MODERN EDUCATION IN A CONSUMER SOCIETY

BY JORGE G. DeLEÓN

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

W.B. Yeats

The Second Vatican Council teaches that “All men of every race, condition and age, since they enjoy the dignity of a human being, have an inalienable right to an education […] For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.” [Gravissimum educationis, [1965]. The depth and scope of this pronouncement gives societies a moral north for good guidance and purpose in creating educational systems and adequate curricula that would comply with the educational needs of the children who will eventually fulfill the future of those societies. Seventeen year earlier, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted at the United Nations third General Session. Article 26 declares: Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Both documents, one from the secular world, and another that speaks on behalf of the children of God, want exactly the same thing: the commitment to cultivate fully developed mature and responsible human beings, and the responsibility of the educational systems in accomplishing this mission.

It is difficult to imagine a parent who would forget that gut-wrenching first day of school when she had to let go of her little daughter and allow a teacher to hold her tiny hand and guide her into a new world. Then and there two worlds begin to blend, the one she comes from and a larger world in the form of a classroom, a library, the cafeteria and the playground. That larger world is challenged and enriched by the child’s’ peers, who also come with their developing personalities, their incipient talents, their happiness, their fears, their greediness, their generosity and their individual worlds. The child’s domestic education gets intertwined with play, music, art, math, acts of sharing, learning to follow new rules, and most importantly, the development of language. Learning the ABC’s is an introduction to the wondrous keyboard of language, where the music of words unfolds, and the world begins to reveal itself as the child slowly enters the unending and mysterious labyrinth of language. The ‘kinder garten’ would be a magical orchard for many children who would sing and play, learn and grow with the fertility of their innocence. For many the garden would turn later into a rich meadow that will continue to foster their potentials and aptitudes. Regrettably, this ideal world will evolve into a perilous forest and even into a strange jungle for so many others.

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America” in 1964, to aim “no only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” But in 1987 president Ronald Reagan famously said, “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” What began as a project of ’empowerment’ of the marginalized and impoverished in the 1960’s ended up labeled as a failure of the ‘welfare system’ by the conservative interpretation of economics (and reality) that pervaded the 1980’s and that it is still going strong. Film buffs and people of a certain age should remember the infamous Gordon Gekko motto “Greed is good”, in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street (1987). This is possibly the phrase that best describes the Reagan revolution and its sequel.

Supply-side economics favors privatization of public domains and less involvement of the federal government in the parts of society that represent the ‘common good’. The ongoing privatization of jails, utilities and welfare services is the new norm. Even the U.S. Postal Services has been recommended to pass to the hands of private management because it is not profitable. Public education has also been doused by the tsunami of privatization. Under the disguise of ‘school choice’ and “school reform”, test scores are being misused as the reason to defund public schools in favor of vouchers and charter schools. The steamrolling of privatization has turned the citizen into a consumer. The present school system is the furnace where the new citizen-consumers are being forged.  This is a tragedy with no catharsis in sight.

Cultural trends and economic forces create a battle ground in the amphitheater of public education all the time. Dominant cultural drifts and their interpretations of reality are role-played in the schools. The academic arena becomes both the echo chamber and the laboratories of the marketplace. In her brilliant, incisive and scathing book Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. (Knoff, 2020), Diane Ravitch exposes the failures and deceitfulness of the “school reform” movement and its implementation by the federal government during the last two decades. She denounces the strategies implemented by this movement, underwritten by powerful entities like the Koch brothers, the Walton family, Betsy DeVos, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, among others. Ravitch calls them “heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools.” With the precision of a skilled surgeon she cuts through the surface and displays the emperor’s nakedness: “They insisted that when their remedies were imposed, America’s test scores would soar to the top of international rankings. No longer would poor children be “trapped in failing schools.” No more would children’s success be determined by their ZIP code or social status. They all sang from a common hymnal about the failures of public education and proclaimed their certainty that they knew how to turn failure into high test scores for all.” Now, those promises and the tools that were used to supposedly improve public schools have been revealed as detrimental to the educational system at large. Some of the tools enacted by the “school reform” movement involved the weakening of trust of public schools, making it peevishly personal as teachers were demonized and presented as adversarial forces, as enemies of the students. This turned into the intimidation of teachers, forcing upon them draconian measures like additional evaluations, competitive tactics to earn bonuses for showing improvement in student tests, pitching teachers against teaches to compete for a limited pot of gold. This came as the avalanche of new standardized testing was imposed on students of all ages. With the growing debilitation of teacher unions in the last decades, the sacredness of due processes for teachers also weakened, which made it easier to present teachers a ‘villains’ in the unfolding drama of ‘education reform’. Even in states where it is illegal for teachers to strike, thousand of teachers have walked out to claim their due processes, decry their stagnant incomes, condemn the rise in healthcare cost, to denounce the hardships of the profession in overcrowded classrooms with poor and limited resources, and to advocate for fairer and more adequate student assessments. Sadly, in this upheaval many good teachers have decided to leave the classroom and say “no más”. The bottom line of these failed reforms and deceitful reformers is to privatize public education, make it part of the ruthless and unscrupulous apparatus of the ‘free market’ dynamics. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan scholar and spiritual leader describes this dynamic as “The nature of the capitalist beast, once everything is an object of consumption, an object for profit, […] brought the mindset of the manipulation of reality for private purpose.” [Radical Inclusivity, 2019]

In Gravissimum eduationis the Church, as mother and teacher, declares that “[..] children and young people must be helped, with the aid of the latest advances in psychology and the arts and science of teaching, to develop harmoniously their physical, moral and intellectual endowments so that they may gradually acquire a mature sense of responsibility in striving endlessly to form their own lives properly and in pursuing true freedom as they surmount the vicissitudes of life with courage and constancy.”  Nonetheless, what prevails in the culture at large permeates the educational system as well. Unintentionally, the schools reflect both the noble and the noxious values that have always been dueling in the culture, but with more intensity since the 1980’s. The school has traditionally reinforced the values of excellence, honesty, humility, modesty, selflessness, teamwork, hard work, individual expression, finding common ground, acceptance of diversities; while the outside world lures the students with the enchantments of greed, the monetizing of most things, individualism, laziness, the thrills of violence as entertainment, and cheating with impunity. 

When the educational process turns into a transactional feat, the request that “[…] a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies […]” is profoundly challenged and in some ways dismissed. The quest for the common good has been translated into expressions like ‘You have lookout for number one!’; ‘What’s in it for me?’; ‘What am I getting out of this?’. Those are not the questions a steadfast and well-formed citizen asks, but certainly are the questions expected of a well-schooled consumer. If the good citizen should strive for the good of the societies he must also understand the meaning and value of service and sacrifice. The person who is educated to gradually acquire a mature sense of responsibility should become a citizen who understands that to be responsible is to ‘respond’ with maturity to the demands that society bestows upon him or her. The good citizen ‘responds’ maturely to her obligations, from the personal and domestic needs, to the needs of her neighbor, whom she may not even know.  

We are all citizens and consumers. That is unavoidable. We are born needing food, shelter, warm clothing, love and tender care. Our imagination and spirit make demands, and we have designed and created an ample array of resources to satisfy our needs and desires:  games, literature, art, music, cinema, sports, and so on. We need the marketplace to bring comfort to our lives. But when the institutions designed to educate and form mature citizens actually perform a better job at schooling the children to become avid consumers, and respond irrationally to the demands of a voluminous and aggressive market, we should break the glass and pull the alarm. 

At home and in school the child must be taught to look outwardly. He should see that, as members of a community, of people who share common interests, needs and obligations, the world is a place to improve, to beautify, to build into a better and fairer playground. However, the vision of the well-schooled consumer (not to be confused with an educated consumer) is directed inwards without being insightful. This self-serving idea is aimed at satiating an appetite that is and will always be unsatisfied. If we are consumers by nature, then by education we shall become citizens.  Thinking of St. Augustine’s ‘restless heart’, the restless heart of the good citizen is closer to God than the restless heart of the blind consumer. The mature citizen shall be able to find meaning in his endeavors, but the visionless consumer shall just find loneliness and despair in the void universe of consumption. 

The absence of meaning and aimlessness are two prevailing forces that afflict most adolescents. The schools are giving them answers all right, but are not offering them the tools to face their fears and anxieties. The adolescent student is provided with a rich menu of answers about the future, careers, and money management, together with how to access scholarships and apply for college loans. Even the brightest students are enticed to look at careers that would satisfy their future economic needs and aspirations, without addressing their duties to serve through their work the society at large. Since the student is viewed as a consumer of educational goods a whole new nomenclature is being designed to impose the market place in the school zone. In some educational surveys tailored after the business world, teachers are referred as instructors and the students are labeled learners. In other surveys the student is denoted as the customer, the teacher as a provider, and the administrative team as management. The student-consumer is more apt to behave in the public space like a shopper running into Walmart as the doors open on Black Friday, than as a well-behaved young citizen who minds the needs of others. Currently, in some school districts, senior students must rehearse several times, weeks before graduation, to learn graduation etiquette, with in-kind recommendations for their parents. The prevailing language of a consumer society asserts that the customers’ own interests are above the interests of the community, which taints and distorts the ultimate meaning of education previously mentioned in Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” 

What most of those students do not learn during their high school tenure is how to ask the fundamental questions. How to take a chance in finding radical answers to those questions as they embark on the adventure of adulthood. How can a child grow into a mature citizen if most teachers are not inviting them to ask the fundamental questions? And how teachers would dare attempt this intrepid feat if the sword of Damocles is swinging upon their heads vis-à-vis their daily duties and expectations. If teachers are pressured to teach to a test because in the results their professional future is being waged, how can we expect them to venture into the art of teaching? If a number of teachers need a second or third job to live with decency, why should we expect them to exemplify excellence in their academic disciplines? The math teacher must be an artist, as much as the one that teaches chemistry, language, physical education or history. If the ‘reforms’ are turning teachers into instructors they will never be able to come educators.  The educator, by virtue, has the duty to draw out’ the student into the light. To educate is an invitation to come out and play, to wake up, to be aware of the best and the worst the world has to offer. Only through the gentle art of teaching, of ‘educare’, would a young mind accept the call to be mesmerized and surprised by the mystery of reality, the awesomeness or math, of science, of languages, of poetry, of physical exercise, of the arts, of history. 

What the so-called ‘reformers’ have achieved skillfully is to confuse parents into equating education with schooling. Animal trainers never pretend to educate the creatures, but can certainly school them into learning all kinds of tricks, even overcome difficult obstacles. One must be reminded that in equestrian training, the obstacles are called ‘schooling fences’. Students can be schooled into passing examinations, but does that attainment make them more or better human beings? Most students have never been invited to ask the ontological questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the world? What is my place in the world? What is happiness? Why is there suffering? What is love? We are not doing a great job at pointing them in the right direction for their restless hearts to find solace and meaning.

If educators would dare to present their students with the invitation to engage in the fundamental questions, they would be placing the most needed corner stone in fulfilling the noblest expectations the Church and societies have deposited in education. There is a risk involved in artfully teaching students to ask the fundamental questions, though. To encourage young minds to be fearless in pursuing the answers to the radical questions is an act of subversion. The true educator has always been and shall always be a ‘counter-culture’ figure, an agent provocateur, and a disruptor, while also being the peacemaker and the truth-seeker. Where not Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus, disruptors? Where they not also teachers? Didn’t they pay the ultimate price for rattling the cage? Aren’t they role models we teach in school? It was Shirley Chisholm who said “You do not make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.” Didn’t Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, among many others, stepped up to the plate when they were most vulnerable but their sense of citizenship was stronger? Helen Keller, in her brilliancy, reminds us: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

The educator must invite the student to have a vision. The purpose is to prepare the way for the students to see that to serve, to give, is an act more virtuous and fulfilling than to receive; even more if they get to understand that the only true service, that the only genuine act of giving, is the one that is made with love. This is the true act of subversion against the culture of consumerism. The teacher who could point the student in the direction of becoming a better listener, to distinguish the subtle and gentle voice of God drowned in the noise of the world, is an agent provocateur. 

The Baby Boomer generation, with all its contributions and achievements, also created the current intensity of the consumer society. The following generations, and the most prominent in this decade, the Millennials, are fighting courageously to save the soul of this society and the health of the planet. The Baby Boomers do not ‘get’ the mindset of the Millenials. The latter are impatient and angry at the former’s legacy, and they are trying to bring hope to our world. They have inherited the fog of capitalism as an ideology, as a dogma, the unfair monetary policies that hinder their prosperity, the environmental crisis as the tragic consequence of greed, the high cost of higher education, the unaffordability of good healthcare, of home ownership, the greed of corporations that foster and bankroll political leaders who betray the common good to fatten the bottom line. With Millenials as educators, their students as members of Generation Z, or Centennials, perhaps will learn to ask the fundamentals questions again, and become responsible citizens and educated consumers. The ones who understand that you leave the place better than you found it. They will, perhaps, be able to sing for us those hopeful lines in Antonio Machado’s Self-Portrait: 

“I quiet down to try and tell true voices from their echos,

And out of all the voices heard I listen for just one.”