I've been trying to decide how much to blame the American press for our current sorry state of affairs. Conventional wisdom says they are the mechanics of the First Amendment, that their job is to investigate the odd pings of corrosion and corruption under the hood of the Great Democracy, yet everything most reporters say and do is circumscribed by their fear of losing access to the power lunches, boardrooms, and tour buses of the powerful. A song from Evita comes to mind: "They're hoping their lover will help them or keep them/support them/promote them/Don't blame them--you're the same." Who doesn't want a place at the table?
I get very impatient with the journalistic products of TV and newspaper, the putative domain of public discourse. Both media are subject to constant interruption by commercials of one sort or another, with a cumulative Harrison Bergeron effect, from the short story in which a state-installed headset shrieks and blasts thoughts away. (Don't get me wrong: I watch plenty o' the teevee, but with the explicit purpose of being passive and entertained. It's how I empty my vessel so I can sleep at night.) Given that the turning of the page or the perusal of a footnote is about all the distraction I can handle, I am more a consumer of books, as they inevitably lead to other books and therefore seem a more holistic and engaging pursuit. Today I finished Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy by Lewis Lapham, wherein I found this keen observation:
"The American news media are the product of the American educational system, and their unwillingness to speak for themselves (in Archibald MacLeish's phrase, 'to resign,' even momentarily, 'from the herd') should come as no surprise. The dumbing down of the schools is neither an accident nor a mistake. We are a people blessed with a genius for large organizational tasks, and if we were serious in our pious mumbling about the need for educational reform--if we honestly believed that mind took precedence over money--our schools surely would stand as the eighth wonder of the world. But we neither like nor trust the forces of intellect--not unless they can be securely fixed to a commercial profit or an applied technology--and if most of what passes for education in the United States deadens the desire for learning, the miserable result accurately reflects the miserable intent." (p. 103-104)
As I said in my previous post, I was once a tool of that miserable intent. My seven years as a high school teacher were the worst years of my professional life. Much of it was my own fault: I went into it both idealistic and well aware of the numbing function of schools, and I thought somehow that my classes could be different. I thought I could make a safe zone for thinking, for asking questions, for disagreeing about the answers. Nothing provokes adolescent angst more than increased expectation. Nothing makes parents more suspicious than a sleepy kid suddenly coming home agitated by an open-ended question. Nothing makes the Advanced Placement teachers more resentful than a colleague whose classes full of lesser lights are draining away the attention usually reserved for them. Nothing makes a school administrator more damp with glee than the prospect of rubbing out a weed in his astroturf. If you want to be a teacher, DO NOT read Rousseau or Adler. Ignore the exhortations of John Taylor Gatto, Neil Postman, Richard Paul, Theodore Sizer, Tracy Kidder, and John Holt. Renounce everything you know about cultural criticism. Prepare for Stepford.
If we let kids be smart, they start to question all kinds of things. Why do bells tell us when to move from one place to another? Why do the athletes get special treatment? What is "tracking?" Who decides what we have to read? If reading is so important, how have I been able to get all the way to 12th grade and be an honors student without ever reading a book? If grades are earned, why does the principal tell you that you have to give certain percentages of As and Fs?
Allowed to ask the questions, kids figure out the answers pretty quickly: The bells are training us to respond without thinking. Athletes bring money into the school, so their needs and desires are primary. Tracking is how we're sorted into Haves and Have Nots. Textbook companies and tight budgets decide what we read, and more than a little effort is made to make sure we encounter nothing that will upset the world as we have known it since first grade. As long as we can show word and pattern recognition, it is best if we don't read because there is too much out there that is disturbing and conflicting. Grades are rubber stamps on an academic passport, tokens on a social subway, not the trip itself. It is too dangerous for them to know any of this.
Thomas Jefferson wrote much about the vital importance of an educated populace and a free press to maintain democracy. Today a liberal arts education is about as sought after as smallpox. We prefer English teachers who don't use "big words," history teachers who step over the messy bits, and biology teachers whose primary text is the Book of Genesis. Meanwhile, the press has become the Jiffy Lube of corporate America. Yes, they should be asking the hard questions, but given the setup, can we really expect them to? And do we really want to hear the answers?