By undermining humanities education, the Morrison Government is helping create a superficial society, which opens the door to far-Right extremism, writes Alex Hipgrave.
AS STUDENTS across Australia begin a new academic year, it may be apt to re-examine the role of our schooling system in shaping societal attitudes and how capitalism undermines education.
In secondary school, students are divided primarily into two groups: those who study Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking (ATAR) subjects and those who don’t.
This division has a deeply cyclical nature, especially when considered in relation to class. Students who come from middle-class backgrounds with parents who work professional jobs are significantly more likely to attain a high ATAR score. Subsequently, those students are more likely to get into university and remain in the middle class.
The same cycle is true of students with a working-class background — they are less likely to “succeed” academically and therefore more likely to remain in the working class.
This has significant material and cultural consequences. Materially, a strong class division is maintained through a rigorously structured educational system that makes it difficult for working-class students to escape their socio-economic conditions in adulthood. Culturally, perspectives towards class and status are intensely manipulated by our schooling system and function to create extremely superficial attitudes towards education.
Testing is a core element of mainstream formal education in Australia.
Instead of Socratic inquiry and democratic participation grounded in compassion for others, tests privilege remembering things, attaining high scores and conformity to institutions.
The more one conforms to institutions – be it testing or the capitalist system of work – the more one is rewarded with status and wealth. If students reject the institutions presented to them at school, justifiably dismissing them as pointless and uninteresting, they increase their chances of “failing” academically and subsequently falling into the lower economic rungs of society — or remaining there.
Last year, the Morrison Government intensified the pressure of conformity on students by significantly increasing university fees for humanities courses and reducing fees for "job-ready" science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses.
Despite opportunistically using COVID-19 as justification, these radical changes are commonplace in reactionary governments — Ronald Reagan attempted to abolish America’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Margaret Thatcher manipulated universities into adopting her neoliberal vision of tertiary education in the 1980s.
These kinds of attacks on arts and humanities serve to distort perceptions of what education is fundamentally about — education institutions are fashioned into production lines for creating obedient members of the workforce.
Superficial attitudes towards education are also, perhaps most plainly, reflected in popular culture. Game shows often imply that the ability to merely remember and regurgitate information is the hallmark of an educated person. If one can exhibit this ability, one may be rewarded with some kind of score, including actual money.
Similar to school testing, the objects of game shows are to beat one’s peers, to care about one’s own “success” explicitly at the expense of others and to establish an unwarranted intellectual hierarchy. It is also important that these things be done in as intellectually exhibitionist a manner as possible.
In this context, game shows and school testing similarly reinforce capitalism’s class system and offer a shallow conception of what education should be. They beget an entirely unearned sense of accomplishment and claim that the opposite is true. Just as capitalism insists that we ought to consume and work in pursuit of a higher status, testing in our education system insists students ought to consume information and apply it in pursuit of a higher status.
From school age, human beings are moulded into consumers and competitors. This is not to say that those who devise our formal education system are conspirators consciously out to condition minds. They are, however, operating within a myopic, culturally buttressed ideological framework that emphasises competition and individualism over collaboration and individuality.
How can students learn to collaborate and work cooperatively with others when it is demanded that they perceive their peers as rivals? How can a teacher nurture a student’s individual interests and abilities when he or she is obligated to conform to a standardised curriculum?
Our fixation on testing has led to what American author Cornel West identifies as a cultural obsession with professional and corporate “success”.
According to Cornel West:
“Oftentimes the highest thing a student can say about themselves is they are the smartest in the room… The fetishising of smartness, tied to richness — how spiritually empty, how morally vacuous and most importantly, reinforcing the worst protocols of professional culture, which is conformity, complacency and when it is time to actually act, cowardliness. Because the careerism and the opportunism are so overwhelming.”
Testing, as West indicates, should not be a key feature of education, rather, it is often an impediment to education and leaves little room for cultivating empathy.
While the issue of education being undermined by capitalism – especially when considered in the contexts of ATAR, school testing and popular culture – may seem relatively benign, it actually creates a society deeply entrenched in unneighbourly and superficial attitudes.
Such a society, almost void of collective compassion and responsibility, will not survive more direct threats, such as the rising neo-fascism we see in Australia and internationally or impending ecological destruction.
Alex Hipgrave is a writer principally concerned with social and political issues. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at Edith Cowan University, majoring in literature and writing. You can follow Alex on Twitter @alex_hipgrave.
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