Education and Consumerism

John Holt and Ivan Illich often linked compulsory schooling to rampant consumerism, and certainly we have seen corporate America exploit this connection by getting children hooked, through advertising and other forms of school sponsorship, on brands while they are young. This is usually where the critique ends: schools have children and need money, corporations have money and need child-consumers, so let’s “work” together—problem solved!

But Holt and Illich go much deeper than that. Illich wrote, “School initiates the Myth of Unending Consumption. This modern myth is grounded in the belief that process inevitably produces something of value and, therefore, production necessarily produces demand. School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all non-professional activity is rendered suspect.” (From Ivan Illich in Australia: Questions and Answers).

In Escape From Childhood Holt adds another dimension to this critique. He starts this section by discussing students he overheard who do not believe they have much to live for or look forward to once they graduate, and then he writes:

A generation that does not believe it can make a future that it will like, or trust or love any future it can imagine, has nothing to pass on to and hence nothing to say to the young. It might seem a paradox that our society, which perhaps more than any that ever existed is obsessed with the need to control events, nature, people, everything, should feel more than any other that things are out of control. But it is not a paradox; like a drowning man we clutch frantically at any fragments of certainty we can make or reach. We worship change and progress, the belief that the new must always be better than the old. We believe that we can change and improve on anything. And yet, we do not really believe that in any large sense we can change things to make them come out the way we like.

Thus the Saturday Review of Science recently published an article about what it called “the unspoiled places of the world.” Note the implication that most of the world has already been spoiled. These unspoiled places are almost always remote islands, like the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, and the writer said that more and more people, most of them rich, are flocking to these places from all over the world, to see them before they are spoiled. What an extraordinary statement about modern man. In one sense he believes that his powers are godlike. He can make any kind of machine, create energy from matter; travel all over the universe. But on a world in which he feels he has spoiled almost everything, he cannot imagine that he might be able to keep from spoiling the few places be has not yet spoiled. For that matter, how many people believe any more that the place they live in right now, be it city, town, neighborhood, or country, will in ten years be a better place? People hardly dream any more that this may be so, or that there is anything they might be able to do to make it so. The most they dare hope for is that they will be able to hold off disaster for a while and when disaster comes, will be rich enough to escape to some new unspoiled or less spoiled place and live in it for a while, until it too is spoiled.

We have created a false dream and called it Progress. Now that we see the dream is not coming true we are in despair, because we cannot imagine anything else. If newer and newer and more and more do not seem any longer to add up to the Good Life, we conclude there cannot be such a thing as a good life, and there is nothing for us to do but keep running on our treadmill as long as we can.

When people ask me what’s wrong with schools, it is easier to get them to agree there is too much testing and so on than to show them that the “hidden curriculum” (as Illich termed it) of years and years of following school instruction molds people to be compliant consumers, easily led to buy or do something an authority tells them will make their lives better. Illich wrote:

The manipulation of men and women begun in school has also reached a point of no return, and most people are still unaware of it. They still encourage school reform, as Henry Ford III proposes less poisonous automobiles . . . . . . As long as an individual is not explicitly conscious of the ritual character of the process through which he was initiated to the forces which shape his cosmos, he cannot break the spell and shape a new cosmos. As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer—the economy’s major resource—we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one. (Ivan Illich in Schooling: the Ritual of Progress)

Holt sold and recommended Stanley Milgram’s famous book, Obedience to Authority, as a reminder of just how easy it is for good, educated people to do bad, horrible things to other people simply because they are told to do so by an authority figure. In The Underground History of American Education John Gatto reminds us of compulsory schooling’s origins in Prussia. Wikipedia explains why Prussia created compulsory schooling with less detail than Gatto, but more succinctly: “to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination.”

When people talk about how schools will change society by creating educated citizens I fail to see how that is possible when schools, in their design and execution, explicitly and implicitly (through the hidden curriculum) encourage social obedience. Indeed, making more money to buy more things seems to be the primary goal of getting a degree now, especially since a university degree can cost more than many people’s homes. How much money you earn from your degree is far more important than whatever knowledge you learned, as indicated by the Ivy-League-to-Wall-Street pipeline. Has the ideal of school as a place to become a critical thinker, an engaged citizen, given way to the ideal of school as Alma Mater to corporate America, giving birth to the educated consumer? Are schools creating citizens or consumers? What do you think?