Educating the Uneducable

Back when I was teaching college, I asked students the standard question at the start of the semester: “Why do we study History?”  They’d parrot back the standard answer: “To learn from the mistakes of the past.”  But, I’d point out, nobody ever does.  Who here has woken up with a pounding headache, a sour stomach, and no pants, swearing “I’ll never drink again!”  And what did you do that very same night?

That was always good for a chuckle, but in all my years of professing, nobody ever asked the obvious followup question: Then why do we study History?

Which is good, because my answer would’ve blown my cover: History, and the Liberal Arts in general, are like kung fu in The Matrix.  Since human nature doesn’t change, you can download all the wisdom mankind has accumulated since we stopped swinging in trees.  It may not stop you from getting your ass kicked by Morpheus your first time out (or, you know, stop you from trying to drink off your hangover down at the student union), but it sure beats learning everything the hard way.

At least, that’s what I would’ve said until recently.  At this point, I doubt even that analogy would sink in (and not just because The Matrix is ancient history to today’s students).  We’ve managed to brainwash kids so thoroughly these days that they’re not only uneducated, they are, I have sincerely come to believe, pretty much uneducable.  Combine standardized tests with the culture-wide insistence that everything in human affairs boils down to race/class/gender, and you’ve got a whole generation of kids who can only parrot back approved answers.

The PoMo mantra that there are no facts, only perspectives, makes study pointless.  If everything is a social construction, then studying any particular society — Republican Rome, say, or Ming Dynasty China — tells us nothing, other than the brute fact that society can be constructed that way.  Whether it’s the cursus honorum, the Analects of Confucius, or anything else, it’s all the same in the end: Yet another “technology of power,” keeping the CisHetPat elite on top.  And since they always do end up on top, by definition, then it’s just a mad lib getting them there: “In ___, the __ oppressed the ___ by means of __, __, and ___.”  Please mark all spaces clearly, with a #2 pencil.

Since it all ends up the same in the end, the only thing that matters is jumping through hoops.  To keep the futility of it all from becoming too obvious, we turn hoop-jumping into a national obsession.  Why does one study for the test? To get good grades.  Why do you want good grades?  To get into a good college.  Why go to a good college?  To get a good job.  Why get a good job?  To buy more iCrap, and by that point, who cares?  Have you seen the latest McWhatever?  It’s got a slightly wider screen!

Orwell got it wrong.  The future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever.  It’s a human face lit by the glow of a blinking screen.

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3 thoughts on “Educating the Uneducable

  1. BernCar

    Excellent essay. Your question, “Why do we study history?” brought to mind one of the few specific lessons I remember from high school–we study the past in order to understand the present and to better prepare for the future. Can’t say for sure why that stuck besides it being pithy and the fact I’ve always loved history.
    Your last paragraph is memorable!

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  2. John Marlen

    Severian: “Leftist psychology fascinates me, and Orwell is the weirdest case of all. He sees the problem so clearly — his insights into human nature are some of the keenest, and best-expressed, you’ll ever find — but then, he’s still a Socialist. And not even a “scientific” socialist — he’s one of the loony moonbeam California ones…”

    So right. I’ve thought similar. The excuse I give to Orwell, and it’s valid as hell, is that he saw the poor back then truly being shit on. The sad, black faced coal miners. The tiny house, housing 10 people. The 20 hour workdays. If we witnessed the late stage industrial revolution first hand like Orwell did, might we be Socialists too? These weren’t the micro-aggressions of today. But real abuse.

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  3. Marcel

    Utilitarian arguments for studying history are at least unsatisfying, as the next-to-last paragraph intimates. Maybe we study history because justice demands it (ultimately Deus vult), or maybe just because. Of course many study it (to the extent that they do) because it’s required, but they don’t really count.

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