Schooling For Myths And Powerlessness

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Above Photo: Dimitry B.

All over America, school children are completing another academic year before their summer vacation. This invites the questions, what did they learn and what did they do with what they learned?

I’m not talking about their test scores, nor the latest fads in rebranding education, like the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum that de-emphasizes the first two thirds of the old mantra – reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather, I am questioning what they learned about their real-world surroundings, about preparing themselves for life as citizens, workers, consumers, taxpayers, voters and members of various communities.

Not very much, sad to say. The same is true of my generation. Instead of receiving an enriching and well-rounded education, we were fed myths. All societies perpetuate lavish myths that enable the few to rule over the many, repress critical thinking and camouflage the grim realities. Our country was, and remains, no exception.

In school we learned that our country was number one, the greatest in the world. We sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in music class. Being the “greatest” was neither defined nor questioned. We simply had a vague sense that “great” meant militarily and economically “big.”

In practice, however, “great” was associated with kneejerk patriotism and served as a barrier to thinking critically about what we were told to take for granted. For were we to parse the deeper meaning of the word “great,” we might have had to make specific comparisons of the United States in concrete ways with other countries such as Canada and those in Europe. And we might have discovered that we weren’t first in many areas of human and environmental well-being.

Early in elementary school we were told that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America and what followed was the arrival of the pioneers of “civilization.” This myth served to justify the white man’s domination over “inferior races,” whether native or brought in as slaves from Africa. In truth, as my father taught me, Columbus invaded America in search of gold and, with his soldiers, slaughtered Caribbean tribes that long preceded Columbus’s arrival in their lands.

Along the way in school we were told that, unlike other “evil” countries, American soldiers did not intentionally kill civilians, as did our cruel enemies. Somehow General Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War escaped our attention; as did later mass slaughter of human beings in the Philippines and the deliberate targeting and incineration of entire residential, civilian areas in World War I and World War II –  to, in the language of the official strategies, “terrorize the populations.”

The myth of an America without imperial intentions camouflaged the purposes of several wars and many imperial assaults and overthrows. Who were we to question? Other countries were Empires; America was guided by “manifest destiny.”

Then there was the fictional character, Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack from American folklore who was hijacked and commercialized by the timber industry to propagandize the minds of millions of children. With his huge blue ox, Babe, Bunyan conquered and cut down forests. One of the Paul Bunyan stories ended with our hero leaving Montana for Alaska’s vast wilderness. Bunyan and Babe, we were assured, would persevere “until the last tree was down.” Progress, the myth instructed, was the exploitation of the natural world, not the preservation of nature in sustainable ways.

The most pervasive myth, which persists to this day, is that the free market provides the supreme pathway to economic prosperity. Never mind, monopolies, business crimes and deceptions, government subsidies, bailouts and taxpayer giveaways, patent monopolies, fine-print contract servitude and the abuse of our air, water and soil as toxic corporate sewers. The free market myth teaches that government regulation is inherently bad, suing businesses in court harms the economy and that unions and consumer cooperatives are un-American, even communistic.  This dogma has no room for the honest assertion that the market can “make a good servant, but a bad master,” in the words of Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

With the exceptions of some marvelous teachers, our many hours in class teach us to believe, not to think, to obey, not to challenge. For too many of our school years, the process was, and is, memorization and regurgitation. At the most, we are given some cursory training, but not educated in any deep or productive sense.

It is not surprising that such mythical conditioning does not give us the training to fight back, decade after decade, against forces that impoverish, gouge, unemploy, harm, exclude, disrespect and continue the three afflictions of corporatism, militarism and racism.

Just look at today’s headlines and ponder the joint partnership of plutocracy and oligarchy – often called the corporate state. No wonder “we the people” are not working to resist and overcome these destructive forces of greed and power.

A meaningful answer starts with replacing our years of schooling, punctuated by years of being commercially entertained and distracted, with acquiring the civic motivations and skills necessary to build a society that can move us toward “liberty and justice for all.”  As Thomas Jefferson observed at our nation’s conception, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

  • Aquifer

    Good piece – underscores, IMO, the need to do our own :”home schooling” – to be our own media which means going outside of social media and yeah, outside the internet ….

  • rgaura

    Our educational system evolved from a situation of information scarcity. We find ourselves now in a situation of information (and disinformation) overload. Its time to revolutionise education from memorising `facts´ to a system of lifelong self directed learning. We have the tools. We have the internet, libraries, and an infrastructure of schools. Why not turn some schools into learning centres during afternoons and evenings? Why not have our unemployed teach what they know? Why not let communities and families decide what their children learn and when? Basic literacy, and critical thinking, and scientific method can be taught in a few years, then let our children have hands on lab experiences, music, theatre, and cultural pursuits. It is time for regeneration of our institutions, and in education it should be guided by 80 years of educational research and a vision of justice, where human resources are the highest value.

  • DHFabian

    The US became the stereotype of nations that don’t learn from their own history. We looked at the policies and programs that took the US to its height of wealth and productivity, from FDR to Reagan, and chose to do the exact opposite. We reversed the policies, ended the programs, and the inevitable happened. The overall quality of life in the US plunged from #1 when Reagan was first elected (far from perfect, but…) down to #48 by the time Obama was elected.

    The leaders of the right wing did learn from history, and years of work went into dividing and conquering the “masses,” pitting us against each other by class, race, and ideology, ensuring that there would be no “people’s push-back” this time. In the 1990s, we saw a surge of neoliberal “influence” in the media marketed to liberals. While liberals were busy marching in solidarity with the better-off alone, the middle class, much has happened to ensure our transition into just another third world labor state, discarding those who aren’t of current use, serving international corporate powers.

  • DHFabian

    We tried that, in the 1960s, early 1970s. Emphasis was placed on teaching critical thinking skills, learning (for example) how to analyze media reports, and nurturing a more collective perspective (a grasp of “the common good”). The right wing hated it, blaming education (knowledge) for the existence of dissent, and successfully pushed back ever since the Reagan administration.

    Much has changed. Our role has been turned into one of serving corporate interests, not the common good. We learned to be comfortable with ignoring what happens to our “surplus population” — those who aren’t of current use to employers. We were trained to “get up every morning, work hard, and play by all the rules.”

  • rgaura

    Yes, I was one of many who benefitted from good public education in the 60´s and 70´s.

    As for the second paragraph, I just can´t go with the use of `we´ and `our´. I never signed up for the greed and exploitation thing, the commodify everything sort of capitalism.

    Maybe `they´would be more appropriate, or a more specific pronoun. I don´t think you identify with degenerate values either.