Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, explained how conservatives have managed to enlist working Americans to vote against their own economic interests by punching their tickets for the Republican Party. By running on divisive “culture war” issues like abortion, conservatives take the focus off the fact that they are essentially screwing the working class. It has been a winning game plan for the Republican Party for the past 35 years. It is a well-known argument and Frank makes it in a compelling, erudite way. As a history teacher in a New York City public school, I have come across other types of answers to the question of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” or, more relevantly, “why do so many members of the 99% oppose the 99% movement?” The answer starts with how we explain American history to our children.
American history textbooks are known to be fact-heavy (as much as a textbook can possess such a quality) throughout most of its march through time. It is only when one gets to the final chapter or so, the one dealing with the period of time roughly from Ford’s inauguration to the present (if you have a recent edition), that the facts become much lighter. Important topics like globalization or the environment are treated as new developments that we do not quite understand or know how to deal with. The sections on these topics tend to be long on jargon and short on specific events or important players. You do not get a chronological presentation of how this guy (or gal) did this thing at this time which led to this other thing later that these people over here got upset about, which is the norm for all the other sections. Instead, you get vaporous descriptions of how the internet brings people closer together or how business operates on a global scale. There might be a glossy picture of a computer chip or a McDonald’s in China, signs of our age. However, what you will not see are how corporations pretty much control our political system, how the media has fallen into the grasp of 4 or 5 large corporations, how globalization is built on union busting and slave labor or how Wall Street has managed to take control of 35% of our total economy. Rather, whatever is happening today is natural. Things just ARE. There is no connection with that computer chip and the speculation it caused on Wall Street or that Chinese McDonald’s and the fall of labor unions in the United States. There is no questioning of how we got here, why we got here and what it all means. Nothing that might raise the slightest moral doubt in a child’s mind is offered, like how Americans work longer hours for less money in this chapter than they did in the previous chapter. On the other hand, textbooks are careful not to extol the virtues of the modern age too fervently either. Pointing to the good qualities of something tend to get skeptical types sniffing around for the catch. This is why our wondrous modern age is portrayed in dry, objective language. It is what it is and it is called “progress”. It cares not for your admiration or derision. It will march on, indifferent to your desires.
It is not only reflected in what is being taught but how it is taught. Those of us who have been through teacher training programs in college know that we were taught to sit kids in groups. As time has gone on the group factor in education has become more stressed, while teachers now are taught to think of themselves as “facilitators” rather than educators. The ideal model is for the classroom to be self-regulating. The teacher should hypothetically be able to leave the room without changing the tone of the class. Of course, this reflects the very corporate-inspired trend of deskilling the teaching profession, in hopes of lowering their value and their salaries. After all, if a teacher does not even have to be in the classroom, anybody can teach. However, this group work, non-entity-of-a-teacher model is a perfect reflection of a corporate culture. Young teachers are often told that group work is good for kids because decisions are made in groups in corporations, but this is not totally true. Joe Cassano at AIG Financial Services made an individual decision to start selling credit default swaps, and it brought down the United States economy. Most public school students will not go on to work for corporations anyway and those that do have a slim chance at being in any major decision-making role. So why have a generation of public school teachers been trained to educate kids for jobs they will not have?
Group work can be a fine method for some teachers. Even I admit to using it occasionally. If you have ever seen teenagers hanging out, that is pretty much what group work in school is like. One kid, through force of personality and charisma, establishes themselves as the leader. The meekest among them falls into line and, instantly, you have a plurality among the group. That becomes the nucleus around which the others revolve. Before you know it, it has happened: Group Think. This is the real impact of group work. Individuals question too much and too many extraordinary individuals have changed the course of history. Group think puts a stop to all of that. It allows kids to find confirmation with their peer group, just like looking around and seeing everyone wearing the same brands of sneakers or reciting the lyrics to the same songs. Group think is when a kid knows a toy is fun because they see a child actor having fun with it on a television commercial. We are not training the next generation of executives. We are training the next generation of consumers. In the age of the Great Recession, there is no job out there besides consumption. Since the start of the Reagan Era, very few jobs require brains at all. Consumption has been the only job worth being trained for over the past 3 decades.
Our “facilitator” teachers do us no favors either. Teachers are trained to avoid being authority figures, despite the fact they assign grades and help determine a large part of their children’s futures. Teachers are educated, some are extremely proficient in their subject areas, yet they are trained not to share any of that with their students. Adults bring children into a world created by other adults, yet adults are expected to absolve themselves of any responsibility for helping kids understand that world. And all of this is the point. There is no responsibility. Kids are being trained to live in a world where their supposed leaders take no responsibility for them. Corporations have no responsibility to them, only their bottom line. Their future bosses will not have any responsibility for them, since our economy has been based on constantly changing jobs. Their political leaders take no responsibility for them, since nobody votes and corporations pump billions into campaign coffers. But, despite the fact that nobody will take responsibility for them, somebody will always rate them. The invisible teacher is really nothing more than a credit rating agency that tracks your debts, a police radar that measures your speed, a faceless supervisor that estimates your productivity. The invisible teacher reflects the invisible mode of discipline in a corporate world.
Is it any wonder that so many members of the 99% still do not support the 99% movement? Our textbooks train us to think of our corporate age as natural. So when we at Occupy Wall Street call for a reduction of corporate power, it is like calling for the sky to be less blue. Group think instills consumerism. So when young people protest at Occupy Wall Street, it is tough to recognize them outside of Urban Outfitters. Invisible teachers instill corporate discipline. So when Occupy Wall Street looks the corporation in the face and tells it where to get off, people see it as a breach of the natural order. While the media, politicians and Republican sympathizers have all done their part to bamboozle people about what is really going on around Occupy Wall Street, I submit that our education system has also had a part in getting the 99% to oppose its own movement.