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Paul Horton: The Technocrat's Revolution: Progressivism's Dark Side

Guest post by Paul Horton.

The rhetoric of the Education "Reform" has become truly Orwellian. Those who claim to serve "students first" are funded by corporate and financial interests who seek to profit from opening new product lines in the rapidly growing educational market place. Most of those who call themselves "reformers" seek to further entrench the notion of the validity of standardized testing to cloak a seemingly well intended extension of what Nicholas Lehman has called a "moral equivalent of religion" (The Big Test) that covers up a crude Hobbesian Social Darwinism: the best test takers will rise to the top. "Radical," the title of one such "reformer's" new book about her exploits, is truly reactionary. Stalinists and Fascists referred to themselves as utopian "radicals."

The methods of what could only be described, as a "New Class" of Education technocrats are anything but democratic. The chief characteristic of any "New Class," political theorist Alvin Gouldner tells us, is the attempt to control critical discourse. Party line propaganda is carefully orchestrated. Bill Gates invests hundreds of millions of dollars in creating a Common Core Curriculum and his Foundation constructs an ideology of "buy-in" using the pronouncements of duped teachers (who welcome any and all extra dollars to feed and educate their kids), leading "experts" from the Hoover and American Enterprise Institutes, a bunch of governors, Wall Street fat cats who see investment opportunities in charter school companies (who have their kids in Horace Mann, Dalton, Collegiate, or Trinity), and big donors to the Obama campaign. This scary cauldron is straight out of Macbeth!

The push is top-down, nothing short of an educational putsch! Our Education Secretary, who plays basketball like he is straight out of an Updike Rabbit novel, claims to be "old school" when it comes to education. He tutored kids at his mom's school. He has seen the impact of poverty and violence first hand and lost many friends and mentors to street violence.

In a time of austerity, when class size and support services are being cut before administrative salaries are lowered, Mr. Duncan is effectively extorting compliance from state boards of education and school districts. He cuts funds off from those states that will not opt into his "Race to the Top" that forces districts to use standardized testing to evaluate teachers and sign on to the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards, it turns out, require one hundred percent buy-in, and the assessments that will measure standards will come out of a process that is supervised by the new head of the College Board, the not-for-profit-side-kick of the mega-million-dollar-for-profit Education Testing Service that is the gatekeeper of meritocratic upward mobility. Talk about the fox watching the henhouse!

One of the profoundest ironies of the forced buy-in to "Race to the Top" is that the school district that had developed the most effective teacher evaluation system in the country, Montgomery County, Maryland, will now be forced to use standardized testing to evaluate teachers. Joseph Heller would love that one, a Catch-22 gift from your District friends!

And what happens if you don't buy-in to "Race to the Top"? Your state or district gets stuck with "No Child Left Behind." This is a "No Exit" fate worse than anything Sartre could have dreamed up.  What would John Dewey (our foremost educational philosopher) do if he had to sail between this Scylla and Charybdis? This is an epic question.

Dewey, a true American Odysseus, would found something called Progressive education in response to a similar predicament. He would go off and fight the Trojan Moloch: standardized-rote-learning where sixty immigrant kids per class learned to be good, regimented, clean Americans. Dewey visited many public schools, and, disheartened, he sought to develop a "Laboratory for Democracy" at the University of Chicago Lab Schools.

But, you ask, isn't this what our President said he was going to do: draw his inspiration from the Progressive era? Yes, we remember that he made some speeches about Teddy Roosevelt, the frail rich kid who turned himself into a swashbuckling cowboy and "Rough Rider." (I went to Theodore Roosevelt High School--as did Seal commander Admiral McCraven-- where testosterone driven young men would carry a "Big Stick" every time we scored a touchdown) Of course! Barack talked about the "Square Deal" that was going to make American society fair for the working people.  TR was for the protecting the little guy from greedy trusts and for making the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Never mind that the graduated income tax stuff would come later with Woodrow Wilson; we are in the same Progressive ballpark.

But our History tends to be a bit blurry around the edges because "No Child Left Behind" has effectively diminished our memories with its emphasis on teaching to math and reading tests. My buddies in the public school a few blocks away have stopped teaching History to freshmen because chronology is such a foreign concept to them because they were forced to take the equivalent of forty days a school year either drilling for or taking tests in math and reading. Their Principal encouraged them to get rid of freshman history because most ill prepared kids failed it. History has since been replaced with a very basic geography course.

Even good students of history, however, don't know much about the truly "dark side" of Progressivism. Most of us learned History from textbooks that had been edited by committees in Texas and Florida to eliminate the dark side of anything. This is why textbooks can only be 665 pages long. (just kidding!) For example, you may not have learned that the intelligence tests that were the inspiration for the original SAT came right out of the eugenics movement (Hitler made a careful study of this part of American History). TR has his dark side as well: he thought the "Indians" being nearly wiped out in the American West was part of God's plan for spread of the great Protestant Anglo-Saxon race.

But the darkest part of the dark side of Progressivism became dominant when World War One and Red Scare of 1919 gave eager-to-please G-men like J Edgar Hoover an opportunity to arrest anyone who publically opposed the war effort, government policy, or for saying anything nasty about President my-way-or-the-highway-Wilson.  Several of John Dewey's colleagues at Columbia, for example, were fired for opposing American entry into the War.

In short, the truly Progressive side of Progressivism was crushed in a climate of fear. What was left that continued to be "legitimate" were those who sought to restrict immigration, and those, like Carrie Nation, who sought to control alcohol, especially in the inner-cities where immigrants tended to live, work, worship, and party. Progressives sought to clean up the corrupt, but Robin Hood-like bosses who patronized immigrant wards. To rural and suburban Protestant whites, these "dens of iniquity" needed to be cleaned up. Many very popular organizations were all too happy to assist. The Ku Klux Klan became as popular and as public as the travelling circus. Beginning to sound familiar?

But behind this darker side of Progressivism was another very stealthy revolution: the engineer's or technocrat's revolution. According to a historian of this managerial revolution, David Noble, engineers became managers. They were united in an effort to eliminate wasteful competition and motion. No Jazz in this equation. Frederick Winslow Taylor was their Zeus. Efficiency became the mantra of this new managerial class and streamlining became their ideal, a Platonic virtue. These are the men flabbergasted by Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times." In America by Design (1979), Noble nails their perspective:

The rationality of science...defied the irrationality of the marketplace; like the corporations which thrived upon it, science itself demanded standardization. For the corporate reformers of science based industry, trained in science and weaned upon large-scale enterprise, the challenge was made to order...

Modern industrial standardization presupposed scientific standardization, and this demanded precisely defined units of measure and accurate means of measuring them. (70-71, my italics) 

The point of this little History lesson is that we have been there. Rationalization, Max Weber speculated, was the driving force behind any bureaucratic organization. Things have not changed, they "are in the saddle and they are riding mankind."

Today it is the computer scientists and mathematicians who are guiding some of our fastest growing companies. Big computer and testing companies see lots of potential for expanding rationalization into the Education marketplace. Not surprisingly they absolutely cherish the idea of streamlining the marketplace, which is a nice way to say that they want to destroy the competition. Microsoft got beat up by Apple in the Education personal computer market. My guess is that software and testing companies have billions of dollars of hardware and software to push with long-term marketing strategies. Benevolent foundations and not-so-benevolent-think-tanks are preparing the ideological ground, and the legitimating discourse is what is already out there: time and motion studies masquerading as teacher evaluations, student assessments that preserve the illusion of meritocracy in a culture dominated by a war of "all against all" self interest that Ayn Rand tried to dress up as virtue. (see Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments) Those who can't cut it by the metrics of this meritocratic regime are cut out to work at fast food restaurants, retail stores, or phone marketing and customer service if they are lucky or speak good English. If they don't see themselves fitting into a life of minimum wage at multiple jobs, many will end up deported or confined within the Prison Industrial Complex.

Teachers need to wake up and understand that the country's biggest corporations are coming after their jobs. They have little respect for teachers because they want to market products that they think will do a better job than teachers. Common Core writing will be graded by multiple-choice tests and essays will be scanned and graded with computer programs. Remedial work will be done by computer program. Voice recognition software will evaluate speaking ability.   Knowledge?-- we don't need no stinking knowledge-- it just gets in the way!

So, President Obama and Secretary Duncan, let's have a real "Square Deal" in American Education. Or, better yet, let's do the pragmatic thing and get pluralistic enough to listen to the whole discussion by listening to some veteran teachers in a non-canned environment. Intellectual Historian James T. Kloppenberg (Reading Obama) tells us over and over that you have read your William James and John Dewey.

Both of you should know better. Mr. Duncan, as you walked into the Blaine Lobby (of the Laboratory Schools) every day as a kid, you could look to your left and see a fireplace, a hearth. On the top of that hearth was a bust of Francis Parker, the inspirational Progressive Educator. Just below this bust on the fireplace's mantel, you could see a quotation: "True Education Sets the Human Spirit Free." Mr. Obama, you have walked into the same lobby countless times too: do you remember the quotation? Those who claim to be inspired by the Progressive movement in politics should embrace the Progressive Education movement as well. You have for your own children. What about for the rest of the country's children? What about creating "Laboratories for Democracy"?

You need to change the direction of your education policy now. Otherwise, we might continue to believe that this current travesty of top-down coercion that passes for Education "reform" is the cost of gaining the support of the wealthiest American in the last election cycle.  

What do you think? Are technocrats bringing us the dark side of the Progressive movement? Can President Obama rescue his legacy in education?

Paul Horton, History teacher, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools 

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