“Education Reform” and the Destruction of Meaning

The Face of Education ReformErik Loomis wrote an article a while back, The Rheeist Scam Goes Global. It’s about Michelle Rhee and the whole “education reform” movement. But I was taken by the cartoon he used, which showed men building a charter school by taking away materials from a close-by public school. I have always thought of “education reform” in terms of intent: the destruction of teacher unions. But until I looked at the cartoon (which is not making this point), I had never really thought about what will be the result of “education reform.”

I think we should be clear about those leading the “education reform” movement. As Deep Throat says in All the President’s Men, “These are not very bright guys.” They know they want to destroy unions. They know they want to turn education into some kind of a factory process. But after that, it’s all faith. It’s like the old Sidney Harris cartoon where the second step in a proof is, “Then a miracle occurs.” That’s the “education reform” movement all over. Step 1: destroy education as we know it. Step 2: then a miracle occurs. Step 3: all people grow up well educated and healthy.

What “Education Reform” Working Would Mean

But let’s give all these reformers the benefit of the doubt. They will change education into employment skills training. And we don’t end up with Idiocracy (which is a tedious film). We end up with something that looks more like the B F Skinner dystopia. It would be like Modern Times but with everyone content doing their jobs because that’s all they would know. The search for meaning would be obsolete because everyone would know the meaning of their lives: to make the owners of Walmart rich.

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple.

It made me think of Babe: Pig in the City. More specifically: the most poignant scene in the film. It is when Babe and company free all the animals from the “jail.” Thelonius, the old orangutan, insists upon dressing before they leave, even though time is a factor. He has found a meaning in his life — and he’s too old to change. (He gets the best ending in the film, handing clothespins to Herself.) And I imagine myself that way at 80.

I suppose that all people feel this way to some extent as they grow older. But in general, things change for the better. “Education reform” is moving us in a rather worse direction — ignorantly, but quite deliberately. And for the most base of motives. I mean, who do you think is paying Jonathan Chait’s wife to “reform” education? It’s a bunch of super rich conservatives and neoliberals. How proud they must all be: destroying the very concept of childhood so that Microsoft and Facebook will have a well-trained workforce. It keeps wages down too!

Trivial Meaning

But none of that would be so bad if it weren’t for the total disregard for everything educational outside what is useful for IBM and Apple. You could force children to learn Scratch and still give them time to escape in literature and music and mud pie creation. Instead, what I see is 6 hours of school and 3 hours of mind-numbing homework. No time for novel reading, because reading is meant for technical manuals.

It isn’t like the meaning I find in life is perfect. It is distinctly imperfect and incomplete. But at least I know it is worth the search. I don’t like the idea of being my own version of Thelonius — stupidly looking for meaning when the product of decades of “education reform” has trained society to get with the program and sing the company song.