Erich Fromm, Man for Himself (Knowledge as Commodity)

Thinking as well as feeling is determined by the marketing orientation. Thinking assumes the function of grasping things quickly so as to be able to manipulate them successfully. Furthered by widespread and efficient education, this leads to a high degree of intelligence, but not of reason. For manipulative purposes, all that is necessary to know is the surface feature of things, the superficial. The truth, to be uncovered by penetrating to the essence of phenomena, becomes an obsolete concept – truth not only in the prescientific sense of “absolute” truth, dogmatically maintained without reference to empirical data, but also in the sense of truth attained by man’s reason applied to his observations and open to revisions. Most intelligence tests are attuned to this kind of thinking; they measure not so much the capacity for reason and understanding as the capacity for quick mental adaptation to a given situation; “mental adjustment tests” would be the adequate name for them. For this kind of thinking the application of the categories of comparison and of quantitative measurement – rather than a thorough analysis of a given phenomenon and its quality – is essential. All problems are equally “interesting” and there is little sense of the respective differences in their importance. Knowledge itself becomes a commodity. Here, too, man is alienated from his own power; thinking and knowing are experienced as a tool to produce results. Knowledge of man himself, psychology, which in the great tradition of Western thought was held to be the condition for virtue, for right living, for happiness, has degenerated into an instrument to be used for better manipulation of others and oneself, in market research, in political propaganda, in advertising, and so on.

Evidently this type of thinking has a profound effect on our educational system. From grade school to graduate school, the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more and better education. We find today a tremendous enthusiasm for knowledge and education, but at the same time a skeptical or contemptuous attitude towards the allegedly impractical and useless thinking which is concerned “only” with the truth and which has no exchange value of the market.

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