Saturday, March 26, 2016

Our Educational Caste System

I said in an earlier blog that the ascendance of Donald Trump is an embarrassment to our educational system. Donald Trump is an uneducated person. He appeals to people who are also uneducated. Given his large-scale support it is obvious that this country is awash in uneducated people in spite of the fact that we have a functioning public education system.

I still stand by that but it does need some explanation. I must begin by pointing out that being uneducated has nothing to do with ability. Most of our fellow citizens are capable of much higher achievements. The ability to think straight demonstrated by many of our leaders is put to shame by the same ability displayed by ordinary citizens. Our schools fail to develop the abilities widely distributed among us.

Many of our schools fail in transmitting elementary information to our students who often do not read well, do not write well,and have little information about our history or our political system.
What is worse, our educational system is constructed to maintain an educational caste or class system.
It is really instructive to listen to call- in shows about the political primary. Clearly thoughtful persons call in and admit that they are supporting Donald Trump. Sometimes, interestingly enough, they vacillate between Trump and Sanders. Most of these callers will add a sentence or two saying that they are not well educated. Americans are very much aware of what educational caste they belong to. They are very much aware of the educational caste of the persons they are talking to. Our people is divided into separate strata that are never mentioned but are rarely out of mind.

Many years ago when I was a more alternative teacher than I may be today, I asked my students--most of whom belonged to the well-to-do middle-class--to address me by my first name. They tried but could not do it. In some way that never got spelled out I was too different, my world was too different, they were not able to address me as, in some important way,  equal. Although I was obviously older and knew more about some things than they did,  I was not actually that different but the world in which they saw me and the figure I cut in the world was totally extraterrestrial for them.

You may think that is an insignificant anecdote but I do not think so. For a college student to call the teacher "Professor" provides important security by clearly marking social lines and social differences. From their perspective my world, how I talk, what I talk about, are unknown lands, for which they have no maps and where their compasses do not work.

I am reminded of a friend from college who told me of her complete shock the first time she saw one of her instructors eating lunch. It had not occurred to her that this person would eat. Because professors are completely different.

There are many different important implications of this caste system concealed just under the surface of our lives. The sharp line between the learned and those who are not means that those who do not know something cannot, by themselves, find out what they want. They need to take courses. Ignorance is not easily remedied. You'll need help to do that.

If you work, say, for a nonprofit organization and are doing an exceptional job, but the other person in the office has an advanced degree and you do not, the other person, however incompetent will be the queen and you will be the working bee. In order to get more powerful, better paying jobs, it is not enough to know things, a recognized institution needs to certify you. There is no easy transition between layers of the educational caste system. You may be as smart as anyone, who may read more and think better than many people with higher degrees than yours, they will get the power and the prestige and you will get the minimum wage.

The educational system with its different institutional levels has become a means for choking off access to positions of power, to positions of directing institutions, to prestige, and social recognition.
The educational caste system gives the lie to our protestation that we are dedicated to "liberty for all" because liberty and power depend on educational credentials.

Our schools cooperate in this system of progressively restricting access to the most desirable positions in this society and our educational system cooperates with other forces to limit social mobility and to keep many people in the working class. (Calling them "middle-class," as is now customary, is just a way to conceal this issue.)

Our schools do a very specific job: they teach our young to internalize the caste distinctions of the educational system. They must learn to apply the differences between the educated and the not educated to themselves. They must learn to feel powerless to remedy this situation. They must learn to blame themselves for not knowing more than they do and for belonging to their specific layer of this pyramid.

If I were a person who found myself uneducated, confined to the lower layers of the educational hierarchy and if I were one of the millions of people who felt apologetic and in some way incomplete for that reason, I would love Donald Trump who is in the same educational layer. But that does not hold him back from being a loud braggart, from talking about himself non-stop, from glorying in his real and imaginary accomplishments. What is not to like about a man who does not hesitate to parade his ignorance and take pleasure in it?