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Red Margins in Public Education Debate

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© Paul Bradbury

June 08, 2017 00:30 EDT

Education is pushed to the margins in the modern economy’s sophisticated models.

No political candidate, pundit or social scientist will talk about the future of our civilization without emphasizing the vital importance of education. A vast industry of research and reporting has grown up focused on the opportunities for education to serve what everyone recognizes as the radically revised needs of a society transformed by digital technology and a globalized economy.

In a recent article for Fair ObserverNew Thinking on Education Needed to Compete in the World, venture capitalist Steve Westly summed up the problem facing society in these terms: “[W]e need to recruit the next generation of great teachers, update school curricula and empower teachers and students with tools fitting the 21st century.”

Few would disagree with this suggestion. But such a pious wish begs more questions than our thinkers and politicians have answers to and skirts the real issues, which one would expect any venture capitalist to be immediately aware of. How much would this cost and who will pay for it? And politicians, who will unanimously affirm their approval of the idea, will then add: “But do we really need to think about these issues now, when there are so many other priorities, such as reducing taxes for the rich and protecting the population from Islamic terrorism?” In recent months, the one initiative concerning education that governments in the United States and the United Kingdom have taken action on is the elimination of free school lunches. This presumably brings home the essential lesson dear to neoliberal economists that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Although they are unlikely to admit it in public, politicians understand that long-term processes such as educational reform and investment in infrastructure cannot compete with short-term issues, such as homeland security or military operations abroad, especially when reducing taxes is the key to getting re-elected. There’s never enough money to go around, so let’s deal with the issues that panic us today.

Total spending for homeland security since September 11, 2001, has been calculated at $635.9 billion, without taking into account the trillions spent on wars ostensibly justified by the same political objective. US President Donald Trump has now proposed to cut $9.2 billion from the already modest federal budget for education in 2018,  reducing it to $59 billion while boosting investment in charter schools and vouchers for private education, which amounts to a transfer of both funds and responsibility to the private sector. On the subject of renewal and adapting to new conditions, the key issues cited by Westly, The Atlantic reports that “Trump’s budget plan would remove $2.4 billion in grants for teacher training.”

One could reasonably conclude after studying these figures that nothing serious will be done in the United States, at least in the next four years, to implement the measures all the experts and visionaries have identified as a necessity for the economy and the future of the country. But Trump is hardly innovating when he further marginalizes education. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed in 2001 that “our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education.” History tells us where he ended up focusing his government’s attention, and it wasn’t on education. To the extent that Blair’s government did invest in education, it turned out to be a failure, replacing teaching with “little more than exam indoctrination,” a trend that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed in the US, with their respective programs No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

No Child Left Behind instituted a policy of competition for budgets between school districts based on test results — a policy that educational historian Diane Ravitch, one of its early promoters and a collaborator with the Bush administration, has called a disaster.

“We’ve had 10 years of it, we’ve seen our schools transformed into test-prep factories. There’s a kind of a robotic view of children, that they can be primed to take the test, and that the test is the way to determine if they’re good or [they’re] bad, and if their teacher’s good or bad, and if their school should be closed … we’ve never seen anything like it in the history of American education. It is a wave of destruction, for the most part.”

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in the eight years of their administration, had an opportunity to limit the damage and start anew. Instead they followed in the same path, this time implementing programs designed by corporate thinkers, while deliberately neglecting to consult actual educational professionals, including Ravitch.

The rise of STEM

Corporate input may account for the fact that the new reigning wisdom, repeated by Westly, responds specifically to the needs of a technology-oriented corporate culture. The new Shangri-La of education is STEM, meaning science, technology, engineering and mathematics, defined as the key to our children’s future.

“STEM is their future—the technological age in which they live, their best career options, and their key to wise decisions. In 2009, the United States Department of Labor listed the ten most wanted employees. Eight of those employees were ones with degrees in the STEM fields: accounting, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information sciences and systems, computer engineering, civil engineering, and economics and finance.”

Some see it as a new Renaissance. To put it in perspective, let’s compare it with the previous Renaissance, some 500 years ago, a time when Europe began establishing its ineluctable dominance of global trade and, subsequently, the global economy. Governments and both public and private institutions depended on an intellectual class and an expanding workforce educated, according to the standards of the late Middle Ages, in the seven liberal arts. These arts, which should not be thought of as sciences or bodies of knowledge, were divided into two groups: the Trivium (grammar, dialectic or logic and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music).

Pre-industrial education, with its notion of becoming competent in the “arts” rather than the “disciplines,” implicitly acknowledged a fact of human culture that escapes us today. Science itself is a form of discourse mobilizing logic (ordered reasoning) and rhetoric (the art of persuasion). At the same time, mathematics and music were understood to be intimately related.

What we currently call the humanities — history, literature, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, etc. — were subsumed under the study of language within the Trivium. For learners, this inevitably led to a real flexibility of perception, challenging the intellectual class to engage creatively through a broad awareness of growing bodies of knowledge, often in what would now be considered disparate fields, as well as contributing to their creative exploitation. This intellectual culture permitted the emergence of intellects such as Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Thomas More, Copernicus and Pascal, as well as Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes and Shakespeare.

The industrial age that emerged in the late 18th century redesigned education along more pragmatic lines and increasingly identified the “arts” as entertainment for the elite. Capitalism rewards hard work, not creative thought or cultural awareness. Education evolved toward an appropriately industrial model that remained the standard throughout the 20th century.

Today’s post-industrial wisdom would replace the meagre remains of the seven liberal arts, represented largely by optional courses in most school systems, by STEM, seen as the four economically useful disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to which Westly curiously adds “computer science and coding,” as if they were not already a subcategory of technology.

Historians with a long view of education, who take into account the trends of the past 500 years right up to the STEM movement, may notice in this evolution a gradual impoverishment of the curricula and more particularly of the result of education within the culture of the community, a consequence of an increasing concentration on what is, immediately, economically useful. Are we wrong to suppose that this reflects the late-capitalist corporate world’s increasingly successful attempt to confine all human culture within the limits of its own framework of values? Standardization has become a common theme within recent reforms: standardized programs (the common core) and standardized testing, justified by the ideal of “equality.” Should we also be thinking about “standardized culture” or, worse, homogenized culture?

The emerging backlash against STEM has led to an attempt to attenuate its effects by introducing another letter into the acronym: “A” for art or possibly the Arts, producing a new acronym, STEAM. This appears to be a timid effort to make the concept of STEM appear less intimidating and will be the object of a separate article by this author focusing on the ideological underpinnings of both STEM and STEAM.

How bad is the damage already done?

No reasonable analyst today would affirm that our current education system is beyond criticism. On the contrary, the evidence shows it has failed in multiple ways and is in desperate need of renovation. That’s precisely why so many public figures are promoting STEM to ride to its rescue. The university study, Left Behind in America, documenting the pandemic of dropout affecting public schools focuses on just one of the symptoms of failure. We could cite other symptoms, such as drug addiction, bullying, abuse of social media, depression, suicide and vandalism. The pressure to achieve and conform destroys or adversely affects the personalities, lives and future careers of countless learners, particularly teenagers. In some ways, even many of the successful have failed. Among those who didn’t drop out and indeed went on to college, ignorance of contemporary history appears to be rampant. Ignorance of everything one is not being tested on may have become the norm at all levels of education. One thing is certain: Pride in the efficacy of the US education system seems to be seriously on the wane.

By the end of the 19th century, the culture of the industrial revolution had established a new organization for a redefined notion of curriculum: A standardized but also slightly modular catalogue of courses based on recognized areas of knowledge that could be hermetically compartmented into discreet subject areas, but which nevertheless allowed for a wide degree of personal variation in teaching strategies and styles, at the discretion of the teacher. The language skills related to logic and rhetoric that had been central to the liberal arts disappeared, whereas grammar, formalized as a set of rules for writing, remained. Mathematics and science (not just astronomy) both became prominent, alongside English (native language) and history. Optional courses abounded, giving learners in many schools the possibility to explore a variety of arts (painting, music, dance and theater) and even sports.

Post-industrial culture in the digital age has intensified the pressure to focus on the sciences and mathematics. In the political sphere and the media, STEM has become the staple of a new orthodoxy, promoted notably by celebrity scientists such as Neil de Grasse Tyson. “If you don’t want to die poor you should invest in STEM,” he tells us, making sure we understand what the ambient economic culture supposes — that the true and unique motivational logic behind education is hardly different from that of a personal get-rich scheme.

The politicization of education

Modern democracies have placed the responsibility for decision-making, at least with regard to the social purpose of education, in the hands of politicians, largely replacing the inherited authority of literary, scientific and artistic traditions that played such an important role in the past. Economic reasoning has thus replaced any other form of cultural input in the definition of education’s content and goals.

As many observers have noticed, late-phase capitalism has broken down the boundaries between corporate interests and public governance, formerly seen as a necessary form of separation of powers, essential to the health of democracy. What is true for the economy in general applies equally to education. This economic orientation, dictated by the culture of business and the free market, induces the electorate to consider traditional public services and even infrastructure — in short, the res publica (“the public thing” in Latin) — to represent unnecessary costs, pretexts for taxation and expanding big government. Libertarians and “small government” politicians invite the public to regard education as essentially the problem of individual families. Public money, in their view, should ideally be channeled to the support of the private companies that hire the moms and dads who send their kids to school. And why shouldn’t schools themselves be companies? That brings us straight to the logic behind the charter school movement.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise to learn — as a windfall from the WikiLeaks publication of John Podesta’s emails — that just over eight years ago the newly elected president, Barack Obama, who came into office because he embodied the electorate’s wish for hope and change, obediently followed the specific recommendation of Wall Street when he appointed Arne Duncan as secretary of education. On October 6, 2008, a mere month before the election, Michael Froman, an executive at Citigroup, addressed an email with the subject “Lists” to Podesta, at the time director of the Obama campaign. As New Republic reported:

“The cabinet list ended up being almost entirely on the money. It correctly identified Eric Holder for the Justice Department, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Robert Gates for Defense, Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff, Peter Orszag for the Office of Management and Budget, Arne Duncan for Education, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs, Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services, Melody Barnes for the Domestic Policy Council, and more. For the Treasury, three possibilities were on the list: Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner.”

During his seven years as secretary of education, Duncan launched a pair of programs, the Common Core and Race to the Top. According to Wikipedia, the funding for these programs came from the private sector: “The Common Core State Standards, one set of standards adopted by states for Race to the Top, were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and others.”

Logically enough, at the heart of these programs aiming to define the future of public education, we find the principles of corporate management. Bill Gates deftly used his truly exceptional capacity for philanthropy — funded through both his own fortune and that of his friend, Warren Buffett — to impose what he considers modern management standards in the interest of improving the efficiency, if not the efficacy of education. Showing a profound indifference to what experts (like Ravitch) and researchers in the field have discovered about the process of learning and the importance of learner autonomy — research that stretches back at least a century to prestigious thinkers such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky — Gates, true to his vocation as a high-tech entrepreneur, instead analyzed the crisis of education as a simple HR management problem. He viewed teachers as hired managers, accountable to shareholders (ideally in charter schools) and responsible for optimizing the students’ capacity to process and assimilate knowledge. In a Ted talk, Gates publicly promised to improve the efficiency of the entire school system by defining what he calls “measures of effective teaching” that can be used for recruitment and training.

In other words, Gates is generously offering the world of education a solution for rationalizing the workforce. The values and techniques he pushes are well known in the corporate world, but not necessarily compatible with the culture and goals of education. It starts with competition, the fundamental motivational factor. And it includes familiar approaches or guidelines such as performance evaluation, operational metrics, standardized processes, notions of personal excellence, key performance indicators, and implied but unstated criteria of productivity. These can only be metaphoric since the “profit” of education is never immediate. On the other hand, turning schools into businesses in the form of charter schools directly introduces the profit motive.

Alongside this highly managerial approach to the evolution of what can now be thought of as the industry of education, the nation has been subjected to two other notable political and economic trends.

Trend 1: Charter schools and the spirit of enterprise

The first is the charter school movement, which promotes an idea of market-driven, for-profit education. Obama’s Department of Education wasn’t alone in promoting it. Prominent business personalities, notably super billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, without forgetting the Koch Brothers, but also numerous lesser known investors, speculators and entrepreneurs, such as real estate investor David Brain, head of Entertainment Properties Trust. As Alternet reported, the aptly named Mr. Brain explained what it was all about in an interview with CNBC: “Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product.” He even deemed the charter school business “the most profitable sector in real estate investment.”

Industrialists and financiers find charter schools attractive precisely because they are aware of the failure of traditional education. They see the charter school remedy, supported by the taxpayer, as a business opportunity and little else. They have little concern for reforms that might call the principles of traditional education into question. Apart from Gates’ attempt at raising the bar on quality for teachers, they lack the curiosity to examine the true stakes of education. Instead, they are content to appeal to the population’s ingrained faith in the ability of profit-oriented free enterprise to improve the efficiency of a system that manifestly doesn’t work. And that efficiency is designed for a unique finality: providing a competent workforce for their businesses. Which explains why they also see STEM as the key to curriculum reform.

It didn’t occur to the architects of this new orientation to consult engaged experts such as Alfie KohnAnthony Cody or Diane Ravitch, who manifestly lack the business sense they are counting on to drive the program forward. Actual teachers who are also original thinkers might have helped them notice what writer and filmmaker Carol Black, author of the film Schooling the World, has observed in countless classrooms: “[T]he children won’t do what the authorities say they should do, they won’t learn what the experts say they must learn, and for every diligent STEM-trained worker-bee we create there are ten bored, resistant, apathetic young people who are alienated from both nature and their own chained hearts.”

If these appalling proportions are true, we might just conclude that the education system, enhanced by STEM, is doing its job admirably. Our prestigious technology sector can, in fact, comfortably prosper if a mere 10% of the graduates become what Carol Black calls STEM-trained worker bees, since the other 90% will then be available to work in the service industries that have become the new foundation of a non-elite economy. Conscious of their failure to qualify for the elite, the great majority will be all that more willing to accept precarious, ill-paying jobs that will at least temporarily ensure their survival, along with a lifestyle that allows them to feel “normal.”

The failure of the system to educate doesn’t stop there. It goes beyond the essential question of motivation indicated in the above quote. It includes the stranglehold the pharmaceutical industry has taken over education in the form of prescription drugs for non-optimally performing children, aided and abetted by the media, educational authorities and the entire health industry. “All sorts of children, simply those that daydream and don’t pay attention, could now be diagnosed with ADHD and placed on medication,” according to Matthew Smith, author of Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD.

Once again, rather than addressing causes, which a lot of bright minds have pertinently analyzed, the system — including most children’s own parents — accepts and endorses the treatment of symptoms, without reflecting that the treatment in many ways aggravates the cause itself.

As we have seen, the current educational system was built to service a culture that, in the 21st century, is rapidly fading, that of an industrial manufacturing economy. In comparison to the ideals of education in the more distant past, education as it evolved through the 19th and 20th was designed to be less than human — to restrict rather than expand the culture and civilization it was intended to serve. There was no dark conspiracy. It wasn’t a secret. It could even be chalked up to a new form of “enlightenment.” In 1898, Ellwood P. Cubberley, dean of the Stanford University School of Education, accurately described the system he patently admired: “Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials — children — are to be shaped and fashioned into products … The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

Seen in that light, Gates is hardly innovating, except to impose the more modern culture of high-tech industries on an institution that was initially designed to serve the needs of manufacturing.

Trend 2: Student-loan debt

The second trend that has recently emerged for media attention is the generational crisis linked to student-loan debt. To make their way into the “real” job market, where they hope to secure stable and reasonably well-paid employment, the lucky learners who have made it through to graduation find themselves facing a new quandary: that of choosing to become virtual indentured servants to a system controlled by financial institutions.

According to The Atlantic, the accumulation of debt often has a long-term debilitating psychological impact on the families and the learners themselves as they launch their careers. The Atlantic article paradoxically points out that poorer students fare better because “higher student-loan debt reflects an improving social standing.” But this only serves to highlight the hopelessness of those of the same social group who were left behind, either because they couldn’t make the grade or take the risk to support future debt.

The system is competitive from top to bottom: competition for grades, competition for social standing, competition for jobs. And for many, the reward for success in navigating the system and making their mark is massive debt as they assume adult responsibilities in a competitive economy. Westly adds, for our reflection and as a factor of motivation for the politicians who will ultimately decide how the system evolves, the consideration that the nation itself is competing with other nations for preeminence.

It’s a win-lose model. But myriad studies — and some authentic experiments, such as Ricardo Semler’s Lumiar school in Brazil — show that it isn’t the only model. Education works best when collaboration is prioritized over competition. An even more appropriate model for a nation is Finland, which has effectively redesigned its education system around the principles of collaboration, creativity and learner autonomy.

Things to think about

In the guise of summary and conclusion, here are five things to think about.

First, if education is seen only as a means of “getting ahead and getting a job,” random individuals will succeed but society will be that much the poorer.

Second, if we don’t address the true causes of the degradation of education and simply seek technical and organizational remedies — whether it’s focusing on STEM or prescribing Ritalin to inattentive students — we risk sliding even further backward.

Third, we need to beware of the siren song of technocratic discourse, with their digital solutions, from MOOCs to AI: Modern technology-oriented educational reformers tend to present themselves as disruptive innovators, but mostly produce solutions that duplicate rather than transform or replace current failed practices.

Fourth, we need to reconsider the role of the “liberal arts.” Joseph Pieper, in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, originally published in 1948, reminds us that the notion of liberal arts (free exploration) contrasts with that of the servile arts (focus on usefulness) and that the Greek word schola actually means “leisure” or “rest.”

Fifth, Pieper notably reminds us that “Education concerns the whole man; an educated man is a man with a point of view from which he takes in the whole world” and is “capable of grasping the totality of existing things.”

The model of education we’ve inherited from the industrial revolution reflects the idea that education is exclusively about preparing homo economicus, a producer and consumer, a woman or man who has been prepared by schooling for a job that ultimately will create profit for employers, who in turn will use their profits to create more jobs, providing ever renewed guidelines for educational curricula. It’s very much the house that Jack built, possibly Jack Welsh. Whether that seamless economic logic holds up in reality is another question, to which most economists are unlikely to give a positive response, especially when they are unanimously predicting that today’s jobs will quickly disappear as they are replaced by technology.

One thing is clear: Education, with or without STEM, is mired in a crisis to which there are no easy answers. A deeper analysis indicates that education is like the canary in the mineshaft: The indicator of a more serious problem at the heart of the civilization it is designed to serve. Every society needs to formulate its ideal of education and motivate people to believe in it. It may include purely economic objectives, but it must also embrace human aspirations — consolidating and developing knowledge, spreading enlightenment, creating the basis for understanding and harmony, expanding horizons, making sense of the universe. As Pieper suggests, it should promise to build “the whole man … capable of grasping the totality of existing things.” Can any society prosper if education is reduced to a mere expedient for the millions of individuals who pass through the system with no other goal than to memorize their part in the play? Does education contribute to defining the purpose and ambition of human society, or simply provide a tool for the reproduction and minimal adaptation of what already exists?

Willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, we have placed education entirely in the hands of politicians and business leaders. Do they have the vision and courage to turn it into the ferment of renewal and the answer to an existential crisis? Institutional inertia and elementary “business logic” seems to indicate otherwise, but as the crisis of civilization itself deepens, new initiatives are certain to emerge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Paul Bradbury

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