MANY PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY the younger folks I've come to know through recent political activism, tell me I'm being grossly unfair when I denounce the United States as Moron Nation.
But most of these critics weren't alive in 1957 and 1958, when We the People responded to the breathtaking Soviet triumph of Sputnik I.
Misleadingly, a new, post-Sputnik order seemed manifest in U.S. government policy. We would now focus on becoming genuinely educated. The result, the Ruling Class assured us, would be an era of capitalist technological brilliance in which the U.S. would perpetuate its world domination.
The government thus enacted the National Defense Education Act with loans and grants to encourage studies in mathematics, science and engineering. The high-school guidance-counselors – this was in those halcyon days before students were routinely drugged into submission – began dutifully pushing their charges in the requisite academic and military directions.
But at the grass-roots levels, the citizens were consciously choosing to become the nyekulturiny subjects of a realm now deservedly notorious for its savage anti-intellectuality and pridefully brandished ignorance.
Nor – despite the decades of disinformation that have (deliberately?) obscured what obtained – was this mandate for ignorance imposed from above.
It was instead truly the people's choice, a spontaneous choice made at the grassroots level by millions of citizens and expressed by thousands of local school boards.
That's why it is not a choice you will ever read about in the history books. But I was there, a part of the process by which the choice was made, which is why now when challenged I can report what truly happened.
From the perspective of U.S. high-school students, the Soviet Union's orbiting of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 provided two unique opportunities.
One was for planned disruptions in study halls, a “beep, beep, beep” sound that mimicked the satellite's radio transmissions. In study-hall mode, it started with a single “beep” by one person at one side of the room, continued through its width via a human chain of beepers and ended at the other side, as if the little orbiter were passing overhead. Sometimes – depending on the size and configuration of the particular study hall (most were in auditoriums) – the disruptive sounds of bogus passage were uttered down the room's long access or even on a diagonal, typically the hypotenuse of the space as divided into two right triangles. But usually it was via linear progression across the study hall's width. And however it was perpetrated, it was invariably accompanied by exclamations of outrage from the teachers who were serving as proctors and giggles from the students – especially from the girls impressed by outlaw-minded boys' abilities to mouth the satellite sound without being caught and punished.
The other, more enduring opportunity Sputnik provided was participation in a serious national debate about pedagogy – specifically the U.S. versus the Soviet Union in their approaches to education.
As defined by school officials, the U. S. approach was to use school as a socialization facility to produce “well-adjusted” (that is, obediently conformist) graduates who would function profitably in capitalist society.
The contrasting Soviet approach – which is really the European approach (though few dared defy the omnipresent anti-Communist censors to say so) – was to immerse all students in grade-appropriate summations of the intellectual legacy of human experience and allow each student to pursue those inputs to the appropriate level of intensity and competence.
Again as claimed by school officials, the U.S. approach was “democratic” in that it (allegedly) treated everyone as equals through 12th grade. Regardless of one's interests or abilities, everyone was exposed to the same (deliberately mediocre) curricula. Thus in the public schools of Tennessee and Michigan, which I attended from fall 1954 through Spring 1958, the future carpenter, iron-worker or precision machinist had to pass the same two years of mathematics, three years of history and four years of English literature as the college-bound future scientist, professor, lawyer or journalist.
The end result was a one-size-fits-all diploma that, even when I was a teenager, seemed profoundly unfair. Why should a future machinist be required to labor away at studies of literature (save from genuine interest and therefore as an elective)? And why should a future academic be alienated to despair by mandatory study of literature so expurgated, diluted and Reader's Digest-ed to chaste respectability, the “Classic Comics” versions were certainly more entertaining and probably more informative as well?
One-size-fits-all high-school diploma requirements similar to those in Tennessee and Michigan – albeit with minor variations in electives and access to preliminary military training programs via the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) – were standard throughout the United States.
The so-called “Soviet” system, however – never mind it was producing 10th graders whose knowledge and understanding of the world was equal to that of many U.S. college graduates – was damned by my local public-school officials as “dictatorial” and “elitist.” Your life in such a regimen, or so the officials argued, was not your own; it was irremediably shaped and controlled by someone else. Your fate was not determined by your own free will but by a series of aptitude tests that defined the courses you studied and thus in turn determined whether you went to college or vocational school.
Yet selecting one's proper studies by aptitude testing – or so it seemed to my 17-year-old self (exactly as it does to my 74-year-old self today) – was infinitely more fair (and therefore infinitely more productive) than oppressing all students with low-grade materials that would be frustratingly irrelevant to some and infuriatingly alienating to others.
But the purpose of U.S. public education – forcible production of “well-adjusted” (i.e., submissive and malleable) citizens for the corporate state – was surely fulfilled by the adjustments its mediocrity necessitated. The future machinist went away disgruntled, feeling vaguely inferior and thereby already conditioned for exploitation by future bosses. The “normal” student did the required (mediocre) work without question and was typically rewarded with high grades, the dynamic of mediocrity so acquired thence to be duplicated throughout life, particularly in relationships with imperious bosses whether matrimonial or industrial. Meanwhile the brightest of us – kids like myself – became beatniks by default. We turned away in utter boredom, found solace in defiant sex and illegal booze and secret rowdiness and reluctantly set aside 15 cents from our cherished cigarette money for the relevant Classic Comic whenever we needed to pass a high-school English test.
A passage in a book entitled The Struggle for Control of Public Education and subtitled Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values (Michael Engel, Temple University Press: 2000) states the grass-roots pedagogic conflict very well on page 23: “While American school children were learning how to get along with their peers or bake a cherry pie, so the explanation went, Soviet children were being steeped in the hard sciences and mathematics needed to win the technological race that had become the centerpiece of the Cold War.” The quote, which Engel properly attributes, is from another work on education that's well worth reading, Herbert M. Kliebard's The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (Psychology Press: 2004).
Unfortunately neither of these books was ever allowed into the USian cultural mainstream. Each is (deliberately) censored by price – as high as $74 per volume.
My teen-age involvement in this pedagogy fight was as a member of the first graduating class (1958) at Knox County, Tennessee's Holston High School. It began when Assistant Principal Edith J. Fewell asked me to participate in a Parent-Teacher Association-sponsored study, its title something like, “Which Is Better: U.S. Or Soviet Education.”
I was invited to join the discussion because, much to my own astonishment, I had become something of a Holston notable. A paid stringer for The Knoxville Journal and a photographer, mostly unpaid, for the school yearbook, my quest for news had quickly earned me the nickname “Scoop.” But the biggest exclamation-point of recognition came from my role as founder, managing editor and photographer of the new school's student newspaper.
Though I founded and organized the publication single-handedly, I had (significantly) understood the southern caste system well enough to recognize that I – the “Yankee” son of a “Yankee carpetbagger” (and therefore a subspecies of “white trash”) – would never be accepted as the paper's editor-in-chief. Thus I assured the properly southern, properly aristocratic Brenda Clement she would never be plagued with any real responsibilities or other demands on her already busy schedule if she were editor-in-chief and so maneuvered her onto the masthead in that role. It was that self-effacing ploy – complete with its he-who-knows-his-place submissiveness – that earned me not just the respect of my peers (who later voted me “boy most likely to succeed”), but also the approval of the school authorities.
Hence I was on the stage as a key speaker when the pedagogy discussion culminated maybe six months later in a debate before a standing-room-only audience of students, teachers and PTA parents in the Holston High School auditorium.
I remember little of the actual debate save that I spoke as I felt: that the European aka “Soviet” approach to public education was infinitely superior to the U.S. approach because the former was intended to produce an informed and thoughtful citizenry just as the latter was intended to produce reflexively submissive drones. But I dared not use such phrases as “reflexively submissive drones” lest I reveal that beneath my views on education was already a healthy hatred and contempt and – yes – fear of capitalism. So conditioned in reflexive “Americanism” was I (and so conditioned are we all), I could not fully verbalize such thoughts – never mind the Marxian teachings in my father's household – until I was in my 70s and began recognizing capitalism as “infinite greed elevated to maximum virtue”: the conscious rejection of every humanitarian precept our species has ever set forth, and more to the point, the deliberate and knowing choice of moral imbecility as one's personal ethos. Therefore in 1957 I argued in euphemisms, terms I am vaguely thankful are lost to memory.
But I will never forget that Dorothy Merritt, my English, speech and drama teacher – the only one of my high school teachers I genuinely respected – told me I had spoken “very convincingly.”
Not that it mattered. To the thunderous applause of the audience, the U.S. approach to education with its “well adjusted” product was proclaimed the hands-down victor. And as I would read in Scholastic Magazine or some other such publication soon afterward, the same debate – with the same disheartening results – was occurring throughout the nation.
I think that was when I began to grasp the full magnitude of just how truly homeless I am in my own homeland. Which, save for my years in Manhattan – a place that was for me precisely as James Baldwin described it, Another Country – has been and remains amongst the core truths of my life.
Fifty-six years later, the result of our collective embrace of stupidity is undoubtedly amongst the greatest tragedies of human history: the fact we the people of the United States of America, when faced with the most pivotal choice of our lives, decided c. 1957-1958 we preferred the alienated and/or apathetic and/or bigoted and/or frightened and always, always, always vindictively anti-intellectual, cravenly submissive ignorance of Moron Nation to the informed activism required by a functional constitutional democracy.
That – our decision to become Moron Nation – is what leaves us unable to grasp the genocidal magnitude of the death-dealing inequality capitalism is forcing on us. It is what enabled the murder of the American Dream and facilitated the nullification of our constitution. It has killed the Democratic Party beyond hope of resurrection, the story I broke first now confirmed again by still another timidly expressed half-requiem – this one for the nation as well. It is what keeps us too opiated by celebrity, Abrahamic fanaticism and prescription drugs to see how Barack the Betrayer has again fucked us all by including in his otherwise-welcome immigration-reform executive-order 400,000 visas for high-tech scabs – his union-busting, worker-impoverishing payback to Bill Gates and the silicon aristocracy for their obscenely huge campaign contributions. It is what keeps Moron Nation indifferent to what some of us know is coming next – that Gates and his cronies, the counts of computerdom and the earls of electronic gadgetry (and exactly as AFL/CIO Chief Richard Trumka fears), will unleash these scabs to further reduce U.S. high-tech wages, now to the same ruinous graveyard-filling rock-bottom poverty that already defines life for the vast USian Working Class majority.
It is the nightmare reality perfectly expressed by an old black man in a wheelchair on the Pierce Transit Number 1 bus last week: “they got them young people so plugged in, they cain't even see what goin' on around 'em.” Such is Moron Nation, now and forever – that is, until the extinction of our species, which thanks to our national stupidity is looming ever closer by the day, perhaps even by the hour.
LB/16-23 November 2014