras, Euripides, Protagoras, Alcibiades for questioning the status quo. And Socrates was condemned to death for "corrupting the youth" by promoting skepticism and free thought.
But despite the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, the intolerance and rigidity within much of Christianity has remained static. Evangelical Christian Tim Lahaye, author of the popular best selling Left Behind series of Christian novels, vividly expressed this sentiment: "No humanist is qualified to hold any governmental office in America - United States Senator, Congressman, cabinet member, State Department employee, or any other position that requires him to think in the best interest of America...a humanist is just not qualified to be elected to public office by patriotic loving American citizens." The disturbing fact that an avowed atheist cannot even get elected to a position of dog catcher in America attests that this is not a fringe opinion. Americans who deride the global prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism ought to look no further than the Christian variety in their own back yard.
Amid the current tumult in public education, there's a been a disturbing trend: self-professed liberals and progressives at the political centre and left have apparently conceded the debate to reactionary right-wing ideology. They utter banal inane propositions such as, "The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should preclude ideological political positions." This of course is vacuous rhetoric. Politicians and pundits who make assertions such as this ought to rethink what they have said. With the exception of mathematical statements and other tautologies, there is no such thing as a "non-partisan" position on anything. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects long-standing entrenched differences between liberals and conservatives.
All discourse on educational philosophy begins with premises about "What is the purpose of an education"? And on this there is strident long-standing disagreement.
Studies of the schooling of working class children in the 19th century emphasize the degree to which what was involved was not education in skills so much as inculcating into them discipline, respect for authority and the maintenance of the status quo. I can recall as an elementary and junior high school student school student having to endure the tedious morning recitations of the Lord's Prayer, Bible readings and singing of God Save the Queen at every school assembly. With the exception of brief forays into free thought and liberalization of the curriculum in the 1960s and 70s , this has remained the primary impetus for public education ever since. Not until late in the 19th Century did a concern with basic skills for the workforce begin to become a central preoccupation for North American and British capitalism facing foreign competition. Capitalism desperately needed docile disciplined workers smart enough to do the mind-numbing factory work but not smart enough to challenge what was happening to them. Today disciplines such as economics and sociology are primarily about trying to reproduce business class ideology, while others like accountancy and finance are concerned with the unproductive redistribution of surplus value among members of the plutocratic capitalist class, the new Lords of the realm. Feudalism may be dead but it's always lurching around the corner as it is today following the global massive multi-trillion dollar bailouts of criminal banks and financial institutions. And guess who is paying the bill for the Nanny State golden parachutes?
The division between social expenditures that are in some way productive for capital and those that are non-productive cuts across some of the normal ways of dividing up national budgets. So education is both training for productive labor and also training for unproductive forms of labor such as sales promotion or finance and the inculcation of free market ideological values. Health services and unemployment benefits both keep the workforce fit and ready to provide labor power and are mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion by providing at least minimal provision for the old, the infirm and the long-term unemployed. These ambiguities become important whenever capital finds the costs of state provision begin to cut into profit margins.
Returning to the question of what is education for, an important factor lies embedded within fundamental conceptions and beliefs about what constitutes human nature.
On this issue conservatism recoils from one central premise: that human beings are essentially fallen, deeply flawed and morally depraved. Human beings are controlled by irrepressible passions; we make consistently poor choices and are incapable of governing ourselves. Given our innate degeneracy, civilized society can only function if we submit ourselves to an external authority. I ask the reader who might that authority be? A cursory examination of history provides the answer - those conservatives at the pinnacle of the economic order, regardless of the prevailing socio-economic model. But they would never entertain the thought that perhaps they are plagued by the same human deficiencies. As the most famous conservative in history, Edmund Burke, called it, this is only the case with the masses, whom he referred to as the "swinish multitude."
In the conservative mindset of aristocrats and monarchists like Edmund Burke, critical thinking is dreadfully dangerous, because it teaches children to potentially reject the beliefs and values of external authorities in favor of their own conscience and reasoned judgment - a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students - the ones headed for politics and the legal professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. Naturally, wealthy conservatives send their kids to private schools and elite universities where they will receive a classical liberal education that teaches them everything they require to remain in charge. It will also facilitate making the right connections with the right people , paving the way for a life of entitlement and privilege. Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated this class stratification that's been in place since the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.
Linguistics professor George Lakoff has similarly argued that in this conservative Calvinist worldview, children are born evil, so it's the duty of the stern father to beat it out of them. For their own good, kids must learn to accept the boundaries and order imposed by the authorities who have benignly consented to take on the responsibility for their wretched and unworthy "souls". The primary impetus of education is to break the child's will, force him to conform to society's limited expectations, make him a docile and compliant employee, thus preparing him to survive in a hostile and competitive world that will cut him no slack. Unlike conservative elites, there's no short path to material success. No family business or inheritance to pave the way and no commiseration with members outside his own class to enhance his life's chances. Nobody's going to protect you; for good or bad, you'll only be given what you earn, based entirely on the myth of the meritocracy, the "American Dream". What kids need most from school are marketable skills and credentials that will enable them to find a stable place in the lower echelons of the economic hierarchy. In this way they can dutifully serve their masters in the Conservative Corporate Welfare State.
Liberal education critic John Taylor Gatto has pointed out that the "hidden curriculum" of public schools is designed from the ground up to reinforce these deeply authoritarian lessons. According to Gatto, the student, rather than being "educated", is rather "trained" to eat, sleep, play, and think like an automaton. Spontaneity and following one's own natural inclinations are not options for conservatives. The good student is inculcated to accept the judgment of teachers, his "superiors" and other authority figures who are qualified to evaluate his worth to pre-existing system, in our present case, the market. The student is thus relegated to another saleable commodity within the capitalist system.
These retrograde lessons foster lifelong dependency on external authority, thus nullifying self-reflection, personal assessment, free thought, skepticism and critical thinking. This is the essence of religion., arguably the most conservative institution throughout history. How religious belief has survived the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution remains a mystery to many humanist thinkers. No one is born to believe in the cultural inventions, irrationalities and fairy tales of religion; we are all natural born atheists. In fact all Christians are atheists when it comes to Allah, Vishnu, Odin, Thor or Zeus. To believe in palpable nonsense one has to have it inculcated before the age of rationality begins, during early childhood, at an impressionable age whereby one accepts authority indisputably. Without this indoctrination no one would accept any of its claims, regardless of whether one has taken a course in logic and critical thinking or not. Religious claims fly in the face of everything we presently understand about reality and how the universe works. Without the pervasive overriding prevalence of religious indoctrination at an early age, no nine year old would accept any of it. But it religion serves as an effective mechanism of control and therefore, they are religious or not, conservative power elites understand this. Critical thinking is a threat to those who hold power.
High-stakes testing* is an artifact of the conservative belief that education is about acquiring a required body of knowledge that's been determined by so-called experts and of ordering society within a pre-determined socio- economic hierarchy. If it's not in any of the accepted books chosen for the curriculum by those in authority, you don't need to know it. And the ultimate outcome - the purpose of this whole process - is to graduate with a document that will certify your suitability to the established hierarchies of the economic order. The most important "why" questions are subordinated to "how" questions. People who ask "why", especially questions dealing with ethics or justice, will always be marginalized and scorned by prevailing hierarchical social structures - and the corporate culture is no exception. The student does not need to challenge anything because the program has been settled by those in authority which for eons was, and continues to be underwritten, by both religious and secular indoctrination and dogma.
* Testing, carried out properly, is a valuable diagnostic tool, providing feedback for the teacher regarding what needs to be done to improve comprehension and progress. But they ought not be used as an end in itself, as it has been, a reward/punishment strategy employed to rank pupils in a predetermined slot in a capitalist societal hierarchy. Only authoritarians who reject the democratic goals and values of education can possibly believe that tests are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all education, and no student's potential can ever be described by a single metric. Skepticism and critical thinking are deemed dangerous activities by conservatives, especially the religious, who rightly judge them threats to their power and privileged status within the social and economic order. Organized religion is big business, but without taxation and that they will protect at all costs.
I can vividly recall an incident in my grade six class when I asked why we had to endure the Lord's Prayer and Bible readings every morning before class. I was reprimanded, sent down to the principal's office and threatened with the corporal punishment of the day, the notorious strap. Fortunately these mind numbing religious exercises in the public schools were challenged in the United States by the atheist Madeline Murray O'Hair and ultimately declared a violation of the constitutional clause on separation of church and state. Fortunately, these mindless rituals were soon abolished in Canada as well, saving our pliable minds from further intellectual terrorism.
But it took until the early 1970's in British Columbia to abolish the other draconian instrument of punishment and control called the "strap" which I personally had inflicted on me numerous times for heinous crimes such as throwing snowballs, launching spitballs or asking the wrong "why" questions. This holdover from the Spanish Inquisition was legislated out of existence by the very progressive short-lived New Democratic Party government of Dave Barrett. But this legislation and many other excellent reforms by the NDP shocked the conservative corporate establishment and religious hierarchy into action, fearing that the socialist hordes were at the gates destroying law, order and "civilization". The forces of power, money and media control and propaganda once again won the battle and they were tossed out after only three years (1972-75). But the Barrett government accomplished many good things such as education reform, protecting agricultural land and the environment against unrestrained real estate development and predatory mining and logging practices on public land without paying royalties, cleaned up much of the cronyism and corruption, increased the minimum wage, provided an income supplement to poverty-stricken seniors, created a public auto insurance plan and much more. Much of course was rescinded by the extreme right wing neo-conservative government of the Social Credit stock market fraudster Bill Bennett. Conditions for British Columbians got progressively worse as the criminal Bennett was followed by another criminal Bill "Fantastic" Vanderzalm, an obtuse demagogue and real estate scammer.
Critical thinking is anathema to the conservative model because it teaches students to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment - a habit of mind that invites skepticism, freedom of thought, opposition, rebellion and rejection. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students - the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. The plutocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical liberal education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in authority perched atop the class hierarchy. What more could you do for a child to foster self-esteem than teaching him how to be skeptical and think for himself? Sadly, our public schools have continued to reject critical thinking in our public schools, furthering class stratification of our education system reflective of society as a whole that's been in place since the Renaissance.
John Gatto argues that this kind of regimented education is profoundly inappropriate in a real democracy, not the sham variety we a victimized with. If you teach a child that he is incapable and intrinsically unworthy of governing himself - a central assumption of both religion and conservatism - then how can he possibly participate in a genuine functioning democracy?
The answer, of course, is that he can't.
Anarchist philosophers have always argued that real democracy begins with the premise that most people are intrinsically rational, decent and moral- and that they can generally be trusted to make the right choices by appeals to conscience. Without this humanist belief in indispensable ethical and intellectual competence, any system of universal citizenship and collective governance would be philosophically and practically unthinkable It's a premise that has profound implications for and philosophy of education for democracy.
Among the many great educators such as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell and Neil Postman, in addition to all progressive liberals, the ultimate purpose of both education and parenting is to elicit the best that lies within us, with the ultimate goal of maximizing the unique intellectual potential of each child. The stronger each of us is personally and in our ability to think for ourselves, the stronger civilization is as a whole. Education should, above all, foster self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-discipline, equipping us to make the best possible contributions to the common good - and to pursue life, liberty and happiness wherever those pursuits may take us. It should instill in us to realize that simply because one is "in authority", it doesn't imply that that person is "an authority". Much of what we know has its source in some authority so we need to learn which ones are trustable, reliable and that can be checked for their veracity. If, on a visit to your doctor, he suggested going home and praying to Jesus to deal with your chest pain, would you follow his advice? Some, I dare say, would.
Central to this preparation is the development of our own internal authority and judgment, which we rely on to guide us through life and make us responsible, thoughtful and ethical citizens. It's assumed that people who are accustomed to this kind of personal freedom will also forcefully resist authoritarian leaders, whom we know we can never trust as thoroughly as we trust ourselves. This is the inspirational message of anarchist philosophers throughout its brief history.
Whoever controls knowledge controls society and this situation has become more daunting than ever, with about a half dozen reactionary and highly conservative corporate multinational mega-corporations controlling everything we read, hear and see. Noam Chomsky' and Edward Herman, in their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media have convincingly argued that the corporate news media, and their enablers in government, are not vehicles for truth and justice, but rather mechanisms for defending and sustaining powerful conservative interests. Reporting about the power of advertisers to control media content, they stated that "[advertising] firms will always refuse to patronize ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging to their [corporate] interests." According to Chomsky and Herman, the corporate media are propaganda platforms rather than impartial disseminators of factual information. What they leave out of the news speaks volumes to this claim. Investigative journalism has been replaced by the prevalence of an hegemonic neo-conservative ideology that decides what is "fit to print", assuring "elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents."
Noam Chomsky followed up on this propaganda model theme in his 1988 CBC Massey Lectures (which became a book) titled Necessary Illusions: Though Control in Democratic Societies. To make his point that "democracy" has always been used to protect vested interests of the powerful, he provided examples from history, starting with John Jay, a founding father of the US Constitution, who said " the people who own the country ought to govern it." This has become a truism. Chomsky added journalist and presidential advisor Walter Lippmann, historian Thomas Bailey and public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, who were united in believing the masses [the "bewildered herd" according to Lippmann] too ignorant to make good decisions for themselves or anyone else. Conservative elite were thus obligated to resort to distortions, deceit and lies, "the necessary illusions" to "manufacture consent". Chomsky believed propaganda theory predicted an "extraordinary double standard" whereby news media covers crimes perpetrated by America's enemies but ignores their own crimes and those of their numerous puppet dictators throughout the world that support US military and corporate agendas. He contended that the major media are corporations "selling privileged audiences to other businesses."
To survive in our current socio-economic system, we need citizens who can think critically and clearly about any new situation they're facing, and reason out solutions to problems without input from others when it's necessary. We also need people who will question the wisdom of the neo-conservative ideology that dominates our lives. In today's chaotic kamikaze capitalism, it's become a necessity. We've known for thirty years that the old paternalistic workplaces - the ones with rigid hierarchies, where people might spend 40 years at the same occupation have disappeared. Most workers these days can expect to change careers two, three or more times over the course of what may well be a 50-year working life where the idea of retirement is becoming extinct. Some high profile financial leaders (the same one's bailed out by taxpayers who are now footing the bill) have proposed raising the retirement age in the USA to age 70. Why not 95? That's the future for our children and grandchildren - "work until you die".
Given this stark reality, the college-as-job-training model conservatives are promoting looks patently irrational. It's subjects like logic, mathematics, science, literature, history, philosophy, anthropology and foreign languages that provide the mental flexibility, deep perspective, and sharp critical thinking skills that allow one to make one's own way on unfamiliar landscapes, skills that are indispensible in an ever-changing world. Until the present incarnation of zombie capitalism implodes completely (or people soon revolt) survival in the economy of the future is going to depend far more heavily on our ability to create and maintain strong, broad social networks - to make and maintain supportive relationships with people who understand your values. It will also enable us to question the wisdom of where we are at and create strategies for dramatic change to a global hegemonic economic system that is intrinsically undemocratic, systemically corrupt and beyond redemption. Of course nothing lasts forever, and the present ideological excursion is a transitory phenomenon. But how long can we wait? Until the planet becomes uninhabitable?
It's obvious that stripping these intellectually challenging liberal arts courses from the curriculum - as conservatives are proposing, often with no resistance from liberals - serves the narrow authoritarian and mercenary conservative notions of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It's not exactly accurate - but nonetheless true - to say that the reason we call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more free thinking and "liberal" you are inclined to be. If we accept the conservative idea that critical thinking is superfluous, we're not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in education; but we're depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they'll need to defend their democracy from the corporate plutocrats and financiers who now are in total control. Throughout history we have never experienced real democracy, only the bogus version, but what little we have had, is being quickly erased.
Once you understand how very different our underlying worldviews are, the things we need to do to preserve our idea of a progressive, empowering education become far more clear. And once we've acquired a firmer hold on what our own values demand on these issues, the easier it will be to talk about our vision of what education is about.
The ideology of neo-conservatism and its unbridled free-market dogma employs modes of governance, discipline and regulation that are totalizing in their insistence that all aspects of social life be determined, shaped and weighted through market-driven measures. Neo-conservatism is not merely an economic doctrine that prioritizes buying and selling and makes the supermarket and mall the temples of public life, defining the commitment of citizenship in strictly consumerist terms in which value of anything is understood only in terms of its market price. Yes, under this daunting socio-economic fundamentalism everything and anything is reduced to a commodity, including education and people. It promotes a model of pedagogy and set of social compositions that use education to win consent, produce consumer-based notions of agency and militarize reason in the service of war, profits, power and violence while simultaneously transmogrifying all forms of knowledge into marketable commodities.
The same financial parasites who brought down the global economy, gave us the ongoing great recession and who lost trillions from corrupt trading practices by flogging fraudulent mortgages to millions of homeowners and toxic waste securities to credulous investors have ironically become sources of wisdom and insight regarding how our young people ought to behave and be educated. How can this be?
Where teachers are permitted to enter the debate, they are objects of educational reforms that reduce them to the status of high-level technicians carrying out dictates and objectives decided by experts and number crunchers far removed from the everyday realities of the intellectual life. Or they are reduced to the status of technocrats and commercial salespersons flogging knowledge, skills and values that have less to do with education than with training students for compliance and docility leading to low-wage jobs in a hyper-competitive global marketplace. Our public schools are continually being hijacked by conservatives in the form of religious fundamentalists and corporate ideologues.
Logic and Critical thinking can only be taught; is not an inborn talent. It ought to be the birthright of every child in any country claiming to be a democracy.
For those interested in pursuing my other papers on Conservatism, the reader may consult the links cited below:
My own definition of a conservative:
Conservative: An ostensibly decent bloke who preaches the work ethic for those in his employ while he manages the inherited family fortune from an offshore tax shelter - also one whose ethics is restricted to the table manners of the Royal family, the Ten Commandments and the evils of homosexuality. In the former Soviet Union he was referred to as a commissar.
John Kenneth Galbraith's version:
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” - John Kenneth Galbraith
Here are a few of my postings on the mortal bankruptcy and intellectual poverty of conservatism: