Tuesday, September 08, 2009

masters and slaves

"It's ironic. Radicals dream midnight police raids, or sit around over coffee and talk with glittering eyes about Repression--about those internment camps that are waiting empty. And all the time Miss Jones does her quiet thing with the kids in third grade.

People like to chat about the fascist threat or the communist threat. But their visions of repression are for the most part romantic and self indulgent: massacres, machine guns drowning out La Marseillaise. And in the meantime someone stops another tenth grader for a hall-pass check and notices that his T-shirt doesn't have a pocket on it. In the meantime the Bank of America hands out another round of high-school achievement awards. In the meantime I grade another set of quizzes.

God knows the real massacres continue. But the machine gun isn't really what is to be feared most in our civilized Western world. It just isn't needed all that much. The kids leave Miss Jones' class. And they go on to junior high and high school and college. And most of them will never need to be put in an internment camp. Because they're already there. Do you think I'm overstating it? That's what's so frightening: we have the illusion that we're free.

In school we learn to be good little Americans--or Frenchmen--or Russians. We learn how to take the crap that's going to be shoveled on us all our lives. In school the state wraps up people's minds so tight that it can afford to leave their bodies alone.

Repression? You want to see victims of repression? Come look at most of the students at San Diego State College, where I work. They want to be told what to do. They don't know how to be free. They've given their will to this institution just as they'll continue to give their will to the institutions that engulf them in the future."


Yesterday I read two essays that make for a good companion to the Chomsky quote I included in the post going along. The above is an excerpt from Jerry Farber's 1969 essay, The Student and Society: An Annotated Manifesto. In it, Farber outlines how schools function not as institutions of learning but as factories for churning out obedient robots, even arguing that this is their modus operandi. Here is another excerpt:

"Schools preserve the status quo in two complementary ways: by molding the young and by screening them. Today almost all of the positions of relative power in the United States are reserved for those who have completed the full sixteen-year treatment, and perhaps a little more. Persons who are unwilling to have their minds and bodies pushed around incessantly are less likely to get through and therefore tend to be screened out of the power centers; the persons who do get through are more likely to accept things as they are and to make their own contributions in "safe" areas. Thus corporations and government agencies insist that executive trainees have a bachelor's degree, often without specifying any particular major. The degree, therefore, doesn't represent any particular body of knowledge. What does it represent? A certain mentality."

The other essay is his most famous and should be read first. It's called The Student as Nigger. In it, Farber outlines the master-slave relationship of teachers and students in a very confrontational style, which caused a stir in 1967 when it was printed in many underground periodicals and started showing up on school campuses. I don't find it particularly illuminating (or at least not as much as The Student and Society), but it has a few good parts, it's short, and it serves as a good introduction to the second essay. As a protest or a kind of assault, a stink bomb of sorts that hopes to compel students to stop, look around, and notice something foul, it works well.

In the prologue to The Student and Society, Farber notes the shortcomings of The Student as Nigger and explains the difference between the two essays:

"Originally I saw students as niggers and slaves primarily in relation to their teachers and administrators. Now I realize more clearly than before that students are society's slaves and that teachers are no more than overseers. It's a mistake to get hung up exclusively in a struggle against teachers just as it's a mistake to let one's anger toward ghetto cops obscure the larger threat of the racist society that pays their salary and buys their bullets."

For those who don't plan to read either essay and/or for those not yet compelled to, I will end with an excerpt from The Student as Nigger followed by one final excerpt from The Student and Society:

"Another result of student slavery is equally serious. Students don't get emancipated when they graduate. As a matter of fact, we don't let them graduate until they've demonstrated their willingness -- over 16 years -- to remain slaves. And for important jobs, like teaching, we make them go through more years just to make sure. What I'm getting at is that we're all more or less niggers and slaves, teachers and student alike. This is a fact you might want to start with in trying to understand wider social phenomena, say, politics, in our country and in other countries.

Educational oppression is trickier to fight than racial oppression. If you're a black rebel, they can't exile you; they either have to intimidate you or kill you. But in high school or college they can just bounce you out of the fold. And they do. Rebel students and renegade faculty members get smothered or shot down with devastating accuracy. Others get tired of fighting and voluntarily leave the system. This may be a mistake though. Dropping out of college for a rebel is a little like going North for a Negro. You can't really get away from it so you might as well stay and raise hell."

* * *

"The people who control colleges are fond of pointing out to students that higher education is a privilege. The implication is that if they don't behave, the privilege will be withdrawn. Similarly, in high school the ultimate threat is expulsion. School is supposed to be some kind of favor that society grants you. The condition for continuing to receive this favor is that you accept it on society's terms.

Sweat shop owners used to tell their workers more or less the same thing. It's astonishing that workers swallowed that line for so long. And it's equally astonishing that most students continue to see schooling as a privilege rather than as a transaction in which they happen to be getting a rotten deal.

When you go to school, you do society an enormous favor; you give it the opportunity to mold you in its image, stunting and deadening you in the process. What you get in return is access to a certain income bracket and the material comforts that go with it. But think what you've given up. Other animals have much of their nature born in them. But you were born with the freedom to learn, to change, to transcend yourself, to create your life that's your human birthright. In school you sell it very cheap."

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