Ideological education

by Rob Horning

16 October 2007


Last week, in an issue that went out of its way to demonize Che Guevara, the Economist ridiculed the recent efforts by the Venezuelan government to reshape its public education system in accordance to Marxist theory.

the aim of the new education plan is “the formation of the new man”.
That phrase was coined by Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the early years of the Cuban revolution. His “new man” would be motivated by moral rather than material incentives. Cuba’s communist government has pursued this chimera in vain for decades. Now its Venezuelan ally is embarking on the quest. “The old values of individualism, capitalism and egoism must be demolished,” says the president. “New values must be created, and that can only be done through education.”

All public educational programs are ideological in nature; it’s state-sponsored training in how to be the kind of docile citizen it expects. (Hence, phys ed classes.) So there’s no sense in criticizing Chavez for making the attempt. But it is strange to see an educational program that seems plausible only as a marginal, oppositional, and subversive pedagogy enacted by fringe radical instructors rolled out as a top-down national initiative. The agenda outlined in the Economist article—“children will be taught that capitalism is ‘a form of world domination’ associated with imperialism,” ” ‘a critical attitude towards any attempt at internal or external aggression,’ ” “the need to replace capitalist with socialist “hegemony”, by taking over those institutions that transmit the values of society”—are all things that back in the day many of my fellow Freshman Composition teachers used to fantasize about bringing to our classrooms under the innocuous guise of teaching critical thinking. And I wouldn’t repudiate any of these goals now. But critical thought is primarily a matter of challenging official doctrines and resisting to whatever degree is possible indoctrination of any sort, including that administered by your leftist literature teachers. When the state dictates some new hegemony, it remains hegemonic; it’s still the institutional culture, which itself carries with it the traits that we idealistically hope education will take the edge off of—conformity, superficiality, suspicion, hierarchical discipline, rigidity, etc. The instinctual response to institutional culture often seems to be skepticism, so it’s hard to imagine indoctrination working. Hegemony is never complete enough to eliminate the space for the viewpoints you are trying to eradicate. Indoctrination is much more effective when it operates indirectly, outside of institutional culture, or in what is perceived by participants as interstitial to it—the talk at the water cooler, what your hippie teacher gets away with saying, the shared jokes between individuals about bureaucratic rules as they carry them out, the things the police condone. True hegemony is achieved when these spaces too are reiterating the dominant culture, as they seem to in capitalist society, where individualism and consumerism are played out as pseudo rebellions rather than conformist posturing, mouthing a party line. Sociologists—Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefervre—have theorized this interstitial space as “everyday life,” and much is made of how it subverts the official version of how things are that makes it into recorded history—the speeches of leaders, survey results, economic data, that sort of thing. If the state seeks to leverage everyday life to its advantage, though, it needs to be subtle and circumspect about it, figure out ways to present oppression and restriction as advances in freedom. Platitudes and maxims about the “new man” are probably not enough to create this impression. The best kind of education is that which engenders beliefs that it can’t explicitly pursue as goals, education that works despite itself to create students who are curious, self-motivated, and sufficiently critical.

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