July 26, 2013
Like this article?
Join our email list:
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The ancient Athenians had a name for people who were unable to participate in and determine the course of public life: idiote
. It is from this that our word idiot derives. And though we live in so-called democracies, these days very few of us are not idiots in this powerless respect
To be sure, though he doesn't phrase it in such a manner, in his Theses on Feuerbach
Karl Marx draws attention to just this intersection of these two meanings of idiot (fool and dominated subject). The point of philosophy, he states, is to change the world. But the world cannot be meaningfully changed without interpretation. And who is to educate the educators? This leads us to a problem. The idiot (who is unable to interpret the world) is inextricable from the idiote—who cannot change it.
When considering how to rectify the various forms of political idiocy that are produced and reproduced by this society, one of the most obvious things that comes to mind is education. After all, at its best education is indistinct from broadening minds, opening eyes, and aiding in the contemplation of our mysterious existences—not to mention solving the problems such contemplation brings to consciousness. As the early-20th-century philosopher John Dewey put it: Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
At its worst, however, education is arguably not even education at all. What passes for education is, more often than not, merely indoctrination. And such is the condition of virtually all levels of education in the US today. Subjected to the demands of the market and the state, rather than facilitating a good faith examination of the world, education functions as a massive industry busy creating and recreating this society's "idiotic" projects, along with its ideologies. Rather than critical thought, it is but a tool of a type of thought so uncritical it leads one to wonder whether it even qualifies as thought at all.
This point was made very strongly by the French philosopher Louis Althusser. In his 1969 essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Althusser refers to the institution of education as the Ideological State Apparatus par excellence. These days, as schools function as either businesses, or minimum-security prisons, and Janet Napolitano, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, seamlessly slips into the presidency of the University of California system, it is difficult to argue with Althusser's conclusion. In spite of the above, however, a radically emancipatory kernel remains implicit within the concept of education. For what is the point of education? Though some may contend that it is simply instrumental, its point penetrates further—to question the purposes, the reasons—for any instrumentalization. Such larger, critical questions lead not only to the interpretation of the world, but to questions of social and economic justice.
As more and more public schools are being privatized, and standardized test-taking skills stand in more and more for thinking, and even essays are being graded by computer programs, it is disheartening that the opposition to this extreme commodification of education is more or less restricted to no-brainer demands for reductions in classroom sizes, and requests for basic materials and facilities. In other words, the basic model and function of education is by and large not seriously questioned at all. This is highly troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the critique of the institution of education can draw out its critical kernel and lead to emancipatory forms of social organization.
Consider the community college. Rather than viewing these simply as feeder schools for four-year colleges and universities, community colleges could develop into new forms of social organization. Collectively run community colleges—one for every couple of thousand people across the continent—could develop cooperative economies beyond the compulsion of the market. Developing the potential and the expertise of their respective communities, these colleges could support agriculture and horticulture departments that would meet their community's food and nutrition needs.
Nursing and medical schools could train doctors and nurses who could, in turn, run and support community health clinics. Engineering, design, and architecture departments, in concert with ecology departments, could attend to the community's basic heating, plumbing, housing, and transportation needs, among others. Art and cinema departments could flourish within each community. Dispute resolution programs could help resolve disputes within the community in non-punitive ways. Journalism departments could support the journalism that is vital for an informed public.
In cooperation with one another in regional, and inter-regional networks, such community colleges could not only share what they produce, and organize events such as film festivals, they could attend to the problems of their particular community entirely beyond the profit-based demands of the physically, psychologically and environmentally destructive market-economy, and beyond the State as well.
And though it may sound farfetched—utopian even—to suggest that such a reimagining of the institution of education could contribute toward the overcoming of our present-day political idiocy, over the course of human history far stranger things have actually happened.