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Social Darwinism in the Classroom

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City told attendees at an M.I.T. conference on Dec. 1 that if he had it in his power he would slash the number of teachers in half and double the salaries of the remainder, his remarks went viral ("Bloomberg: If I Had My Way I'd Dump Half of NYC's Teachers," CBS New York, Dec. 1).

Bloomberg acknowledged that his strategy would result in much larger class size, but he refused to back down. "The best thing you can do is put the best teacher you can possibly find and afford in front of the classroom and if you have to have fewer because there's only a certain number of dollars to go around, I'm in favor of that." I thought at first that the mayor's comments were meant to be taken in the same way as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." But then I realized he was dead serious because he obviously believes in Social Darwinism.

Bloomberg, of course, has never taught in a public school, and is totally insulated from the realities of the lives of New Yorkers, whose children are fleeing to private and religious schools. But even if he did not exist in a world of his own, he would likely still take the same position. I say this because I think he truly feels that those who remain at the bottom in society have only themselves to blame. If they worked harder, they wouldn't be where they are. So it's the next logical step to assert that students who have innate intelligence and personal motivation can shine even in classes jammed to the gunnels. The best teachers will assure that happens. As Bloomberg said: "Everybody I know in my generation went to classes of 40 or more. And education by some people's argument was as good then as it is today. Whether it's better or worse, I don't know. But I got through it." So if he could, then why can't everyone else?

This kind of thinking is reflected in a column by George Monbiot of The Guardian. Although he was not referring specifically to education, his comments are germane: "The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves - that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive - are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren't responsible" ("The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen," Nov. 7). Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, agrees, saying that the success of financial high-fliers is more due to luck than anything else.

But should luck also be allowed to determine the education that Bloomberg deems acceptable for students? What about students who are not born into affluent homes and do not have parents deeply involved in their education? Can the best teachers who make the cut Bloomberg wants to impose overcome the deficits these students bring to class? I don't doubt that some students can do so because they learn in spite of - not because of - the teacher and their own backgrounds. But these students are exceptions. I guess Bloomberg's answer would be that's how Social Darwinism works.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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