Imagine the U.S. president appointing the Secretary of Education based almost entirely on that appointee being connected, and not because of a wealth of experience and expertise in public education.
No, this is not about Trump and Betsy DeVos—or at least not just about the most current spit in the eye of educators. The opening comment applies to Barack Obama appointing Arne Duncan, his Chicago basketball buddy.
The line from Duncan to DeVos is not some dramatic leap, but very direct and incredibly short.
“In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory),” wrote Gilles Deleuze in Postscript on the Societies of Control, “while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.”
Many would discount this as so much French philosophical hokum, but when Deleuze turns to the fiction of Franz Kafka, the more concrete warning of this examination appears. Writing over a century ago, Kafka was keenly aware of the soul-destroying consequences of the bureaucratic existence.
Just as Kafka himself offered dark humor in his existential tales, more recently we have the comic strip Dilbert and two versions, UK and US, of the TV sitcom The Office as well as cult class films such as Office Space to dramatize exactly what Deleuze and Kafka feared: the rise of crony appointees and the inexpert ruling class.
Duncan and DeVos are inners, building careers on being connected and buying connections. And education has been a harbinger for the inevitability of Trump for three decades now since being without expertise and experience has driven who controls public education and what policies are implemented.
Education and education policy have been a playground for Innovators! who have no historical context or real experience in day-to-day teaching and learning.
The policy equivalent to DeVos being confirmed as SOE is the charter school—a garbled Frankenstein of pet policies manufactured by Innovators!
Charter schools sew together “public” with “choice” and hire inexperienced and uncertified TFA corps members who dutifully (although briefly) implement Innovation! such as project-based learning (PBL).
And as a result of the inexpert ruling class, we continue to hear this sort of nonsense:
In fact, the rise of charter schools mirrors disruptive innovation, a term coined by the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The theory explains how technology allows for the creation of better services, which eventually replace those of well-established competitors. Traditional public schools, for example, are focused on low-risk, sustainable improvements. They lost their dominance in the market to cutting-edge charters that worked to transform labor, capital, materials, and information to better meet consumer needs.
Yes, Technology! and Disruptive Innovation! But there is more:
For more than 2.5 million students in almost 7,000 schools, 43 states, and the District of Columbia, charter schools have ignited innovations in how education is delivered, measured, and structured, by lengthening school days, emphasizing project-based learning, and using new and creative models for classroom management. That traditional public education has adopted many of the same notions first tried in charters is cause for celebration. The more established innovations become, the greater their impact. But charters also run the risk of losing the very conditions that made them able to innovate in the first place.
Wow, Ignited Innovation! As you can tell, this is a hot mess.
The vapid Newspeak of inexpert Innovators! is a veneer covering a complete lack of credibility or substance.
And the result is a reduction of teaching and learning to the exact sort of bureaucratic hell found in Kafka, Dilbert, The Office, and Office Space—know-nothing bosses and managers dutifully keeping the workers on task by constantly changing those tasks.
If we simply unpack the Innovation-of-the-Moment!, PBL, we have a model for exactly how Trump came about, and what to expect in the wake of that rise.
“The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics,” writes Lou LaBrant. “It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance,” explaining:
I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature.
LaBrant, then, concludes:
In encouraging much of handwork in connection with the reading of literature, it seems to the writer, wrong emphasis is made. The children may be interested, yes. But it makes considerable difference whether the interest be such as to lead to more reading or more carving….
That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft.
Let’s note here LaBrant was confronting the failures of obsessive commitments to PBL in 1931.
The very ugly truth about our crony appointees and inexpert ruling class is that all they have is snake oil and barker’s bullshit.
Since one of the first controversies after DeVos was confirmed involved her using a public school for a photo-op, prompting protests and Duncan’s crony-appointee solidarity, I invite anyone who genuinely cares about education to not only visit a public school but also listen to the teachers and students trapped in the Kafkan nightmare that is, for example, a school-wide embracing of PBL.
Teaching and learning—necessarily messy things, essentially personal endeavors—are reduced to a never-ending quest to do PBL as prescribed, teaching and learning be damned (just as LaBrant observed almost 90 years ago).
And as Deleuze recognized, education remains trapped in “always starting again,” “never finished with anything”; education Innovator’s! obsession with Technology! has nothing to do with teaching and learning, but everything to do with making someone money and with discipline and control.
The ceaseless updating of technology requires vigilant retraining (educators are always in a state of retraining), the ceaseless reintroduction of New! standards requires vigilant retraining (educators are always in a state of retraining), and the next program Innovation! requires vigilant retraining (educators are always in a state of retraining).
All the technology and facilities retooling and teacher retraining to implement PBL must necessarily call on Innovators! to create something New! to replace the tired and (once again) ineffective practices.
Once PBL becomes the norm of schooling, Innovators! will pounce on the New! opportunity to Innovate! No, with great speed and determination—Disruptive Innovation!
The know-nothing ruling class and their enablers will scoff at French philosophy and Prussian fiction because that is all about being informed, knowledgable.
We in education have lived under this nonsense for decades now so let me say to the rest of the U.S.: welcome to our nightmare.
Michael Scott has been elected POTUS, and he has given all his friends the cool jobs while he pecks away on Twitter giving the rest of us the middle finger emoji.