education as a tool of dominant culture, or, alteratively, how we use education to quell the rebelliousness within us

I’m beginning to think that, throughout time, education has been used to actually squelch rebelliousness and societal change, not to promote it, as humanists and liberal arts proponents might argue. Of course, education is not a totalitarian system meant to squelch all opposition, but for the most part, I am beginning to wonder if it doesn’t serve to harness the rebelliousness in us, ocassionally formalize it to do some good in social change, but for the most part, divert it to other means that enforce the status quo. This is something that I’m going to have to ponder.

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1 Response to education as a tool of dominant culture, or, alteratively, how we use education to quell the rebelliousness within us

  1. Clarence J. Karier says:

    Some fifty years ago Lawrence Dennis published his book The Coming American Fascism, in which he wrote of the inevitable development of American fascism. This book and others, such as The Dynamics of War and Revolution (1940), helped make him the leading intellectual exponent of American fascism in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s. During this period Dennis delineated his fascist position on human nature, society, and the function of the school in such a society. In chapter 17 of The Coming American Fascism, entitled “Control: Making Good Citizens,” Dennis described the function of -education within a fascist society. This chapter is a somewhat extended version of an essay he wrote for the editor of the Social Fronrier the year before, called “The Tool of the Dominant Elite.”’ In this essay Dennis clearly described his philosophy of education, interestingly enough, without ever using the term fascism. What comes through in that essay is a clear, concise statement of what a fascist view of education entails without the use of the term ‘fascism’ which might bias the reader.

    Over the past twenty-six years, I have used his essay as a teaching tool with hundreds of classroom teachers working on their graduate degrees. Most had not heard of the man before and therefore were not inclined to prejudge him. The class assignment was simply to read his essay and respond to two questions: (1) How close does this man’s philosophy of education resemble your own? (2) Regardless of how you responded to the first question, how realistic are his ideas, i.e., how close does he come to describe how we actually operate our schools? Over the years many of these teachers usually responded by saying, “I personally disagree with this man’s philosophy, but he does come disturbingly close to the way we actually function in our schools.” In this essay I will reconsider Dennis’s argument and the way these teachers in the post-World War I1 period responded to him and then consider some of the political, economic, social, cultural, and historical circumstances in these years which have given rise to the growth of some significant fascist elements in American life.
    In his Social frontier essay, Dennis argues that formal and informal education are tools of the dominant elite used to indoctrinate the masses for the established social order. The elite are those who either “buy or shoot” their way to power. The school teachers, he said, can do neither, so they merely obey those who have power. The function of the school is not to educate for some kind of individuality which presumes that such a person someday may be called upon critically to question the social system, but rather to educate that person so he or she will readily fit into the social system. People, he argued, are alienated enough. It is not the function of the school to alienate them further and thus produce social revolutionaries, for this will happen in spite of the school, not because of it. It is rather the function of the school to help people fit into the system. “Fitting in” requires the development of the right attitude toward the prevailing social system, and “right” is always ultimately defined by those who hold power.* Although he believed the workplace, the marketplace, the press, and the radio are far more important educators, if for no other reason than that they continue to educate for a lifetime, the school as an institution has a definite social purpose, i.e., to train future citizens to conform to and effectively work within the prevailing system. The school carries out this basically conservative, stabilizing social function through the inculcation of the right attitudes and myths necessary to integrate the mass of people into the community. People, he argued, need something to believe in; they need to be spiritually integrated; they need to belong to some movement larger than their lonely existential self. As he put it:

    Hitler can feed millions of his people acorns, and, yet, if he integrates the’m in a spiritual union with their community they will be happier than they were while receiving generous doles from a regime which gave them no such spiritual integration with the herd.

    Thus people within a modern alienated society respond to charismatic leaders because it helps them feel good about themselves in relation to the larger community. Ultimately that society is governed by money reflected in terms of power, which in turn is reflected in social institutions. Social discipline, Dennis argued, is a necessary function of the school which requires the masses of citizens to be spiritually integrated and responsive to charismatic leadership. In the end, he insisted, America must and will develop a national community based on such leadership and order. If the schools perform their task properly and the elite exert their power in the proper way, America could develop a less repressive fascism than that which had developed in Germany. As Dennis put it in The Coming American Fascism:

    Under a desirable form of fascism for Americans, national interest should not require the same drastic measures of suppression and assimilation of insti- tutions as have been taken in Germany in connection with the church, the press, the theatre, the moving picture and the radio. Adequate observance of the essential principle for public order simply means in this connection that all institutions which educate with a social purpose must be careful to avoid educating people to be bad citizens and must cooperate with the State in its attempts to fit people for good citizenship?

    “Good citizenship” and right values are defined by the elite in power. Repeatedly, Dennis insisted that a really humane education (a fascist education) prepares people for the social order in which they are going to live. An education which prepares people otherwise, he argued, is destabilizing and destructive to both the individual and the social system and would not be tolerable.

    In those early years when I used Dennis’s essay in my classes, I was highly skeptical of the possible development of an American fascism. Somehow or other I always believed American society was immune to the rising tide of twentieth-century fascism. Nevertheless, my students’ response to Dennis’s work and the subsequent events of the cold war led me to be increasingly less sure in that judgment. Dennis’s arguments, however, spurred our class into discussion of a number of important questions highly pertinent to the role of the professional teacher in America. We discussed and explored such questions as: To what extent does American society need charismatic leadership to make decisions and to weld diverse groups together for effective action? Can the values of freedom and rationality, which were born in a rather simple agrarian culture, survive in a threatened, complex, heavily alientated bureaucratic society? Can or should the psychological alientation of modern persons be alleviated by manipulating myths and cultivating illusions to satisfy their need to belong, to fit in and be part of something greater than their lonely existential selves? How much real critical thinking can American society tolerate among its citizenry? Is it the case that the American teacher who really does produce critical thinkers, does so at his or her own peril of losing his or her job, as Dennis suggested and as Howard K. Beale seemed to document? The class went on to consider such further questions as: To what extent is the teacher in America a tool of the dominant elite, indoctrinating the young with the “right” values? How free is the American teacher? On precisely what grounds should the teacher in this society assert any special claim to freedom and responsibility for the exercise of that freedom? These are but a few of the questions which Dennis’s Social Frontier essay stimulated our classes to consider.
    Repeatedly, approximately 85 percent of the teachers who read and discussed his essay, not knowing that he was a confirmed fascist, came to the conclusion that while they did not like what he said and found he repeatedly offended their democratic sensibilities, he “realistically” described the way we actually operate our schools. These teachers were willing to admit that students in their schools were not encouraged to think critically about the social system but rather were encouraged to fit into the value system that the prevailing elite had fashioned. Thus in spite of all the rhetoric about an education for democratic citizenship, what actually took place, from the standpoint of those teachers, was an education for conformity which carried an implicit fascist message.

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