Teach Them Not to Think – by Badri Raina

 Teach them to buy and be sold.

from ZNet

“There is no such thing as a value neutral educational process.”
 – Richard Shaull, Foreword to Pedagogy of the Oppressed

After the initial attempts by a section of Christian-bourgeois souls (Dickens, Carlyle, Chadwick, Mayhew, Mrs.Gaskell, even the honourable, although not Christian, Benjamin Disraeli who first enunciated the thesis that England was infact not one nation but two—the rich and the poor), to seek reformative state interventions on behalf of the new urban poor  who now swamped the industrial towns, towards the middle of the nineteenth century the inevitable exhaustion of goodwill followed

Where a Dickens had made visits to Yorkshire schools ( captured unforgettably in Nicholas Nickleby) in the thirtees and returned to raise a cry for amelioration, such  sentiment expressed from outside the lived experience of the suffering classes, was to wear thin in a growing fright  at the spread of what was to be christened “mass culture.” 

Dickens of course had repudiated the Chartists who had erroneously hoped he would go over to their side  (a story rather less often recited about him). Some flavour of that history may be savoured in what G.M.Reynolds was to write in the Weekly Newspaper of june 8, 1851:

This wretched sycophant of Aristocracy—this vulgar flatterer of the precious hereditary peerage—is impudent enough to consider himself the people’s friend!  A precious friend indeed when he ridicules universal suffrage (the elementary principle of Chartism) and proclaims himself a thick and thin supporter of Lord John Russell’s reform bill, even before he has seen it!”(1) 

Suddenly, as industrial England entered the fraught social contentions of the sixties, a whole falange of opinion-makers closed ranks to argue that writers, poets, “creative” individuals of all description had best wash their hands off this fruitless business of meddling with social matters.  It was best that they devoted themselves to their precious private visions of abiding truths above and beyond the piss and mire of this thing called history.

The ringing thesis here was to come from Matthew Arnold, who, in his perniciously influential Culture and Anarchy(1865)  drew the first distinctions between “high culture”  and the culture of the “populace”—the latter in his view constituting “anarchy.”  Pleading for an intellectual aristocracy, a return to the classics was advocated.  The aesthetics of Liberalism was thus inaugurated; and specially endowed individuals were henceforth to seek for eternal verities and universal truths outside the concrete processes of social and political  contention.(2)  

A great discomfort with the equalizing philosophies (chiefly of Marx and Engles) had of course been steadily growing.  Siezing the moment that Arnold articulated, Pareto, Mosca, Burckhardt were to float the new concepts of an “elite” and a “political class” that comprised individuals endowed by nature to be rulers of men.  Elements of Darwin, and Carlyle’s notion of the “hero” were thus drawn into the stipulation that not equality but inequality was the true order of “nature”.  Needless to remind ourselves that Nietzsche was to put all that together famously to tell us how the chief business of history—and women– was to give us the “superman.” (3)
Thus educational processes had to be those that absorbed and disseminated the ideas of the ruling class.  England’s first Education Act of 1870 was to be the first pusillanimous policy decision towards consolidating inequality eventhough, don’t you know, it was all about furnishing a sound education on the best principles of  English “humanism.”

As the manufacturers and the colonizers busied themselves in profit-making, education came formally to be regarded not as a rational aid to understanding how society came to be thus constituted, but in a forked programme to equip, on the one hand, the labouring classes with the minimal skills that industry needed from time to time (more profoundly, as Marx was to point out and Althusser in our time was to nail, inorder to keep in place the “reserve army of labour” or inorder to ensure the “reproduction of the relations of production”), and, on the other, to make available to the leisured classes the delectable riches of speculation.

Not for nothing was Arnold to argue that poetry would be the religion of the future. That injunction  was devotedly to be pursued by “modernists” like T.S.Eliot for whom, beginning with the twenties of the last century, the world was indubitably a “wasteland”. As you would expect,   the cure for the unvarying “human condition” was to be found in the Church. All that just when a revolution had happened in the  then czarist Russia, and when Gandhi, the Congress, and the revolutionaries in India were making big strides to alter the “human condition” in the colony—and, as a fallout, in some two-thirds of the colonized world.

(It is another matter that when “free” India came to establish its first Education Commission, its recommendations duly reflected the same ruling dichotomy: skills for the masses and the Humanities at tertiary levels inorder to keep ruling  spirits within the bounds of  “sensitivity.”)

Thus, when the American, John Dewey, wrote in 1920 that the true aim and purpose of education is education, he was articulating a seeming abstraction (what education?) that had behind it a whole  concrete history of class  interests.


International Corporate Capital has since made killing strides.   It no longer needs the pretence about poetry (read “poetry” as a metaphor for the Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Arts, and for critical thought generally). The more it gobbles up the globe, the greedier it gets. In education also, therefore,  it is to be push-pin all the way.  The least monies spent on “poetry” seem unconscionably unwarranted according to  the  most advanced principles of that despicable thing called Commerce.  What used to be commerce between human beings—remember those “pointless” hours spent in the coffee house?—is thus superceded by commerce between computers which make the world a “global village”  even as they draw oceans between human being and human being.  Since you can email, where is the need to meet face to face? 

The captains of “utility” who move the levers of “knowledge” at the WTO, think that there is no more need to think.  Since all the thinking that the world needs is done in the board room, educational processes ipso facto invite to be geared to proliferate armies of the new conformism who in turn may be trusted to function as untroublesome engines of profit-maximisation.  When the GDP grows, the stock market booms, the middle class expands and fattens and comes into possession of commodities which advertising can then fetishise as the newage gods, pray where then is there any more need to think and speculate?

How many of us know that education (it must still be called that, per necessity) is today, globally, the third most lucrative trade worldwide, after drugs and armaments?  That being the case, teaching shops that come from far-off lands come necessarily inorder to set up franchises at zero levels of investment that the “market” may lap-up at hundred percent profit.  And those comprise utility items, not “poetry.”


Alas, whatever is picked-up at school/college/university/institute had better equip young people to earn a keep.  But would it not be nice if we should also have learnt (and not picked-up) that which makes of those of us destined to become appendages of the ruling hippopotamus “warm and tender as can be”? And if that seems like a hopeless reversion to the class-based “humanist” argument, so it is.  Paulo Freire was to write, after Satre, that education must rid us of the “fear of freedom.”  Alas, only in Latin America do we now seem to have regimes that may encourage the “populace” to do so through their systems of schooling.  For the rest, it is still Cuba. Where are the movements elsewhere that have the least object or likelihood of making   education coterminous with that recovery of our humanness which the world craves?

Again I reflect how the Bard, as always, knew a great deal about such matters.  Recall that when Macbeth’s masculine nerve rather wobbles at the last minute, his neocon consort dares him: “thou wouldst be a man if thou durst do it” (that is, kill the king, inter alia, invade iraq, kill Saddam and so on).  And how telling, although pathetic, a riposte Macbeth delivers unto her: “I dare do all that may become a man;/ who dares do more is none.”

How that thought nails the monetary economist, the corporates he spawns, and the Neanderthal neocons (and they are not just in the United States of America) piercingly in the belly button.  But of course, as Henry Fielding would have said, shame is the first meal these kinds eat before they go for breakfast! They leave the business of being human to the rampaging Evangelist/Mullah/Mahant, who in turn teach  that being human means being victorious in battles of various kinds.  God has no room for “losers” they say. Blessed no longer are the meek but the mighty, for their’s is the oil and the uranium.  It is a weak prophet who says turn the other cheek.


Indeed, what does it mean to be human (and no ontological debate is intended here)?Recall the days not too long ago when walking down the pavement and noticing a self-contained person some distance away, you remarked to your companion “such a good man; she/he thinks of everybody.”

But as the world advances, Capital has taught us the truth about that  person—a “waster, shun him.”  Good is the human being who minds his own business at all costs.  He does not stop to look at the fellow just come under the wheels of the latest Chrysler; he does not let his mind waver from the shady deal to be signed at the golf club.  He if anything formulates the most efficient plan yet not for the alleviation of suffering but for the eradication of those who are no- good sufferers.  Ah, the fruits of education!  The least mongrel on the hobo street has lessons we could learn inorder to become human.  But we are on the road to progress and have ears only for the next announcement at the stock market, eyes only for the next piece of lucrative real-estate, and dreams only about the next career promotion or marvel of household technology. Where we once counted children, we count remotes to sundry gadgets.  And when a gadget goes Hawai, we curse the service fellow whose dying wife keeps him from attending our need!

And the evangelists and the godmen, they teach us to mind our own salvation through greater physical fitness so that we tire less in attending to profit-making.  Health services for all, community education, shared labour, shared partaking—these are the things that must be avoided like the plague. When you hear such sounds, say “the reds are coming.” And education that teaches respect for the other, for difference, or, god forbid, begins to examine the roots of our own rottenness, that indeed is the devil’s work.  That is when you forget the priest and call out the troops.

Thus, if Plato threw the poets out of his republic, we must add to those the humanists, the social scientists, the philosophers, the political activists, the  artists, the rebels without “cause”, the “wasters” who strangely do not value profit-making, the disabled, the old, the needlessly sick, the children who only make demands but add nothing to GDP. And we must make education available only to those who can pay.  To the rest we say, god prepares a heaven for you, so why need you the earth.

And WTO will say endorse only those authors, those academies, those entrepreneurs, those middle-men, those commission agents, those publishers, and those governments,  who can conjointly make of education not the third-most but the most lucrative global “service.” In Brahminical parlance, dethrone Saraswati, install Laxmi as the reigning goddess of learning– which she already is, de facto.

Make of your education a billion-pound note; and then go ask for the Presidential vote.  With that note in one hand and the evangelist/godman in the other, you cannot go wrong.  You may only end up destroying the world, a small price to pay for success.

As to the world,  may be the time for it to end  has come anyway.

1. See my Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth, univ., of Wisconsin Press, 1986, p.145

2. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, for a penetrating analysis of these ideological conjunctions.

3. See T.B.Bottomore, Elites and Society, Penguin, 1964 for a lucid account of these histories.


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