Complaints about “entitled Millennials” are practically an entire literary genre in their own right these days, but their younger siblings are coming in for their share of criticism too. At the Washington Post, Laura Hanby Hudgens (“Do teachers care more about schoolwork than your kids do? Here’s how to fix the apathy problem,” May 26) complains of “a generation of consumer learners” who “don’t see education as a privilege.” Students, she says, “have to learn to be self-motivated” because at some point in their lives — “either at school or in a job or in a marriage” — they’ll have to do things that are hard and boring. She wants to make “self-motivation” the new educational buzzword, and encourage students to “take responsibility for their own learning.”
Despite all her complaints of entitlement, it’s Hudgens herself who displays it. She feels entitled to students who cheerfully eat whatever is put on their plates with gusto, even though they had zero say in it, and she expects parents and society at large to send her students who are properly enthusiastic, despite the fact that they have been conscripted into attendance and the entire curriculum is designed by people who consider the students to be a raw material to be processed, graded, and sorted for corporate Human Resources departments.
Apparently it’s some kind of moral defect not to be enthusiastically positive about subject matter that was imposed on you based on someone else’s priorities. Her talk of “self-motivation” in carrying out tasks selected for students by others totally unaccountable to them sounds a lot like workplace cultures and management “motivational” fads that expect enthusiasm and “ownership” from people who are downsized, sped-up, micromanaged and have absolutely no say in how things are done.
If the goal is really to get kids enthusiastic about a “lifetime of learning”, I can’t think of a worse way to do it than to make someone’s first exposure to learning involve experiencing it as something compelled by someone with superior power. But what Hudgens is really talking about is getting students’ minds right for a lifetime of performing tasks selected by other people, and being used as means to ends determined by authoritarian hierarchies that are utterly unaccountable to them.
Public school students aren’t stupid. They instinctively understand that education is an industry — and they’re the product, not the customer. The biggest voices in education “reform” these days are billionaire-owned outfits like the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, and the current fads they’re pushing — like charterization and Common Core — explicitly tailor “learning” to the needs of future employers. The corporate interests who involve themselves in “reforming” the education system are a lot like a Tyson inspector who visits contractors’ chicken houses to make sure the broilers they’re supplying are up to snuff.
David Coleman, the most prominent evangelist for the Common Core cult, put it bluntly: “[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s**t about what you feel or what you think.” And the public school curriculum, as envisioned by both Hudgens and Coleman, is students’ first exposure to an entire world governed by institutions that take similar views of their dignity and agency.
As Paul Goodman argued in Compulsory Miseducation, people are taught throughout their lives — starting in school — to passively accept the goals of the system as their own goals. First in school, then on the job, they learn that what is “important” is the task assigned by an authority figure behind a desk. Anything done for its own sake is trivialized as a “hobby.”
…[T]he “serious” activity of youth is going to school and getting at least passing grades; all the rest — music, driving, friendships, own reading, hobbies, need for one’s own money — all this is treated by the adults as frivolous…. In fact, of course, these frivolous things are where normally a child would explore his feelings and find his identity and vocation, learn to be responsible; nevertheless, if any of them threatens to interfere with the serious business… it is unhesitatingly interrupted, sometimes with threats and sanctions.
The typical college junior has been in a classroom environment for fifteen continuous years…. Schooling has been the serious part of his life, and it has consisted of listening to some grown-up talking and of doing assigned lessons. The young man has almost never assigned himself a serious task. Sometimes, as a child, he thought he was doing something earnest on his own, but the adults interrupted him and he became discouraged.
“Self-motivation” is inseparable from self-direction. People are motivated to perform when they’re carrying out tasks that they’ve chosen for themselves, based on their own priorities.
Hudgens and Coleman and their ilk would no doubt say that having our lives managed by unaccountable authorities is just “the way things are,” and a world of self-managed institutions in which we play the primary role in selecting our own tasks belongs in the same category as rainbows and unicorns.
But the wage system, and an economic and political system dominated by centralized hierarchies, isn’t just “the way things are.” And it didn’t “just happen.” It’s a state of affairs created by deliberate human action, to benefit one group of people — the people presently running the system and profiting from it — at the expense of everybody else. And at every step in the process, the state has been the tool the beneficiary classes have used to create this state of affairs.
The good news is that not only was the present system not inevitable — it’s also not sustainable. Big business relies on more and more subsidized inputs, and externalizing more and more of its operating costs on the taxpayer, to turn a profit. And new, cheaper technologies of small-scale production and networked communications are rendering large amounts of capital and organizational scale increasingly irrelevant. The main thing that protects corporate control over production, in an age in which they are becoming technologically irrelevant, is legal monopolies like “intellectual property.” And as the music industry has already learned, those are becoming unenforceable.
In a world where most goods are produced for local consumption by cooperatively owned neighborhood garage factories with cheap, high-tech open-source CNC machinery, where most food is produced locally, and production is coordinated by P2P networks rather than bureaucracies, the present educational model of one bureaucracy processing human resources for the consumption of another bureaucracy will be obsolete. In an economy of small, self-managed organizations, education and credentialing will be likewise self-directed, and driven by the priorities of the users.
And in that world we’re building, we can say to the Colemans and Hudgenses of the world: Nobody gives a s**t what you think.