The following is Part I of the transcript of a recent speech delivered by Noam Chomsky in February. AlterNet will publish Part IIon Sunday, March 10.
Whether public education contributes to the Common Good depends, of course, on what kind of education it is, to whom it is available, and what we take to be the Common Good. There’s no need to tarry on the fact that these are highly contested matters, have been throughout history, and continue to be so today.
One of the great achievements of American democracy has been the introduction of mass public education, from children to advanced research universities. And in some respects that leadership position has been maintained. Unfortunately, not all. Public education is under serious attack, one component of the attack on any rational and humane concept of the Common Good, sometimes in ways that are not only shocking, but also spell disaster for the species.
All of this falls within the general assault on the population in the past generation, the so-called “neoliberal era.” I’ll return to these matters, of great significance and import.
Sometimes the attacks on education and on the Common Good are very closely linked. One current illustration is the “Environmental Literacy Improvement Act” that is being proposed to legislatures by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded lobby that designs legislation to serve the needs of the corporate sector and extreme wealth. This act mandates “balanced” teaching of climate science in K-12 classrooms.”
“Balanced teaching” is a code phrase that refers to teaching climate change denial, to “balance” authentic climate science – what you read in science journals. It is analogous to the “balanced teaching” advocated by creationists to enable the teaching of “creation science” in public schools. Legislation based on ALEC models has already been introduced in several states.
The ALEC legislation is based on a project of the Heartland Institute, a corporate-funded Institute dedicated to rejection of the scientific consensus on the climate. The Institute project calls for a “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms,” which aims to teach that there is “a major controversy over whether or not humans are changing the weather.” Of course, all of this is dressed up in rhetoric about teaching critical thinking, and so on. It is much like the current assault on teaching children about evolution and science quite generally.
There is indeed a controversy: on one side, the overwhelming majority of scientists, all of the world’s major National Academies of Science, the professional science journals, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change): all agree that global warming is taking place, that there is a substantial human component, and that the situation is serious and perhaps dire, and that very soon, maybe within decades, the world might reach a tipping point where the process will escalate sharply and will be irreversible, with very severe effects on the possibility of decent human survival.
It is rare to find such consensus on complex scientific issues.
True, it is not unanimous. Media reports commonly present a controversy between the overwhelming scientific consensus on one side, and skeptics on the other, including some quite respected scientists who caution that much is unknown – which means that things might not be as bad as thought or they might be worse: only the first alternative is brought up. Omitted from the contrived debate is a much larger group of skeptics: highly regarded climate scientists who regard the regular reports of the IPCC as much too conservative: the Climate Change group at my own university, MIT, for example. And they have repeatedly been proven correct, unfortunately. But they are scarcely part of the public debate, though very prominent in the scientific literature.
The Heartland Institute and ALEC are part of a huge campaign by corporate lobbies to try to sow doubt about the near-unanimous consensus of scientists that human activities are having a major impact on global warming with truly ominous implications. The campaign was openly announced, including the lobbying organizations of the fossil fuel industry, the American Chamber of Commerce (the main business lobby) and others. It has had an effect on public opinion, though careful studies show that public opinion remains much closer to the scientific consensus than policy is. That is undoubtedly why major sectors of the corporate world are launching their attack on the educational system, to try to counter the dangerous tendency of the public to pay attention to the conclusions of scientific research.
You probably heard that at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting recently, Gov. Bobby Jindal warned the leadership that “We must stop being the stupid party…We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” ALEC and its corporate backers, in contrast, want the country to be "the stupid nation” – which may encourage them to join the stupid party that Jindal warned about.
The major science journals give a sense of how surreal all of this is. Take Science, the major US scientific weekly. A few weeks ago it had three news items side by side. One reported that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US, continuing a long trend. The second reported a new study by the US Global Climate Change Research Program providing additional evidence for rapid climate change as the result of human activities, and discussing likely severe impacts. The third reported the new appointments to chair the committees on science policy chosen by the House of Representatives, where a minority of voters elected a large majority of Republicans thanks to the shredding of the political system.
In Pennsylvania, for example, a considerably majority voted for Democrats but they won just over one-third of House seats. All three of the new chairs deny that humans contribute to climate change, two deny that it is even taken place, one is a longtime advocate for the fossil fuel industry. The same issue of the journal has a technical article with new evidence that the irreversible tipping point may be ominously close.
For those whom Adam Smith called the "Masters of Mankind,” it is important that we must become the stupid nation in the interests of their short-term gain, damn the consequences. These are essential properties of contemporary market fundamentalist doctrines. ALEC and its corporate sponsors understand the importance of ensuring that public education train children to belong to the stupid nation, and not be misled by science and rationality.
This is far from the only case of sharp divergence between public opinion and public policy. That tells us a lot about the current state of American democracy, and what that means for us and the world. The corporate assault on education and independent thought, of which this is only one striking illustration, tells us a good deal more.
In climate policy, the US lags behind other countries. Quotes a current scientific review: “109 countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power, and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, the United States has no adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy” or adopted other means that are being pursued by countries that do have national policies. Some things are being done in the US, but sporadically, and with no organized national commitment. That’s no slight problem for us, and for the world, in the light of the great predominance of American power – declining to be sure as power is diversified internationally, but still unchallenged.
There are other respects in which the concept of Common Good that has come to dominate policy – but not opinion -- in the US is diverging from the affluent developed societies of the OECD, and many others. A recent OECD study shows that the US ranks 27th out of 31 countries in measures of social justice, barely above Mexico. It ranks 21st in inequality, poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, maternity leave, environmental performance, 18th in mental health and 19th in welfare of children. Also ranks toward the bottom in high-school dropout rates and poor student performance in math.
Figures like these are signs of very severe systemic disorders; particularly striking because the US is the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages.
Another crucial case is healthcare. US costs are about twice the per capita costs of comparable countries, and outcomes are relatively poor. Studied by economist Dean Baker reveal that the deficit that obsesses the financial sector and Washington, but not the more realistic public, would be eliminated if we had healthcare systems similar to other developed societies, hardly a utopian idea. The US healthcare system deviates from others in that it is largely privatized and lightly regulated, and – not surprisingly – is highly inefficient and costly. There is an exception in the US healthcare system: the Veterans Administration, a government system, much less costly.
Another partial exception is Medicare, a government-run system, hence with far lower administrative costs and other waste, but still more costly than it should be because it has to work through the privatized system and is trapped by the extraordinary political power of the pharmaceutical industry, which prevents the government from negotiating drug prices so that they are far higher than in other countries.
Current policy ideas include proposals to increase age eligibility to cut costs: actually it increases costs (along with penalizing mostly working people) by shifting from a relatively efficient system to a highly inefficient privatized one. But the costs are transferred to individuals and away from collective action through taxes. And the concept of the Common Good that is being relentlessly driven into our heads demands that we focus on our own private gain, and suppress normal human emotions of solidarity, mutual support and concern for others. That I think is also an important part of what lies behind the assault on public education and on Social Security that has been waged by sectors of corporate wealth for years, on pretexts of cost that cannot be sustained, and against strong public opposition.
What lies behind these campaigns, I suspect, is that public education and Social Security, like national healthcare, are based on the conception that we care for other people: we care that the disabled widow across town has food to eat, or that the kids down the street have schooling ("why should I pay taxes for schools? I don’t have kids there"). And beyond that, that we care about the tens of millions are dying every year because they cannot obtain medical care, or about dying infants, and others who are vulnerable.
These conflicts go far back in American history. It’s particularly useful to look back to the origins of the industrial revolution, in the mid-19th century, when the country was undergoing enormous social changes as the population was being driven into the industrial system, which working people bitterly condemned, because it deprived them of their basic rights as free men and women – not the least women, the so-called factory girls, who were leaving the farms to the mills.
It is worth reading the contributions in the press of the time by factory girls, artisans from Boston, and others. It's also important to note that working-class culture of the time was alive and flourishing. There’s a great book about the topic by Jonathan Rose, called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. It’s a monumental study of the reading habits of the working class of the day. He contrasts “the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts” with the “pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy.”
Pretty much the same was true in the new working-class towns here, like eastern Massachusetts, where an Irish blacksmith might hire a young boy to read the classics to him while he was working. On the farms, the factory girls were reading the best contemporary literature of the day, what we study as classics. They condemned the industrial system for depriving them of their freedom and culture.
This went on for a long time. I am old enough to remember the atmosphere of the 1930s. A large part of my family came from the unemployed working-class. Many had barely gone to school. But they participated in the high culture of the day. They would discuss the latest Shakespeare plays, concerts of the Budapest String Quartet, different varieties of psychoanalysis and every conceivable political movement. There was also a very lively workers' education system with which leading scientists and mathematicians were directly involved. A lot of this has been lost under the relentless assault of the Masters, but it can be recovered and it is not lost forever.
The labor press of the early industrial revolution took strong positions on many issues that should have a resonance today. They took for granted that, as they put it, those who work in the mills should own them. They condemned wage labor, which to them was akin to slavery, the only difference being that it was supposedly temporary.
This was such a popular view that it was even part of the program of the Republican Party. It was also a main theme of the huge organized labor movement that was taking shape, the Knights of Labor, which began to establish links with the most important popular democratic party in the country’s history, the Farmers Alliance, later called the Populist movement, which originated with radical farmers in Texas and then spread through much of the country, forming collective enterprises, banks and marketing cooperatives and much more, movements that could have driven the country toward more authentic democracy if they had not been destroyed, largely by violence – though, interestingly, similar developments are underway today in the old Rust Belt and elsewhere, very important for the future, I think.
The prime target of condemnation in the labor press was what they called “The New Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, Forgetting All But Self.” No efforts have been spared since then to drive this spirit into people's heads. People must come to believe that suffering and deprivation result from the failure of individuals, not the reigning socioeconomic system. There are huge industries devoted to this task. About one-sixth of the entire US economy is devoted to what's called "marketing," which is mostly propaganda. Advertising is described by analysts and the business literature as a process of fabricating wants – a campaign to drive people to the superficial things in life, like fashionable consumption, so that they will remain passive and obedient.
The schools are also a target. As I mentioned, public mass education was a major achievement, in which the US was a pioneer. But it had complex characteristics, rooted in the sharp class conflicts of the day. One goal was to induce farmers to give up their independence and submit themselves to industrial discipline and accept what they regarded as wage slavery. That did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders of his day were calling for popular education. He concluded that their motivation was fear. The country was filling up with millions of voters and the Masters realized that one had to therefore “educate them, to keep them from (our) throats.”
In other words: educate them the “right way” -- to be obediently passive and accept their fate as right and just, conforming to the New Spirit of the Age. Keep their perspectives narrow, their understanding limited, discourage free and independent thought, instill docility and obedience to keep them from the Masters' throats.
This common theme from 150 years ago is inhuman and savage. It also meets with resistance. And there have been victories. There were many in the struggles of the 1930s, carried further in the 1960s. But systems of power never walk away politely. They prepare a new assault. This has in fact been happening since the early 1970s, based on major changes in the design of the economic system.
Two crucial changes were financialization, with a huge explosion of speculative financial flows, and deindustrialization. Production didn't cease. It just began to be offshored anywhere where you could get terrible working conditions and no environmental constraints, with huge profits for the Masters. Within the US, that set off a vicious cycle, leading to sharp concentration of wealth, which translates at once to concentration of political power, increasingly in the financial sector. That in turn leads to legislation that carries the vicious cycle forward, including sharp tax reduction for the rich and deregulation, with repeated financial crises from the ‘80s, each worse than the last. The current one is so far the worst of all. And others are likely in what a director of the Bank of England calls a “doom loop.”
There are solutions, but they do not fit the needs of the Masters, for whom the crises are no problem. They are bailed out by the Nanny State. Today corporate profits are breaking new records and the financial managers who created the current crisis are enjoying huge bonuses. Meanwhile, for the large majority, wages and income have practically stagnated in the last 30-odd years. By today, it has reached the point that 400 individuals have more wealth than the bottom 180 million Americans.
In parallel, the cost of elections has skyrocketed, driving both parties even deeper into the pockets of those with the money, corporations and the super-rich. Political representatives become even more beholden to those who paid for their victories. One consequence is that by now, the poorest 70% have literally no influence over policy. As you move up the income/wealth ladder influence increases, and at the very top, a tiny percent, the Masters get what they want.
Copyright Noam Chomsky, 2013. All rights reserved. Permission to republish this text must be granted by the author.