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Minds, Memes, and Muddles - Back to School! PDF Print E-mail
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by Peter Crabb   
14 August 2011
As a technology watcher I am fascinated by a particular story that emerges from the archeological record. For over 1 million years, up until about 100,000 years ago, early humans in Africa, Asia, and Europe produced almost identical stone hand axes that barely deviated in design, either across time or space. There was no innovation. That unwavering reproduction of tool templates over the course of so many generations is evidence that the mind of early Homo was well-designed as a high-fidelity replicator of cultural forms.

Today we are also stuck in a technological stasis created by the same blindly replicating mind.

Despite all the hype about “progress,” the fact is that our technical culture has been pretty much the same for a century or more. We are stuck with a toolkit that includes cars, trains, planes, radios, tvs, telephones, electric lights, and the techniques of energy generation that supply them. These technologies have undergone elaborations, to be sure, but the basic ideas remain unchanged. So, too, the unsustainable course set by these technologies does not change, with predictable disastrous consequences for culture and the planet to follow.

The mind that replicates cultural forms like technology has neurological machinery that directs attention to what others are doing and then imitates and practices what has been seen or heard. This is called social or observational learning, and it is an evolutionary departure from minds that are hard-wired to reproduce culture, such as birds that are programmed to construct particular nest structures. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “memes” to refer to ideas that people learn, transmit, and replicate.

Modern humans are prodigious replicators of memes. Just look around. Nearly everyone is doing the same things and repeating the same lines. In the U.S., most everyone drives a car, watches tv, uses cell phones, and drinks water from PET bottles—all of which are practices that are destroying healthy culture and the planet. Getting married, having children, and buying houses are also memes that are replicated very reliably, despite the fact that not everyone is cut out to be successful (almost 6 out of 10 marriages end in divorce, rampant child abuse, skyrocketing home mortgage defaults). Memes are totalitarian and must be obeyed. The failure to replicate carries stiff penalties: “Don’t watch tv? What a dud!” “Not married? Must be gay!”

But we are not just replicators. The human brain has oodles of extra neurons that don’t necessarily have any evolutionarily programmed function except to stand by for action when needed. That extra brain tissue makes the wonder of innovation possible. We have the brain power to break out of blind replication and create something new and different. By innovation I don’t mean inventing wireless cell phones after years of land-line phones. A phone is a phone is a phone. Innovation is something altogether new, a sea change in paradigm, for example, the realization that instantaneous long-distance communication isn’t really worth the costs of electricity and non-ionizing radiation and the scarring of the land with poles and wires and towers, and that face-to-face interactions aren’t so bad, after all. I believe that every human child has the capacity to create in this way and to break out of the box.

Naturally, this potential for creativity is looked upon as a mortal threat by those who profit from blind replication of cultural forms: the telecommunications industry, auto manufacturers, energy industry, wedding planners. Since 1980, when the U.S. was hijacked by a fascist coup fronted by the Grecian Formulated© pimp Ronald Reagan, the power elite have sought to ensure that the cultivation of all creative impulses in the masses must end. Phase 1 of this conspiracy was to hook everyone on the reigning technologies. Cars must be used to travel anywhere because, by design, land development is insanely diffuse. Seductive electronic media must also be used, enabling attention and information to be thoroughly controlled. Everyone would do exactly as they were told because their replicator brains could not resist the hypnotic allure of must-have technotoys.

Phase 2 of the capture and destruction of the human potential for creativity is now under way. Bush the Younger was the front for the neoconservative plot to destroy publicly funded education. The aim is to turn children into a market and education into a for-profit enterprise. The business plan for this attack on democratic education is encoded in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This law compels professional educators—who know better but are powerless to resist, despite the endlessly repeated false meme about “evil teachers’ unions”—to halt their efforts to encourage thoughtfulness and creativity and to focus instead on teaching students to parrot answers to fake “assessment tests” that ostensibly measure student “learning outcomes.” The surface objective is to “prove” that education “works.” The covert, actual objective is to prove that publicly-funded education does not work, which will be used as justification to privatize it. As we all know, business can do it better.

Teachers are now rewarded for coercing their students to replicate the most superficial memes that only prepare them for lives as mindless consumers. Schools and teachers are threatened with funding or pay cuts or closure or dismissal if their students fail to blindly replicate on assessment tests. As a psychologist and educator, I find this to be a very dangerous development. I am certain that “learning” cannot be measured by a mere test, no less a test whose sole purpose is to discredit educators and to undermine the democratic project of nurturing thoughtful citizens. To the contrary, my idea of evidence of learning comes from experiences like one I had recently, when a former student sent me a note thanking me for something I said in class years earlier that she can now see playing out in her own life. Teaching, the apocryphal saying goes, is like dropping a stone down a deep well. You never know when it will hit the water. But we can be sure that no test ever devised can capture this kind of deep movement in a student’s knowledge and understanding.

So necon-hijacked publicly-funded education reinforces students’ natural inclination to replicate memes, and young people who are fully capable of thinking for themselves and creating new cultural forms have been reduced to parrots of corporate-contrived junk. Their capacities for creativity atrophy and, indeed, come to be viewed as unacceptable parts of themselves. This training (for it is “training”) traps young people in a mindset that embraces the unsustainable consumption lifestyle that is leading us over a cliff. Then they go on to college.

Colleges and universities are also in the crosshairs of No Child Left Behind, never mind the fact that college students are hardly children. Just think of all those millions of college students as a “market” and you will get what’s going on. Like primary and secondary schools, higher-ed faculty and administrators are being coerced into wasting their time “proving” that their students are “learning” and, therefore, that higher education is “cost-effective.” There is now lots of busywork that has nothing to do with encouraging thoughtfulness and creativity and sound character and everything to do with destroying those things. Add to the mix corporate funding of research, professorships, and campus buildings, as well as a climate of constant threats of salary freezes or cuts, increased teaching loads, and cancelled programs, and it is easy to predict what kind of memes students will be exposed to. And students face more concrete demands on their minds and lives than just corporate bullshit. Victimized by the meme that everyone must go to college, most sign away their futures when they take out student loans. The typical loan indebtedness for graduating students at the university for which I work is $30,000. It will be difficult, at best, for those graduates to ever think outside the box as they scramble to repay those loans for the next 15 or 20 years.

The pressure on educators to go along down a spiral of decline is enormous. The ideal of schools and universities as special places where people can grow into self-sufficient critical thinkers has been subverted. The new model of education is the automobile assembly line—not a happy simile. And so it should not come as a surprise that USAns are all in a muddle, as Jan Lundberg recently observed. Our minds are being processed like Velveeta© fake cheese food. The best of our abilities are being squeezed out, leaving only our automatic replicator minds to suck up whatever designer memes the corporate masters serve us. The result is a cultural stasis that keeps us mired in ways of thinking and living that profit the few elites in the short term but that are surely dragging all of us over a dangerous precipice.

Peter Crabb is a social psychologist who lives in rural eastern Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at pbcrabb at verizon dot net. He has written other articles on Culture Change.

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one of these is Peter Crabb

Further reading:

Jan Lundberg, How the U.S. Population Can Overcome It’s World Class Confusion

Comments (7)Add Comment
Generally speaking the percentage of the population willing to color outside the lines, to live different, to march to the beat of their own drum, etc, is pretty small. Maybe it's related to IQ (where a small percentage have high IQ) or maybe it's related to some other measure that isn't well defined.

I don't think the pressure by officialdom to force the populace into social norms began with Reagan. Think about history - the native peoples of America were for example brutally forced to abandon their historical culture and for a generation or more many were forcibly sent from reservations to live lives among regular americana, forbade from speaking their language or practicing their spiritual traditions or having names of the sort their forebears would have. The same sort of thing occurred with other sorts of conquered people scenarios. And what about all the heresy witch hunt things of the past, isn't that a form of brutally forcing populations to kowtow to a specific format of belief and lifestyle that serves the needs of the power elite?

I agree about the current wave of elites establishing control over our population is as you say. I just don't think it's a new pattern created by Reagan, but that it's a process which has thousands of years behind it. Your whole piece reminds me of one I wrote sometime ago about a general process to create control over a society. It involved hijacking and subverting a body of religious writings ...

David Herron
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Agreed. Social control is as old as the agricultural revolution, when surplus, wealth, and slavery took off. But the variety we see today of dumbing-down and commodification of everything, including education, is relatively new and insidious.
Peter Crabb
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Well put David and Peter for me the issue here is 'we are what and how we teach' so sustainability has to include schools and beyond i.e. democracy, ethics, parents having a say in curriculum priorities, alternative forms of schooling and alternative forms of pedagogy etc. thanks for raising this most important elephant in all our living rooms. Thx also to CC for having a platform for this to be raised - salute!!

ciao paul
Paul Wildman
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What does it mean that my wife and I do not drive a car, watch tv, use cell phones, or drink water from PET bottles (or bottled water from any container). Furthermore, we never have done, nor have we ever followed current fads, styles, moral norms or cultural expectations.

Does this mean that our brains are somehow different from most other brains? Does this mean we are somehow aculturated from the dominate society? Or does this means that human behavior is a bell shaped curve with extremes on either end and the majority in the middle?

Could it be that society rewards behavior that is in keeping with the values of the society, thus reinforcing one side or other of the curve of behavioral variation? Does this imply that in order to encourage positive behavior, we have but to reinforce those values that are desirable for a sustainable society within a given environment?

How do we go about changing the values that our society reinforces? Not those values espoused and promoted by the central corporate oligarchy, who have something other than sustainable in mind for the populace, but the values that many of us know to be essential if human society is to continue in any form other than chaos, given our knowledge of physical and biological reality.

Gandhi suggested we be the change we wish to see in the world. Sounds like a good start to me!
Michael A. Lewis
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August 15, 2011     
Nicely put, Michael.
Mo Sandel
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There was a moment in time where I woke up from cramming mnemonics just to remember answers to multiple choice questions only to forget everything I purportedly learned all term by the end of test.
Since then, I thought about how completely obvious it was that our transportation, health, school, practically everything resided on making waste of money, food, time, resources, ambition.
Then at some point I was rear-ended while going to get my oil changed which sparked my thoughts about how inefficient cars were (Think about all the money we spend on maintenance? Efficient things tend to not require so much damn maintenance) Then I started daydreaming up a world without cars and one with reinvented travel so roadways were obsolete. Which I concluded to mean easy access local farm land, no road maintenance, so much public money to spend on greater projects.

As I started building a city in my head and thinking of all the redeemable qualities it could have, I thought about how much we're muddled by everyday life to not even think of the possibility and how absurd it is to share. We are killing our creativity before it even has a chance to be a picture on paper, that is how much society is draining our concentration with mundane tasks, bureaucracy, nit-picky stress inducing problems, and mind-numbing entertainment.

What if instead of killing the curiosity, we entertained it? Half the people reading this probably thought of 101 reasons why my example of a city with no roads would never be possible or how bureaucracy would kill it or so and so forth- the thinking of which is also a major reason why we are failing to spark ambition and change, we're addressing hurdles so soon that it causes apathy.

Conjure up something big and beautiful and then deal with the hurdles.

P.s. love this article- it's a huge relief to find people on the same page who've realized the same isseus and are able to speak clearly about them.
Tamera K.
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