Should Your Kid Go to College?

submitted by Charles Sackrey

Most parents I know have religious devotion to the idea that the “best” schooling will best enable their children to unfold into the gorgeous flower to which their genes give promise.  Maybe, this conventional wisdom is true for the great majority of kids, but some of them – maybe yours or mine – could find in the best schools, or even any schools, real barriers to their self-knowledge and contentment.  

We can gather interesting evidence for this claim in the book by Mac and Nancy Plent, Famous Home Schoolers, Unschoolers Network, 1999.  (Unless otherwise indicated, the quotes below are from this source).   The Plents provide a few details about the lives of one hundred people who have greatly influenced modern life but who were either home-schooled or didn’t finish high school, and none of whom attended college for more than a semester or two.  Here are some prominent names from their list:

Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, William Blake, Charlie Chaplin, Cher,, Agatha Christi, Noel Coward, Isadora Duncan, Thomas Edison,  Whoopie Goldberg, Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Henry, Scott Joplin, Stanley Kubrick, Harpo Marx, Claude Monet, Will Rogers, George Bernard Shaw, Quentin Tarantino, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and the Wright Brothers.

For my own purposes, I have added the Beatles, William Faulkner, Aretha Franklin, and Stanley Kubrick.

Seeing the Plent’s list supported my best guess that what such people do, and how they do it, occurs in part because they were able to avoid or simply ignored those rules and narrow learning perimeters of formal schooling that often hinder imagination and curiosity.  Some details provided by the Plents, and others, point in that direction. 

Let’s start with the Beatles.  These four working class lads from Liverpool, England, along with Bob Dylan, also working class, quite simply reshaped much of modern popular music.  John Lennon failed to finish high school but attended the Liverpool Art Institute.  There, he was disruptive and ridiculed his teachers, and he dropped out when his teachers refused to have in class.  Paul McCartney, who had started making music with John when they were 13, did well in school but quit at eighteen in order to do music full time in the band he had formed with John.   George Harrison dropped out of school when he was sixteen to join John and Paul in the band that would become the Beatles.  Ringo Starr, often sickly as a boy but early on interested in music, finished his schooling when he was 11 and became the Beatles drummer in 1962. 

Regarding the disruptive John, once at Cleveland’s Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame, I read from one of his middle school grade reports that he  had little commitment to his music class and “lacked respect for religious studies.”  For his part, Bob Dylan dropped out of the University of Minnesota after one year, long after he had stopped attending classes.

Isadora Duncan, a principal founder of modern dance, quit school when she was a teenager, and her education consisted mostly of reading with her mother and taking dance lessons.  She described Nietzsche and Walt Whitman as prominent influences on her life.   Whitman, one of the great figures in American literature, quit school when he was eleven and described his years there as “like the dull shock” of an earthquake in N.Y. City that he had experienced when he was ten.

When Thomas Edison’s mother discovered that his first year teacher disciplined his students with a strap, she took Thomas out of school and told the teacher that “her son had more sense in his little finger than you have in your entire body.”  She wanted Thomas to have “fun” with education and supplied him regularly with books full of experiments.  Despite this tiny bit of formal education, he played the central role in the invention and development of the electric light bulb, stock ticker, mimeograph, phonograph, and the telephone transmitter.

Woody Allen made poor grades throughout school and spent his high school years writing gag lines that he would try to get published.  He studied film and communications at NYU but had no interest in his courses and was expelled during his first year after he failed a film course.  Stanley Kubrick had a 67 average in high school and later said that his education had “never taught him anything.” (from Wikipedia.)  William Faulkner quit school in the eleventh grade, and while there he played football and read a lot but had no interest in academics.  However, he came from a family and a community that celebrated story telling.  Neither Harpo Marx, Cher, Whoopie Goldberg, nor Quentin Tarantino graduated from high school, and the latter wrote that “I hated school…the formula and the system, they’re not set up for the individual.”

When Louis Armstrong was thirteen, he was sent to a reform school for firing a shot into the air at a New Year’s Day parade.  Yet, he found a cornet at that parade, took it to the reform school and taught himself how to play it.  Mark Twain, apparently “detested school as he detested nothing else on earth, even going to church.”   At age eleven, grieving over his father’s death, he begged his mother to let him quit school.  She agreed because he promised to be a better boy and “not to break “ her heart.  Ernest Hemingway expressed his attitude about college by declaring that, “I never went to college.  If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college.”

Those of who have enjoyed the bountiful output of these people might want to consider what we would have lost had, for example, John Lennon given us a portfolio of  anesthetizing academic essays rather than a bundle of songs like “Imagine.”  Imagine the loss had Louis Armstrong been saved from New Orleans streets to spend a dozen years memorizing the names of the presidents, or a cacophony of lies about U.S. history.  We can be grateful, too, that the pressing circumstances of her early life marshaled Aretha Franklin into gospel singing rather than into high school trigonometry.

Muhammad Ali put schooling into a interesting context when he was asked by a reporter, “Well, Muhammad, , if you’re so great, why didn’t you finish high school?”  Ali replied, “I never said I was the smartest.  I said I was the greatest.”  What a powerful witness this world would have lost had Ali, at the age of 18, been incarcerated in a Louisville public school rather than winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics.  (I wrote down this exchange a long time ago but have lost the source.  Trust me, please).

What should we make of all this?  Certainly, it is anecdotal and most of its implications have  little to do with more typical children, few of whom have been slotted by fate to transform elements of their culture.   Most of them, because of some combination of fear and ambition, will fit into schools well enough to get a job and lead a typical American life.  However, a few of these kids are budding Mark Twains, and their resistance will not be pathological but a youngster’s cry who hears the different drummer and is pesky enough to try to follow its tempo. 

I write this aware that almost all of our children will need plenty of schooling to avoid the descent to chronic unemployment, and worse, in a society that as quickly discards  unneeded workers as it throws away used up consumer goods.  Nor do I doubt that within our school systems are countless teachers from whom any child, wildly talented or like you and me, could learn crucial things about life.  But, despite talented teachers and other aspects of schooling that nurture our children, many parents incur great expenses of time and/or money to home school their children, to send them to private schools if they can afford it, to set up charter schools, or otherwise try to offset what they — and I — see as the threat to imagination and curiosity posed by much of what our kids experience in their classrooms.   

Last, I think there is some good news for those parents most paralyzed by fear that only the best schooling will provide their kids a “good” life.  The truth is greatly more complex.  I believe that the eventual contentment of our kids — aside from the great influence of their health and luck — will not be determined by their formal schooling but by how decently and tolerantly they have learned to be in all the transactions of their lives.  So, if your kid gets denied by one of those “best” schools, give thanks that he or she will be spared the unworldly elitism at such places as well as the grim competition that can eat away at the foundations of decency of even the saints among us.

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Giving Voice to Radical Democracy

A speech given by David Kristjanson-Gural at the annual Norman Thomas dinner, November 22nd, 2008 in Lewisburg, PA.

It is good to be here.  I find this evening one of the most heartening of the year and I thank Charles Sackrey for his tireless efforts and each of you for coming tonight.  I’d like to address the topic of how we embody the principles of social democracy in our daily lives by describing my work teaching political economy; the impact it has on my students and also on my experience as a worker at Bucknell.  I want to conclude by extending an invitation to you all to join a new project to further the work I am about to describe.

I am in the fortunate position of being paid to do political work in the service of social democracy.  I recognize that we are discouraged from thinking of our work as Bucknell professors as political work but teaching political economy can’t help but be, well, political.  It is true that I don’t try to persuade my students to change their political beliefs.  In what sense then is the work that I do political?

In my work I get to encourage students to think critically about how our economic system is organized.  I use Marx’s concept of class, the idea that in any society work must be organized in such a way as to both reproduce the workers and to provide a surplus, a fund from which to pay for a whole host of activities not directly associated with maintaining the workers themselves but which are needed to maintain an support the class system.  In the U.S. for example manufacturing workers produce on average 4 or 5 times more value during the working day than they receive in wages.  That value is collected by boards of directors and used to pay for a whole array of expenses associated with keeping companies afloat – rent, interest, taxes management salaries, advertising, pr, lobbying and dividends are just a few examples.  Marx identified a basic class conflict within capitalism – workers are excluded from participating in the decisions concerning how work is organized and how the surplus they produce is utilized.  He called this exclusion “alienation” and he argued that workers must be included in these decisions in order to be free.  He also noted that depriving workers of participating in decisions concerning the surplus they have produced is a form of social theft – a type of “taxation without representation”.

Class conflict over the surplus affects us all very personally because the more surplus each worker produces, the better the chances each company has of survival.  Think of it this way, if you produce the value of your daily wage in two hours, the remainder of the workday is devoted to creating surplus for the company.  The longer the work day, or work year, the more surplus the company has at its disposal.  Alternatively, if you are made to work harder or otherwise more productively, you earn your daily wage in less time and more time again is available to produce surplus. Working harder, working longer, does any of this sound familiar? Salaried workers, middle class professionals, are not immune from this struggle and I will return in a moment to consider the implications of class struggle at Bucknell.

A great number of insights follow from this basic starting point, insights that directly confront many of my students’ basic presuppositions about capitalism.  Isn’t the heart of liberal arts education exactly this: to provide alternative perspectives from which to make sense of our social experience and to challenge students to examine critically those viewpoints in order to make up their own minds what to believe?

So here is the sense in which I believe the work to be political.  When I examine our society as a class system I find that some of the most important uses to which our social surplus is put is to mystify us – to get us to stop thinking or to ensure we think in very limited and circumscribed ways because our critical examination of capitalism is frankly dangerous.  To maintain the legitimacy of this system we first of all need to be convinced that we are being treated fairly or, failing that, that there is a sensible justification for the unfairness.  We need to be convinced not to question a whole host of propositions “that competition leads to better performance; that market exchanges are voluntary and benefit all; that increased consumption leads to greater happiness; that cooperation is inefficient; that if rewards go primarily to the wealthy ultimately we will all benefit. I could go on.

From a class perspective it is clear then that the work of teaching political economy is primarily directed to interrupting these important cultural conditions of our economy: we are interrupting the production of an ideology that is vital for the reproduction of capitalism.

This is the sense in which the work we do is political.  We are not as conservative critics would have you believe, trying to brainwash students, to get them over to our side by feeding them biased information and bullying them into towing a line.  To the contrary we are trying to unbrainwash them, to get them thinking, questioning.  This is an act of great service to all students no matter where they eventually come down.  In providing this service I see, each year, a handful of students who come to accept the ideas underpinning social democratic vision; another larger group who have a great deal more respect for these ideas than they had when I met them but who remain skeptical or unconvinced; a group who offer reasoned opposition to these ideas and a few who are simply and unfortunately impervious to reason.

But I am encouraged because I am not alone in this effort.  My own efforts may be modest, but put together with the work of others in this room, and in colleges and universities across the country I know what we what we do matters.  Together we affect the way a small but significant proportion of the population view capitalism and we inform their actions.  We do this both in the classroom and by producing a body of writing that serves to develop, elaborate and defend the ideas underpinning a social democratic vision.  So teaching political economy fulfils an important political objective, but not by violating the principles of liberal arts education, rather by embracing them.  It is an important political work and it needs to be strengthened and broadened and carried out into the community and into the new public spaces created by emerging technology.

Before I say more about how I think we can do that I want to say a word about living the values of social democracy at Bucknell itself.  On the one hand, Bucknell is committed to a democratic model and as a professor I have the opportunity to participate in a range of decisions affecting our work.  However, from a class perspective Bucknell is similar to any other capitalist company, as professors we produce more value each day than we receive in the form of wages.  This value is appropriated by the board of trustees in the form of tuition and allocated to a series of activities necessary to reproduce Bucknell as a viable institution.  The support workers we work with have very little say in how their work is organized or how the surplus we produce is distributed.  These conditions, alienation from work and from each other, and class conflict over the degree of exploitation we face form an unspoken backdrop to our otherwise laudable aims.

As professors, we are exploited, since we are largely excluded from participation in the decisions concerning the uses to which the surplus which we have created is put.  At the same time we consider ourselves middle class professionals, we have considerable control over our work, we do participate on committees that help to shape policies.  Left out of the formation of our cultural identity as Bucknell professors however is any mention of this Marxian concept of class.  Missing this concept our discussions of our workloads become arguments among ourselves about whether each of us is doing enough, sometimes about whether the rewards offered for various types of work give us the proper incentive to serve our students, sometimes that the bar for tenure is too low or too high.  Sometimes we complain that the University’s revenues could be better spent, on academics as opposed to buildings or sports facilities or administrative salaries.  We do not however, consider extent to which conflict over the collective surplus we produce has led us, often at the behest of the concept of professionalism, simply to overwork.  We don’t consider the possibility that the work we have done entitles us to a say over where the University’s revenues are spent.  Class is not in our vocabulary and, to this extent, we are dumb on matters that affect us personally, persistently and profoundly.

To really embrace the vision of social democracy how would things be different?  Imagine a board of trustees at Bucknell comprised of professors, support staff, administrators, and students.  Problems and conflicts would abound.  We would, however, be engaged in social democracy, we would engage in broader discussions concerning how work is organized and shared, how much is expected and how it is rewarded.

I think you can see why it is difficult to promote the values of social democracy at Bucknell as a worker.  Even raising the problem of overwork and exploitation is difficult because it contradicts the dominant way we constitute our identities as “middle class professions” rather than as workers.  But overwork is endemic and it can be disabling.  It disables us as parents and spouses, as members of our community, as daughters and sons to our aging parents, as citizens.  At a deeper level, when we and those we work along side are excluded from decisions concerning our work and how to use the surplus we have collectively created we are absolved from responsibility for the consequences of our actions.  Our humanity is devalued and we become alienated from our work, ourselves and each other.

I want us to begin to have discussions about class at Bucknell, at other workplaces and here in the broader community.  Discussions about what it would mean fully to embrace the ideals of radical democracy, not at a limited sanitized scale but in every aspect of our lives.  I am not insisting on one version of democracy, I am certainly not trying to brainwash anyone, I do want to insist we engage with it, interrogate it, think together about how and where and when and why and yes ,whether, we can and should take it on.

Until recently it has been hard to have these conversations in part because of the continuous upward pressure on our time.   But we have also not had access to effective means of communication.  New technology is allowing us unprecedented access to public spaces, spaces we need to meet, deliberate and organize. We have also been confronting a dominant story that individual self-interest and unregulated markets will lead to the greatest social good.  That dominant story is now mortally wounded and its demise makes room for new narratives, narratives that insist on the importance of our connection, our cooperation and our collective activity to reverse the harm that these decades of conservative thinking have wrought.  A crisis is a moment of danger, but also a moment of opportunity. I am inviting all of you to seize that opportunity by participating in a ongoing dialogue and debate, a conversation we have begun tonight about how we can promote the ideals of social democracy in our daily lives.

A group of us has begun meeting weekly with the goal of disseminating views that promote radical democratic change.  Our work will be published at http://www.SpillingInk.net and you will be able to respond, react, rejoice or denounce the ideas and proposals there.  We are also thinking together about how most effectively to disseminate these views to traditional existing media, the local papers and popular journals and perhaps to extend our reach into other forms of media.

I think some of the most damaging effects of our current system have to do with the unrecognized effects of class conflict and that to begin to move to more sustainable, more humane territory we need to address them.  To do this all need to do is to come together, to think together and out loud about what else is possible and how we can make it come to be.  And then begin to act.  I recognize that we are not used to feeling empowered but we cannot now afford to remain complacent – the stakes are simply too high.  I believe that if we try we will prevail.

I have spoken long enough but let me end with this image from, of all places, the pages of Henry V. With apologies to the bard:

This story shall we spread to everyone;
And the birth of Norman Thomas shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of sisters and of brothers;
For she to-day that sheds her ink with me
Shall be my sister; be she ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle her condition;
And gentle folk in Lewisburg now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their lives as cheap whiles any speaks
That gave voice with us upon the day of Normans’ birth.

I hope you will consider joining us.