cross posted from post in space

Portrait of Adam Smith

Today’s education “reform” is part of Adam Smith’s capitalist agenda for workers.

Statistician and blogger Mark Palko compares the hyped push for higher standards with the push for New Math, a program that finally eliminated arithmetic as an underlying focus of elementary mathematics:

New Math would seem to be an almost ideal starting point for a discussion of the current Common Core and Common Core-related education programs (the former being a relatively small part of the overall initiatives). It is perhaps the only precedent of similar scale. Its ties to concerns over Sputnik are analogous to today’s concerns over PISA. Its underlying assumptions about taking a more scientific approach to education are similar. Add to that New Math’s relatively high name recognition and generally agreed upon outcome (there’s not much point in bringing up something no one remembers). [...]

Perhaps [Richard] Feynman’s most cutting criticism was that, after dragging students through painfully rigorous presentations, the textbooks did not get the rigor correct:

‘The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for ‘sets’) which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous — they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by “rigor.” They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.’

Mass compulsory schools undertaking extensive character education inside state standards is an extension of the original mission of schools that should be frightening to citizens in a democracy. Math educators, anxious to see better quality teaching and texts, would do well to be informed of how the educational-industrial complex can take their desire for students to wrestle longer with well-constructed mathematical problems and expand that straightforward need, that could be accomplished with peer-to-peer collaboration, into a comprehensive agenda of developing psychological traits in children such as grit, tenacity, and perseverance. (see Susan Ohanian’s post)

Grit research doesn’t even know much but that hasn’t stopped this report from being put out:

In this accountability-driven climate and in communities that place extremely high expectations on students, grit, tenacity, and perseverance may not always be in the students’ best interest. For example, persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student can have detrimental impacts on students’ learning and psychological well-being. Little systematic research has investigated this. Researchers need to explore the different reasons for demonstrating grit and what potential costs may be. [...]

The shocking invasiveness of this approach signals that the educational-industrial complex needs deep change. The report has character report cards (from KIPP) that do not even allow for different character types, introvert and extrovert, much less for the ongoing development of these characteristics. The educational-industrial complex, under the guise of helping under-achievers, plans to socialize children in ways traditionally thought to be the role of the family and community.

A focus on grit and character-building for the poor isn’t a new thing, it has been a part of how capitalism sees the world:

Why Adam Smith Advocated Controls Over Workers: Molding personal behavior to fit the needs of the market was not the only thing Smith had in mind. It was also crucial in terms of national defense, which Smith considered more important than opulence (Smith 1789, IV.ii.30: pp. 464 65). In fact, on at least two occasions, Smith equated opulence with effeminacy _ looking back favorably at a time of ‘rough, manly people who had no sort of domestic luxury or effeminacy’ (Smith 1762 1766, p. 189; see also p. 202). [...]
To remedy this situation, Smith called upon the state to transform the people, correcting their personal defects and making them into upstanding citizens. To his credit, Smith did called for educating the poor, while others at the time feared that widespread literacy could make them more dangerous. However, Smith, the reputed libertarian, suggested that education be mixed with compulsion:

‘The public can impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education, by obliging every man to undergo an examination or probation in them before he can obtain the freedom in any corporation, or be allowed to set up any trade either in a village or town corporate. [Smith 1789, V.i.f.57, p. 786]
Coercion would force the poor to submit to education. The penalty would be that potential merchant workers would be limited in the kind of merchandise (their work) that non compliant people could bring to the market. [...]‘

The US lags far behind its peers in providing families with the maternal and parental leave (even when it is good for business), health care, and wages/resources to help their own children develop strong character, traditionally the job of families and communities. That the educational-industrial complex will happily step up to move beyond teaching specific skills like reading, writing and computation, and specific curricular content, history, sciences, etc., into the well-paid work of developing psychological character traits is an extension of institutional power that citizens in a democracy should view with alarm.

Socializing Children in the Education-Industrial Complex

Poor and working-class families have no lobbying arm and no organized way to counter the education-industrial complex, comprised of wealthier professionals who themselves benefit from the culling out performed by grading and ranking in the education industry. The educational-industrial complex is armed with extended compulsory attendance laws that not only actually harm families, but completely remove accountability from the users of the system. Even progressives stumble with union issues. This is because the other set of workers within schools are children, or else they are products, either way the factory model shows its problematic nature. (There is a progressive movement to democratize unions and enable union members to work more closely with communities and families.)


But who represents the child? It can only be the parents but the schools have extended in loco parentis to build character education across K-12 in ways that take state socialization to a new level and replace families. Will we fund programs that fully support families or will the money be funneled instead to highly-paid professionals who want to expand the functions of schools to psychologically socialize children on a scale we have not before attempted so explicitly?

Schools must get more porous and flexible even as they expand services to ensure that families’ needs are what schools support, and not the needs of corporations or the education-industrial complex that has grown large using compulsory attendance and legal means to exclude families from power within the system itself.

Could the state actually succeed in developing character education and thereby replace the family? Not if you read the literature on attachment theory and the inherent need for human beings to become attached and develop deep relationships with long-term adult figures. Note that Sweden, where wall-to-wall daycare after one year of age without the home care provisions allowed by Finland and Norway, is now grappling with psychological problems among young people. Discussions of fostering grit must ensure they are built on a foundation that grasps attachment theory and the human need for attachment within relationships that are family-based. Ultimately, the state cannot replace the family even if it does create jobs.

We Could Support Families to Help Kids

We could provide parents access to services that utilize research into character development and the demand for such services would be large in some areas. We could ensure that families controlled access to these services if we restructured schools to begin moving away from the factory model (ensuring every child gets the same thing poured into their head) and move toward a learning services model, whereby families can choose services and goals. That’s how homeschooling works, a truly grassroots movement of families.

Some think that poor families and students will not make good choices. There is no reason to think that poor parents will make worse choices than other families. But there is ample historic evidence that poor families will not be given the same choices to make nor will they be supported in ways that those with more resources are helped. If poorer families are truly given choices, they will do what most parents do and try hard to help their kids. In my experience, poorer families will want strong academic content more than many others.

The educational-industrial complex, or the upper professional classes, have shown complete willingness to extend state socialization in ways that should give pause to every citizen. The intense drive and monied resources put into this effort versus the lack of such drive and resources to support the policies that would actually help families themselves shows a side of this problem largely undiscussed in media. Families have no lobby, no paid professionals, and no billionaires who champion a social structure that has been decimated for poor and working-class people.

Poor and working-class children have suffered as their families have been decimated by wage decline and productivity theft, privatization of colleges, the low growth of public services like transportation, mass incarceration, and the public school system’s focus on test-based accountability, an outgrowth of a the now defunct factory model. Schools themselves must develop a learning services model to ensure that all services will be in the hands of families who have the power to choose for their children.

See also:

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.