By Mark Mason.
The unexpected is the best teacher. A sole student jumped up in class, shouted at me; angrily she demanded to know why she got a B on the exam. She had always gotten A’s. I was confused. Although a college instructor now, I knew exam stress as well as anyone having been a student long before. Another year, another college, late in the semester, a student burst out angrily wanting to know why the privatized bookstore would not buy back the expensive textbook I had selected for the course. The angry college student was new and not limited to the courses I taught as outbursts of open anger were reported by other instructors. Angry students are communicating displeasure, though not always able to articulate the root conflicts. Angry high school students suspended from school and those who drop out are rarely able to articulate what we need to know about them as individuals, and about the failure of the cultural conditions to provide dignity, meaning, and opportunity–and begging us to investigate the degree to which our economic, social, and political conditions meet these needs, or do not. Studies have demonstrated, not surprisingly, that humans have needs for autonomy and love. Youth today get tough love, a euphemism for no future. De-industrialization, and de-unionization of labor presents a problem for elites who own and control the economy. The problems presented to elites trump any concerns from the powerless student. What do the owners of the universe do to prevent restless complaints now that they have canceled the draft of the American industrial army of laborers? This is one serious problem.
College has become the new high school as the industrial base has been moved offshore. The public school was invented to mass produce workers for the mass-production industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. During the past thirty years, offshoring American industry to exploited labor in low-wage countries, and computerization of production reduced the demand for domestic manual assembly-line labor. Gone forever is the American industrial middle class, made possible by high demand for skilled and semi-skilled labor, and gone with the demise of the labor unions which fought against the violent captains of industry. With the collapse of the banking sector in 2008, and with it the collapse of home ownership, and the collapse of employment, the US was confronted with a large superfluous population of adults. Manufacturing here at home curtailed due to low demand, and the shift of capital from brick-and-mortar investments to speculative finance, sharply reduced demand for the products pushed out of American public schools. Big money shifted from profits skimmed off the backs of manufacturing labor, to profits taken from the new gambling-casino stock market driven by paper schemes such as derivatives. No messy, expensive capital outlays for factories; no construction and maintenance complexities; no environmental or health and safety annoyances– and no risks to capital. If a big bank investment deal goes bad, not to worry, the public treasury is there waiting to provide a bailout.
Whither goeth the student? Remember the students and the schools? What do we do with them, now that they are the superfluous mouths? We are witnesses to the school-prison-industrial complex: Construction and assembly-line work shifts from building homes and cars, to building prisons, and building schools functioning as prisons.
In Brentwood, California, a white-flight exurb of the San Francisco Bay area, Heritage High School is home of the Patriots in due Orwellian fashion, and just down the road from Liberty High. Built in 2005, Heritage was constructed more like a prison than a school with inoperable room windows, an administrative building providing direct visual surveillance of much of the campus, and a closed campus at lunch (a big deal for high school students). The classroom computers are capable of central administrative control, and the school has on-campus police. During pre-construction design planning the school district rejected proposals for home economics, metal, wood, and auto shops, in keeping with expectations of de-industrialization.
A few miles distant is inner-city Oakland with 36% of the population black. African-Americans have suffered discrimination since they were dragged here in chains and the oppression of white supremacy continues. Consider the following facts: The 2003 US Bureau of Justice Statistics observed that 32 percent of black males (1/3) born in 2001 can expect to land in prison during their lifetime. That is more than double the rate for 1974. Six percent of whites born the same year end up in prison. We should track the arrest rate of whites now that they’ve joined the ranks of the un-people. The incarceration rate in the USA is by far the highest in the world. During the past thirty years, the total incarceration rate (for all inmates) in the US has risen from about average for industrialized nations, to holding one-quarter of the world prison population. As many as 80% of young African-Americans have criminal records in some large US cities. More black males are in prison (approx. 861,000) than are enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two-thirds of black children cannot read in the fourth grade, and one-half of black males in their twenties were jobless in 2004. Thirteen percent of black adult males (1.4 million) have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions. The statistics for young black males in the Oakland, California schools indicate that half do not graduate from high school. Furthermore, black males are more likely to die by gunshot—some of which come from police–than were any US soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is war. Class war.
Dropping out of school, whether it’s the 50 percent black males in high school or the college student who disappeared shy of completing one course necessary to receive a bachelor’s diploma, are acts of political defiance. The Oakland school district has implemented a “manhood”program for middle school black males. Making dissidents the problem is institutional violence. The problem is not young black males, nor is it young white males or females when those who do graduate from college are saddled with a trillion dollars in student loan debt. The dropout is performing a political act of defiance, manifesting autonomy through non-compliance. Many high school suspensions are categorized as defiance of teacher authority and disruption of class. The part that is missing is political awareness–something that is pounded out of children from kindergarten on. We cannot blame 16-year-olds for a lack of political awareness when adults possess little themselves, within a de-politicized culture of mass commercialism, wherein citizens are labelled active consumers but passive political agents. The dropout is not the problem; they are the sublimated expression, the return of the repressed. We have enormous opportunities to learn from those who are branded failures, for those who fail are succeeding in another, suppressed, dimension of human achievement. The problem lies with the definition of success which we have been given, and told not to question. We cannot expect those people who have achieved success within the current cultural context–such as high school principals–to have any insight into the constructive meaning and value of the dropout. Dissidents, whether informal as school dropouts or formal as Occupy movement participants, provide important cultural messages and may have a right in themselves to not “get with the program.”
From high school it’s off to trapped, powerless prison-like work as a sales associate at Walmart (union busters), to push pixels around on a computer screen within the confines of a corporate-tyranny cubicle, or off to war with the not-so-voluntary volunteer army, or as noted above in the prison statistics for black males, it’s off to an official prison. A dignified, productive existence is not anywhere in the plan.
If you think there’s a secret door out of the real-life version of Dungeons and Dragons to be found at the University of California, think again. Formally a public university, now half of the costs are funded through rising student tuitions. The students who do arrive on campus are well-informed from their high school experience regarding expected obedience at the university. Protesting government policies could get you a baton to the stomach or jail time. The campus has been militarized with frequent appearances of police officers packing loaded weapons patrolling the campus, a sight unseen on campus twenty years ago. Recently, the university backed out of an agreement to purchase a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, used by US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the Morocco National Police to suppress street protesters. After intense public pressure, the $200,000 purchase was rescinded. Some colleges have introduced computerized tracking of students. At Arizona State University, students are given course choices from a major selected during their first year, and provided course options from a computer program. Students must make progress following the major course requirements, with opportunities to take courses outside their major limited by the computer programming. If a student doesn’t complete the courses required by the computer program, they are called in for advising with pressure applied to change their major. Students who follow the narrow rules, pass the courses, and exit the factory college as intended are left searching for the American dream. Students graduate to become indentured servants paying principle plus interest on tuition loans to bailed-out banks. Legions of students linger on the edge of loan default as recent college grads suffer from 50-percent unemployment and underemployment. About one half of recent grads are either not working, or working at a job not requiring a bachelor’s degree such as waiting on tables at restaurants or tending bar.
The current generation can expect to attend a jail-like high school, to work at a prison-like retail store, or join the military to risk life and limb for the American empire, or to go directly to jail as the US incarceration rate soars. Students might go to a college where computers demand they stay “on track”and graduate to work in a grey prison-like corporate cubicle, or they might go on to an expensive, prestigious research university where gun-toting police patrol the campus– arresting and beating up students who complain about rising tuitions. Choose your life adventure. They’re jail all the same.