Desktop Regulatory State, Chapter Seven (First Excerpt): on education and credentialling

Chapter Seven. Fundamental Infrastructures: Education and Credentialing

[This is the eleventh installment in my serialization of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State] , and the first of two installments on Chapter Seven. Because I have split some chapters into multiple new ones since the previously posted excerpts, there is a loss of continuity in numbering. The current Table of Contents with active links can be found here.]

Introduction: Whom Do Present-Day Schools Really Serve?

Before we ask what would take the place of the existing model of institutionalized schooling, we should examine what function it really serves, and then ask ourselves: how much of that function do we even want served?

Despite the propaganda of the institutional schooling system’s hangers-on, the primary function of institutionalized schooling has not been to serve the interests of students in pursuing their own, autonomous life-choices as effectively as possible. It has been, as an adjunct of the rest of the institutionalized power structure of the corporate state, to process human resources into the form that is most usable by corporate and state employers.

[C4SS material on cultural reproduction apparatus]

[Material by Goodman, Illich, Bowles and Gintis, Gatto, Lasch, etc., on real history of educationist ideology. Friedenberg on captive clienteles—coalitions of educational and HR bureaucracies.]

The current educational system is essentially a Taylorist-Fordist mass production system, geared to supply a uniform, standardized and graded input for corporate employers. According to Cathy Davidson, education

changed drastically, radically—as did all of Western society—during the great era of Taylorist standardization of labor and of the laborer, roughly 1870-1920.  Compulsory, public, taxpayer-supported education in the United States found it needed ways to measure children’s educational productivity with the same uniform standardization as was being applied to workers on the Fordist assembly lines. Frederick Winslow Taylor invented “scientific labor management” where he strove to regularize human output, so that the well-fed, rested worker at 8 am worked at the same rate as he did at 6 pm after a full day of manual labor.  For every job, there was the “one best way” (his famous catchphrase), determined by the supervisor, and then everyone was judged by how close they came to that one best way (“soldiers,” he called them) or how far they fell from the mark (“malingerers”).

It’s hard to imagine a more dehumanizing or a more joyless way to work.

And in the first burst of Fordist assembly line labor, educators took the apparatus of scientific labor management and turned it into scientific learning management.  Virtually all of the protocols now in place for measuring academic success are based on Taylorist principles.  Not on ages’ old traditions of learning, but on a system of reducing human qualities to measurable, standardized productivity designed for the assembly line.

Naveen Jain makes a similar comparison to mass-production industry:

Our education system today uses the mass production style manufacturing process of standardization. This process requires raw material that is grouped together based on a specific criteria. Those raw materials are then moved from one station to another station where an expert makes a small modification given the small amount of time given to complete their task. At the end of the assembly line, these assembled goods are standardized tested to see if they meet certain criteria before they are moved to the next advanced assembly line.

We are using the same process to teach our kids today, grouping them by their date of manufacturing (age). We put them on an education assembly line every day, starting with one station that teaches them a certain subject before automatically moving them to the next class after a certain period of time. Once a year we use standardized testing to see if they are ready to move to the next grade of an education advanced assembly line.

Likewise Joshua Davis:

…the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested.

If traditional education is a mass-production system, it should be obvious who the customer is for the product. You’re probably working for one of them. The public schools and higher education system are not designed to facilitate learning. After all, Matt Yglesias notes, for a self-directed student who wants to learn something for her own purposes, the classroom learning environment is—to put it mildly—a suboptimal learning tool.

Suppose you’re curious about something. Like maybe articles about the recent banking crisis in Cyprus have made you curious about the island’s history. The best first step, by far, is to go to the “History of Cyprus” Wikipedia page and read it. If you’re still interested, maybe follow up with a book or two. Watching a person stand up and talk about Cyprus is pretty far down the list, whether you’re watching the person live or on a video. It’s true that if you want to learn how to tie a bowtie or to properly flip a Spanish tortilla, you may want to watch a video. The visual information is very helpful when you’re talking about demonstrating a physical action. But to convey information? Reading is faster than listening, and buying a book—or checking one out from a library—has always been cheaper than paying college tuition, in part because when you go to college you still have to buy all these books.

So, he asks, “Why didn’t books kill the university?”

The answer, again, is that the student is not the customer. The purpose of college is not to facilitate the student learning about Cyprus. It’s to produce a human resource who’s certified by one institution to have been processed to the specifications of another institution.

Even more fundamentally than merely processing students to be human resources of some institutional employer, the education system processes students to be managed by institutions in general, in every aspect of their lives.

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

Under the institutionalized values inculcated in the education system, students are taught “to view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion…. [T]he reliance on institutional treatment renders independent accomplishment suspect.”

As an example of the interlocking interests involved in processing the captive clientele of students, consider the ways the licensing cartels’ credentialing requirements interacted with the interests of the higher education industry:

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

It’s impossible to overestimate the institutional effects of “public” education in shaping human raw material to fit into corporate round holes. Trained human resources are one of the most important subsidized inputs the state supplies to big business. [Adam Smith on effect of education]

Because corporate HR departments are provided, at state expense, with an abundant supply of technically trained and credentialed cogs to fit in their machines, encultured to show up on time and to view taking orders from an authority figure behind a desk as normal, the state has already shifted the terms of the bargaining relationship such that employers simply state their requirements and would-be employees meet them as best they can. The conditions of employment and workplace culture are hardly even an issue for negotiation—or at least are far less of an issue than they would be if the educational system weren’t geared to processing human raw material to corporate specs.

By 2012, Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flower argued that higher education had become “a commodity that produces automatons to serve big-finance capitalism, prevents campuses from being a source of societal transformation and creates modern indentured servants through debt slavery.”

Culturally right-wing libertarians often react with visceral outrage when college students demonstrate for free higher education or student loan amnesty. But their outrage is misplaced. The student demands arise in the context of a system in which, in collusion with employers, the state has made higher education a necessity rather than a luxury, and at the same time driven its costs through the roof. This state of affairs, in which credentialing is necessary for decent entry-level jobs and also costs $100,000 or more, is entirely a creation of the corporate state. As Keith Taylor writes:

A great deal of research has shown that people used to be able to move upward in corporations and government, facilitated in part by internal educational programs. Anecdotally, a friend’s dad moved up to the higher ranks of the VA despite having no college degree, something my generation will probably never be permitted to do. Professional workplaces that used to hire from within have cut these education programs. These workplaces then require university credentials/degrees in order to land simple entry level jobs or move up one rung of the professional ladder….

In other words professional workplaces have externalized their costs onto society. The barrier-to-entry (time lost at work, time spent hitting the books, and cost for tuition) for even low-skilled, low-paying jobs has increased.

Universities are playing this game too. Universities are paying their administrators loads of money while holding campus wages down. In a public forum, President Hogan of the University of Illinois stated without remorse that while it was difficult to keep staff wages down, he had to pay administration the best money possible to get the best talent possible; I guess that logic doesn’t carry over to support staff and professors. By the way, President Hogan makes over $620k a year for living in central Illinois, good work if you can get it.

Have a glance at the University of California system’s administrator pay packages. The statewide board of trustees has drastically cut educational programs in the humanities and raised tuition. How did the UC Administration cope? They got fat raises….

Administrators also give out sweetheart contracts to their university-business inner circles. Just try to get a copy of your local university’s vendor contract and watch their reaction as they attempt to keep you from what is by all measures public information. Part of the reason universities were so reluctant to enter into fair trade certified buying programs for university apparel is the reluctance to open the books to the general public. Their desire to milk the system means more overhead for others to pay in the form of blood, sweat and tears.

Have no doubt about it, the student loan venders are making bank off of this downward spiral. These same lenders were the recipients of the $7 TRILLION + no-strings-attached bailout package from the Federal Reserve at the tail end of the Bush Jr. Administration. The same folks who bailed them out are the same folks who are under the weight of crushing student loan debt….

One would think that with all the rhetoric used by university administrators extolling their service orientation toward the student populace that they would come out swinging on behalf of students with crippling debt. That is until one realizes that universities are now heavily reliant on their endowments. Guess who manages the endowment funds? That’s right, many of the same people who also divvy out student loans. You take away the student loan cash cow, and you severely hit the capacity of endowments to provide a bloated return on investment….

Governments and businesses collude to further emphasize the necessity of a college education at these corrupted universities, then they turn around and gut their funding. These bloated universities then externalize their costs; instead of cutting administrative benefit packages, administrators increase tuition costs and pat themselves on the backs for these new revenue sources by giving themselves even more generous compensation. More overhead for other to pay. More student loan debt.

I would also point out the gross inequity in the incentives for student loan lenders and borrowers, respectively. Repayment of principal and interest to lenders is guaranteed by the federal government; meanwhile, students are barred from even Chapter 13 bankruptcy regardless of what catastrophic event befalls them.
It’s an example of what Ivan Illich called “radical monopoly”—the state subsidizes a certain high-overhead, capital-intensive, and costly way of doing things, and then turns that high-cost input into a necessity for everyone by crowding out the alternatives. [Paul Goodman on preempting other avenues]

The students may be wrong about the solution—free universal higher education, by itself, would just further inflate the credentialing requirements for basic employment and increase the tyranny of professionalism. But they’re not the spoiled ingrates those on the Right make them out to be.

The system is riddled with all sorts of other artificial scarcities, like the barriers—which Ivan Illich discusses—against the low-cost transfer of knowledge and skill.

Potential skill teachers are never scarce for long because, on the one hand, demand for a skill grows only with its performance within a community and, on the other, a man exercising a skill could also teach it. But, at present, those using skills which are in demand and do require a human teacher are discouraged from sharing these skills with others. This is done either by teachers who monopolize the licenses or by unions which protect their trade interests….

Skill teachers are made scarce by the belief in the value of licenses. Certification constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind.

* * *

Converging self-interests now conspire to stop a man from sharing his skill. The man who has the skill profits from its scarcity and not from its reproduction. The teacher who specializes in transmitting the skill profits from the artisan’s unwillingness to launch his own apprentice into the field. The public is indoctrinated to believe that skills are valuable and reliable only if they are the result of formal schooling. The job market depends on making skills scarce and on keeping them scarce, either by proscribing their unauthorized use and transmission or by making things which can be operated and repaired only by those who have access to tools or information which are kept scarce.

Schools thus produce shortages of skilled persons….

Insisting on the certification of teachers is another way of keeping skills scarce…. The right to teach any skill should come under the protection of freedom of speech.

Teacher credentialing—which makes teaching services artificially scarce and expensive, and crowds out self-organized, non-credentialed and non-accredited forms of instruction—is one example. Marcus Winters pointed out the absence of any correlation between teacher credentialing and effectiveness, and questioned the need for it.

Winters went on to propose the idea of removing the barriers to becoming a teacher, suggesting that since there is no correlation between certification and teacher effectiveness, anyone with a college degree should be given the opportunity to teach if they are able to find someone to hire them. The fact is that many of us who went through teacher preparation and certification programs know they were not very helpful when it comes to the realities of the classroom. It is no surprise then that such certification has little impact on student success.

I think Winter’s idea deserves some attention, particularly in the case of secondary studies, but I wonder why he believes that a college degree should be required. If you are an expert in your field, chances are you may have reached this success without such a degree. Especially, if we consider experts who may be interested in taking up teaching upon retirement from their career. Academic inflation is only a recent phenomena. Historically the majority of careers i.e. business, programming, entertainment casting or directing, writing, advertising, photography, art, etc. did not require such certification for success….

What if instead of requiring individuals to jump through certification hoops, we filled our secondary schools with real-world photographers, journalists, scientists, businesswomen, and others. These people also might not necessarily be employed full-time at the school. Instead, they may perhaps teach a class or two each semester. They may take on the important charge of connecting students with mentors in their field, helping them grow their personal learning networks, and supporting them in acquiring apprenticeship and/or internship opportunities.

For this vision to be effective, we’d need to do something that Winters didn’t give much attention. We’d need to seriously change traditional evaluation of secondary schools, educators, and students and align it to evaluation metrics used in the field the student was interested in studying. Instead of grades, students could meet challenges aligned to the real-world needs of their potential future careers. Such challenges might be what lands a student an internship or apprenticeship opportunity. Perhaps to demonstrate mastery students earned badges that could be earned in a number of meaningful ways, chosen by the students. Students, educators, and schools, could be assessed on how successfully they acquired such badges. Additionally, depending on student learning goals, assessment could be further tied to schools if they supported students in reaching their personal success plans that honored not only students interested in an academic track, but also those interested in pursuing a vocational track as they do in countries like Finland.

Richard Mitchell certainly has plenty to say about the value of the pedagogical courses taught in education BA programs.

As our discussion of interlocking bureaucracies above already suggested, higher education also serves the needs of the administrative bureaucracies that run it. Matt Yglesias cites data showing that the number of college administrators increased 60 percent from 1993 to 2009—10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty—and spending on administration at the 198 leading U.S. universities rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching from 1993 to 2007.

The issue is that schools are finding that they can get away with charging high prices. Since colleges are non-profits, ability to charge high prices doesn’t lead to dividend payouts or the acquisition of big cash stockpiles. The money gets spent. And the trend lately has been to spend it on administrators.

All of which is one reason I’m skeptical that you can really do much on the college “cost” front by offering more tuition subsidies. At any given level of subsidy, schools are going to charge families what they can afford to pay and then they’re going to take that money and spend it on the stuff that the people running the school want to spend it on.

Imagine, instead of our present unholy alliance between the bloated educational bureaucracies and bloated HR bureaucracies, an educational system that treated pupils as customers rather than a product, and was geared to serving their perceived interests and learning needs. Imagine a bottom-up, user-driven curriculum. Under such a system, without employer access to a supply of ready-made human capital produced to order, the prerequisites for employment and conditions of work might actually be a contested issue.

So unlike most analyses of the educational system and proposals for educational “reform,” we are not starting from an assumption of the corporate economy and its personnel needs as a given, and then trying to figure out how the schools could better meet corporate employers’ needs to “be more competitive in the global corporate workplace,” and better train pupils for “success in their working lives.”

This approach is typified, at its most extreme, by David Coleman—apostle of the “common core standards” cooked up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in cahoots with the Department of Education: “[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think…. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”

Well, he at least gets points for honesty. But if nobody in our working environment gives a shit what we feel or think, that makes it all the more imperative that we pay attention ourselves to what we feel and think. And if—as Coleman admits—those in charge of the workplace don’t give a shit about us, then explicitly defining the mission of the state school system as shaping human personalities and characters to suit the needs of employers that view them as disposable production inputs is morally equivalent to loading people on boxcars to Auschwitz. It amounts to an explicit admission that students are the product, not the customers, of the educational system.

The students themselves certainly perceive this, which may explain a lot about why some kids do badly in school. Consider the example of Marina Gorbis’s son Greg, after he transferred from the Peninsula School—“one of the last progressive schools in the San Francisco Bay Area”—to a conventional high school. The Peninsula School, which served grades 1-8, pursued an educational model based mainly on experiential, self-directed learning. Within a year or so of Greg’s starting high school, learning went “from being a joyful, often invisible part of the fabric of his daily life to being a chore, something he did because someone else was forcing him to, something he would be judged on and for which he would be either rewarded or punished.”

Since the existing system is obviously suitable only to be condemned as unfit for human beings, what will we build in its place? Unlike most analyses, we will not hold everything steady except education, and then figure out how to “reform” education so as better to serve the needs of the other institutions.

Instead, we will assume a society which has come into being as the culmination of all the trends underway at this minute: the replacement of large, centralized, hierarchical employers as the dominant economic form by small, largely family- or cooperatively owned, neighborhood micromanufacturing enterprises, truck farms and permaculture operations, commons-based peer producers, mutuals, and informal and household enterprises. The destruction of large-scale bureaucratic enterprises and their monopsony power in the labor market, and the rise of networked learning alternatives, mean that bargaining power will become more equal and credentialing standards will be negotiated rather than declared by fiat. In such a society, the interaction of the training and credentialing requirements of business enterprises with the educational interests of would-be employees will be a matter for negotiation, on a case-by-case basis.

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