04 Marzo 2013

Weapons of mass instruction: the American school according to Chris Hedges

Changing the school to change society, with the aim to limit critical thinking of citizens and get them used to a relationship as shallow as possible with themselves and with the world, thereby preparing the ground for a silent dictatorship disguised as democracy.
Exaggeration? Conspiracy? Science fiction? No, if the warning comes from a US Pulitzer Prize, who points the finger at the education system in his own country. Chris Hedges, a war correspondent and reporter for the New York Times, recently published an article where he presented a bleak picture of the North American school, exposing the intentions that led to a form of education which is not only qualitatively different depending on the economic possibilities of its students, but which is also clearly based on the desire to inhibit some valuable mental abilities of youths.
A serious accusation: the imposition of a form of education that converts the thinking heads of young people into a bare will of power, completely subjugated to a greater power which is even convinced to be well-educated. 

According to Hedges, American school "celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. [...] It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs."
For the journalist, the measures with which students would be tacitly led to a sort of intellectual slaughter are obvious. First of all, the tendency to academically judge them through multiple-choice questions; this type of test "celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence [,] prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out."  training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. [...] It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs."
Another nifty expedient directed to inhibit critical thinking of students would also be the progressive dispossession of the role of the teacher, who once enjoyed authority and credibility. On the one hand, there is the tendency to place business managers at the head of the institutes, and they are almost totally devoid of cultural significance. On the other hand, teachers are required to teach with methods that clearly contradict their intellectual conscience, killing their motivation and personal dignity. 

As Italian writer, I can say that Hedges' consideration seems to be valid for our education system, as well. In fact, especially during the last year, Italian school has been suffering from many transformations: we are using more and more multiple-choice evaluation; training programs are increasingly inconsistent; schools and small firm look alike; school heads are educated like managers; and educators and teachers' dignity is trampled by a society that no longer knows which is the value of education. Not only.
With the latest legislative measures, the same teachers are selected through tests which are absolutely invalid from an educational and an attitudinal point of view: aspiring teachers are required to provide quick and not well-structured answers.
Candidates who pass the selection are necessarily the quickest and the best suitable to teach the same kind of "non-thinking" to their students, with the risk of creating whole generations which are incapable of thinking and without the smartness indispensable to observe, clearly understand and then criticize the world on the basis of an ethical feeling.
This represents a serious danger for the inner being of each of the future (and current) student, as well as for democracy.

It seems clear that we are preparing (and it is already happening) to inhibit in youths the ability to ask, especially to pose questions about themselves and about the world around them. Without questions there is no education, no criticism, no possibility of inner growth and, therefore, no possibility of a more respectful society.
Hedges' words efficaciously summarize what a valid education should look like, instead, and which are the possibilities that it opens: "Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think." 

Translated from the Italian version by Marianna Turriciano. 

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