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Lining up at the trough

17 Dec

A few weeks ago, I walked into my class engaged in conversation with a colleague. We were discussing potential doctoral schools for him; places he could go to study early music. The conversation naturally (in our field, at least) turned to the Ivy League as not only the pinnacle of academic achievement but also a terrific place for that specialty.

Our professor overheard the tail end of our conversation, right as I was saying, “I thought about going to Yale, but sold myself short and never applied. Not that I lack the intellect.” She looked at me and said, “Be grateful you didn’t wind up in the Ivy League. They tell you how to think.”

At the time that seemed like an unusual statement. I mean, it’s the Ivy League. Aren’t we all indoctrinated to believe that achieving Ivy League admission is the pinnacle of academic achievement? That’s what teachers ram down our throats from the time we’re 6 years old – you have to get good grades so you get into a “good” school. “Good” schools are always implied to be places that carry serious weight on the piece of paper – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.

I was toiling under the impression that these schools were some sort of intellectual haven where the big thinking happens. But, puzzled by my professor’s comment, I did some research. Turns out the Ivy League is a great place to be – if you’re already on the inside. There’s an academic caste system in play here, and if you’re born into the wrong caste, tough shit.

I’ve been reading a book lately by a guy named Chris Hedges called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” This is the Amazon summary: We now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this “other America,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.

Hedges lays much of the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of the Ivy League machine, which produces elitists of mediocre academic caliber that work extremely hard to maintain the status quo. It is the illusion of an Ivy League education as accessible to anyone with the smarts that really incenses Hedges, and their ongoing effort to keep America complacent and stupid so they can keep walking all over the rest of us.

I mean, this seems somewhat shocking at first take. Really? The Ivy League schools stifle creativity and intellectual initiative? Yes, they do. They rig the system to box out common plebes, because they don’t want you and I knowing what goes on in their inner circles.

Because my professor was right: they tell you what to think, after they carefully cultivate their idea of who and who is not worthy of their prestige. It’s a self-sustaining system. They don’t want serious intellectual inquiry, because serious intellectual inquiry is usually subversive and tries to enlighten the populace about the shenanigans perpetrated by the upper classes. The Ivy League schools are almost entirely populated by people who are already members of these classes. So, shit, why think if you’re already on top?

These schools, writes Hedges, “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers (89).”

Damn, true that. Harvard MBAs run straight to Wall Street and make up fancy words for ponzi schemes to steal people’s money and gamble with the national economy. Their education is carefully crafted to produce this outcome every time. These universities, according to Hedges, “organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers.” Wow, this sounds exactly like public school!

That’s because it is like public school. I’ve been there. You line up at the trough for your information, and when you’ve had your fill, you just cough it all back up and everyone’s happy. Don’t interpret it – for the love of god don’t do that! Just tell em what they want to hear. And if you can’t do that well, then perhaps you aren’t “college material.” I need several sets of hands to count how many times I was told that. I spent most of high school figuring I was too dumb for college. They’d indoctrinated me to develop a self-conception that was specifically designed to keep me from asking too many questions.

Keep the common rabble from asking questions by keeping them stupid; carefully parcel out the knowledge that they should have and control access to the rest. Teach them that asking questions is bad – just spit back the answer, damn it! Henry Giroux, a longtime critic of the American capitalist culture and the concurrent obliteration of public education, referred to the sad state of academic affairs after 9/11:

“Corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”

This is “moral nihilism,” in the words of Chris Hedges. It relegates voices of common sense and reason to the fringe, making extremism in the service of fat profit the norm. This extremism is the black-and-white version of events that is packaged and sold to the vast majority of Americans. Leave no gray area, no room for questions, and the stupid masses will never question the actions of the people at the top. The education system makes their trade in this approach, particularly in the wake of the disaster that is No Child Left Behind. To take government money, public schools have to tell their students what to think.

Theodor Adorno, ardent cultural critic, wrote in 1967:

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno, the Prussian son of a Jew who converted to Protestantism, knew of what he spoke.

By Adorno’s reasoning, we are always one step away from another Auschwitz if we do not make the effort to allow everyone to have an understanding of the forces that move the world. Because institutions like the Ivy League are committed to locking out all but those individuals deemed worthy of being a part of the elite.

They really do teach you how to think and what to think. They really do run the world, from the “ivory tower” that only truly exists in their minds. True academic inquiry goes on at levels considered well “below” that of the vaunted Harvard and Yale addresses, but the dialectical nature of American culture has conditioned people to feel like failures if they wind up a state school. Make ’em feel worthless, knock their intellectual teeth out, and they’ll stay soft and complacent.

As a proud graduate of a low-tier state school, I’m going to try to preach Adorno’s truth to as many open minds as I can.