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The Militarization of American Education

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From What was learned in this fourth grade class in the 1950's?
What was learned in this fourth grade class in the 1950's?
(image by Michael 1952)

The roots of American education were grounded in two necessities. One was the need for the Industrial Revolution to depend on, as the wit and social critic, H.L. Mencken put it, "a standardized citizenry." [1] The other was the need to help get America ready for WWI, and so the American Council on Education was hurriedly formed to ensure a supply of trained military personnel. [2]

Since WWI and Mr. Mencken's time American education, whether the public or private version has had to endure countless critics. And the critics are often right but not always for the right reasons. The evidence for what this American education produces is all around us and is often described in very unflattering terms; the uneducated American, the functionally illiterate American, the dumbed-down American, the moronic or idiot American.

But this is not the place to go into a discourse on the dysfunctional condition of American education. That has already been done by many authoritative critics. [3] This, instead, is the place to illustrate briefly some of the ways in which the government's warriors and spies and the war and intelligence industries directly and indirectly influences American education and through it young minds by infiltrating early school years; by actually teaching warring and spying; by constantly putting on displays of jingoistic patriotism; and by using public high schools as recruiting stations.

Infiltrating Early School Years

Give me your youth

Said the war/spy shape monster

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Shape them slowly I shall

Shape them surely I will

---The author


Of all the humanities' subjects the teaching of American history is the most vulnerable to "militarization." As the saying goes, history belongs to the victors. Their wars are the facts to which self-serving reasons are given and conclusions drawn.

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Let's consider, for example, how the deadly and divisive Civil War and Vietnam War get treated in the classroom. They don't get ignored because that would be a glaring omission. But they aren't exactly "taught" either. They are propagandized and rationalized.

In a feature article for the Washington Post on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, reporter Nick Anderson told about how fourth graders in a school in Virginia, a state that had been embroiled in the war, built and floated models of two war ships to reenact the naval Battle of Hampton Roads. [4] Reenactments are a perfect tool of the establishment. They are entertaining and they teach children how to think and act militarily. Children are taught the obligatory rationale that abolition of slavery was the war's reason, with no mention of Lincoln's racism and imperialistic reasons for keeping the nation intact for future expansion.

Now let's move forward from the end of that war to the Vietnam War, one of the most senseless and shameful wars America ever waged. Few high school students apparently are told how joyous the Vietnam people were over regaining their independence once America left humiliated in defeat or that a string of five American presidents and their administrations lied about the reason for that war, starting with President Truman when America first supported France's attempt to retain colonial rule of Vietnam and then took over when France failed. America's corporate/militaristic state had no intention of letting Vietnam rule itself. Although there's passing mention of the revealing "Pentagon Papers" in high school textbooks, few if any apparently delve into those papers or quote Daniel Ellsberg's conclusion that, "It wasn't that we were on the wrong side; we were the wrong side." [5]

Even if a classroom textbook were more rather than less objective and comprehensive about America's history, teachers are not independent agents and must be careful what they teach from the textbook and beyond it. Teachers who question or criticize America's warring and spying risk losing their jobs and some have. [6] It is thus hardly surprising that most social studies teachers in America spend scant time on controversial issues such as America's wars and discourage students from talking or writing about them. [7] Administrators who fire teachers for what they teach have the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has never ruled against America's warring and spying, and believes it's perfectly constitutional to muzzle teachers. [8]

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Retired organizational psychologist.

Author of The Devil's Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; America's Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying; and Corporate Reckoning Ahead.

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