Monday was my first day back at school and I can’t begin to tell you how miserable it was.
My building is easily one of the worst on campus. It’s a hotbox. I think it was designed to keep the heat in, which, you know, is great if it’s 20 degrees outside, but when the heat index is 97 degrees that makes it pretty miserable indoors. There’s no air conditioning so my classrooms are just miserable. We were sitting in the heat and the humidity just sweating. It’s real hard to do anything productive when you are dripping.
I was at school from 8:30-4:30. Usually it will be 8:30-5. I know my listeners who work a 9-5 are going to tell me to suck it up, buttercup! But I would cautiously posit that those hours hit a little differently. At my job I have to be “on” for a lot of the day. What I mean by that is a big chunk of my day is spent in front of people, actively trying to create an exciting learning environment. I’m basically giving “the big presentation” nine times a week. If you work an office job those are much less frequent. And if you are a k-12 teacher you are doing this for this for 7 hours a day five days a week. Those people freaking machines. And then when I am not in the office I’m working from home. So the hours even out pretty quickly.
I got home and I was just aching all over. I guess it was because I was tense and nervous all day, but I just hurt all Monday evening. My body went into full revolt. It was a pretty rough start to the school year.
But what about the classes themselves?
Well, my lower-level class is hard to gauge. It’s in a small lecture-hall style classroom so the students are all spread out and it is designed to make it hard to create any sense of community or intimacy. So that’s a little intimidating. And there are a lot of people who are new to college who are just feeling things out. They aren’t sure what’s going on, and they don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into. That class tends to be one where it’s hard to get people involved to begin with, and the set-up is working against me this semester. So I’m a little bit worried about that one. But, I gave it my all on the first day and we’ll see how it all shakes out.
There’s my rhetorical theory class, which I am a cautiously optimistic about. The last time I taught it my evals were pretty bad, but there were a host of things working against me at that point. This time, however, were in a room that encourages interaction, and there are only FOURTEEN in my class. Can you imagine? Usually my classes have thirty-five people in them. So I’m totally re-thinking how I do things. I’m hardly going to lecture at all. I told them I’m going to post notes and PowerPoints online for them to see so they have some guidance for the readings, but in class it’s just going to be discussion. I’m going to come in with a few opening questions and then we’re just going to talk about big ideas. That’s how my favorite classes operated in college so that’s what we’re going to do this semester. It will probably be weird for a little while for a few of them, but they’ll get the hang of it. We’re going to have our own little private agora!
Then there’s my freedom of expression class. That’s always my favorite class. I feel the most comfortable and the most adequate there. They were responsive and curious on the first day. They laughed at my jokes, and we bonded over how miserable we were in the heat. They didn’t roll their eyes when I got worked up about what the class is about and why it is important. They strike me as a good group. I think it’s going to go well.
In the back of my mind as I was going through first day motions was the fact that college is very much in the forefront of the public mind right now. Student loans are on everybody’s radar. Now, the vast majority of my friends and associates are all about complete forgiveness as soon as possible and then finding ways to make college more accessible so we don’t find ourselves in this predicament again in 20 years. Because forgiveness doesn’t help incoming freshmen.
But there are obviously other voices out there right now. There are people who claim it isn’t fair to forgive the loans. That it teaches irresponsibility. But one of the claims that I hear that really hits me where I live is that we shouldn’t reward people who went to college and majored in something useless then got out and couldn’t get a job and now can’t pay back their student loans.
There are so many things about this that irk me. But I think the thing that bothers me the most is the assumption that college is nothing more than job training.
Warning – I’m about to get real idealistic on you here.
There’s this scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Dawn and Spike (who is a vampire) are talking about why a robot was so popular with the teachers at Dawn’s school. And Spike says,
“Yeah, she responded to BuffyBot because a robot is predictable. Boring. Perfect teacher’s pet. That’s all schools are, you know. Just factories, spewing out mindless little automatons. (realizes) Who go on to be … very … valuable and productive members of society, and you should go.”
Spike’s slip up isn’t that wrong. A lot of school isn’t designed to create thinkers and citizens. It’s designed to create docile workers. Michel Foucault once famously said, ““Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions — to define, classify, control and regulate people.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of the educational system.
Schools teach you to stay in line, raise your hand, obey authority, and stay in your lane. The emphasis on standardized testing of the last 30 years has increasingly meant that schools teach you to choose one, simple answer that requires little critical thought and to judge yourself on your ability to conform to the majority. So I really hate the idea that college is supposed to be just job training. It really expands the idea that school isn’t for learning – it’s for creating submissive proles.
Look, the capitalist class is always looking for workers it can exploit. That is the nature of the capitalist class. If all you are getting out of school is how to be a worker, then you are just setting yourself up to be exploited. The widespread notion that school is just for getting a job is a con by those who are looking to create a constant, well-fed stream of stupefied and oblivious servants who won’t question a system that keeps them oppressed and dependent on a corrupt system.
Does this sound dramatic? Yes. But I also think we are living in dramatic times. Everybody knows the cost of a college education is repressively high, and most people are yoked to a large amount of debt when they leave school. So, for many people the solution is to spend all of college training for a job so you can pay the debt off. But for people who are preaching financial responsibility that’s a hell of a cycle. You go to school to get into debt to pay off your debt. What was the point to begin with, then?
With this mentality school serves one purpose and one purpose only – to chain you to employers. You’re a slave to your boss or to your manager or to your CEO or CFO for the rest of your life if you go to school thinking that school is just job training. You’re going to rack up a lot of dept just to indenture yourself to somebody who does not have your best interests at heart and sees you as a profit-making machine.
But what if we encouraged people to see school as something different? What if instead of creating workers we tried to create citizens? What if instead of job training school was liberation?
In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the main character sets up a “Man Factory” in his new environment. Now, there are obvious problems with this metaphor. First, there is the gendered nature of the language. Second, there is the idea that people can be industrially produced. But there is a certain rudimentary appeal, here. It’s supposed to be a place where people are taught the basics of democracy. It’s where freemen go. The problem is that we see school as a “worker factory” when it could be a “citizen factory,” if I can use Twain’s problematic lingo.
What if you went to school not to learn to be an oppressed worker, but to learn about systems of oppression? The problem with that is, of course, people are going to see those classes as being the “useless” ones because they don’t get you ready for a job.
Of course they don’t! That’s the Catch-22. Classes that liberate your mind and spirit by their very nature are not the kind that necessarily are specifically geared toward a particular career. So “responsible” people see them as useless. Classes that are specifically geared toward getting you ready for a job are just setting you up to be exploited. But somehow that’s “responsible.”
The great irony here, is that these “useless” classes are incredibly useful for higher-level work. They teach research, analysis, critical thought, decision making, communication, synthesis of information, creative problem solving, and independence. But here’s the big secret that owners aren’t looking to share – those aren’t desirable attributes in entry level and beginning workers. Classes that teach you to think for yourself and question systems and act with agency and creativity gum up the works. They are bad for business. That’s why everybody is much better off if we approach school as job training instead of liberation because it doesn’t upset the status quo. Nobody gets any big ideas.
Let me transition for just a minute.
Cicero may have been the greatest public speaker ever – at least in classical times. He was a lawyer in the early 80s BCE. He overcame a lot of class barriers through the power of his public speaking and made it to some pretty prestigious political offices – as in, something analogous to President of the United States. Cicero had a lot more style than many of his contemporaries and was not afraid to appeal to emotion. He believed it necessary to understand law, philosophy, ethics, and other heady subjects in order to be a good rhetorician. He believed rhetoric was present and modern. He believed in studying contemporary models, not ancient ones to set standards and that good orators should be able to master a variety of styles for different occasions. Cicero’s works on rhetoric became the standard for teaching oratory for centuries. He was the standard by which all others were measured.
Cicero was such a powerful speaker and writer that it followed him even unto his death. According to tradition Cicero was killed because of his opposition to Mark Antony. When soldiers killed him, they cut off his hands and head, and removed his tongue – because it was his hands and his tongue that had made him such a dangerous and effective man (that’s a cartoonish re-telling of a complicated tale, but you get the picture). It was Cicero’s ability to speak, write, and his capability as a leader that made him dangerous to despots. His learning and his application of his learning made him a target for those that would stamp out opposition in all its forms.
Cicero became who he was because of his education. He was born in a rural town in Italy to an upper-middle class family who were able to obtain for him the kind of education usually reserved for the elite. He was sent to Rome to study rhetoric with Greek teachers, and he was apprenticed to one of the most notable lawyers of his day. Cicero became who he was because of the tutelage of a string of strong mentors.
Cicero changed the world he was living in. And history remembers him now, 2000 years later. That’s no small feat. His name has stood the test of time and likely will for a long time to come.
And it’s because he was an expert in a “useless” subject. Studying rhetoric may not get you ready to be an entry-level worker. But people who master rhetoric are remembered by history. The same is true for art, language, literature, and all of those other “useless” subjects.
Education is supposed to be a way out of poverty or repression for those who work hard. But the way we approach education is really just creating a whole system of oppression in and of itself. Yes, if you play by the rules, you may be able to get a job once you are out of college. But for most people that job will just be in service to some higher power who will take advantage of your labor.
Listen, you are valuable. You are more than just your job. As a good friend is fond of reminding me, you are more than what you produce. But those who see education as job training believe that all value is derived from labor and YOUR value is a matter of what you can produce for the capitalist class. It’s a long con designed to keep power in the hands of the ruling elite. If we suddenly recognized the value of civic engagement, community, history, and the arts, those ruling elite would lose a lot of influence really fast. Because all of their power is based on the fact that labor and profit beget more labor and profit. And they have convinced us that is a workable system.
So of course people don’t want you to take those “useless” classes. They encourage you to see value outside of the system of labor and exploitation. So they label people who are interested in such things “irresponsible,” “shiftless,” “snowflakes,” and “lazy.”
Because if there were too many people who chose liberation over oppression what would happen to the system? If not enough people agreed to the terms set up by those at the top of the food chain and elected to be workers for somebody else’s profit, how would capitalism survive?
This is all weighing heavily on my mind as I get prepped for the first few days of school, because I know my students are looking at me and thinking, “How is this going to help me get a job?” And I am looking at them and thinking “How is this going to help you be who you want to be?” And those are two radically different questions.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.