Politicians are funny creatures; geniuses in their own peculiar way, yet inevitably incredibly dumb in other respects. In order to maintain their relevance they have to really do two things: capture the imagination of the public in a way that a wide variety of people can relate to the ideals that they talk about, and convince those people that they, the politicians, are the ones best able to bring those ideals to fruition. They don’t have to actually be able to do anything else than that. Their ideals don’t need to be particularly moral or practically functional, as long as they can make people believe in them. And as long as they can maintain at least the passive support of the largest single unit among the various competing voting blocks, they don’t actually have to accomplish anything in terms of realizing these ideals. To do that they merely need to be strategically smarter than those who they manage to garner support from. The fact that so many dubious characters are able to succeed in our systems of representative democratic politics should tell us one thing then: Our education systems are seriously failing our future voters.
To explain what I’m talking about here I’m going to attempt to set a new record for the number of people I can potentially offend with my blog by comparing two seemingly radically different political persona and showing how they both depend on the ignorance of their supporters to enable their personal charisma to keep them in the game, leading to some frankly terrifying possibilities for the future. These would be Rick Santorum in the United States and Julius Malema in South Africa.
For those who’ve never heard of him, Rick Santorum is a former US senator who would like to believe that he could be president of the United States some day. This is in spite of the fact that voters from Pennsylvania got rather tired of him and gave his job to someone else, and the consensus among mainstream observers is that he is just too radical to be trusted with that sort of power. But the main thing is that Ricky has the firm support of a vocal group of radicals in the religious right. He hits on all their favorite talking points: illegalizing abortion again, getting creationism back into schools, preventing gays from getting married and discouraging kids from going to the sort of colleges where they might lose their faith. And as long as he has the support of the radicals who believe in these causes he can’t really be written off in American politics.
For those who’ve never heard of him, Julius Malema is a former leader of the African National Congress’ Youth League, who would like to believe that he could be president of South Africa some day. This is in spite of the fact that his political sponsors within the adult branch of the ANC got rather tired of him and gave his job to someone else, and the consensus among mainstream observers is that he is just too radical to be trusted with that sort of power. But the main thing is that Juju has the firm support of a vocal group of radicals in the poor black townships. He hits on all their favorite talking points: undoing colonial injustices, nationalizing private resources (mining interests in particular) and providing government jobs for millions of unskilled laborers. Juju is not on record as saying anything against higher education, but the fact that he graduated high school in his early 20s in spite of having failed more classes than he passed, and that now in his early 30s he’s making limited progress on the bachelor’s degree he’s still officially working on, says something about his regard for the system. But as long as he has the support of the radicals who believe in the causes he stands for he can’t really be written off in African politics.
Notice any similarities?
The most different thing about these two men –– besides their age, skin color, family background and level of education –– is the specific sort of risks that might come about for their countries and for the world if their dreams of rising to power are realized. If Malema were to rise to power in South Africa he would by all indications thus far attempt to follow in the political footsteps of Robert Mugabe: maintaining a populist image by viciously attacking lighter skinned folk who have maintained privilege and prosperity going back to the colonial era while building up a corrupt empire of personal privilege and preventing anyone from challenging his power. The corruption scandals he has already been dodging and the legal trouble he is already in seem to be just a small foretaste of things to come should Julius somehow manage to avoid a spectacular political crash and burn this year. One need only look at the most basic social statistics of Zimbabwe to see what a destructive path that could be for South Africa. In a worst-case scenario Malema could be the undoing of all of the legendary accomplishments of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, which is why the South African press continues to have such a morbid fascination with this young trouble-maker.
Santorum, on the other hand, would seem to have less of a direct role model to follow. Indirectly he would seem likely to follow the role model of John Calvin in Geneva, and just as Malema is unlikely to acknowledge the problems with Mugabe’s style of running things in Zimbabwe, Santorum is unlikely to acknowledge the problems inherent in trying to apply Calvin’s model to governance in the modern world. I’m sure as he sees it if you obey God’s Word and enforce God’s standards on the rest of society and the world everything else will work out as it’s supposed to. Most others who follow that sort of approach do so from within the framework of an Islamic world view, and they are loosely known as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or an affiliate with one of these. The thought of the United States being governed by a Christian variation on this same ideology is highly troubling, to say at the least. If you don’t see it that way, may God bless you and protect the world from you as well.
These two gentlemen are but random examples of what happens in a democracy with a dysfunctional system of education: voters don’t properly understand how their government works or what sort of decisions their leaders are making, and so as long as their simple expectations are met they do nothing, but when situations seem threatening they react against whoever is in power, frequently by supporting the most irrational of protest movements. The flaw is not in democracy as a system of government, per se, but with the education systems that must prepare citizens to take part in a democracy. But what we have is also a Catch 22 situation, because those who control the education system quite often have a vested interest in preventing voters from understanding issues and making informed decisions. Face it, if voters genuinely understood the system and could make informed choices about who is in charge, the vast majority of our politicians would be out of work! Thus it comes as no surprise that aspiring politicians like these ––Rick by his words and Julius by his example –– want to discourage young people from getting educated.
Even so, the situation is not hopeless. At this point in history neither Rick nor Julius is in power; they merely represent radical and dangerous opposition movements that could rise to power if those currently in authority don’t play their cards right. And one of the wiser ways for those in power to play their cards is to genuinely support educational initiatives. It might not always be in their personal career interest to have an informed electorate, but it will be for the good of their country and the world, and it could prevent things from getting much, much worse for them personally as well. And besides, some politicians really do have altruistic motivations down under –– they really do want to leave their mark in terms of making life better for those they represent. If enough of these idealists come to power education systems might stand a chance of reaching a relatively safe and functional level.
But we must also ask, do Rick and Julius have a legitimate point in opposing education systems? Are our schools and universities indoctrinating young people to blindly serve the interests of those in power? Should we keep kids out of further education to preserve “common sense” among them? If education were to operate properly, what ideals, if any, would it actually teach?
In answer to these questions I turn to the great educational philosopher John Dewey, not because we should take things on his authority, but because long before the current political and educational crises took shape he had some useful things to say about the basic principles involved. If you want to plow through his whole treatment of the matter, you can find the full text of Democracy and Education (1916), on line at http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/dewey.html. I’ll just limit myself here to unpacking a bit of his conclusion to chapter 7, on “The Democratic Conception in Education”.
Since education is a social process, and there are many kinds of societies, a criterion for educational criticism and construction implies a particular social ideal.
That seems self-evident. There will be no absolutely neutral standard for what constitutes a good education system. It will always depend on whose interest is effected how by the ideas being taught. Whatever measures we put on the education system tell as much about those doing the evaluation as they do about the system being evaluated. So what sort of evaluation should the evaluators live up to?
The two points selected by which to measure the worth of a form of social life are the extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups. An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets up barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. [emphasis added]
So as Dewey sees it the measure of a good society is the extent to which it makes what it has to offer available to all its members and it avoids risks of hatemongering and polarization. Are those fair standards? I’d say so. If we look at various comparative quality of life indices, cities, states and countries which fare well are those which have managed to avoid gaping chasms between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and where there is a relatively free exchange –– intellectually and economically –– between those of different religious and ideological backgrounds. No society is perfect in these regards, but some are better than others; and in both the United States and South Africa the key to further improvement and growth can be framed in these terms. How can we create a “we-spirit” and prevent portions of our societies from becoming further marginalized? Dewey has a suggestion:
Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.
In other words our schools need to instill in their learners a sense that politics is an important thing for everyone to get personally involved in, and young people need to learn that radical revolution isn’t the only way to change things –– you can improve the world by reaching out to others with different perspectives, by reasoning with those you disagree with, by tossing out new ideas while being prepared not to take it personally if no one likes them, by being resolution oriented rather than conflict oriented.
These are things that should be part of the basic education of every young person, and if there is no natural place to fit them into the current curriculum that is one further reason why philosophy classes in secondary schools would be a really good idea. The only reason not to follow Dewey’s advice is if you happen to have a vested personal interest in maintaining conflicts, like say Rick or Julius.