You might think I’m overly critical of Ted Dintersmith, who probably really cares about education and the future of young people. When you watch Bill Gates tour High Tech High which he invested in years before it featured in Dintersmith and Wagner’s film, you get the sense that he probably really cares about young people, too. But we must not base policy on personality. Hoping that Dintersmith may be the anti-Gates we’ve been waiting for confines us such a superficial analysis of personality. When billionaires like Dintersmith get behind efforts led by private schools to reshape admissions to colleges, we need to put these education reform agendas through a rigorous, historical analysis. Maybe you will enjoy Dintersmith’s book for the tour he takes you on of schools across the U.S., but you’ll need to look elsewhere to understand what’s really at stake in the movement to ‘disrupt’ ‘obsolete’ schools.
If we want to get to the root causes of why the education system is broken and what can be done to fix it, we need to free ourselves from the ideology that makes Caplan’s calculations all but inevitable.
Just as I try (and sometimes fail) to de-center myself when addressing student misbehavior, I try to de-center myself when I write. The vast majority of the students that I teach won’t be racially profiled in a behavior policy or by the police and that’s why I think it is especially important for me to seek out literature that reflects on those systemic injustices.
Any intervention in schools, and any implementation of research, involves questions of power. How do we make sure that the most vulnerable have a voice and are not shut down in the name of listening to ‘the research’?
If we’re serious about making schools better, then we can’t concede the topics of equity and social justice to the neoconservatives while re-shaping schooling to make it even more congenial to the structures that make people increasingly precarious. Makers and entrepreneurs aren’t the answer to the questions we have about equity. We’re not all pawns in some power struggle between the neoconservative and neoliberal movements, between the Champions and Pirates, as if there has only been one game in town, a match to which we must all buy tickets and watch.
The concept of empowerment has more radical roots. In The Will to Empower (1999), Barbara Cruikshank argues that we can distinguish two different uses of ‘empowerment’: “the left uses empowerment to generate political resistance; the right, to produce rational economic and entrepreneurial actors.” I think the educators that I just surveyed complicate this left/right division since Robinson, Ferriter, and Richardson definitely occupy an identifiable strand of progressivism. Nonetheless, it’s a progressivism divorced from a call for political resistance
Ian O’Byrne also provides a useful breakdown of ’empowerment’ theory.
Paul Virilio argues that “every time a technology is invented, take shipping for instance, an accident is invented together with it, in this case, the shipwreck, which is exactly contemporaneous with the invention of the ship.” But his larger point was that we have now (mid 20th Century) entered the age of the generalized accident – think a global stock market crash – where “the possibility arises that it might destroy everything.”2 Obviously, with Facebook we can’t really call what happened with Cambridge Analytica an accident – an unintended consequence – since extracting and selling our data is Facebook’s business model.
The point isn’t to have an Indigenous woman’s voice on the panel so we can get ‘the Indigenous women’s perspective’ and hit a check box as if an obligation has been fulfilled. This approach essentializes the diverse experiences of Indigenous women. Instead, the reality is that the selection of which voices are permitted to participate has long been a rigged game to systematically – and often violently – exclude groups of people who the right-wing (and sometimes the socialist left) now accuse of playing “identity politics.”
On one level, the human capital narrative creates a restrictive idea of what is a valuable aim for education, most often preparing students for jobs in STEM. While national prosperity is supposed to hang on this monoculture experiment, there’s also a calculation that some – many – will fail unless they have the entrepreneurial skills and grit to make something of themselves. On another level, this free-market ideology is indeed an artificial ecology, propped up by massive (and often unacknowledged) state investment in information technology and biotech sectors and a stripping back of social services. We have gotten to a point where, as Shiva argues, alternatives are closed and killed off.