Nobody likes to receive a half-baked explanation from people higher up, particularly if it is to explain why something cannot be done. What’s more, the specific level of annoyance that’s felt can vary with the style and wording of the excuse. Up there for sheer gall are ‘Because I told you so’ and ‘God works in mysterious ways’. There is another however, that infuriates me even more than these two staples of parents and priests respectively. The worst excuse a person in authority can utter is ‘we cannot afford it’. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. This is the United States we are talking about. A country that increases its military spending by $50 billion does not come across as a penny pinching nation. There are people who literally have more money than they know what to do with. So why, more often than not, do we accept this explanation so willingly and unquestioningly?
Parker Palmer discusses the reasons more eloquently than I ever could in his essay: The Aims of Education Revisited. Institutions hoodwink us into believing that any ill feelings we have towards society, or the way things are done, are purely a manifest of our own inadequacies. So effective are they at this deception, we often resign ourselves to inaction. In Palmer’s words, we know but we do not recognize. Why does this happen? One reason and one reason alone. Our education system still places obedience to authority above all else. As long as this remains the case, the man in charge will be able to get away with murder. Time and time again, institutionalized cruelty is given a pass. Although this was not news to me, it was comforting to know that someone else gets as mad about it as I do.
As I mused over Parker’s words, I began to rack my brain for the grandest, most heinous embodiment of this phenomenon. That is how I came to ‘we cannot afford it’. We all know about the massive inequalities in wealth within and amongst societies, but still we do not recognize the fact. We know if we redistributed the wealth, we could fix pretty much all of the world’s problems. But we do not. Instead, we tell each other we can’t afford it, whatever ‘it’ may be; ‘we can’t afford to provide free healthcare, we can’t afford to send aid to 3rd world countries, we can’t afford to provide housing for the homeless’. That’s bollocks. We have the money to do all of those things.
So, Parker writes, the solution is in education reform. Unfortunately, progress is hampered by the hierarchical structure of our educational institutions. An Inception-esque dreamscape exists; classrooms within departments, departments within colleges, colleges within universities, there’s no way out! At each scale we can clearly see the authoritarian rule and the subjected masses. Even if some emboldened teacher or even whole department raises the courage to teach disobedience as Parker advocates, the next level in the hierarchy will resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and the system as a whole will likely remain relatively unchanged. I don’t think the situation is hopeless mind; I’m just concerned that much like the movie inception, it will take far longer than it should.