American Education and the Occupy Movement

This week in North Philly Notes, The Enigmatic Academy co-author Christian Churchill pens an entry that puts the ideas of his book — questioning whether education can save the individual and society from major problems of the modern world — into perspective.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, a blanket of silence fell over much of American political dissent. While the pressure to temper dissent was palpable, it was only an exaggeration of the lack of audible dissent in the several decades leading up to that moment since the 1970s. Post-Vietnam America has in many ways become a post-dissent America. Of course, dissenters exist and their critique is robust, but their centrality to the national mainstream conversation has nearly disappeared. Using the most simple example, in other democratic societies, voices like those of Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Gore Vidal, and Noam Chomsky would hold the attention of vast segments of the population and would receive airtime from mainstream outlets to make their cases. This has not been the case in the US of late.

And then the Occupy movement emerged.

Occupy is in part a response to the reflexive defense of capitalist hegemony that has dominated political discourse for more than three decades. It is also in part fostered by an ongoing critique of capitalism that has been allowed to continue within the academy. Yet now American higher education is organizing itself to erase this last vestige of critical response. We see this in the form of assessment and other methods of bureaucratic centralization that have emerged in mainstream education since the 1970s which often seek to control the open pursuit of ideas. One reason we wrote The Enigmatic Academy was to address this crisis.

Before World War II, higher education was the province of elites. The surge of middle and lower classes into higher education after the 1940s supported a vast expansion of the middle classes and of the academy. This surge, however, was also a part of the massive bureaucratization of American society. Bureaucracies make many things possible, but among their characteristics is not a tendency to encourage critical debate. The emphasis on critical thinking which nevertheless has been characteristic of much of higher education was permitted until very recently because it seemed nonthreatening, sequestered. But after the student-fueled dissent of the 1960s-70s played such a central role in shaping public debate, forces began to coalesce to stifle those voices.

            The Enigmatic Academy describes an organized but largely unacknowledged and mostly unofficial effort on the part of governing bodies and administrators in higher and secondary education to recalibrate the educational system to be a channel for social obedience and acceptance of institutional expectations and demands instead of critical thinking. This is often done in tandem with genuine desires to open minds and foster social progress on the part of individual faculty, staff, trustees, and administrators. But what education often adds up to is a training system for those who will be paid to run the machinery of private industrial as well as public domestic and foreign policy. Even in the corridors of the most “alternative” academies, we find the methods of preparing talented young people for cooperating in the practices and policies they simultaneously are educated to critique and question.

            Too much of this kind of education leads people to make political choices which they imagine will change the national debate and recalibrate policy to be more humane but instead gives them the same choices once again repackaged, rebranded. The Occupy movement illustrates what happens when youthful discontent with being sold an ideological bill of goods along with more student debt for those goods than they can manage boils over. The ideological consequences of this kind of education can feel enigmatic because the bureaucracies in which students eventually work can promote an ethos of openness to critical thinking. But ultimately these bureaucracies require obedience and fealty to the bottom line.

            Mixed with all of this is what can be called the redemptive strain in American political and educational thought. Coming out of the colonial project of creating a “city on a hill” to shine light to the rest of the world, American thought carries within it the idea that no matter the failings of the individual or the collective, both can be redeemed through a commitment to remaking the self or the group. This redemptive project is central to the ethos of American education, itself so often seen as a way to “save” those who society has left behind. The difference between the youth in the Occupy movement and their less engaged peers may be that they take this redemptive project seriously and are trying to hold the society and its institutions to account for discrepancies between what they say they believe and what they do in the real world.

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