Education Standards and Totalitarian Conformity
This is the seventh of a series of guest posts by Dr Danny Weil from an article (World Class Standards: Whose World, Which Economic Classes and What Standards?) he originally published in Daily Censored.
In this seventh section, Dr Weil argues that federal imposition of educational standards essentially programs children to be obedient subjects of a totalitarian society.
(I have bolded points that deserve special attention.)
Standards and the False Claim to Universality and Objectivity
By Dr Danny Weil
Human beings come to educational sites with different cultures, backgrounds, opportunities and constraints. Post-formalism alleges that rationalistic universal standards are really socio-historical constructs, and at this juncture, peculiar constructs allied to the needs of a particular socio-economic system—post-modern capitalism. They argue that they are little more than dominant-based claims, scientific, mechanical formulas and regulations that educational elites proclaim as immutable and non-transformational, but which in actuality are socially and historically created. By masquerading as objective science, standards become a tool for imposing conformity and ideological servitude on people and communities by those in power—they become, what Foucault termed, a “technology of power” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, 1977) – i.e., a way to decimate difference in the interest of privilege and ideological domination by instrumentalist policing. The current standard debate masks difference by failing to acknowledge the diverse epistemological ways of knowing and perceiving the world. Difference, be it cultural, gender based, economic or otherwise, is sacrificed to a debilitating reductionism that must locate itself within the modernistic conception of scientific, rational Newtonian thought.
By casting standards as a form of scientific truth, a techno-rationality that is universal, standards furtively promise to abolish cultural and class differences by imposing a universal, scientific normative that is claimed to be “truth”. Imposing uncritical acceptance and passivity through universal assertions of truth, standardized tests cloak prevarication in the clothes of veracity. They foment the idea that there is a pre-established, non-historical, universal standard for acceptance into the community of human beings and as such, they are an attempt to maintain a passive public that refuses to challenge the historicity of cultural norms and the social context and construction of knowledge. Furthermore, current standards teach the hegemonic lesson of obedience by offering ecumenical rules and pre-ordained procedures that must be followed in order for both teachers and students to adapt. In so doing, they serve to reduce education to a mere recipe that must be followed, as opposed to an artful process that must be created.
Standards as Instruments of Technocratic Control
Teaching is an act of love, a performance art involving creativity and intelligence. Yet post-formalism argues that standards hold students and teachers hostage to an ideology and practice of inauthentic learning and being—a loveless, antiseptic relationship between students and teachers, a false dualism between the world as an object to be understood and the knower seeking to understand. For this reason they serve as a straightjacket that binds both the heart and mind, for they impose teaching as an act of functional, instrumental control — of technological device—not of compassion, caring, and love. Standards become a means of covertly managing people and knowledge for private ends. John Fiske reminds us of this when he notes:
“Knowledge is never neutral; it never exists in an empiricist, objective relationship to the real. Knowledge is power, and the circulation of knowledge is part of the social distribution of power. …. The first is to control the “real”, to reduce reality to the knowable, which entails producing it as a discursive construct whose arbitrariness and inadequacy are disguised as far as possible. The second struggle is to have this discursively (and therefore socio-politically) constructed reality accepted as truth by those whose interests may not necessarily be served by accepting it (Fiske, Reading the Popular, 1989, p149-150).”
Critical consciousness and education for freedom asks men and women to critically examine and scrutinize their social order, not to blindly accept it—to expunge that which oppresses them and embrace that which promises to liberate them. Yet post-formalists would argue that universal standards operate as way of maintaining the inequitable social order; a way of controlling both students and teachers and the production line they work on so that they might blindly and obediently reproduce their own oppression.
Standards as they are currently designed, are also a way of controlling, chloroforming, and policing curriculum to ensure that what is taught conforms to what the cultural conservative and economic conservative elites feel is important. Teachers are mandated to teach to the test and those that do not are labeled “maladjusted”, in need of remediation, and punitively dealt with accordingly. In Delaware, for example, 20% of the educational evaluation of teachers will be based on whether students make “progress” within one year with a particular teacher; regardless of whether students have come to the class ready or prepared to learn (CNN, September 2, 1999).
“Accountability” becomes the buzz word for those who embrace the need for universal standards. Yet the accountability that is advocated is a one sided individualistic, accountability; not a shared socially collaborative, accountability— a mutual accountability between socio-economic arrangements and individual effort and responsibility. Under the rubric of “accountability”, individual teachers and their students become solely blamed for poor individual academic student performance, regardless of the students’ history of achievement, their attitudes regarding learning, or their readiness to learn. George W. Bush made this position quite clear in his elitist and cynical dismissal of social accountability and culpability when he smugly stated, “Pigment and poverty need not determine performance” (September 2, 1999). The rhetoric appears equitable, responsible, and logical—as it seeks to remove issues of race, gender and social accountability from the debate while putting forth the hidden claim that we all operate on a level playing field.
Universal standards also impose psychological fear among educational community members while simultaneously de-skilling them by turning lesson plans into instrumentalist recipes and antiseptic and generic teaching formulas. The Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, for example, is just one of many think tanks that now have lesson plans available on-line that are linked to any state standard (Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 1999), further de-skilling teachers by separating them from the conception of their labor and reducing them to simply technical instruments—objects in the service of education as training—slaves to the state standards.
America once proclaimed that education was a human right, a Jeffersonian legacy of a common democracy. Yet standards insidiously operate as instruments of power, secretly seeking to destroy public schools through economic strangulation in favor of private and religious schools and vouchers. They do this ideologically by feeding the mythological claim that public schools and public school teachers are failing; that they are not living up to the universal standards that elites have imposed. The former president of the Xerox corporation made this point quite vigorously when he stated:
“At a time when our preeminent role in the world economy is in jeopardy, there are few social problems more telling in their urgency. Public education has put this country at a terrible disadvantage (Kearns & Doyle, Winning the Brain Race, 1988 p1).
Universal standards are currently being used to belittle and destroy public schools and the students and teachers who work in them in a particularly disturbing manner, in Florida. For example, school-by-school report cards have recently been released that assign each public school an A, B, C, D, or F based largely on how the schools and their teachers and students measured up to the state’s predetermined standards for competency on the reading and mathematics portion of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test. Released on June 24th, 1999, these school scores serve as an attention-getting aspect of the new statewide accountability system and foster in the public’s mind the notion that public schools are failing students and the public at large (Education Week, July 14, 1999); that teacher unions are dismissive regarding accountability and holding teachers responsible and interested in only higher wages and benefits for teachers, regardless of their level of competence. The debate rarely focuses on the fact that that in Florida, there are 75,000 students who are foreign born, many of them living in situations of high poverty (Education Week, July 14). From conservative perspectives, that would just be offering an cultural and class based excuse for individual failure and thus more apologies for lack of accountability and social responsibility.
According to the school reform measures backed by Governor Jeb Bush and passed by the Florida state legislature, the state will now offer vouchers worth $4,000 each to students attending Florida public schools that receive F’s two times in four years. The students may use the vouchers to pay tuition at private or religious schools (Education Week, May 5, 1999). This will in turn take more monies from public coffers—bleeding the public schools, economically strangling them, further reducing their ability to function and then hypocritically blaming them for low achievement. This is how standards have become an insidious tool, an instrumentalist weapon in the political conservative fight to dismantle public education— stigmatizing schools and those who teach in them while simultaneously withholding funds and allowing them to hemorrhage to death.
Publicizing test scores is another attempt to publicly shame teachers, to humiliate them, to let low-income and minority students to see themselves as incompetent or less educable, while teachers are told that they are dysfunctional and in need of remedial adjustment. It also serves to propagandize and concretize in the mind of the public that unions, in this case teacher unions, are to blame for the problem; that tenure, collective action, or job security rights shields poor teachers and prevents principals, now called CEO’s in the vernacular of privateers, from hiring good teachers and firing bad ones. They want the public to uncritically believe that unions tie reformer’s hands, stand in the way of progress, and act in students’ worst interests. Certainly this article will not serve as an apologist for all that goes on in public schools, from they way they are managed to the way they are operated. However, the universal standards debate is a clear attempt to belittle, rather than intervene and fix, one of the last vestiges of public life in America today—public schools.
Standards, prescribed more like mechanical operations and procedures and stripped of all humanness also become unconscious, ideological features of instrumentalism and technological hegemony. They become the extrinsic reward structures that children in the early ages ideologically internalize for the future needs of the capitalist work force and the economic bonus and incentive systems which will eventually be offered to them to induce them to produce more. Corporate society needs this psychological internalization process to ideologically begin at an early age in order to prepare citizens for the competitive rigors and inequality of capitalist life. Cast in this role, universal standards operate in the interests of an authoritarian construction of unconscious assumptions and patterns, as well as strengthening an insidious individualism so necessary to capitalism’s material and ideological survival. They become the equivalent of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, guiding our privatized self-serving interests within a community of rapacious materialism; operating to diminish relationships, fomenting public distrust and disharmony, and inculcating the ideology of competition within the constructs of the human consciousness. Because of this, they are a form of theoretical, techno-rational control in the hands of a bureaucracy devoted to the desires and needs of a privileged few.
(To be continued.)
Dr Danny Weil is a public interest attorney who has practiced for more than twenty years and has been published in a case of first impression in California. He is no longer active as a lawyer but has written seven books on education, has taught second grade in South Central LA, PS 122, taught K-1 migrant children in Santa Maria, California and Guadalupe, California, taught in the California Youth Authority to first and second degree murderers and taught for seventeen years at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, CA. in the philosophy department. Dr. Weil holds a BA in Political Economics and Philosophy, a multi-subject bilingual credential in education (he is fluent in Spanish) and has a PhD in Critical Thinking. He is a writer for the Truthout Intellectual Project.