Manufacturing Apathy: Education’s Role in Providing What the Owners Want

Never underestimate the power of the US education system to produce citizens incapable of exciting themselves about anything of consequence.

Robert Sheer, University of Southern California professor, spoke in Berkeley, California, offering an impassioned lecture about the nature of modern surveillance. Sheer repeatedly expressed dismay to the audience that, while teaching courses, he is continually confronted with students reacting passively to information about US violations of personal privacy, both by corporations and governments. So why are millennials, myself included, uniquely dulled to fundamental threats against personal electronic sovereignty? I will first offer a brief analysis of the larger context in which millennials have forged their indifference to privacy violations, and then bring into focus the specific ways in which the education system manufactures millennial apathy.

Sheer aptly identified the primary calculus of our acceptance (millennial or otherwise) of extra-constitutional privacy invasions: A cost-benefit-analysis that privileges convenience and perceived added value above privacy. The analysis is not surprising given the larger context of a population adept at navigating the US empire’s moral minefield: Every day citizens of wealthy nations, especially the US where so much is consumed by so few, make dysconscious analyses weighing the benefits of convenient consumption relative to human dignity violations of others. It is an ugly victory, as Sheer pointed out, of John Stuart Mills’ conception of consumer sovereignty, the primacy of consumption above all other human experience. Mills, among other political philosophers, feared consumer sovereignty’s victory over personal sovereignty, or the rights and freedoms intrinsically belonging to humanity.

Perhaps what is most surprising about millennial privacy apathy is that the sacrifice is being made by those consuming the means of total surveillance – our phones, computers, GPS devices, etc. – rather than an anonymized army of poor people. So why don’t we care more?

As a high school social studies teacher, I have seen how integral the US education system is in the manufacture of apathy. But to understand how it does so, we must consider the nature of the system as a whole: a flailing series of ineffectual institutions barely managing to provide even the most basic skills and information necessary to navigate the 21st century. It is far more adept at funneling youth of color into a rapidly privatizing prison industrial complex, where their suffering and their communities’ suffering is commodified and traded for the profit and amusement of international investors. The stupefyingly brutal cycle is completed with large teacher retirement pensions qualifying as major shareholders in the private prison industry – including my own, CalSTRS.

The cycle is not an aberration. Education in a capitalist economy is corrupted from its inception – being primarily necessary to reproduce the economic, political and social status quo. No matter what liberals think, it cannot be a liberal democratic mechanism of advancement within a post-industrial globalized capitalist context. Most students graduate from high school unable to even maintain their class, let alone advance.

Students have an implicit understanding that what they learn in school prior to university is primarily a wasteful jumble of half-truths, obfuscations and antiquated skills, matching poorly with what they will need to support themselves and their families in the coming decades. The education system is by its nature regressive, designed to provide grist for an employment mill that has vanished, and whose success is measured by absurd tests and iPad-to-student ratios. Is it any wonder that students in Sheer’s class lack enthusiasm for pretty much any subject of significance, let alone philosophically rigorous electronic privacy debates?

There are, of course, brilliant educators who expertly excite their students about consequential topics – especially the Bay Area’s Teachers For Social Justice, a radical cohort of educators dedicated to providing low-income and youth of color superior, critically conscious education, but they are anomalies, not the norm.

Millennial privacy apathy also owes credit to the way we teach social studies. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me blew people’s minds. The government contracts history textbooks from corporations that are filled with, “An embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies” that serve to perpetuate our own empire? Wild.

Students are drilled on falsehoods and half truths and omissions so replete throughout the curriculum that the only way to guise the entire scheme is to provide state standards chock-filled with absurd historical minutia as to obscure the largest, most vital dynamics required to understanding the nature of our present world. And when curriculum never progresses past World War II, how can we possibly understand the nature of the present, let alone the past?

Why is it acceptable, and commonly understood, that history taught in primary and secondary school will need to be excised in college and replaced with real information?

As far as the education system’s ability to teach vaunted critical thinking skills, George Carlin’s brilliant rant, the American Dream, offers a truth: The ability to objectively evaluate in order to form a judgment, or critical thinking, is anathema to a system depended upon to manufacture consent, conformity and apathy:

…there’s a reason education SUCKS, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, EVER be fixed…

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the BIG owners! The Wealthy… the REAL owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions…

…They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests… You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it…Nobody seems to care!

They don’t care about you at all… at all… AT ALL. And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on. The fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant…

It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Today’s owners need obedient millennial workers just smart enough to code, design, develop websites and apps, consume their innovations with enthusiasm, and just dumb enough to passively accept unprecedented electronic privacy violations: SIM card encryption key theft, reupping NSA bulk metadata collection, tapping phones of vital foreign allies, racist surveillance, FISA court malfeasance, cruel and unusual punishment for social networking, let alone providing corporations the means to profit from data mining those same social networks and surveilling the totality of our communications.

Without a solid foundation in critical thinking skills and the social sciences, students are left susceptible to corporate and government pressures to conform to profitable behaviors and acquiesce to intrusion.

So, while Sheer’s students may benefit from the rigor and privilege of an education at USC, paradoxically, the millennial guardian of electronic privacy rights, Edward Snowden, did not even graduate from high school. Perhaps his lack of formal education is in part responsible for his tremendous ability to parse complex philosophical nuances and synthesize lessons from the classics into his privacy advocacy, not to mention Snowden’s strength of character, courage and deep humility. It is surely an indictment of the education system that Snowden’s contribution was made possible by omitting much of formal education from his life.

Millennial privacy apathy is real. Education is largely to blame. And yet it also holds the capacity to develop resistance against privacy violations and consumer sovereignty. We need curricula that explicitly explore these issues: develop 21st century critical thinking skills, survey the relevant constitutional framework, examine the nature of the threats, provide students authentic opportunities to parse the deep philosophy, and most importantly, generate student enthusiasm for the process of investigation and prosecution of malfeasance itself. For that is certainly not what our owners want.