Public Education "Failure by Design,"
By Noam Chomsky
April 05, 2012 "Information
Clearing House" --- Public education
is under attack around the world, and in response, student protests
have recently been held in Britain, Canada, Chile, Taiwan and
California is also a battleground. The Los Angeles Times reports on
another chapter in the campaign to destroy what had been the
greatest public higher education system in the world: "California
State University officials announced plans to freeze enrollment next
spring at most campuses and to wait-list all applicants the
following fall pending the outcome of a proposed tax initiative on
the November ballot."
Similar defunding is under way nationwide. "In most states," The New
York Times reports, "it is now tuition payments, not state
appropriations, that cover most of the budget," so that "the era of
affordable four-year public universities, heavily subsidized by the
state, may be over."
Community colleges increasingly face similar prospects – and the
shortfalls extend to grades K-12.
"There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit
from higher education, to a belief that it's the people receiving
the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the
bill," concludes Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a trustee of the State
University system of New York and director of the Cornell Higher
Education Research Institute.
A more accurate description, I think, is "Failure by Design," the
title of a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, which has
long been a major source of reliable information and analysis on the
state of the economy.
The EPI study reviews the consequences of the transformation of the
economy a generation ago from domestic production to
financialization and offshoring. By design; there have always been
One primary justification for the design is what Nobel laureate
Joseph Stiglitz called the "religion" that "markets lead to
efficient outcomes," which was recently dealt yet another crushing
blow by the collapse of the housing bubble that was ignored on
doctrinal grounds, triggering the current financial crisis.
Claims are also made about the alleged benefits of the radical
expansion of financial institutions since the 1970s. A more
convincing description was provided by Martin Wolf, senior economic
correspondent for The Financial Times: "An out-of-control financial
sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as
the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been
The EPI study observes that the "Failure of Design" is class-based.
For the designers, it has been a stunning success, as revealed by
the astonishing concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, in
fact the top 0.1 percent, while the majority has been reduced to
virtual stagnation or decline.
In short, when they have the opportunity, "the Masters of Mankind"
pursue their "vile maxim" [ all for ourselves and nothing for other
people," as Adam Smith explained long ago.
Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American
society. It has had many dimensions. One purpose was to prepare
independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate
what they regarded as virtual slavery.
The coercive element did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo
Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education
because they fear that "This country is filling up with thousands
and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from
our throats." But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives
and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and
train them for obedience.
The "vile maxim" and its implementation have regularly called forth
resistance, which in turn evokes the same fears among the elite.
Forty years ago there was deep concern that the population was
breaking free of apathy and obedience.
At the liberal internationalist extreme, the Trilateral Commission –
the nongovernmental policy group from which the Carter
Administration was largely drawn – issued stern warnings in 1975
that there is too much democracy, in part due to the failures of the
institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young." On
the right, an important 1971 memorandum by Lewis Powell, directed to
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the main business lobby, wailed that
radicals were taking over everything – universities, media,
government, etc. – and called on the business community to use its
economic power to reverse the attack on our prized way of life –
which he knew well. As a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, he was
quite familiar with the workings of the nanny state for the rich
that he called "the free market."
Since then, many measures have been taken to restore discipline. One
is the crusade for privatization – placing control in reliable
Another is sharp increases in tuition, up nearly 600 percent since
1980. These produce a higher education system with "far more
economic stratification than is true of any other country,"
according to Jane Wellman, former director of the Delta Cost
Project, which monitors these issues. Tuition increases trap
students into long-term debt and hence subordination to private
Justifications are offered on economic grounds, but are singularly
unconvincing. In countries rich to poor, including Mexico next-door,
tuition remains free or nominal. That was true as well in the United
States itself when it was a much poorer country after World War II
and huge numbers of students were able to enter college under the GI
bill – a factor in uniquely high economic growth, even putting aside
the significance in improving lives.
Another device is the corporatization of the universities. That has
led to a dramatic increase in layers of administration, often
professional instead of drawn from the faculty as before; and to
imposition of a business culture of "efficiency" – an ideological
notion, not just an economic one.
One illustration is the decision of state colleges to eliminate
programs in nursing, engineering and computer science, because they
are costly – and happen to be the professions where there is a labor
shortage, as The New York Times reports. The decision harms the
society but conforms to the business ideology of short-term gain
without regard for human consequences, in accord with the vile
Some of the most insidious effects are on teaching and monitoring.
The Enlightenment ideal of education was captured in the image of
education as laying down a string that students follow in their own
ways, developing their creativity and independence of mind.
The alternative, to be rejected, is the image of pouring water into
a vessel – and a very leaky one, as all of us know from experience.
The latter approach includes teaching to test and other mechanisms
that destroy students' interest and seek to fit them into a mold,
easily controlled. All too familiar today.
© 2012 Noam Chomsky
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
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