Are You Educating Citizens for a Democratic Future, or Preparing Livestock for Slaughter?

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In a democracy, the real goal of education is to help students develop themselves into knowledgeable, critically thoughtful, and action-oriented citizens. That means it is our job as teachers to educate our students to live their best futures for themselves and those around them. Good teachers know that we don’t have all the answers to what a “best future” will require, but we know that helping students develop excellent, real-world thinking, communication, and action skills will serve them no matter what path they invent for themselves.

Throughout history, educators have served different roles. While most of us would like to believe that educators are always charged with doing what they think is best for their students, that is unfortunately not the case. Sometimes so-called educators are really just arms of the state and their real job is indoctrination in a pre-existing system (spreading propaganda). Often, that system is not good for all students. In the worst cases, that system is an oppressive one that seeks to exploit students as future resources, rather than future citizens. (Remember, Human Resources Departments are not “resources FOR humans,” they are about “humans AS resources” for an organization.)

In an autocracy, education is intended to deprive students of the very knowledge and abilities they need to forge their own futures, preferring instead that students are prepared to serve their masters, whomever they may be. Such teachers choose to teach formulaic responses not creative responses, they teach dogma (knowledge designed to make students want to serve their masters), and they teach obedience over critical thought and action. 

The Common Core State Standards–which still hold more sway than people think, especially since that name has faded from the spotlight–were all about creating not active citizens, but compliant workers. They teach only certain, contained forms of critical thinking, such as technological details between pre-selected texts. While literacy teachers used to be encouraged to engage students in “text-to-world connections,” “text-to-text connections,” and “text-to-self” connections, the Common Core and the standards that follow from them focus only on “text-to-text” connections. This implies that “the world” and “the self” aren’t important. 

“Keep your head down and do what you’re told,” is the true message of much schooling.

Those who are preparing students to be tools of masters are not educating children. They are raising livestock for slaughter: a slow, painful life of exploitation by the uber-rich.

Where Do You Stand As an Educator?

None of us is immune to these problems. We are either collaborating with a system designed to turn students into tools for the use of others, or we are consciously resisting that system by educating students in the knowledge and ability they need to shape their own futures. There is no middle ground here. You can’t do both. You must choose.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are an educator of future citizens or a farmer of livestock:

Do you teach only one form of correctness? If you are teaching students that only standardized English is correct English, you are not only incorrect, you are teaching linguistic propaganda. There are many forms of English that work very effectively in different spaces among different people. By ignoring that or, worse, teaching that those others ways are wrong, you are indoctrinating, not educating.

Do you teach to the test? Tests are limited by at least two factors. The first limiting factor is what tests can objectively measure. Tests can measure knowledge of fact and some forms of analysis (although not even that can be done truly objectively); they cannot test creative thinking or creative analysis, ingenuity, people skills, and ability to make change. If you are teaching to the test, you are focusing on the lowest-level skills and abdicating your responsibility to educate students. You are preparing them to answer ONLY the questions they are asked and to accept those results (test scores), no matter how they affect them and the people they care about.

Do you teach writing formulas? Formulas, such as the 5-paragraph essay, even if it’s named something cute like the “hamburger essay,” are intended to REPLACE THINKING, not enable it. Teaching writing formulas is completely unnecessary. If you teach formulas because you think that will help your students develop better communication skills, you are probably fooling yourself. Here’s how to know for sure: Do you ever require students to write in ways other than the formulas you teach? Do you provide more than one model at once and give students a choice about which ones to choose? Do you eventually pull back the formulas, so students write with less pre-fabricated structure? If you are locking students into pre-existing formulas, you are not educating them. You are telling them that their own ways of communicating are invalid, or even unintelligent.

Do you focus on abstract texts and ideas without application to the students’ real lives? What is the purpose of an education if you are not going to use it to make your own way in the world? The answer is, the purpose is for you to be used as a tool for other people (presumably more important people) to make their way in the world. To ensure you are educating students to make their own futures, you must obligate them to apply new knowledge to their own worlds to change those worlds. The real test of an education comes from how the student succeeds after school. How many students are going on to do what they are told, rather than making their own way in the world? Help students develop the abilities they will need to make change by helping them make actual change now. Are you teaching students to apply knowledge to social media? Information processing? True persuasion in many, many forms? If not, you are abdicating your responsibility to help students live in the world they exist in.

Do you teach students how to make change and challenge authority? Are you deliberately helping your students make decisions about when to follow rules and when to resist them? Are you helping students develop the ability to make real changes to rules and other forms of power in school and outside school? Are you creating conditions in your classroom in which students are learning and writing and speaking about things that matter in their own lives? Teaching students just to follow other’s rules instead of teaching them how to effectively resist (passively and actively), is just lining them up for slaughter.

Be an Educator, Not a Livestock Farmer

It hurts to think that all our work as teachers is really serving masters that we may not even realize are there, manipulating our work and encouraging us to discourage our students. But real educators do this hard thinking and they resist when appropriate. If you are someone who is comfortable with rules, you are probably even more inclined to oppress students than to educate them.

Educators are all about their students’ futures. They don’t tell students what their futures should be or what they need for their futures–none of us knows that. And, most teachers haven’t done much more than be a teacher. (In fact, teachers’ workloads are deliberately exhausting so teachers literally CAN’T do much else. That’s not an accident.) 

Real educators make sure that their students develop the skills and knowledge they need to MAKE their own futures. Help your students make smart decisions, help them learn to build abilities that will enable them to dream up a better world and help them develop the abilities to make that better world a reality. That’s educating. 

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