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Critical Thinkers Make Lousy Consumers

Critical Thinkers Make Lousy Consumers

Over the course of the past twenty-five years the U.S. economy has shifted from a manufacturing base to a consumer base. In other words, people my age (I’m 55) grew up in a United States that produced most of the world’s steel, automobiles, and small electronics, as well as a good deal of the world’s food and oil. That manufacturing base made us one of the wealthiest nations on earth for over 30 years, and thanks to labor unions, it also created an affluent, educated, and active middle class.

Today, the U.S. imports most of its goods and even many of its services from other countries. Globalization and a trend toward corporate mergers and acquisitions has led to the relocation of most manufacturing operations to other countries where labor and raw materials are cheap. The fact that we now import almost everything we need is often disguised in the phrase “consumer economy” or “consumer driven economy,” as if consumption itself were a marketable commodity. How can buying things be a commodity?

Buying things can become a commodity if you can market debt, and you can, and we do. In reality, the biggest U.S. commodity right now is debt. People who used to make enough money to make cash purchases now borrow money to buy the things they need (which are produced elsewhere) and the interest on their debt creates profit, which can then be sold as a commodity (often, ironically, to other countries). The loss of good manufacturing jobs has gone hand in hand with the increased availability of easy credit, and it is that credit debt and its profit that we sell in the form of securities.

The truth of the moment is that if Americans don’t keep borrowing and keep constantly buying stuff, the U.S. economy (as it is currently constructed) will collapse. Most Americans don’t understand this. In order to maintain the status quo, it’s important that they never understand it. (Another obvious option would be to change the status quo, but that takes effort and uncomfortable change.) One good way to make sure Americans never understand the status quo much less attack it is to discourage critical thinking.

When I was in grade school, President John F. Kennedy announced a policy of equal access to to higher education for all Americans. This was a radical step. Before JFK, college was the provence of a select, wealthy few. No working class person here would have dreamt of going to college before JFK announced it should be a national goal. After JFK, lots of working class people suddenly streamed into state universities and extension colleges. Government- sponsored student loans and grants were made readily available to those unable to pay, making a real college education affordable for anyone who had the drive and the ability to complete the coursework.

Today we are going back to the old days when only the very rich could afford college. Government money has dried up, and most working people can no longer afford to send their children. While the pros and cons of attending college are fodder for a completely different hub, I do want to point out that at the same time that the doors to college are slamming shut for the poor and middle class, our public schools are falling into alarming disrepair. “No Child Left Behind,” a Bush policy intended (on the surface) to insure minimum classroom standards for promotion from one grade to the next, has actually had the following profoundly negative effects:

1) NCLB encourages schools to just get rid of bad students so the average test scores look better. Drop out rates are now about 45% nationwide for high schools, and in some big cities they are as high as 75% (Detroit, for example).

2) Teachers are forced to “teach to the test”, which simply means they must cram ‘x’ amount of factual information into every student every year so the students will pass the standardized exams. Memorizing information is not the same thing as critical thinking, but if it’s all you learn in school it does make you a great consumer because it will help you to remember every commercial you ever see on television and believe what it says.

3) People who have the money, and even people who don’t, are pulling their kids out of public schools at an alarming rate. Since schools are funded according to the tax base of the neighborhoods in which they are located, degrading the quality of our public schools means the people with the least money now have the least access to quality education.

On top of bad schools and restricted access to higher education, we now also have lots of bad information readily available to everyone. Students like to surf the internet and have grown averse to reading actual books, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, kids are reading online, and reading is good. On the other hand, what they are reading is mostly crap.

TV, movies, and commercial advertising badly distort reality in a way that encourages consumerism, even when buying a given product is clearly bad for the people being encouraged to buy it. The rash of drug ads on TV is a great example of this. If you research the drugs most heavily advertised you will notice a pattern: All of them are the least beneficial and the most problematic in terms of pharmaceutical sales figures.

In other words, in almost every case, the drug being heavily advertised on TV is a less effective version of another drug that is the preferred treatment by the majority of physicians. Be sure to pressure your physician into giving you this substandard drug the next time you visit.

Lousy Consumers

A Personal View

I was in fourth grade when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I remember being sent home from school and the entire nation being in a state of shock. I lived in a working class neighborhood in between the projects and the white collar neighborhood that surrounded my grade school. The school was mixed, our neighborhood was just beginning to be mixed. The white collar neighborhood was, well, white. The projects were black.

My mother, from the time we were in kindergarten, made a point of pressuring the school to put my brother and me in the grade school’s “advanced classes,” which were comprised almost entirely of kids from the upscale neighborhood on the other side of the tracks: the sons and daughers of attorneys and dentists and accountants. My own dad worked for a public utility, wore dungarees and a blue chambray shirt, drove a truck all day, and came home dirty and tired.

At that time, public school classes were tiered according to supposed ability into advanced, average, and slow groups. The “advanced” classes were made up of all the rich kids, more or less. The average classses were white factory rat kids and some blacks. The slow classes were mostly black with some developmentally challenged kids mixed in. So early on, we got two strong messages: 1) move up and out of the class you are in no matter what the cost, and 2) if you make it, you will still never really belong to the higher class no matter how hard you try. This was back when the official social studies teaching was that America was the only truly classless society.

Yeah, right. Sure it is.

Anyway, I did well in school academically but socially it was hell. By my senior year of high school I was ranked third in a class of over 500 students and had no idea what to do with myself. I had no college applications in at all. My father felt strongly that girls had no need of college: he felt, like lots of working class guys of that era, that women were put on earth mainly to reproduce and cook for men. He decided to send me to a convent (that’s a COMPLETELY different hub, yikes!) and I told him to drop dead and moved out of the house at 18.

I then worked my way through two college degrees. It took me 9 years to get my B.A. in psychology and 3 years to get a master’s degree. My hopes for a PhD were dashed by family illness and other problems in my 30s, but by then I was sick of college anyway and was ready to do something else with my life. My parents died young; My dad at 43 of lung cancer, my Mom at about 57 of a sudden stroke. After all that education I ended up working at jobs that didn’t require any more than a high school diploma anyway. In the depressed industrial midwest, where I still live today, there were no other jobs. There still are few good jobs here, but I am able to make some extra money writing.

The reason I bring all this up is not to paint myself the hero or elicit sympathy, but rather to point out the class problems and the challenges that came with trying to claim an education for myself. First, I had to fight my own family for it. I had to find the money myself, I had to work outside jobs to pay tuition and study late into the night. Not really any different than a lot of other kids from similar backgrounds, and I enjoyed school so I didn’t mind. But I wouldn’t say it was easy, and often I attended class in a waitress uniform smelling like grease, which was embarassing, but my attitude was, screw them, I paid the same money they did, if they don’t like it, too bad.

I soon discovered that my professors did not want to see me as intelligent or capable not matter how well I did in their classes. Over and over again I heard, “Wow, you can really write, and you can think too, but you don’t look like that at all! How can you do that?!” What they meant was, I was looked like a girl and I looked broke. The reason for that was, I was a girl and I was broke. That didn’t make me stupid though! That used to piss me off so bad. It still does, just thinking about it today, 30 years later.

The perception at that time, still widely held in today’s world, was that a working class person couldn’t also be a smart person. If you labored for money you had to be kind of thick and dull. And if you were a girl, well, all the worse for you. In the 1970s when I was attending college, I had one female professor out of dozens. The male professors I had were mostly idiots. Seriously, I got so sick of their patronizing, condescending remarks. They acted as if they were looking at a rare and weird little bug, or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, as if they were stunned that a dog could walk on it’s hind legs at all. What a bunch of assholes.

I would go home to visit my folks and my relatives and I would have to speak another language. If I spoke the way I spoke in my neighbhorhood at the university, I was seen as stupid. If I spoke the way I had to speak at the university in my neighborhood, I was seen as stuck up and “too big for my britches” and smacked down. Over and over my desire to gain an education was ridiculed both by my peers and my family in the old neighborhood, and by the academics with the key to the castle when I was at school. I see this trend today as strong as ever, with poor and working class people holding each other back so well they barely even need rich people to help them.

Today, it almost seems that as Americans we have developed a national pride in ignorance, as if being ignorant, simple, and hateful proves our superior moral and patriotic nature, when really it just makes us look stupid and hateful. I confess this trend really angers and upsets me. I think it is strongly tied to class; that it is a perverse attempt to summon some kind of class pride, however self-destructive and damaging that pride might be.

The time of widespread unionized labor and ready manufacturing jobs that paid great wages with benefits was hard won, historically short, and now it’s pretty much over. Now all we have is stories about that time and a perverse pride in our own ignorance and lack of verbal and critical skills. We will not have to look hard for support from politicians in maintaining these self-destructive and sad attitudes.

I don’t have any answers. I’m just answering a request posted by Sally’s Trove: Is the discipline of critical thinking endangered, or worse, dead?

Yes. It is. For us it is anyway. It’s dead as a doornail.

If you happen to be a Kennedy or a Rockefeller, think away.

If not, the hairnets are in aisle five. Step lively, will you? Time is money.