Or, I could blame “lower ed” . . .

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It’s probably a little bit (but only a little bit) unfair of me to lay blame for the cultural immaturity that is consumerism at the door of American higher education. After all, most of the behaviors and expectations that prevent children (consumers) from becoming adults (citizens) are established well before entry to college or university.

Some of it, of course, comes directly from advertising. One of the lessons I taught my kids early on was that commercials are lies. All of them. Some are big lies, some are smaller lies, but none of them tell the truth. A bit later, I taught them the corollary that advertising is proof that most grown-ups will lie for money, and that even more grown-ups are willing to be lied to if money is involved. All my kids grew up to be skeptics, and each of them has a well-developed capacity for cynicism. (I have no idea why.)

With the amount of TV most American kids watch before they even enter pre-school, the groundwork for consumerism has clearly been laid. With the proliferation of cable channels targeted specifically at kids — all the way down to toddlers — it can be laid more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Nothing like advertising to unformed minds in images and simple terms/concepts that they can relate to. Heck, if you can get the concept of “McDonalds” or Cocoa Puffs firmly rooted before the more general concept of “food” is fully established . . .

But the truth of the matter is that most early schooling — heck, most schooling at any level — reinforces submission to authority (including the spurious authority which is the mainstream media) rather than teaching resistance to it. The earliest task of public schooling is to socialize students. Public teachers at all levels who succeed are ones who master classroom management (read: discipline and the constant inducement of submission). Typical pedagogy reinforces subservience to textbooks, to testing protocols, and to the premise that what’s being taught is what it’s important to know. The authority of the information, the validity of the tests, the importance or even relevance of the specific material covered — no teacher who regularly undercut any of these implicit messages would likely remain employed.

Additionally, typical pedagogy teaches individualism. Group projects are the exception, not the rule, in most classrooms. Solidarity among students would be many teachers’ (and even a higher percentage of principals’) worst nightmare. Pour the knowledge into the individual, test what knowledge is retained by the individual, reinforce the separate identity of each student. “Divide and conquer” is a common tactic in schoolrooms. Unfortunately, it means that high schools graduate students who think of themselves as divided and expect to be conquered. What more could a market campaign designer hope for? (This is one area in which home-schooled kids may have a leg up on the typical public-school product. Of course, many of them have even more so been divided/set apart and conquered in other areas of their cultural lives. Sigh . . .)

So is it fair to expect higher ed to, even partially, reverse or offset the implicit cultural messages with which are incoming students have been deeply imbued? Perhaps not fair, but necessary. After all, if not us . . . who? The transition from high school to college/university at least offers a juncture at which significant change in attitude and awareness might be introduced. One expectation of incoming first-year students is that college will be different and, in some ways, it is. But the inherent authority of the textbook and the emphasis on the individual (now seen as a consumer of education) persists. Questioning of the system, or of the societal norms it reproduces, is hardly encouraged in most undergrad curricula. Indeed, it’s relatively rarely encouraged even in grad schools.

Of course, if teachers and principals would be threatened by consciousness and solidarity in public school students — most of whom still live at home and thereby are at least minimally subject to parental influence — just think how much more professors and deans of students would be threatened by the same in a population that has (commonly) just moved out of the parental home and might well be toying with rebellion. Moreover, as part of institutional attempts to promote successful transition and increase student (particularly first-year) retention rates, a lot of effort goes into making sure that the college/university experience isn’t too different from what the kids are used to.

But . . . if we keep doing what we’re currently doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re currently getting. The graduates we turn out are well-conditioned to their role as consumers. And consumerism has aspects that are very unhealthy for the economy, the environment, and democracy. The net effect of all our little tactics, seen at a macro-level, seems to be more destructive of a healthy society that reproductive of it.

Maybe institutions of higher ed can influence the pedagogy and practices of universal public education — after all, that’s precisely what happened a century ago. The standard mix of high school subjects became standardized based on expressed requirements for admission to college or university. If we (particularly the most prestigious of us) shift what we’re looking for in applicants, high schools will (over time) shift what they emphasize in their graduates. Inquisitiveness can be fostered but, at present, it’s not seen as a priority.

Sad, that. But maybe it goes a way to explaining how a nation which idealizes the decisive independent individual more and more consists of self-declared individuals whose main experience of ‘personal freedom’ seems to be reflexively making exactly the same (market-constrained, marketing-instilled) choices as everyone around them.

Society is not — all of us collectively are not — benefiting from the collective impact of those choices. We need to learn to choose better.

Anybody know a teacher?

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