Schooling and Education: Indoctrination versus Empowerment

Boyce Brown I Education I Commentary I January 27th, 2015

The reigning social delusion is that schooling and education are synonymous, both designed to impart knowledge, skills, and dispositions; foster critical rationality; enhance economic opportunities; and foster democratic engagement among the pupils being taught. Many critics describe the many ways in which this is not the case and that, in fact, the educational system operates to thwart those noble ideals.

For example, Ivan Illich compares the school with "a global madhouse or global prison in which education, correction, and adjustment become synonymous" (1975, 44). He goes on to discuss the social mechanisms by which this hypocrisy is camouflaged. In "rich countries" people "cannot learn much" because the cultural environment is "highly programmed" (Illich, 1975, 47). Furthermore, the media "exclude(s) those things they regard as unfit to print," "secrets are guarded by bureaucracies" and "facts that could serve them" are kept from "entire classes of people" by the political and professional structure of global society (Illich, 1975, 47). He explicitly blames this gatekeeping function and the grotesque hypocrisy and deceit it generates on the class structure in imperialist and capitalist societies (Illich, 1975, 49).

The editors of Rethinking School Reform suggest that the power elite use the educational system to inculcate certain means, mores, and assumptions to reproduce the existing class structure of society. They blame schools that "foster narrowly self-centered notions of success" and "making it" in the context of a "me-first, dollar driven culture (that) undermines democratic values, and seems to invent daily new forms of alienation and self-destruction" (Karp and Christensen, 2003, 3). Similarly, Jean Anyon cites numerous thinkers who concur that knowledge and skills leading to social power and reward (e.g. medical, legal, managerial) are made available to the advantaged social groups but are withheld from the working classes, to whom a more practical curriculum is offered (e.g. manual skills, clerical knowledge) (1980, 253).

The hidden curriculum consists of the implicit cues given off by society and its bureaucracies and institutions regarding how one can navigate the educational system to achieve success in the "me-first dollar driven" culture. In essence, those students bright, savvy, and ambitious enough, and unduly burdened by scruples for humanity, the planet, and the future realize early on in their educational careers the key requirements for "success" (e.g. money and prestige). They are simple enough: obedience to authority figures, willingness to jump through any institutional hoops no matter how asinine, and an acceptance of (or at least silence towards) the conventional wisdom and the towering infrastructure of hypocrisy, lies, deception, and fraud that is the very bulwark of modern techno-consumerist society.

For letting themselves be incorporated into the suicidal logic of the market economy, they are rewarded handsomely by sequentially increased use value, certified by credentials from elite schools and universities. These credentials typically lead to highly remunerative positions in law, finance and medicine. As they gradually assume positions of ever-greater responsibility, they know implicitly that their ongoing careerism necessitates they assume the duties of maintaining the hypocrisies that got them to their positions of wealth and prestige in the first place.

In countries that brand themselves as democracies - which today includes virtually all nation-states - this cannot be a closed system with the rich staying rich and the working class staying the working class ad nauseum. This is because the notion of class mobility is one of the most crucial lies that must be maintained in order to maintain democracy as a functioning brand name. Hence, a limited number of working and middle class will be allowed to ascend to the upper class as technocrats to the power elite if they show the appropriate obeisance to the lies of society, if they demonstrate themselves adequately accommodating to power. This is more likely to occur if these individuals are able to get into the elite K-12 institutions that routinely funnel their "successful" graduates into elite colleges, universities, and professional schools. Barack Obama, a graduate of Punahou Preparatory Academy, is a fine example.

Society is built upon a creaking edifice of the most disgusting and transparent lies. Among the most durable of these are that the nation-state exists to provide a forum for the peaceful resolution of competing social and economic interests, and that it has the people's interest at heart. Instead, I would contend that the nation-state exists to allow a tiny group of clinical psychopaths to lie, murder, steal and swindle on an unimaginably vast scale, without restraint or consequence. It is the function of law, politics, the media, and education to (paraphrasing Churchill) protect that dire truth with "a bodyguard of lies" and make sure a critical mass of the general public never acquire the critical rationality and empathy needed for them to see that deception for themselves, which would be the death knell for the nation-state and its endless cavalcade of crimes.

This can be seen quite starkly in the United States Supreme Court Case of Wisconsin vs. Yoder. Some Amish in Wisconsin wanted to pull their kids out of public schools before the state's allowable age. Although the court actually ruled in their favor, as an anarchist, I find the decision a nauseating, albeit illuminating, read. The court points to "the state's interest in universal education." (United States Supreme Court, 1972, 214)

There is no doubt as to the power of a State, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education (United States Supreme Court, 1972, 213).

Since the state is a massive, ongoing and duplicitous criminal entity, I recognize no state interest in universal education whatsoever. Rather, I agree with what anarchist and school teacher Max Stirner wrote in The Ego and his Own: "state, church, people, and society have to thank for their existence the disrespect I have for myself" (1907, 376-377).

The court found in favor of the defendants in part because of religious freedom and a sense that the informal, community-based vocational education of the Amish was an adequate substitute for the additional year or two of the compulsory schooling that they would otherwise be missing.

What I found more illuminative of the state's interest in universal education, however, was the courts repeated stress on the economic self-sufficiency and law-abiding nature of the Amish. The state would not be burdened by Amish education because their adherents tend to stay off of the dole and out of jail.

Here we see the hidden pedagogy of the court case. Sure, the state would be spared the expense of paying for welfare or incarceration but this is a narrow, instrumental benefit. Lurking behind it is the assumption that Amish education does not train its children to question unjust laws designed to maintain an oppressive social system or to question their humble place in an economic system designed to consolidate wealth into what George H.W. Bush has called "ever higher, tighter, and righter hands" (Martin, 2010, para. 1).

Thus, a philosophical accommodation to the consensus reality - intensified by the Amish's preference for actual physical separation from the broader society - ensure that their system of education is no threat to the lies that glue "democratic capitalism" together. Curiously, these lies are even hinted at in the court decision by its reference to the "requirements of contemporary society exerting a hydraulic insistence on conformity to majoritarian standards" (United States Supreme Court, 1972, 217).

Not being revolutionaries, the Wisconsin Amish can be allowed their insular program. What is needed, however, is a radical, sustained and ongoing engagement with the early education, K-12 and higher education systems by philosophers, teachers, and administrators for freedom of conscience, as the basis for all else. This seems highly unlikely to ever occur, as long as the oligarchic and militaristic interests in control of the Amerikkkan nation-state continue to maintain that control.

Compulsory mass schooling reproduces the existing class structure of society. Education has the potential to create free men and women.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162, 67-92.

Illich, I. (1975). The deschooled society. New York: Jeffrey Norton.

Karp, S., & Christensen, L. (Eds.). (2003). Rethinking school reform: Views from the classroom. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools Press.

Martin, A. (2010, June 28). The end of capitalism: The era of post-Bushonomics. Retrieved from .

Stirner, M. (1907). The ego and his own. New York: Benjamin R. Tucker Publisher.

United States Supreme Court. (1972). 406 U.S. 205. Wisconsin v. Yoder. Retrieved from