The 18th century political and moral philosopher Joseph de Maistre said every country gets the leader it deserves.
More recently, professor and public intellectual Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out there are no innocent parties in the expansion of market-based education. That’s over two centuries of wisdom firmly identifying us, *We the People,* as just as responsible for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education as President Donald Trump.
How are you or I responsible for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education?
It was President Trump who picked her, which makes sense, as his own for-profit education company defrauded thousands of students. But you and I also helped DeVos get to her position. We’re implicated too, despite our protest of the selection of a woman who has used her financial and social capital to undermine public education. My contribution to Betsy DeVos’ appointment is that I consistently failed to pay attention to what was occurring in public education.
As a college student at a state university in Florida in the 1990’s, I didn’t notice what was happening in higher education, except issues that affected me directly, like increasing tuition rates or cuts to state-funded merit scholarship. When I began teaching as a graduate student at a state university in the northeast, I didn’t question my status as a contingent worker. Teaching freshman composition courses was a way for me to earn income and be eligible for a tuition waiver as I completed a master’s program.
Although I had heard about the concept of human capital, it never occurred to me that the university seemed to be placing a very low value on mine. Somehow, I believed the skills and knowledge currently being used by the university to minimize costs and maximize profits would help me find well-paid employment after graduation. I didn’t recognize that universities were increasingly operating like businesses, or that I was getting a preview of my future employment in the education sector. The mid-to-late 1990’s were a time of optimism about the economy, so it was easy to believe that the contradictions between what I believed and what I was experiencing would work themselves out.
After earning a MA, I got a job teaching composition and literature classes at a community college in Kentucky. I started employment on the tenure track, but after a few years chose to adjunct instead, certain that I could find a job that was a better fit with my interests in knowledge creation and information management. And I did. The skills I’d used to analyze literature and retrieve journal articles helped me get a job as a research analyst in Wisconsin. But then came the dot-com bubble and 9/11, and the new job I’d found and really liked was gone.
By 2003 I was back to working as an adjunct, at a community college in West Michigan, where I’d moved to stay with a friend. I was making $2,500 per course, a little more than what I’d made as a graduate student. Being an adjunct meant doing all of the instructional work of a professor at less than half the pay, but at least I had a job. I was an adjunct for a year, and also worked in a public library. I was able to parlay the skills from those positions into a job as a prospect analyst for fundraisers at a state university in West Michigan. As the state reduced its contribution to public higher education, there was new demand for *prospectors* to ID wealthy donors in hopes that they might be convinced to give to individual institutions, even as they were increasingly resistant to paying the taxes that supported the entire system.
By my second time working as an adjunct, No Child Left Behind had been authorized, I didn’t have children, and at the time NCLB became law I wasn’t even working in education. Furthermore, the teaching I had done was post-secondary, so I didn’t see how the law was relevant to me or the students I might teach. If anything, I thought I might have better prepared students, not less prepared. My failure of imagination would end during my third stint as an adjunct.
When illness and my employer’s denial of my request for sick leave forced me to give up a full-time, non-teaching job, I returned to adjuncting in 2008, at the same institution where I had taught in 2003. The Great Recession was well underway and I was finally paying attention to socio-political events, but I still didn’t understand what was happening in my classroom. I spent the next two years providing hundreds of unpaid hours of individualized instruction to both hard-working-but-unprepared and overconfident-and-entitled students during office hours. I hadn’t heard of the term *neoliberalism,* and yet I could see first-hand the poor outcomes that resulted from applying economic theory to both education workers and students. More importantly, I was both experiencing and participating in the transfer of risk from institution to individual that is a key feature of neoliberalism.
That transfer of risk is how a teacher can be held responsible for the outcomes of students who were not able to develop in 16 weeks the cognitive and executive skills to pass a college-level writing class. That transfer of risk, and the assessment, monitoring and comparison of students and teachers, is also how community colleges manage their contingent workforce and maximize tuition revenue. I spent much of my term of employment battling with students and department and college-level administrators.
When my adjuncting privileges were withdrawn, I took my dismissal hard. I was so ashamed. I’d uncritically adopted the theory of human capital I’d picked up from casual conversation and the spirit of the times: If I acquired the correct mix of knowledge and skills, desirable outcomes would necessarily follow. And yet here I was: expendable.
After being fired, my illness worsened, and I sought work that was temporary. That is how I became a substitute teacher. Even after my health improved, I continued to work as sub, at first thinking a flexible schedule meant I could immediately accept full-time employment. I’ve now been subbing for 3 years. The value of my *human capital* has declined steeply since I first heard of the concept, although I have gained more knowledge and skills. Not only have I not secured full-time employment, the average daily rate is for subbing is $75.
Neoliberalism is an attractive ideology precisely because it meshes so nicely with our existing cultural norms and myths. We all want to be successful, and neoliberalism’s emphasis on quantification, organization, control, and discipline as a means of maximizing *performance* seems normal and reasonable rather than sinister. That’s why even students and teachers who are disenfranchised by a worldview that says competition is the defining characteristic of any relationship, scarcity the fundamental state of reality, and ownership and entrepreneurship the highest level of citizenship, still participate in it.
A few weeks ago I accepted temporary employment as an on-site test proctor for state assessments for a virtual charter school, despite not agreeing in principle with charter schools, exam-based summative assessments, or online education. The position pays more than I usually earn as a substitute teacher and is much easier too. I’m also a participant in what researchers call *shadow education,* the supplementary instruction parents and adult students use to address the failings of the formal education system. I earn money as a tutor and academic success coach for high school, college, and graduate students. Shadow education is both a response to and result of the transfer of risk from society to individuals. It’s difficult to live within a system without adopting the culture of that system.
But I am also working to be less complicit in the full-on assault upon public education. I try to remind myself and others that education is not a product. That understanding and expertise are knowable and observable conditions, but they don’t readily lend themselves to systematized mass production. That students, or rather, children, are not capital or resources for exploitation; neither are teachers, administrators or other school employees. That people have value because of their humanity, not just because of their predicted contribution to or detraction from economic growth. That learning has value apart from and above, say, achieving tests scores or getting a job. You should remind yourself of those truths, too, because the appointment of a philanthropist and political rainmaker to oversee public education will only heighten the consumerism and competition of the present policy-setting.
I want public education to embody all the positive traits denoted by the words *public* and *education.* My first step to achieving that end was to examine myself. What do you want for public education? What are you going to do about it?