“It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair.
If you ever want to work in a job where you flip between a pervasive sense of doom and a cautious, yet optimistic, hope for the future take my advice and become a teacher (or a climate scientist).
This is because, like everything in life, the lofty ideals of what you believe something to be smash against the brutalist architecture of its reality. In other words – your interpretation may vary.
Take the essential question for this module – what is the point of education?
Is it to cultivate a love of learning and a lifelong curiosity that will enrich your life and benefit society? Or is it some dreary box that must be checked to move on to the vaunted halls of the ‘real world’?
When I ask my students this question I hear, with the party instilled regimentation of political cadres, the clicking of heels and the rote recitation of TO GET A GOOD JOB [in service to the great patriotic motherland]. Following the Socratic Method if I ask again for any of them to define what constitutes a ‘good’ job, and the classroom starts to fill with smoke as their brains overheat before, in lockstep unison, they chant A GOOD JOB IS ONE THAT PAYS A LOT. It is at this point that I rush to my state approved copy of the red book to reaffirm my loyalty to the emancipation of the proletariat before my social credit score is lowered for ‘inciting social disharmony’.
Now many of you may be wondering at this point that isn’t this a good thing? After all aren’t educators supposed to train the next generation to take their place in the workforce? On the surface this seems very reasonable. Somebody has to pay taxes and contribute into the pension fund that conservatives will later ‘reallocate’. But they are missing the burning forest for the trees.
If education can now be boiled down to a single data point – TO GET A GOOD JOB [in accordance to a harmonious society governed by the benevolent party] – then you need to ask what happens to its guiding philosophy, and what happens its results?
Goodhart’s Law is very clear on this – when a measure becomes a target it ceases to become a good measure.
In other words, if education is now only seen as a stepping point to GET A GOOD JOB then what happens to its actual quality? This leads us to our key term for today’s class – standards.
One of the biggest shifts in the last four decades is that productivity has not kept up with wages while inflation has continued. You work far more hours, and produce far more stuff, in exchange for less pay, and everything also now costs a lot more. The standards of our life have steadily gone the way of coral reefs, large chunks of the Amazon, and nuance when discussing opinions.
The “She’ll be right” attitude of our parents’ generation has morphed into a growing anxiety over our ever shrinking slice of the economic pie. Because the board members and major shareholders of companies have long realized it is much easier to shift production overseas and hire cheaper foreign workers, than it is to actually pay workers fairly, we are gazing into a mirage of economic prosperity. The high priests and druids of Wall Street peer into the decaying entrails of towns and proclaim that if they get just another cheeky wee tax cut, if they can slash just a few more social services, then The Economy (the all-consuming and many armed Thatcher that is never satisfied) will trickle down golden showers of prosperity.
So as standards of living drop for much of the world that is long used to living the good life, a siege mentality begins to seep in. Groups start to pull their caravans around in a circle to ‘protect their own’ and those outside that circle become the eternal other – to be blamed and feared for their woes. And within all societies what is the most fundamental circle of all if not the family?
Parents – those who were long buoyed through on the prior opportunities and shared prosperity of a bygone era – know that there are fewer seats on the lifeboat then there were before. And all around them the treacherous seas of precarity looms and grows. If education has become an institution (what we can call Capital E Education) you must pass through in order to get on that lifeboat of middle class comfort, then what is the logical conclusion left to you but to rig the game?
Enter the Snowplough Parent. The spiritual successor to the Helicopter Parent, and the twisted homunculi of the Tiger Mom.
While the Helicopter Parent darts in on surgical strikes to unleash their payload of PTA approved missiles on unsuspecting teachers, and the Tiger Mom rules with the iron [benevolent] fist of authority [democratically approved elections], the Snowplough Parent commits the most egregious sin of all. Like their namesake they surge forward, bulldozing a path and clearing the way so that their sickly child can mince on through to collect their shiny stamp. Because god forbid MY CHILD not get on the few seats left on that lifeboat.
No obstacle is too great, no challenge is insurmountable (so long as the Snowplough Parent is there). Like CIA coups in Latin America, the Snowplough Parent must be there to benevolently steer their child away from the horrors of socialism [the consequences of their own actions]. Enraptured by the prosperity gospel that GET A GOOD JOB preaches, the Snowplough Parent tirelessly launch a holy crusade against the high walls of Education. Blinded by their zealous fervor that MY CHILD must GET A GOOD JOB this psychotic Jihadist employs all their wit and cunning to undermine the standards of Capital E Education – that is the institution rather than the idea.
If MY CHILD has to graduate as a prerequisite in order to GET A GOOD JOB then education no longer becomes about learning –what most of us think when we see the word – and instead becomes a way to justify your spot on the ever burdened lifeboat. Instead of being about learning and knowledge, Education as an institution is a form of justifying the inherent class hierarchies of our society. We point the finger at them and haughtily proclaim that you are poor because you are uneducated, and since you were given the same access to education as we were, then it must be your fault. This view of Education as an institution makes it impossible for MY CHILD to fail because with the narcissistic biology of DNA – any failure on their part is a reflection on the parent, and of the class they occupy. Failure goes from part of the learning process to an unholy evil that brings eternal shame and must be avoided at all costs.
The natural feedback loop of learning is mangled beyond recognition. When you touch a hot stove and burn yourself you learn to never do that again. When you break social norms and shoplift, your parents drag you in front of the cashier to apologize, and you learn to never do that again. When you fail a class because you didn’t do the work, or you cheated, then you need to learn that ultimately you bear responsibility for your actions. This is the fundamental basis of life – every action has a consequence. If education is supposed to be about learning – then it should extend beyond what is in the state approved textbook. Education should be to prepare the next generation to be capable and independent adults.
But under the glaring high beams of the myopic Snowplough Parent any failure, no matter how small, might impede the process of GET A GOOD JOB, and therefore must be bulldozed and paved over. Your child can’t write an essay? Write it for them. Your child blatantly cheats on a test or on an exam? Must be a misunderstanding that we can clear up with a generous ‘contribution’. Your child doesn’t put any effort into learning? Must be the school’s fault. Any struggle, any hardship, any challenge must be cleared away for Economy forbid MY CHILD not get one of the vaunted spots on the middle class lifeboat.
What we are left with is a collapse in standards – not just the academic standards of Education, but the ethical standards of education. We are left with an institution that is stripped of the opportunities for people to grow and improve, a privilege that must be earned – not in money but in effort – but a box to tick on the application form to GET A JOB. High stakes testing arbitrarily gets more difficult each year to justify why only so many people are apparently deserving of a good life. All the while the unspoken rule remains that rules are for thee, but never for me – or in other words that money talks and bullshit walks.
We never ask ourselves the question of why so many of us are fighting so hard to get onto a tiny lifeboat, while mostly empty luxury cruise ships pass us by. Education becomes a panacea to cure all ills rather than something that may be part of the problem.
What we are left with is a teeming mass of barely literate, barely functional, up-jumped children born with the monstrous entitlement that by sheer virtue of existence, they deserve a spot on the lifeboat. That they are the ones who should be in charge, not because they earned it, but because they were born into it. And one day these are the people who will be in charge, selected not by virtue of merit or ability, but through the sheer fanaticism of their Snowplough Parents to clear the way for them.
History does not look favourably on child emperors, and idiot princes – on the silver spoon scions who bring ruin through their inheritance. For every Marcus Aurelius, there soon follows in his footsteps a Commodus.
If the Snowplough Parent is so brazenly able to assault one of the major pillars of a healthy and functional society, and set the precedent that only their family and MY CHILD matters, then all bets are off. We enter then into a state of ‘anomie’ – a state of normlessness where the institutions and ideals we collectively believe in are so corrupted and warped beyond recognition that it becomes a Hobbesian war of all against all.
The very basis of civilization is that we are able to move beyond the petty tribalism of kith and kin and trust in a fair system of institutions. Without this trust what we are left with is ripe grounds for radicalization – the ethnic other is to blame for our woes, they are conspiring to take what is rightfully ours, and it is only a matter of time before the simmering anger and growing rage are given an outlet.
These Snowplough Parents are yet another cancerous symptom of the underlying disease. Like pus filled abscesses they signal to us the deep rot that lies within our way of looking at education. If everyone must go to university in order to GET A GOOD JOB then high school is seen as something you cannot fail. The value of a university degree reaches Zimbabwean levels of inflation, as it becomes something else that you cannot fail because the student now becomes a customer, and the customer is always right. Education becomes perverted into a bureaucratic middleman designed to enrich themselves by providing a service, rather than as a pillar of a healthy and functional society. The educator is reduced to a stamper of forms, rather than someone who teaches.
We need to rid ourselves of the notion that every single person must attend university, and that university is absolutely required in order to have a good life. I say this as an educator not because, through the ivory tower elitism of academia I disdain the unwashed masses swarming in, but because it is an institution that exists purely to justify class hierarchies. Like Goodhart’s Law education ceases to have any meaning when it becomes purely a way to GET A GOOD JOB because we have incentivized cheating and corruption as ways to get ahead, and we reduce Education to a middleman eager to take a cut.
If we step away from the notion that every single person must attend university to GET A GOOD JOB then we are overlooking the main issues that drive this. Why have we accepted that only some people deserve to have a good life?
During COVID19 we loudly proclaimed that the essential workers were not the CEOs and shareholders, the so called ‘innovators’, but the people who delivered food, the nurses who treated us, the janitors who minimized the risk of infection. Must they dream of their own sky? The warehouse workers and sanitation workers, the cashiers and grocery store workers who, not so long ago, we declared as ‘heroes’ and ‘essential’. Are they not allowed to dream of a good life as they toil for our gain?
We have to ask ourselves why do so few have so much, while so many go without, when there is enough prosperity for all?
When you start asking what Education is for the answer changes from the pursuit of knowledge, to justifying the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots. And that becomes a much more difficult problem to solve, because our salaries depend on us not knowing that particular answer.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.