(This essay, first appeared at 3 Quarks Daily. Reprinted with permission.)
What is commonsense to most people who received a K-12 public education in the United States is that every formal system of state schooling throughout the modern world is designed to educate its students to develop, what Charles Lemert calls “sociologically competencies” within whatever ideological system is dominating at the time of their schooling.
People correctly assume that children going to school during the Weimar Republic, for example, were educated to function competently within that ideological system. Children who were in school during the reign of Chairman Mao in the People’s Republic of China were educated to function competently within that system. Children in China today are educated to be sociologically competent in China’s current government and economic system. Children in France, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Iran likewise are educated to function competently in those systems. In the Soviet Union, children were educated to function within its version of communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, children were required to learn different civic knowledge and skills in order to be competent within the newly emerging political ideologies of reformed nation states.
For people educated in the United States, the connection to ideology and schooling is obvious except when it comes to their own perception of the kind of public schooling they and/or their children received. At most, people might blame the educational system for being too liberal or too conservative, but to recognize the constitutive connection between schooling and ideology goes too far. Ideology is something that defines other governmental and educational systems, not their own.
Ironically, this points to the deep level of ideological indoctrination that state schools have helped to achieve over several generations in the United States. Fueled by the complimentary discourses of choice, individualism, and Judeo-Christian morality, the connection between ideology and schooling is hidden in plain sight behind a translucent veil of American exceptionalism. What we are left with is an education system that teaches students to believe in an illusion of freedom, while disciplining what Michel Foucault famously called docile bodies and obedient minds.
This is not to say that there are not examples of schools, teachers and students that aren’t resisting these ideological forces of schooling. I will address those in another essay. But suffice it to say for now that however determined and important the work of resistance is, it operates more tactically than strategically, making its ideological impact negligible.
For at least the past fifty years, public schools in the United States have been preparing their students to function competently, yet blindly within a “free-market” ideology and a governmental system most accurately described as a neoliberal plutocracy. In spite of the constant attacks from the left and right about public education’s supposed failures, in Althusserian terms it is an incredibly efficient and effective “ideological state apparatus,” refined over the years in large part by educational psychologists, linguists, sociologists, and political scientists to produce a uniquely American subject, one that is unaware of its own civic ignorance and democratic incompetencies, yet is ubernationalistic, overly confident in its cognitive abilities, and morally superior.
Aside from some basic understanding of the role of “choice” as it relates to suffrage, the level of civic knowledge and skills that the average child is taught in public school is almost nonexistent. As a partial consequence of our public-school system’s success, we might now be witnessing the last gasps of our neoliberal plutocracy, while the emergence of “free-market” authoritarianism takes root.
These are remarkable times and whether you look upon this transformation in horror, excitement, caution, or boredom, our public schools, having long-ago abandoned the Jeffersonian mandate to educate young people to appreciate and participate in liberal democracy, have played an important role in preparing students over the last several decades to function competently within this emerging ideological formation.
This is not to say that curriculum developers, teacher-educators, school administrators, and pedagogical practitioners as well as those professionals mentioned in the last paragraph set out to undermine or eradicate neoliberal plutocracy or could foresee what is now emerging in the United States. In preparing students to be sociological competent in a neoliberal plutocracy they were unintentionally helping to lay the groundwork for the emergence of an even less democratic system. Schools don’t create ideological systems and are not the cause of their collapse; they are reactive state apparatuses. Yet they are powerful enough in cooperation with other cultural and political apparatuses to help create the conditions for the emergence of something new as they are, at the same time, working to reproduce the status quo. We might call the unintentional outcomes of this process the “collateral effect” of schooling.
Public schools were designed to ensure that a specific ideology takes root at a hegemonic level and flourishes over time. The fundamental role of public schools has consistently been to socialize young people to function competently in whatever ideological formation was dominating at the time of their schooling.
One notable exception to this can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s aspirational goal for public schools; only through a system of public education could liberal democracy come to replace the existing plutocracy of which he was an active member. He argued that schools had to be designed with an eye to the future, the goal being to prepare young people to function competently in an ideological system not yet fully established yet sufficiently imagined. Jefferson understood that if a liberal democratic governing structure was to replace, at a hegemonic level, the existing white-supremacist, patriarchal plutocracy, a public system of schooling would have to be designed to prepare future generations with the civic knowledge and skills demanded by the ideology of liberal democracy. Our education system’s connection to ideology, from this historical perspective, is uncontroversial.
More controversial and particular to states with free-market economies and democratic systems of government is how states can prepare citizens for democracy while also educating them to function competently within the ideology of free-market capitalism. States that have no commitment or a “weak” commitment to “freedom,” liberty, and “rights,” have a much easier time doing this honestly and without too many contradictions. The Unites States of America, however, runs into trouble because there are some fundamental contradictions between the ideological demands of neoliberalism and the ideological needs of democracy. There are shared needs between the two ideologies, but they are less formative than the contradictions and less pronounced when seen from the vantage point of class interests.
It may have been Alfie Kohn who said that equity is a pre-condition of a functioning democracy, not its outcome. Capitalism has no such requirement and indeed, at an ideological level, demands inequality as a measure of its success; inequality is a precondition of capitalism as well as a measure of its health. An ideological education in free-market plutocracies, for everyone but the elite, demands no skills or knowledge in critical thinking, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, history or frankly any other academic discipline. Basic facility with reading and maths in combination with job training is really all this ideological formation requires of its citizens.
Obedience more than any other behavior is what is desired, taught, and rewarded. Functioning democracies demand the opposite from their citizens. As such, schools in the United States as well as in other free-market plutocratic ideologies “hide” their ideological agenda behind “official” curricular representations of freedom, liberty and rights. Public schools effectively and efficiently have managed to educate a citizenry unprepared to self-govern, but more than ready to follow state mandates, consume voraciously, and celebrate “negative freedom” (i.e., freedom from) as the ultimate expression of liberty.
Because the evolution of ideology happens over long periods of time, it is almost imperceptible to those being schooled in its norms and rules. Unless people are educated to see the specific ways in which their own ideological systems work, then it is likely they will be able to recognize ideological bias in other systems but remain blind to their own. There is no contradiction here; it’s how ideology and hegemony work. But this does not mean there was/is no push back against this kind of ideological education. There were (and still are) plenty of people who warned of what could happen if schools systematically abdicated their responsibility to educate young people to appreciate democracy and to function as democratic citizens, while, at the same time, schooling them to believe that neoliberalism is the same thing as democracy.
Over the past several decades, the people who run our schools have willfully ignored Jefferson’s warnings that without an educated citizenry a “natural aristocracy” would undermine the liberal democratic ideology of which he aspired to develop. They have been equally as dismissive of John Dewey’s prescient warning that if schools don’t teach young people how to be democratically competent they will be susceptible to the promises made by the demagogues of other ideological systems of governance. Noam Chomsky, also dismissed out-of-hand, has been discussing the “mis-education” of our young people and its implications for our democracy in light of the Trilateral Commission’s report on the indoctrinating role of schools since the mid-1970s. Ivan Illich’s ideas about the need to “de-school” our minds and bodies so that we can live democratically has had little impact on the design, content, and pedagogical focus of public education. Paulo Freire’s work is categorically dismissed as unsuitable and irrelevant to an American context as is the de-colonial work of Franz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. Michael Apple, Jean Anyon, Henry Giroux, and Stanley Aronowitz, among many other “critical” educators, have written hundreds of books and articles about the “hidden curriculum” in our public schools.
To reiterate, the hidden curriculum refers to those ideas, practices and values that students learn in U.S. public schools, beyond the scope of the “official” curriculum, that provides them the skills and knowledge they need to function competently within autocratic neoliberal formations. Stanley Aronowitz goes as far as to say that in the 21st century the “hidden curriculum” isn’t so hidden anymore. Even Diane Ravitch, the once influential neo-conservative architect of anti-democratic school design, has become a vocal critic of public education’s authoritarian tendencies.
Although the emergence of free-market authoritarianism was never over-determined, the writing, at least for these intellectuals, was on the wall. These educational and political thinkers, through a critical analysis of democratic principles and schooling understood the fundamental and somewhat obvious implication of not educating citizens to appreciate democracy and function as democratic citizens; without civic knowledge and skills the democratic experiment would eventually wither and die and be replaced by something else. No one has a crystal ball in which they could see the outcome of this kind of ideological education. Social engineering is a historically sloppy science. And because there are always people struggling to teach against the grain of the hidden curriculum, teacher-centered pedagogies, and instrumental literacies, the emergence of free-market authoritarianism from the evolving neoliberal plutocracy was never over-determined.
Indeed, even at this writing it remains to be seen as to whether this emerging new governmental structure will continue to grow and solidify or whether proponents of democracy (or some other ideology) will be able to do anything to derail its rise to power. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand what happens when schools stop educating people about the benefits of democracy and how to live democratically. If young people are schooled to think about education as, first and foremost, a means to a job, then that is what they will think. If they are not taught to appreciate democracy and act democratically then they won’t. If they are not taught how to work across their differences to solve common problems, they will look to a leader that promises to fix all their problems.
Anecdotally, when I ask my undergraduate students why they chose to go to college, they unanimously say it’s about getting a good job. When asked about their understanding about democracy generally and their civic knowledge and skills specifically, they know almost nothing. When asked about “global citizenship,” they typically know even less. When asked if they had to learn these things in elementary, middle or high school, they overwhelmingly say no. If they did learn some basic ideas about these things, they certainly didn’t learn them in a way that makes them competent actors in a democratic system of self-governance. Once we go over the many skills and types of knowledge a person must have to responsibly participate in democratic life, they acknowledge they don’t know the information and don’t have the skills that a functioning democracy requires of its citizens.
Many of them, reasonably then, don’t participate in democratic activities if/when they are available. More troubling perhaps is their docility in the face of authoritarian expressions of power. Most of these students are “good,” meaning they do what they are told. Unless hiding behind a veil of anonymity, they don’t typically challenge, disrupt, disagree, interrogate, critique, or engage across differences of opinion and experience, even when they are in an environment that encourages this kind of behavior. But they all know how to consume and they all want to be trained to get a “good” job after they graduate.
This is the outcome of the kind of ideological schooling many of our young people have gotten over the last several decades with regards to our current neoliberal plutocracy and it has been incredibly successful. Everyday in public schools across the United States students and teachers acquire and learn the knowledge and skills they will need to be considered competent in a free-market plutocracy. Some of the lessons are explicit, while others are embedded in the hidden curriculum. Some of the skills and knowledge is learned because of what is actually taught, while other skills and knowledge is acquired because of what is not taught. Whether the knowledge and skills translate into some kind of measurable success (happiness, wealth, power, prestige, etc.) will depend a lot on where the student’s family is on the index of social and cultural capital.
But regardless, when in school, choice is constrained, as it always is, by economic, social and cultural capital. Power is hierarchal and intimately tied to knowledge and literacy. Discipline is unleashed through structures of reward and punishment. Inequality is naturalized. Opportunity indexes freedom which references “choice.” Individualism normalizes atomization. Docility and obedience equates with good behavior while disruptions are “criminalized” or “pathologized.” Speech is constrained and managed by rules and regulations that serve the status quo. Morality and country intersect in a form of currency. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan foresaw, is the message.
In this transitional moment, what is arising will remain unforeseen until it is more established in some structural way. Yet we must continue to think critically and speculatively using the best intellectual resources we have to anticipate what system is emerging from our free-market plutocracy. We can and should also continue to struggle and organize against any emerging system that appears to be taking the form of authoritarianism even if we are not certain as to the final form it will take.
But we can’t simply be fighting against these emerging systems; we must also be as diligent in fighting for alternatives. Whether the fight is for liberal, direct, radical, or some other form of a self-governing system, we should be prepared to articulate a defense of this ideology and have a plan for how to educate people to function competently and critically within it. Whether or not free-market authoritarianism or some other autocratic system of governance establishes itself in the United States, I believe we can and should reassert the value of a democratic education in preparing young people to both appreciate democracy and learn the skills that will allow them to function democratically.
A democratic education prepares young people to recognize and resist demagoguery when confronted by it. It supports their intellectual and emotional development with regards to diversity and difference. It prepares them to interrogate ideological formations, their own and others. It teaches them civic skills and knowledge so that they not only can participate but are compelled to participate in their communities. It teaches dialogue, debate, rhetoric, argument, critical thought, creative problem-solving, organizing, strategies of resistance, empathy/compassion, and compromise.
Democracies require a citizenry educated in literature, philosophy, theology, geography, media, rhetoric, critical/creative thinking, and history. Democracy is not a zero-sum game therefore students should learn that “winners” don’t take all, but have a responsibility to make sure the “losers” still get some of what they want or need. Democracy requires a level of intellectual maturity and emotional intelligence. A democratic education teaches young people to care for each other, to see themselves in each other. It can be loud, angry, frustrating, and intimidating, but it also demands mutual respect and a commitment to non-violence. Democratic education begins by structuring our schools in a way that requires students and teachers to think and act democratically. It’s not so much about teaching about democracy (although that’s part of it), but having daily and substantive democratic experiences. This is Dewey’s major contribution to our understanding of democratic education; we learn how to live in a democracy by living democratically. If a free-market authoritarian system does finally take root, we can thank our system of public schooling for helping to prepare our young people to reflexively act and think in accordance with its ideological assumptions and demands.