Excerpted from Understanding Power:

Well, that's pretty much what the schools are like, I think: they reward discipline and obedience, and they punish independence of mind. If you happen to be a little innovative, or maybe you forgot to come to school one day because you were reading a book or something, that's a tragedy, that's a crime -- because you're not supposed to think, you're supposed to obey, and just proceed through the material in whatever way they require.

And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they've been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years -- that's the way I did it, for example. Like, you're told by some stupid teacher, "Do this," which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters: an awful lot of education is like that, from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, "Okay, I'll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead"; others do it because they've just internalized the values -- but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you're out: you ask too many questions and you're going to get in trouble.

Now, there are also people who don't get along -- and they're called "behavior problems," or "unmotivated," or things like that, Well, you don't want to be too glib about it -- there are children with behavior problems -- but a lot of them are just independent-minded, or don't like to conform, or just want to go their own way. And they get into trouble right from the very beginning, and are typically weeded out. I mean, I've taught young kids too, and the fact is there are always some who just don't take your word for it. And the very unfortunate tendency is to try to beat them down, because they're a pain in the neck. But what they ought to be is encouraged. Yeah: why take my word for it? Who the heck am I? Figure it out for yourself. That's what real education would be about, in fact.

Actually, I happen to have been very lucky myself and gone to an experimental-progresive Deweyite school, from about the time I was age one-and-a-half to twelve [John Dewey was an American philosopher and educational reformer]. And there it was done routinely: children were encouraged to challenge everything, and you sort of worked on your own, you were supposed to think things through for yourself -- it was a real experience. And it was quite a striking change when it ended and I had to go to the city high school, which was the pride of the city school system. It was the school for academically-oriented kids in Philadelphia -- and it was the dumbest, most ridiculous place I've ever been, it was like falling into a black hole or something. For one thing, it was extremely competitive -- because that's one of the best ways of controlling people. So everybody was ranked, and you always knew exactly where you were: are you third in the class, or maybe did you move down to fourth? All this stuff is put into people's heads in various ways in the schools -- that you've got to beat down the person next to you, and just look out for yourself. And there are all sorts of other things like that too.

Now, of course, it doesn't work a hundred percent -- so you do get some people all the way through who don't go along. And as I was saying, in the sciences at least, people have to be trained for creativity and disobedience -- because there is no other way you can do science. But in the humanities and social sciences, and in fields like journalism and economics and so on, that's much less true -- there people have to be trained to be managers, and controllers, and to accept things, and not to question too much. So you really do get a very different kind of education. And people who break out of line are weeded out or beaten back in all kinds of ways.

Woman: But I guess I don't quite see how this ideological control mechanism actually works in the humanities and social sciences -- I mean, how exactly is it that the schools end up being an indoctrination system? Can you describe the process in more detail?

Noam: Well, the main point I think is that the entire school curriculum, from kindergarten through graduate school, will be tolerated only so long as it continues to perform its institutional role. So take the universities, which in many respects are not very different from the media in the way they function -- though they're a much more complex system, so they're harder to study systematically. Universities do not generate nearly enough funds to support themselves from tuition money alone: they're parasitic institutions that need to be supported from the outside, and that means they're dependent on wealthy alumni, on corporations, and on the government, which are groups with the same basic interests. Well, as long as the universities serve those interests, they'll be funded. If they ever stop serving those interests, they'll start to get in trouble.

So for example, in the late 1960s it began to appear that the universities were not adequately performing that service -- students were asking questions, they were thinking independently, they were rejecting a lot of the Establishment value-system, challenging all sorts of things -- and the corporations began to react to that, they began to react in a number of ways. For one thing, they began to develop alternative programs, like IBM began to set up a kind of vocational training program to produce engineers on their own: if MIT wasn't going to do it for them the way they wanted, they'd do it themselves -- and that would have meant they'd stop funding MIT. Well, of course things never really got out of hand in the Sixties, so the moves in that direction were very limited. But those are the kinds of pressures there are. [footnote]


Real education is about getting people involved in thinking for themselves -- and that's a tricky business to know how to do well, but clearly it requires that whatever it is you're looking at has to somehow catch peoples' interest and make them want to think, and make them want to pursue and explore. And just regurgitating "Good Books" is absolutely the worst way to do it -- that's just a way of turning people into automata.