Democracy and Miseducation

Book Review of Chomsky on Miseducation

By E. Wayne Ross

Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky on Miseducation. Edited with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo. (Lanham, Maryland: Roman and Littlefield, 2000), 199 pp., $19.95, cloth.

The central concern of democratic theories of all types is how people can have the information, knowledge, and forums for communication and debate necessary to govern their own lives effectively. Schools and the media are the key mediums in the pursuit of a democratic society, and if these systems undermine democracy then it becomes “difficult to conceive of a viable democratic society.”[1]

Chomsky on Miseducation, the first book to systematically collect Chomsky’s writings on education, provides a penetrating analysis of how schools miseducate students in the name of “democracy” as well as offering readers useful prescriptions for change. In his typical fashion, Chomsky’s analysis situates the particulars of classroom teaching and learning in relation the broader contexts of neoliberalism, capitalist democracy, and global technological change. In building a broad understanding of our educational needs, Chomsky links the primacy of responsible media with the role of schools and universities in the effort to achieve a democratic society.

Chomsky’s analysis ofUS schools is particularly relevant in light of the current assault of test-driven educational reforms on progressive forms of education. While Chomsky does not specifically discuss current education reform efforts—such as George W. Bush’s education plan, which intensifies both high-stakes testing and state regulation of what is taught in schools—his critique is a useful tool. Second, and relatedly, Chomsky On Miseducation, rescues John Dewey’s democratic education legacy from neoliberals such as Richard Rorty.[2] Chomsky highlights Dewey’s democratic radicalism, particularly in relation to education.

Chomsky reaffirms Dewey’s observation that the principle obstacle to achieving democratic education (and thus a democratic society) is the powerful alliance of class privilege with philosophies of education that sharply divide the mind and body, theory and practice, culture and utility.[3] In Dewey’s day, and still today, prevailing educational practice is the actualization of the philosophy of profoundly antidemocratic thinkers. One of the major stumbling blocks in efforts to create democratic schools and society has been the tendency for educators to fall prey to an ideology of neutrality, that is, the belief that advocacy in teaching is to be avoided—a tendency that encourages passivity in learning and undermines inquiry as a key classroom activity. Even preeminent progressive educators have become “weak kneed” over teaching against the status quo, as can be seen in the debates from the 1930s over indoctrination and counter-indoctrination in education.[4]

With this background in mind, it is notable that Donaldo Macedo begins his introduction to Chomsky on Miseducation by describing the paradoxical tensions that schools in so-called free and open societies face today. On one hand, schools are charged with the responsibility of teaching the virtues of democracy and on the other they are complicit with—indeed play a primary role in the construction of—the inherent hypocrisy of contemporary democracies. Democracy, as a term is used in schools and society today refers,to what Noam Chomsky has described as:

A system of government in which elite elements based in the business community control the state by virtue of their dominance of the private society, while the population observes quietly. So understood, democracy is a system of elite decision making and public ratification…Correspondingly, popular involvement in the formation of public policy is considered a serious threat.[5]

Nowhere is this form of “democracy” more clear than in the latest wave of educational reform. Since the mid-1980s, discussions about how we might reform schools have been dominated by a discourse of decline, which has produced a search for the “magic bullet” to save public schools.[6] A combination of crisis rhetoric, unduly simplified conceptions of the problems schools face, and policy elites working to protect their own political and ideological interests has yielded a series of one-dimensional proposals intended to save the public schools including: vouchers, technology, and now, curriculum standards and high-stakes tests. 

In this context, Chomsky on Miseducation is an important tool for the analysis of the antidemocratic effects of current educational policies and practices. Much of what is found in this volume draws on Chomsky’s previous critiques (from the late 1980s to the late 1990s) of American democracy and neoliberal economic policies, however, his analysis as applied to institutions and processes of education illuminates both the oppressive and liberatory possibilities of schooling.[7]

In the 1999 interview that opens the book, Chomsky describes the deep level of indoctrination that takes place in schools. “Because they don’t teach the truth about the world,” Chomsky argues, “schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy.” Like the media, schools succeed in “domesticating” youth by operating within a propaganda framework that has the effect of distorting or suppressing unwanted ideas and information. 

This domestification takes place as part of the tacit or “hidden” curriculum of schools (e.g., questions that are not asked; content that is not taught; assumptions that are never questioned), however, it is also a bold part of the explicit curriculum of schools, especially in social studies classes. Take, for example, the role of schools as described in Magruders American Government—for many years one of the most widely used high school textbooks—where in a chapter ironically titled “Government By the People” we learn that,

[F]rom the very first day schools teach children the values of the American political system. They very purposely work to indoctrinate the young and train them to become young citizens. School children salute the flag, recite the pledge of allegiance, and sing patriotic songs. They learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other great figures of the past…high school students’ political knowledge is refined, often through textbooks such as this one.[8]

Many teachers and the majority of textbooks reinforce historical myths that lead to a skewed and simplified version of America’s past and that obscure the racial and economicinequalities of the present.[9] As a result, students are rarely taught to think critically about the world. In fact, the function of schools according to Chomsky “is to keep people from asking questions that matter about important issues that directly affect them and others.”

At the heart of Chomsky’s description of miseducation is his, by now somewhat familiar yet still profound, account of thought control in democratic society, in which schools play an important role.

[T]he media, the schools, and popular culture are divided into those who have rationality, and are the planners and the decision-makers in the society, and the rest of the people. And to be successful, those who have rationality and join the specialized class have to create “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications,” in Reinhold Niehbuhr’s words, to keep the “bewildered herd”—the naïve simpleton—from being bothered with the complexity of real problems that they couldn’t solve anyway. The goal is to keep people isolated from real issues and from each other…Questions that are offensive and embarrassing to the doctrinal system are off-limits. Information that is inconvenient is suppressed.

A concrete example of this process is the currentmovement known as standards-based educational reform (SBER). SBER exemplifies how elites manufacture crises (e.g., the widespread failure of public education) and consent (e.g., the way to save public education is through standardized schools driven by high-stakes tests). SBER is the product of three “National Education Summits,” which brought governors and corporate executives together in what has proved to be a successful effort to highjack the content and instruction of public schools to serve elite interests. A prime example of how neoliberal democracy works to thwart meaningful participation of the many by allowing the few to speak for all, SBER is a scheme in which states regulate the knowledge taught in schools through the application of curriculum standards, while segregating and disciplining students (and teachers) via the strict accountability mechanism of high-stakes tests.[10]

The objective appearance of standards-based reforms, which aim to reform schools by focusing on test scores, conceals (partially) the fact that these reforms are the result of deepening economic inequality and racial segregation, which are typically coupled with authoritarianism. For example, in Chicago, public schools have been militarized—six schools have been turned in military academies and over 7,000 students in 41 schools are in Junior ROTC—and teachers have been given scripted lessons, keyed to tests, to guide their instruction. In a dramatic shift away from democracy, the Detroit school board was disbanded last year by the Democratic mayor and Republican governor, who then appointed a new board—whose members represent corporate interests and of whom only one has had children in the schools and is a city resident.[11] The primary justification for the seizure of schools in Detroit (and the city hall school seizures in Chicago, Cleveland, and now possibly New York) and the imposition of standardized curriculum has been poor test scores and high dropout rates and the false promises of SBER. 

Chomsky offers what counts in this context as an innovative solution to miseducational reform—struggle to teach the truth in the tradition of Dewey and Paulo Freire. He says, “if schools were serving the general public, they would be providing people with techniques of self-defense, but this would mean teaching the truth about the world and society.” Chomsky recalls his own early education in a Deweyan progressive school as one example, a school “where children were encouraged to study and investigate as a process of discovering the truth for themselves.…I feel lucky that my school experience was not based on memorizing falsehoods about how wonderful our democracy was.” We know, and Chomsky reiterates, that true learning takes place when students are invited to discover for themselves the nature of democracy and it’s functions. 

Dewey is an important source in turning miseducative schools into educative ones for Chomsky. Described as “a relic of the Enlightenment classical liberal tradition,” Chomsky portrays Dewey as an important source of anarchist ideasin America, particularly emancipatory universalism. Dewey has been vilified by many standards advocates, who blame today’s educational woes onDewey, which is one of the great ironies of the right’s attack on public education, since Dewey’s ideas have rarely been practiced in schools.Indeed, Dewey’s theory of learning points out that the path of inquiry cannot be merely mental or internal. Knowing involves some doing and active participation that alters existing conditions. This is, of course, one of the reasons why enemies of democracy and democratic are working so hard to strip teachers and local school communities from employing Deweyan methods and running their own affairs.

Chomsky describes Dewey as someone who “opposed the rule of the wise, the onslaught of the Jeffersonian aristocrats.” Dewey understood that “’politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,’ and as long as this is so, ‘attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.’” As Dewey argued, so does Chomsky that reforms are of limited utility. Democracy requires that the source of the shadow be removed because private powers undermine democracy and freedom, as we see with current status of media and education. In Democracy and Education, Dewey argued that workers should be the masters of their own industrial fate. Chomsky notes that Dewey argued it is immoral to train children to work “not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the work earned,” in which case their activity is “not free because [it is] not freely participated in.” 

Chomsky recognizes that Dewey’s conceptions were deeply rooted in a workers movement, holding that industry must be changed from its feudalistic form to a system based on worker control and free association, traditional anarchist ideals with their source in classical liberalism and the Enlightenment.[12] In the 1920s, Dewey argued, “power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rule the life of the country…Business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda” is the system that must be unraveled if we are to talk seriously about democracy and freedom. Education, Dewey and Chomsky believe, should lead to the production of free human beings and thus “the means to undermining this absolutist monstrosity.” An educational ideal Chomsky describes “as American as apple pie.”

Public schools in the United States have always been portrayed as the foundation of an informed and enlightened citizenry; the site where students are prepared for active participation in a democratic society. If schools are to actually achieve this role (as opposed to being institutions of indoctrination and propaganda for the status quo), educators need to adopt a language of critique, such as Chomsky offers, and take bold stands against social injustice and the pretense of objectivity that is used as a means to distort and misinform in the service of the doctrinal system. As Chomsky asserts:

It is the intellectual responsibility of teachers—or any honest person, for that matter—to try and tell the truth. That is surely uncontroversial. It is a moral imperative to find out and tell the truth as best one can, about things that matter, to the right audience. It is a waste of time to speak truth to power…. One should seek an audience that matters. In teaching, it is the students. They should not be seen merely as an audience but as part of a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should be speaking not to but with. That is second nature to any good teacher, and it should be to any writer and intellectual as well. A good teacher knows that the best way to help students learn is to allow them to find the truth by themselves.

Chomsky’s prescription is deceptively simply, for it calls for nothing short of a revolution in the social education students receive in schools today. 

[1] Robert McChesney, “Journalism, Democracy,…and Class Struggle,” Monthly Review, vol. 52, no. 6, (November 2000), p. 2.

[2] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
[3] See: Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[4] David W. Hursh and E. Wayne Ross, Democratic Social Education: Social Studies for Social Change (New York: Routledge/Falmer, 2000).

[5] Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology, (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 6.

[6] For an antidote to this discourse see David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths Fraud and the Attack on America’s Schools, (Reading, Mass.: Addlison-Wesley, 1996).

[7] Essays in this volume include:“Democracy and Education,” originally delivered as a lecture at Loyola University, Chicago in 1994; “The Craft of ‘Historical Engineering,’” a chapter from Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. (Boston: South End Press, 1989); “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order,” originally delivered as the Davie Lecture at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in May 1997, and later published in two parts by Z Magazine (September/November, 1997); and excerpts of Chomsky’s debate with John Silber, with an editorial introduction by Macedo.

[8] William A. McClenaghan, Magruders American Government, (Boston: Silver Burdett, & Ginn, 1994), p. 88.

[9] E. Wayne Ross, “Redrawing the Lines: The Case Against Traditional Social Studies Instruction,” in David W. Hursh and E. Wayne Ross, Democratic Social Education: Social Studies for Social Change, (New York: Routledge/Falmer, 2000), pp. 43-63; James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,(New York: Touchstone Books, 1996).

[10] For a more complete description of the origins of SBER see: E. Wayne Ross, “The Spectacle of Standards and Summits,” Z Magazine, vol. 12, no. 4, (March, 2000), pp. 25-48.

[11] Rich Gibson, “’Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain’: A Critique of Hope,” Theory and Research in Social Education, vol. 27, No. 4 (Fall 1999), pp. 541-601.

[12] See Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), on how much of the Enlightenment project belongs to not just a pre-capitialist, but non-captialist society, particularly the vision for a general human emancipation.

Author Note: E. Wayne Ross is Distinguished University Scholar at the University of Louisville, where he chairs the Department of Teaching and Learning. His most recent book is The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems and Possibilities (SUNY Press, 2001).


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