Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Purpose of Education

Howard Zinn frequently writes about the manner in which the nation's elite have created support structures to maintain the cultural status quo. He recognizes that these systems are not controlled in an imperial manner, but are reactive and dynamic.

The primary purpose of society, in Zinn's view, is to maintain the elite as elite, to compromise only when necessary, and to create the illusion of common cause with the middle class in their oppression of the lower class. This is obviously a Marxist position, yet it is not without justification. American history, at least, is rife with class struggle. Zinn demonstrates this clearly in the book. One may debate the appropriateness of the class struggle, the morality of it, but not the reality of it.

One of the most remarkable things about reading The People's History of the United States is the fact that one cannot easily recall contemporary riots and demonstrations that have been rampant throughout American history.

"Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is. And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck...

... Rockefeller was a donor to colleges all over the country and helped found the University of Chicago. Huntington, of the Central Pacific, gave money to two Negro colleges, Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute. Carnegie gave money to colleges and libraries. Johns Hopkins was founded by a millionaire merchant, and millionaires Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ezra Cornell, James Duke, and Leland Stanford created universities in their own names.

The rich, giving part of their enormous earnings in this way, became known as philanthropists. These education institutions did not encourage dissent; they trained the middlemen in the American system--the teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, technicians, politicians--those who would be paid to keep the system going, to be loyal buffers against trouble.

In the meantime, the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semi-skilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer of the schools in the 1890s wrote: "The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly."

The People's History of the United States: 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn, pages 262-263

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