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Why the Current System is Wrong

Why the Current System is Wrong 

By Dennis Loo (2/10/18) Revised by adding 2/11/18

I am going to clarify some things that bear underscoring. I will begin this by excerpting from a prior article of mine, the full implications of which may have escaped full notice.

Yet another distinction is helpful at this point: the difference between area specific knowledge and skills and more general awareness. When you are trained in area specific knowledge as, for example, in medical school, you are learning things that those who do not receive this training largely do not know. Your knowledge of that area is greater than that of others as a result. Even if hypothetically we exposed everyone to medical training, not everyone would acquire the same level of knowledge and skill as a result of that training. Some individuals would be better at this than others and some individuals would have a knack for this and others would not.

Likewise, learning how to be a carpenter draws upon a different skill set and some of those who would make good physicians would not make good carpenters, and vice versa. And so on. Area specific knowledge and talents, however, are not the same as the kind of general awareness that everyone would benefit from if they were trained for that. This is the general awareness that Durkheim is referring to when he advises that a liberal arts education should not be given to most of the working class.

If everyone, through the institutions of higher learning and/or through mass media - a radically different mass media than the currently existing mass media – received a general education about how things actually work in the political and economic arenas, then the existing division of labor would have to break down and be utterly transformed. If people learned how political and economic power were actually exercised, then they would not tolerate the gross inequities that now exist and are fostered. If political decisions were actually made through a process of real transparency and full consultation and debate, not just between the party bureaucracies’ designated spokespeople but through the entire society in mass meetings and smaller groupings everywhere, then the society would be radically altered.

In any population of people, it is true, there are going to be those who are better at specific things than others. Having incompetents handling critical matters such as medicine, or people in charge of disaster prevention and relief who know nothing about emergency management, violates most people’s expectations of a good society. Not everyone can become a physician, and only qualified individuals should take key posts. But this obviously sensible policy differs from excluding the working class, oppressed minorities, and/or women from learning about the grander vistas that humanity has achieved. To understand how the political system really works, to be exposed to the best in art and science, to be introduced to humanity’s key philosophical questions, the varying answers to those questions historically, and to be steeped in history and its lessons and so on in this fashion should be the norm for virtually everyone in a society regardless of what they end up doing as an occupation. Specialized skills and area specific knowledge are not the same as these kinds of lessons. It does not take exceptional intelligence or talents to benefit greatly from that manner of education.

So why exclude people from these arenas? [See the following Durkheim paragraph.] The only reason can be that the existing division of labor and hierarchy of prestige demean and diminish many people in comparison to their capabilities and the regard they deserve as human beings. Were this not the case then there would be no necessity to conceal so many arenas of knowledge from people. The problem here, in other words, lies with the stratification of society and the differential material and non-material rewards attached to the different strata. The shortcomings here do not lie mainly with the people; the populace’s ability to understand exceeds the capacity of a highly stratified society to accommodate them and their fullest roles. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 311-312)

The founder of functionalism, Emile Durkheim, conceded that the core of functionalism’s justification for social inequality was false. Functionalism in both its conservative version (e.g., social Darwinism) and its liberal version (e.g., Bernie Sanders’ version of the Democratic Party) are both products of Durkheim’s work, and reflected by what those who run this country do and believe. And, since those who rule us also reflect the way most other people think about things, because the ruling classes' version of things dominates but does not actually reflect most people's interests, most people nonetheless think this way. Many can be disabused of this notion. I will write more about that soon.

Only Durkheim did so not knowingly conscious of its implications, when he says the following:

If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.[3]

Let me give you his last line again:

Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.

In plain language, he is saving that class society would pass away if we expose those deprived of “contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations.” The only reason why he would argue – as he does - that we should deprive the working and manual labor classes those things is because they would understand the significance of what they have learned. If they were too stupid to get it, then there would be no harm in exposing it to them and he wouldn’t bother warning us of the consequences. It is only harmful because they aren’t too stupid to get its significance. One does not have to be a Shakespeare, a Pavarotti, or an Einstein to get the importance of what they did. 

Those of you lucky enough to have a mentor (usually a college professor, but not always) and who conveys the joy of learning successfully to you and does not treat you like a drone only good enough to memorize somethings for a short time which you will probably never use anyway and who doesn't conceal important and controversial things from you, already know what I am referring to. I am also not referring to a watered-down version of a college education which all too many, including most college professors and Obama and Bernie Sanders mean. And I also don't mean treating people exactly equally as if no individual differences don't exist. But social class differences and individual differences are not the same thing.

Durkheim is thus tacitly admitting that the capitalist division of labor into classes is too restrictive to accommodate individuals’ talents. In order to preserve the social and resource extremes we now have, we must pretend that the existing specialization is functional, instead of what it is: dysfunctional.

This is the same point made by Woodrow Wilson in a 1909 speech: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”[1]

Why do I say that it is dysfunctional? Because, among other things, functionalists themselves argue strenuously to most that we live in a meritocratic system and you get what you deserve. They do not argue that their wealth is unearned and undeserved and that nepotism is discriminatory and unfair, resulting in unjust results; to the contrary, they argue that everyone gets what they deserve. The very most they say is that certain factors might interfere with the most meritocratic getting their just desserts (liberals), but not that the system of hierarchy is itself to blame.

In other words, by their own standards, the system does not measure up.

Let me add something here about the kind of education I am talking about. It is common to blame the people themselves for their alleged stupidity. I am not saying that there IS NOT stupidity and gullibility. There is plenty of that. But stupidity and/or gullibility are not primarily responislble for why education and the system are the way they are. 

[1] In his speech to the New York City High School Teachers Association, January 9, 1909, High School Teachers Association of New York, Volume 3, 1908-1909, pp.19-31 and Papers of Woodrow Wilson18:593-606. You can see the full text here.

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