Education and My Discontents

As I look out into the world after 28 years of educating college-age kids I can’t help but feel a sense of monumental failure.

I haven’t always felt like this. I didn’t always see things like this, but I suppose I didn’t take the time to look around either. Perhaps this is because I’m not just beginning; rather, I’m looking back at my career and trying to understand the place education occupies in our culture so that I can move on. But I don’t like what I see. And I worry that I had a hand in creating this mess.

Let’s do an experiment that can help you see what I see. Let’s start with George W. Bush’s Cabinet. This is an exercise I sometimes do with students. Where did the cabinet members attend college? Let’s look at a few …

  • Secretary of State: Colin Powell (2001-2005), West Point; Condolezza Rice (2005-2009), University of Denver and then Notre Dame, attending Moscow State University to study Russian, eventually becoming Provost at Stanford University.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Paul O’Neill (2001-2002), California State University, Fresno, Claremont Graduate University and Indiana University; John W. Snow (2003-2006), Kenyon College, University of Toledo, and a PhD from University of Virginia; Henry Paulson (2006 – 2009), Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

Of course, who can forget George W. Bush, himself: Yale and Harvard. His VP, Dick Cheney (2001-2009), received his B. A. and M. A. in Political Science from the University of Wyoming.

What happens when we look at Barak Obama’s White House? President Obama, of course, our 44th President, attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School where he was President of the Harvard Law Review. His Vice President, Joe Biden, went to the University of Delaware and then to Syracuse University College of Law. Let’s look at the same offices.

  • Secretary of State: Hilary Clinton (2009-2013), Wellesley College and Yale University College of Law; John Kerry (2013 – ), Yale University and Boston College of Law.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Tim Geithner (2009-2013), Dartmouth College, Peking University, where he studied Mandarin, and John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; Jack Lew (2013- ), Harvard College and Georgetown University Law Center.

Anything beginning to click yet?

Now let’s just take a quick look at Massachusetts, say, and Boston itself, a hub of intellectual energy. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there are 100 colleges and universities, including doctoral and research universities, baccalaureate colleges, associate’s colleges, master’s degree-granting institutions, and special-focus institutions. There are 60 institutions of higher education, of the 100, in Boston alone.

Between 2001 and 2013 (covering our initial look at the two White House Cabinets), Harvard University lists 9 Nobel Laureates, spanning fields such as Economics (Alvin Roth, Eric S. Maskin and Thomas C. Schelling, A. Michael Spence), Physiology and Medicine (Jack Szostak, Linda B. Buck), Al Gore and the 2007 Peace Prize, Physics (Roy J. Glauber, Riccardo Giacconi).

During the same period, 2001-2013, MIT lists 26 Noble Laureates – too many to list here. In fact, MIT’s complete list (over 60 names) is daunting.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? Is there a relationship between these impressive curriculum vitae and the quagmire we feel we’re living in?

I’m wondering what it is that we’re actually teaching? I mean, if you look at the respective educational histories of our cabinet members, don’t you have to wonder why the problems in the United States are getting worse, not better? Don’t we have to wonder why it is that the White House and Congress (from equal pedigree) can’t seem to have a meaningful dialog when, at the core of these elite educations is, indeed, dialog, an extension of the Socratic method that has come to us through the ages?

History tells us that education is the key to understanding the world we’re in – and changing it for the better.

Between 2001-2013, covering both the Bush and Obama years, we had no less than 35 Nobel Laureates in the Boston area – nothing changed, except that things got worse. Now we have a huge surveillance system, a war we can’t get out of, debt, a slow economy, climate change deniers, a harsh, even brutally violent congress that’s hell bent on closing down all rights, not just women’s and minorities’.

My heart-felt question is this, and it pains me to ask: What did all these people sitting in the most powerful seats in our civilization, with teachers I assume like me, actually learn? Certainly not empathy, not compassion and nothing about love.

Humanity is actually a cause we have to fight for now – not a given. Let me state this again, cleanly: that quality of being human, kindness, benevolence, human nature are all things we have to fight for; they are not guaranteed. Inhumanity is though.

We live in a love-less nation where we tell the rest of the world that life is cheap; it’s for the taking. People are expendable. Materialism and growth for growth’s sake are the only things that matter. It’s a vertical ladder we have to climb, and we  have to claw our way over another. One look at gun violence, poverty and our disastrous apartheid system of education – to say nothing of health care and nutrition, as well as the horrors of industrial food production – will lead anyone to agree.  And we look to solve other nation’s problems, exporting this model for others to follow.  Are we in fact exporting inhumanity, too?

As a college and university teacher – a professor – have I been involved in a scam? That is, I’m beginning to think, along with Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion,that,

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, that mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

Much to my displeasure in this late stage of my career, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been involved in creating “managers,” people that will go right into the system and change a tire, a spark plug, the oil, but that don’t know how to truly overhaul an engine; that, in fact, don’t have the capacity, will and courage to look at an engine and throw it completely out and begin again by inventing something else. Obama is precisely the perfect example of this quagmire: while running on the notion of change, he’s changed nothing, really; in fact, he’s helped usher in a more stringent society, a more secretive society, while congress works to shut down our civil liberties, our needs as humans, creating a world where inhumanity is accepted as normal.

Wisdom is something I’ve not been able to model, to show and inspire, I think. How to get around this or that, I’ve taught. How to look good so as to be seen, I’ve taught. How to sound successful, I’ve taught too. How to write in the language of power and in acceptable forms, I’ve also done. I don’t think I’ve done well in the how to challenge department, not at all.

Take a single class that meets for 75 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks – that’s a student sitting with me for approximately 30 hrs. If I do this twice years, two semesters, that’s 60 hrs. In a career that spans 28 years (going on 29 this year, as I turn 60, which is hard to say and even harder to look at), that’s 1680 hrs, which is not counting emails and texts and facebook and a number of other social network connections. In that time, in one course, say, I’ve not affected any change. Instead I’ve been swallowed up, I sense, and perhaps condemned us all, as Hedges argues, to death.

I’m looking to September with a kind of despair. I know that I have to make my move to my students’ hearts, as well as my own, with greater conviction, throwing away the very comfortable ways in which education has of getting  the teacher to go along, ensuring that we preach that management techniques are somehow wisdom.

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