I have been teaching graphic design at 3 universities, good ones that are tough to get into, for 26 years. The thing about graphic design is that it is a complex field to be an instructor in. Contrary to popular misconception graphic design is not about visuality, it is actually about words. Or rather it is a field that lies at the intersection of words and images since the job of a graphic designer is to transform the spoken word into a visual artifact. Which is a highly sophisticated process, of course. How to go about doing that is what you teach. So, naturally, this involves going into all sorts of adjacent fields such as art, literature, cultural studies, history, mythology, semiotics, philosophy and so forth. In short, it involves an intertwining with the Humanities.
My students are not only local kids. In every class that I have recently taught there have been international students since my current employer is a part of the European Erasmus exchange program. So, I have had the opportunity to observe at first hand what the effects of the post Powell memorandum educational system are, not just on young people here but on European youth as well. I have been able to do so since, as I said, my field of expertise relies on an application of knowledge that is based in the Humanities.
How many students do I encounter who are familiar with Greek mythology, for example? How many know what the Peloponnesian wars were all about? How many know that before adopting Islam the Iranians had a vast Zoroastrian empire that goes back for millennia? And what is Zoroastrianism to begin with? How many of them have read Balzac? Or Omar Khayyam? Or Kafka? Or Dostoyevsky? How many know why the first world war happened? Just random topics here, I can extend this list of unknowns ad infinitum, but I think this much is enough to make my point. They will know about these things to the extent that they are covered in popular culture, TV series and the like. But, unlike my generation, they did not learn about this stuff as part of their high school curriculum.
Not their fault that they don’t know, or mostly don’t even have much interest in this stuff. They are usually bright kids (whizz math test results, most of them) who are simply victims of an educational strategy that diverted almost all of their attention to STEM subjects.
I have observed this. But, I did not know exactly why taking the Humanities out of the curriculum had been deemed to be a good thing to do. I did not even know that there had been a deliberate policy to do this. Maybe, I thought, it was just an outcome of an increased interest in STEM. But, then I encountered a historian named Ellen Schrecker. And things fell into place.
There is a fascinating interview with her that I would advise all who are patient enough to be reading this ramble of mine to listen to from start to end. (To American friends who may be reading this and are worried about Russia these days: Yes, this is on RT, but please bear with me on this one. She is an emeritus professor at Yeshiva University, which is hardly the sort of institution that would foster untoward or dubious activity of any kind…)
What Schrecker (who, incidentally, is also the one who inspired me to use the term “dumbing down” as a title for this post) tells us is that education, particularly higher education, was changed quite deliberately to exclude the Humanities and the qualitative part of the social sciences beginning from the 1970s. She is talking about the US, but I know from personal experience that the strategy that originated there spread to the these parts of the world very quickly.
In my own country this was a big part of what the 1980 coup was all about. Turks who went through the educational system before the coup, learned completely different things than those who went to school after 1980. A very large part of the curriculum for the pre-1980 generations were literature and history. After 1980 these were whittled down to a bare minimum. Before 1980 literature and history classes meant not just Turkish history and literature but world history and literature. So, we spent the whole first year of high school studying antique history, for example. That is why someone my age who received a high school education in Turkey will know about the Peloponnesian wars, or the Zoroastrian Empire. Whereas the poor kids post 1980 will have no idea.
Why was this eliminated? It was proclaimed that it spread communistic, internationalist ideas, that was why. The student movements and the workers union movements that led up to the coup would not have happened if these people had not heard about such things. Had not read Dickens and Maxim Gorky. So, they had to go. They were replaced largely by STEM classes that focused on solving tests rather than on scientific inquiry, and then added to that were a small selection of classes which were more in the nature of nationalistic indoctrination sessions rather than the sort of education in history and literature that we had received. The result is the mess that we are in today.
According to Schrecker a similar thing happened in the US, where the political activism of the 1960s led to great concern among the ruling elite who looked at the educational system as the root cause of a questioning generation. While they talk Chris Hedges mentions the Powell memorandum and she says “exactly!” and then explains what happened, how corporate interests reshaped intellectual life starting from the 1970s onto today. Her concern is mainly higher education, that is what she talks about – how universities were transformed from being the repositories of knowledge into STEM cultures in which for decades now only quantitative research and teaching have curried favor and have gotten funded.
And, as part of this destruction, she goes into the Humanities in detail: She adds to the all-important mission of the Humanities, which is learning “how to think” rather than “what to think” (an issue that Chris Hedges brings up during the interview), by quoting from a book by Martha Nussbaum where it is said that the humanities give a “taste for the other” by getting into the head of the other through literature, through history and even through disciplines such as sociology. And this, Schrecker says, makes you a better person, one who can relate to others which is something that leads to “good citizenship” in that it gives a solid foundation for looking for connections with others that go beyond just “me me me.” And that, she says, is what is being lost.
It may have originated in the US and the things that Powell proposed may well have been the strategy that was implemented. Was the strategy then deliberately spread out to countries like mine? That were seen to be prone to communist influences? Did European countries adopt it to curb their own rebellious youth? After all, one of the biggest student revolts of the 1960s happened in France and Germany. Big enough a revolt to give a name to that whole generation – the generation of 1968.
Something happened to education over the past 50 years. And Schrecker gives me a huge insight into what that something may have been. That it wasn’t just a random thing. Or that it came out of a bigger need for STEM education for which the Humanities had to be sacrificed. That it was a well-intentioned search for something better. But you see, I have never been a big believer in the good intentions of rulers anyway. And Schrecker validates this belief of mine: What took place was a deliberate quest to dumb down the populace.
And the effects of it are devastating. The level of contemporary political discourse, for example (something which I intend to go into in some detail in the next post). The isolation. The loss of purpose. The confusion. The apathy. The “hypernormalisation” that Adam Curtis talks about. You cannot explain any of that without looking at what appears to be a planned strategy (and here I am going to humbly add to Ellen Schrecker) that at the end of the day, aimed to eliminate “good citizenship” altogether. Because good citizens tend to want to come together and instigate social change. They are capable of going beyond “me me me.” But “me me me” is probably exactly where they wanted us to be and where they want us to remain.