Consumerism Lies at the Heart of School's Educational Purpose
A stream-of-consciousness reflection on the state of school, civilization, capitalism and the way we live our lives.
Consumerism Lies at the Heart of School's Educational Purpose
By Tim Hjersted /

Consumerism is at the heart of the school institutions educational purpose. It schools people to believe in the value and necessity of channeling autonomous, community activities into monetary commodities provided by professionals. Bury the dead? You need a funeral company. Feeling isolated and needing someone to talk to? You need a psychiatrist. Feeling sick? You need a doctor. Feeling unsafe? You need a police department. Want to help people? You need to join a social worker agency. Need a haircut? You need a professional that cuts hair.

All of these assumed connections arise out of the fundamental idea that if you or your child needs to learn, he must find a school where licensed professionals can help him.

It is also true because it has been decades or centuries since either previous or alternative learning methods have been available. Over time, more and more of life's necessary activities have been moved from the autonomous, community sphere to purchasable commodities manufactured by the service and goods industry.

We've come to the point that modern day man is rapidly devolving into a position of dependence far more debilitating than any in history.

It is somewhat ironic that modern culture looks down on 'primitive' hunter-gatherer societies. Our technology and social institutions have become more complex, but we have also become more dependent. Our ability to survive today is based on innumerable layers of systems, institutions, technology and organizational networks, which themselves are dependent on everything else to survive. If the system were to crash we would be helpless, as clueless as we are to how a "primitive" hunter is cable of tracking and catching a nimble elk over miles through the forest.

The tribesman was far more autonomous and knowledgeable of his environment than today's civilized man. He was completely aware of the tools and properties of nature that allowed him to survive and enjoy his life. We underestimate the layers of skill and awareness necessary to track and hunt game across forest and prairie. We underestimate the values and philosophy he held in his heart that gave his life leisure and purpose.

As for ourselves, we know very little of the products which we use. Very few of us know how to grow our own food, to repair or make clothing, to fix things, to build things ourselves. We are disconnected from most of the necessities of life, but can buy them in exchange for work. Over the centuries, we lost the knowledge to rely on ourselves and our local community. "Lost, " however, is a euphemism, as it has been well-documented that this transition from community autonomy to wage-depencency has historically been produced through coercion and force. And so here we are today, where few examples exist of people that do not rely on money and the market economy to stay alive.

This lack of autonomy, of course, creates power-imbalances, where the one who controls access to skills, services or products has power over the one who cannot acquire it readily for themselves. The landlord has power over the tenent. Banks have power over debters. Employers have power over employees. States have power over its citizens. To achieve true liberty, to live as self-determined human beings, we must expropriate the knowledge, skills, and the means of production into the hands of our own communities. We must re-learn the skills and knowledge that we have lost. We need to create alternative economies based on knowledge and skill sharing, rather than profit and money.

As we can reacquire the skills to live and thrive in our every-day life, we can reduce our dependency on the hierarchal economic power structures that make our lives dull and toilsome. The simple act of cutting ones own hair, or having a friend do it for you is a liberating feeling. No longer do you need that little extra bit of money every month or so to go about your life. If you attend a bike-repair workshop, or have a friend that likes helping people in this way, no longer will you require the extra funds to repair your bike at a professional bike repair shop. The same remains true for basic car repair. By far the most subversive and peaceful skill one can learn is the ability to grow your own food. You can also create surplus crops that you can trade with others that are growing their own food. For every necessity that we can acquire without the use of money, we can lower the threshold of economic affluence required to stay above the poverty line.

The more activities that become "de-professionalized" the more a community can become independent of those professionals, thus decreasing the amount of work one must do to stay out of poverty. This trend towards community self-reliance has been flourishing in response to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and the growing instability of capitalist markets. World-wide, people are realizing that neo-liberal capitalism does not work. It is not sustainable, nor should we want to make it sustainable. But the answer is not the socialist or communist alternatives of the past. In the place of capitalism, a whole new economic paradigm is emerging, one that recognizes that all economic systems based upon money are no longer relevant. Capitalism, communism, and socialism are all out-dated economic systems that evolved out of environments of scarcity.

The conventional wisdom that indoctrinates young economic students to believe that scarcity is a law of nature that has existed and will exist forever is false. This may seem like an amazing claim, but over the last several decades the rapid acceleration of technology has thrown this 'economic law' into question. Historically, monetary systems evolved to deal with real issues of scarcity. But now, for the first generation in history, technology has surpassed the technical (natural) limits of scarcity, and the problem remains now an issue of cultural lag. A world of abundance is possible now, where every human being can have a good quality of life while maintaining the health of the ecological systems on which we depend. At this point, the economic systems that evolved to help manage issues of scarcity are now the same systems that reinforce it. Capitalism now is limiting technological progress, and maintains a world of scarcity, because scarcity is required for capitalism to function.

Because 99% of the world operates within this system, no one remembers how else it might have been done. Alternatives appear unimaginable.

What if spiders began to tell new spiders that to learn how to build webs you had to go to licensed professionals, and that only these professionals were qualified to build webs, but to learn how to build webs, or to purchase your own web, you had to collect water for the gatekeepers of these instructional tools to gain access. Collecting water was the only payment for such needs.

The analogy seems ridiculous, but it is precisely what has happened to us.

Each individual is capable of spinning its own webs. That is, we are all capable of living autonomously, within our communities, by our own means.


*Hat tip to Ivan Illich for inspiring this train of thought.

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Consumerism Lies at the Heart of School's Educational Purpose