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Schooling: The Ritual of Progress

I

The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world. Whatever his or her claims of solidarity with the Third World, each American college graduate has had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity. A Latin American student is introduced to this exclusive fraternity by having at least 350 times as much public money spent on his education as on that of his fellow citizens of median income. With very rare exceptions, the university graduate from a poor country feels more comfortable with his North American and European colleagues than with his non-schooled compatriots, and all students are academically processed to be happy only in the company of fellow consumers of the products of the educational machine.

The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money makers or power holders. No one is given tax funds for the leisure in which to educate himself or the right to educate others unless at the same time he can also be certified for achievement. Schools select for each successive level those who have, at earlier stages in the game, proved themselves good risks for the established order. Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university co-opts the discoverer and the potential dissenter. A degree always leaves its indelible price tag on the curriculum of its consumer. Certified college graduates fit only into a world which puts a price tag on their heads, thereby giving them the power to define the level of expectations in their society. In each country, the amount of consumption by the college graduate sets the standard for all others; if they would be civilized people on or off the job, they will aspire to the style of life of college graduates.

The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system. The fewer university graduates there are in a country, the more their cultivated demands are taken as models by the rest of the population. The gap between the consumption of the university graduate and that of the average citizen is even wider in Russia, China, and Algeria than in the United States. Cars, airplane trips, and tape recorders confer more visible distinction in a socialist country where only a degree, and not just money, can procure them.

The ability of the university to fix consumer goals is something new. In many countries the university acquired this power only in the Sixties, as the delusion of equal access to public education began to spread. Before that the university protected an individual’s freedom of speech, but did not automatically convert his knowledge into wealth. To be a scholar in the Middle Ages meant to be poor, even a beggar. By virture of his calling, the medieval scholar learned Latin, became an outsider worthy of the scorn as well as the esteem of peasant and prince, burgher and cleric. To get ahead in the world, the scholastic first had to enter it by joining the civil service, preferably that of the Church. The old university was a liberated zone for discovery and the discussion of ideas both new and old. Masters and students gathered to read the texts of other masters, now long dead, and the living words of the dead masters gave new perspective to the fallacies of the present day. The university was then a community of academic quest and endemic unrest.

In the modern multiversity, this community has fled to the fringes, where it meets in a pad, a professor’s office, or the chaplain’s quarters. The structural purpose of the modern university has little to do with the traditional quest. Since Gutenberg, the exchange of disciplined, critical inquiry has, for the most part, moved from the “chair” into print. The modern university has forfeited its chance to provide a simple setting for encounters which are both autonomous and anarchic, focused yet unplanned and ebullient, and has chosen instead to manage the process by which so-called research and instruction are produced.

The American university, since Sputnik, has been trying to catch up with the body count of Soviet graduates. Now the Germans are abandoning their academic tradition and are building “campuses” in order to catch up with the Americans. During the present decade they want to increase their expenditure for grammar and high schools from 14 to 59 billion DM, and more than triple expenditures for higher learning. The French propose by 1980 to raise to 10 percent of their GNP the amount spent on schools, and the Ford Foundation has been pushing poor countries in Latin America to raise per capita expenses for “respectable” graduates toward North American levels. Students see their studies as the investment with the highest monetary return, and nations see them as a key factor in development.

For the majority who primarily seek a college degree, the university has lost no prestige, but since 1968 it has visibly lost standing among its believers. Students refuse to prepare for war, pollution, and the perpetuation of prejudice. Teachers assist them in their challenge to the legitimacy of the government, its foreign policy, education, and the American way of life. More than a few reject degrees and prepare for a life in a counter-culture, outside the certified society. They seem to choose the way of medieval fraticelli and alumbrados of the Reformation, the hippies and dropouts of their day. Others recognize the monopoly of the schools over the resources which they need to build a countersociety. They seek support from each other to live with integrity while submitting to the academic ritual. They form—so to speak—hotbeds of heresy right within the hierarchy.

Large parts of the general population, however, regard the modern mystic and the modern heresiarch with alarm. They threaten the consumer economy, democratic privilege, and the self-image of America. But they cannot be wished away. Fewer and fewer can be reconverted by patience or co-opted by subtlety—for instance, by appointing them to teach their heresy. Hence the search for means which would make it possible either to get rid of dissident individuals or to reduce the importance of the university which serves them as a base for protest.

The students and faculty who question the legitimacy of the university, and do so at high personal cost, certainly do not feel that they are setting consumer standards or abetting a production system. Those who have founded such groups as the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) have been among the most effective in changing radically the perceptions of the realities of foreign countries for millions of young people. Still others have tried to formulate Marxian interpretations of American society or have been among those responsible for the flowering of communes. Their achievements add new strength to the argument that the existence of the university is necessary to guarantee continued social criticism.

There is no question that at present the university offers a unique combination of circumstances which allows some of its members to criticize the whole of society. It provides time, mobility, access to peers and information, and a certain impunity: privileges not equally available to other segments of the population. But the university provides this freedom only to those who have already been deeply initiated into the consumer society and into the need for some kind of obligatory public schooling.

The school system today performs the threefold function common to powerful churches throughout history. It is at the same time the repository of society’s myth; the institutionalization of that myth’s contradictions; and the locus of the ritual which reproduces and veils the disparities between myth and reality. Today the school system, and especially the university, provides ample opportunity for criticism of the myth and for rebellion against its institutional perversions. But the ritual which demands tolerance of the fundamental contradictions between myth and institution still goes largely unchallenged, for neither ideological criticism nor social action can bring about a new society. Only disenchantment with and detachment from the central social ritual and reform of that ritual can bring about radical change.

The American university has become the final stage of the most all-encompassing initiation rite the world has ever known. No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth. We cannot begin a reform of education unless we first understand that neither individual learning nor social equality can be enhanced by the ritual of schooling. We cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools inevitably reproduce such a society, no matter what is taught in them.

The project of de-mythologizing which I propose cannot be limited to the university alone. Any attempt to reform the university without attending to the system of which it is an integral part is like trying to do urban renewal in New York City from the twelfth story up. Most current college level reform looks like the building of high-rise slums. Only a generation which grows up without obligatory schools will be able to re-create the university.

II

The Myth of Institutionalized Values

School initiates the Myth of Unending Consumption. This modern myth is grounded in the belief that process inevitably produces something of value and, therefore, production necessarily produces demand. School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect. In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.

In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.

Once a man or woman has accepted the need for school, he or she is easy prey for other institutions. Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. “Instruction” smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope. They will no longer be surprised for good or ill by other people, because they have been taught what to expect from every other person who has been taught as they were. This is true in the case of another person or in the case of a machine.

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