Sunday, October 10, 2010

Does our nation's culture of promoting higher education fill a role akin to that of religion?

As I was typing up my last post, which was started as a submission to JD Underground, I had a thought that had not previously occurred to me.

Our nation's Education Arms Race and culture of promoting higher education essentially constitutes a de facto form of class warfare and is an essential tool for social control.  The rich (and our politicians and other powerful parties) have an interest in maintaining a widespread belief that people can work their way up and use education to lift themselves to a better economic state.  (This way, people will accept gross income inequality because they will think that it's fair and the result of meritocracy and justice.)  If someone goes to college and fails to attain a better life, our culture's belief in meritocracy leads people to believe that it is their fault.  You didn't study hard enough or network hard enough, etc.  If you didn't go to college then you are supposed to think that the reason why you are earning poverty slave wages is because you didn't go to college.

The promise of a better life through higher education almost fills the same role that religion did centuries ago. It helps maintain social control over the masses.  It assuages feelings of anger and resentment at the upper classes by replacing them with feelings of hope for those who haven't pursued higher education and feelings of guilt for those who have but couldn't find a job commensurate with their investments in higher education.


JP said...

The answer to your question is "Sure seems that way.". It's a feature of the industrial revolution and mass consumption. And it's been asked and reviewed before.

From Chapter 14 of John Taylor Gatto's book The Underground History of American Public Education.

"Spirits Are Dangerous

The net effect of holding children in confinement for twelve years without honor paid to the spirit is a compelling demonstration that the State considers the Western spiritual tradition dangerous, subversive. And of course it is. School is about creating loyalty to certain goals and habits, a vision of life, support for a class structure, an intricate system of human relationships cleverly designed to manufacture the continuous low level of discontent upon which mass production and finance rely.

Once the mechanism is identified, its dynamics aren’t hard to understand. Spiritually contented people are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They don’t make reliable servants because they won’t jump at every command. They test what is requested against a code of moral principle. Those who are spiritually secure can’t easily be driven to sacrifice family relations. Corporate and financial capitalism are hardly possible on any massive scale once a population finds its spiritual center.

For a society like ours to work, we need to feel that something is fundamentally wrong when we can’t continually "do better" – expand our farms and businesses, win a raise, take exotic vacations. This is the way our loan/repayment cycle – the credit economy – is sustained. The human tendency to simply enjoy work and camaraderie among workers is turned into a race to outdo colleagues, to climb employment ladders. Ambition is a trigger of corporate life and at the same time an acid that dissolves communities. By spreading contentment on the cheap, spirituality was a danger to the new economy’s natural growth principle. So in a sense it was rational self-interest, not conspiracy, that drove enlightened men to agree in their sporting places, drawing rooms, and clubs that religious activity would have to be dampened down.

What they couldn’t see is that through substitution of schooling for Bible religion, they were sawing through two of the four main social supports of Western civilization. Think of your dining room table; it was like breaking two of its legs off, replacing one with a tall stack of dishes and one with a large dog. The top of the table would look the same covered in cloth but it wouldn’t be a good bet to get you through dinner. A century earlier, Hamilton and Jefferson had speculated whether it might be possible to replace religion with a civil substitute. The heady ideas of the French Revolution were on everybody’s lips. A civil substitute built on expanding the humble grassroots institution of schooling might well free leaders from the divided loyalty religion imposes. Could an ethical system based on law produce the same quality of human society as a moral system based on divine inspiration? Jefferson was skeptical. Despite his fears, the experiment was soon to be tried."

Lee said...

Lifetime earnings for bachelor's degrees are much higher than high school educated kids. Yes, the game is rigged but I don't think it changes the fact that a bachelor's degree is, on balance, a good thing. Exercise is, on balance, a good thing as well. Is that a religion?

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