The Illusion of Wisdom
This is a chapter from Chris Hedges’ book, “The Empire of Illusion” (2009).
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Men die, but the plutocracy is immortal; and it is necessary that fresh generations should be trained to its service. -Sinclair Lewis
The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, along with most elite schools, do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. Responsibility for the collapse of the global economy runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and academic halls in Cambridge, New Haven, Toronto, and Paris to the financial and political centers of power.
The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service – economic, political, and social – come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions. Those who critique the system itself – people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader – are marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.
In 1967, Theodor Adorno wrote an essay entitled “Education After Auschwitz.” He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained “largely unchanged” and that “the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds” must be uncovered, examined, and critiqued through education. Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.
“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again,” he wrote:
“This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”
If we do not grasp the “societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms,” we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society, and wields power through naked repression.
I had lunch in Toronto with Henry Giroux, professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Giroux was for many years the Waterbury Chair Professor at Penn State. He has long been one of the most prescient and vocal critics of the corporate state and the systematic destruction of American education. He was driven, because of his work, to the margins of academia in the United States. He asked the uncomfortable questions Adorno knew should be asked by university professors. Giroux, who wrote The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, left in 2004 for Canada.
“The emergence of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial-academic complex had secured a grip on higher education that may have exceeded even what he had anticipated and most feared,” Giroux tells me. “Universities, in general, especially following the events of 9/11, were under assault by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives, and market fundamentalists for allegedly representing the weak link in the war on terrorism. Right-wing students were encouraged to spy on the classes of progressive professors, the corporate grip on the university was tightening, as was made clear not only in the emergence of business models of governance, but also in the money being pumped into research and programs that blatantly favored corporate interests. And at Penn State, where I was located at the time, the university had joined itself at the hip with corporate and military power. Put differently, corporate and Pentagon money was not funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”
The moral nihilism embraced by elite universities would have terrified Adorno. He knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed, and confused population, a system of propaganda and mass media that offered little more than spectacle and entertainment, and an educational system that did not transmit transcendent values or nurture the capacity for individual conscience. He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice and embraced a childish hypermasculinity.
“This educational ideal of hardness, in which many believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong,” Adorno wrote. “The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism.”
Sadism dominates the culture. It runs like an electric current through reality television and trash-talk programs, is at the core of pornography, and fuels the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice and diminishing the individual to force him or her into an ostensibly harmonious collective. This hypermasculinity has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for our homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed, and the sick.
“The political and economic forces fueling such crimes against humanity – whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation, and disease or genocidal acts – are always mediated by educational forces,” Giroux says. “Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self-reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place in the first place.”
But we do not name them. We accept the system handed to us and seek to find a comfortable place within it. We retreat into the narrow, confined ghettos created for us and shut our eyes to the deadly super-structure of the corporate state.