Decline and Fall?

The decline of American education is directly correlated to the rise, expansion, and application of scientific management theory in education and the ever expanding controls placed on education by the “experts.”

Scientific management theory arises in the context of an economic utopianism that finds its clearest expression in education in progressive theories. This economic utopianism raises the question of whether education and democratic nationalism are compatible.

It would seem to me that they are only if the local community maintains the governing mandate of the schools. But the “experts,” by which we mean people who are not personally involved in the instruction of the children and who use statistical data to determine what is best for the local school and its children, continually draw authority away from the local community and undercut the very nature of education.

And they do so because it is so easy to find fault with local governance, which is real people, and so easy to hide behind numbers when you are the “expert.”

Scientific management wants efficiency and standardization, so it might be worth taking the time to trace the rise of standardization in American education, looking for both events and social forces that enable it.

Here is what I’ve been able to identify so far:

  • After the civil war, the American colleges are taken over or begun by business tycoons instead of the clergy who had governed them previously.
  • In the 1890’s, college admissions start calling for a uniform high school curriculum so their decisions can be more standardized and require less judgment.
  • From 1900-1920 Frederick Taylor and others introduce the madness of scientific management into the schools, leading to such bizarre outbreaks as The Gary Plan and the New York riots that resisted its implementation in the New York public schools. It’s hard to believe, but the Gary Plan suggested that school would be more efficient and learning more effective if students were treated like products on a conveyor belt. They would move from station to station at the ringing of a bell. In each station, a specialist in a given technique and set of information would work on the raw material, and when the process was completed a child will have been effectively taught. Needless to say, such a system was utterly rejected by American society out of common sense and affection for children and was never heard from again. 
  • By the 1930’s so many people have gained bureaucratic positions in American education that it has become a self-perpetuating machine. The Depression encourages this development of the school as a make work project. 
  • In 1951 20 billion babies arrive at school and the schools are not equipped to handle them. This leads to the explosion of the text book industry, which undergoes an ingenious transition from providing support materials for teachers who know what they are teaching to converting the teacher into an administrator of information. Consolidation in the text book industry over the next 50 years leads to the continued centralization of decision making and the negation of the role of the teacher as teacher. 
  • During the 1950’s and 1960’s the stupid folly of racism provides the pretext for the bureacracies to expand their authority over the schools. For many African Americans, local control becomes synonymous with racial oppression. As an aside that is at the heart of the matter, I cannot conceive how the cancer of slavery and its consequences will ever be overcome.
  • Sputnick establishes the grip of industry and military over education. The purpose of school has now come to include not only lowering people’s independence so they can fit into the giant economy of bureacratic agencies, either corporations or government agencies (but excluding the helpless local economy and household that governments are by nature established to defend), now the school must be specifically directed by government agencies to provide technicians for the military. The sciences become a central organizing function of the schools – though of course in a confusing context of bureaucracies in conflict.
  • Throughout this timeline, but perhaps more after Sputnik than ever, cries arise for clarity, which means the unifying of all the disparate agencies. When these cries are finally heard and these agencies are unified, the power of centralized bureacracies over American education will be complete and complete chaos with ensue. 
  • During the 1980’s unease with American education leads to federal intervention on a grand scale, culminating, so far, in Bush’s utopian No Child Left Behind plans. Most discussions about American schooling are now about divisions of power and every now and then the student appears as the person we are supposed to educate – so our economy and military will continue to grow. 

Ironically, the more schooling screws up the more people call for increased centralization and the control of experts. I call this The Law of the Catastrophic Continuum. When authority is removed from the hands of those responsible for the outcomes of their decisions, things go wrong in more ways than can be enumerated here.

When that happens, the community, feeling small and insecure, calls for experts of some sort or another. These experts are not responsible for the outcomes of their decisions, so they create a series of ramifications that create still more problems. Each of those problems needs resolution, so the impersonal agency that has now been put in place is called upon, or more likely by now offers itself, as the solution to the problems. Now, of course, the problems are much too large for the local community to be able to handle, so they have no choice but to submit to the ministrations of the distant agencies that have already anticipated and solved these problems. Only by now, the problem became three and the three became 21 and the 21 became 147 and the 147 became 1029 and there is no end to the ramifications. Eventually, as with the Soviet Union, the system will implode. 

Why does this happen? Because human beings don’t love freedom. We are much too ready to let other people make decisions for us as long as they tell us we have freedom of choice. But when they are the one’s who determine the parameters of those choices, as in modern medicine or schooling, we are not free.

in the Christian classical tradition, freedom means that I take responsibility for my decisions, not that I can do whatever I want. It means that I do not hand my decision making over to someone who doesn’t care about me. We call that slavery.

So let me summarize because I know this blog has been hard to follow. It’s hard to think about too. First, standardization is the enemy of education. It seems to have begun when the so called traditional curriculum was displaced because educators no longer recognized a central principle or Logos that held learning together. That led to a vacuum that was filled by functional materialists (giant corporations) and nihilists (bureaucrats).

The folly of racism, the worship of the so-called economy, the needs of industry and the military, all led to decline in education for one simple irreducible reason: judgment was taken out of the hands of the people responsible for the outcomes and placed in the hands of “experts” who implemented scientific management theory in the American schools, turning education into one vast abstract, standardized, sociological experiment and destroying local communities wherever it is implemented.         

We have barely begun to plumb the depths of this crisis.

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