Monday, August 8, 2011

Preschool: The Government's Sinister Plot

Listen to "The Case for Preschool" at Planet Money.
Can nap time, juice boxes, and finger painting save the nation?

A study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckamn indicates those things -- in the form of preschool -- can certainly help.

He studied two groups of underprivileged children: one group that was enrolled in preschool and one group that wasn't.  When those students were contacted years later, Heckman found that the kids who had attended preschool were HALF as likely to have been arrested and on average earned a THIRD more money than their non-preschool counterparts.

While those who attended preschool benefited personally, society in general benefited by having fewer people in prison and people contributing more to the economy.  Therefore, Heckman concluded, the government reaps big rewards from every dollar it spends on preschools.

What did those students learn in preschool?  Important skills for communicating with others and controlling their emotions (among others).  Those skills are often times lacking in adults who have trouble staying in jobs (or out of jail).  But it seems that learning those skills after our earliest years is very difficult. 

Rick Santorum fighting The Man.
But to Rick Santorum, whose presidential aspirations are little more than fodder for The Daily Show, preschool is just another way for the American government to get its hands on young minds so it can indoctrinate them.

He said recently, "Of course, the government wants their hands on your children as fast as they can. That is why I opposed all these early starts and pre-early starts, and early-early starts. They want your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children as to what they want them to be. I am against that."

Santorum has a point.

Preschool is about indoctrination.  So are all schools.  And churches.  And newspapers.  And television shows.  And movies.  And even families.

Think of a society as a biological organism.  One of the major purposes of any organism is to reproduce itself.  Human societies are like that.  They work in ways obvious and hidden to reproduce themselves, and they do this through things such as preschools.

Living things pass on their traits to the next generation through their DNA.  We could think of a society's DNA being the stories and activities that embody its values (traits) that it wishes to pass on.  As children, we learn values through games we play and from activities as simple as forming a single-file line.  In narratives ranging from Horton Hears a Who to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, from the Oregon Trail to the Trail of Tears, from Rosa Parks to South Park, American society imprints itself on its members.  This is especially true of those narratives that are used and studied in educational environments, such as school. 

An institution through which a society reproduces itself was given a name by French cultural critic Louis Althusser: Ideological State Apparatus.  (You can see that he was an academic and not a poet.)

You've been pwned, comrade!
He attempted to understand how the ruling class of a society educated its working-class population to not only accept its lower rank in the pecking order but to participate eagerly and defend it as correct and good.  He wanted to understand how people, like the Borgs from Star Trek, were assimilated into a vast organization, how they became like cogs in a machine.  Althusser wrote:

To put this more scientifically, I shall say that the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class....

Louis Althusser
Althusser's pessimism in understanding how socializing institutions work is not necessary.  I believe all societies do this -- reproduce "the rules of the established order," even if those rules include skepticism about those rules.  The distinction between the pessimistic understanding and the optimistic understanding is that the pessimist calls this indoctrination and the optimist calls this education.

Since he is so suspicious of government schools, we should not be surprised to know that Santorum has home-schooled his children.  I doubt he would say he has indoctrinated them.  That is what happens at the state brainwashing centers.  I am sure he would say that he is educating his children, instilling them with the proper values.  But I believe what he has done at home could be easily described as indoctrination.

But one wonders just how dangerous are the ideas being pounded into the heads of our three-year-olds.  Sharing?  Using words?  No hitting?  Taking turns?  Putting away your toys when you are finished with them?

While those skills make people more pleasant to be around in general, those skills do make for better workers in a capitalist system.  Or in a socialist system.  Or even on a pirate ship.  So in that sense, Althusser's critique of schools as assimilating people into an economic system holds true.  But what else could they do?

I realize that part of Althusser's real critique is that the workers he described were being persuaded to participate in a system that was not designed for their benefit.  But that is a matter of whether what is taught is true or false, is good or bad.  My point is that all societies "indoctrinate" their children with their values, regardless of what those values are.

According to Heckman, preschool instills important foundations for a successful life.  According to Santorum, preschool is instead Big Brother's groupthink training program.  

They're both kind of right.

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