I am grateful to Yale professor James C. Scott for his book, Seeing Like a State, for opening my eyes to the ways and means of powerful top-down plans for restructuring human life. His book carries the subtitle, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott describes the “high modernist” beliefs, assumptions, and calculations behind the grand failures to get forests to grow as mandated, collective farming to succeed following imposed patterns, and planned cities to work out according to designs devised from a distance. His insights into the failure of grand schemes make, for me, the current corporate reforms being imposed upon American public education even more frightening than I first realized.
Imposed reform works and fails by trying to regiment human beings and nature, both of which resist mightily. The idea is to simplify complex and variable processes by denying validity to factors the administrators cannot control. Laws of nature are ignored, and complexities of human development denied relevance. Trees must line up and grow as the experts command. Crops must obey and follow the plan. Peasants must uproot and conform to the demands of collectivization or be destroyed. And now children must fit the over-simplified and conveniently measurable goals of corporate education reform.
One of the steps crucial to such repeated failures at organizing and perfecting life is making everything and everyone “legible.” The deciders and controllers must be able to “read” all that is happening with simple charts, now made much more powerful and convenient with computers. Sameness is mandatory. One cannot compare apples and oranges; so all of the students must be apples with no significant variety.
Also crucial to such misguided reform schemes is the destruction of “local knowledge” and the “deskilling” of workers. For the production lines to work properly and be thoroughly legible to the managers, each worker must perform the assigned task exactly as mandated and must know only what needs to be known, no more, no less. In other words, each human must function as a cog in the grand machine. Skilled craftsmen must be weeded out. They are not needed, and they are not welcome. They only cause trouble by questioning faulty procedures and silly simplifications. Farmers who knew the particularities of land, soil, seasonal changes, pest threats, and corrective measures learned through years or even centuries of experimentation and adaptation were silenced or killed, which brings us to the current corporate reform attitude toward teachers and the colleges that prepare them for teaching.
Children will develop as the reformers say they must: that is mandatory.
Enter money, front and center. I doubt that the money saved by destroying the teaching profession will, in the main, go back to taxpayers. It will go to the investors in “the education sector.” It will go to the test makers and test-related curriculum peddlers. It will go to those who invest in charter schools and for-profit universities. It will go to the software and hardware developers who will deliver the standardized lessons and standardized tests coordinated to give the illusion of successful learning. And then it will go to the re-election campaigns of politicians who enable corporate reform for the investors in the education sector.
The tragedy of such grand schemes is that their failure does not come until they have already done terrible damage that may well be irreversible. Once American public education has been looted and destroyed, how will it be restored from the ashes of corporate reform?
Another betrayal of our nation and our children achieved.
[Note: in response to a helpful critique from a good teacher, I have revised a sentence in the final paragraph. Originally, I had written of teachers who “actually care about children,” but the teacher reminded me that a lot of people care about children; the good teacher knows how to adjust and respond to the learning needs of the various children.]