Public Threat, Private Gain: How Scare Tactics Steer Education Policy to Benefit Corporate Interests
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All innovative, creative systems are...divergent. —Gregory Bateson
In the fall of 2006, a special commission appointed by the U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued its report on proposed changes for colleges and universities in the United States. In language clearly intended to portray the university in business terms, the authors summarized what they learned during the hearings that led up to the drafting of the Spellings Commission Report:
What we have learned over the past year makes clear that American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy (p. ix).
The question of if such a transformation of American higher education should occur is obviously assumed in the report to be a settled issue—or at least it is a question whose relative unimportance should not stand in the way of moving forward on the how the university should serve the needs of the knowledge economy. This unquestioned assumption by the Commission would seem to signal a full reawakening of the technocratic educational agenda that began 100 years ago as an efficiency-based economic answer to a philosophical question regarding the purpose of higher education, which had been focused for the past 800 years or so on the educational mission of creating good people and citizens, rather than good servants of the knowledge economy.
Following its industrial efficiency metaphor, the Spellings Commission Report goes on to cast this ominous warning:
History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to—or even to notice—changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers. Without serious self-examination and reform, institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap, seeing their market share substantially reduced and their services increasingly characterized by obsolescence (p. ix).
In their enthusiasm to make their business metaphor literal in its application to higher education, the authors do not offer any evidence of the looming competitive threat to the prominence of American universities, nor do they explain how it is that students from around the world regularly opt for an American university education if they can get one.
While this kind of anxious rhetoric from policy elites has remained a standard line of attack in the K-12 school reform discussion for the past 100 years, such dire warnings are quite new to discussions of higher education reform—and quite troubling to those who view the university’s mission in broader terms than the corporate service model that the Spellings Commission advocated to counteract the fear of “other countries...passing us.”
The history of K-12 reform movements in the United States has been regularly punctuated by similar alarmist rhetoric that goes back to the early 20th century. The first generation of scientific management enthusiasts argued that vocational high schools and industrial training schools for African Americans and brown immigrants would offer security against the chief economic threat from Germany, where educational system was based on the Prussian model for efficient sorting of students for future life roles. Elite education reformers inspired by Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management attacked the liberal arts orientation of the school curriculum as outmoded, old-fashioned, and out of touch with the times.
For reformers and eugenics enthusiasts such as Franklin Bobbitt, Elwood Cubberley and Edward Thorndike, economic prosperity demanded that waste be eliminated by sorting individuals using primitive IQ and achievement tests and targeting education based on the adult roles that students were qualified to occupy. As Stanford University’s Cubberley phrased it, educators need to move past the “the overly democratic notion that all individuals are of equal value.” By the time the first IQ tests had been developed and deployed by the “scientific” education reformers in the early 1920s, the differentiated vocational curriculums seemed poised to deliver the efficiency that the American economic engine required to cement America’s preeminent role as world leader. By the time the efficiency zealots’ ideas were reaching the masses, however, the Germans were in defeat, at the hands of the poorly educated English and American rabble.