Truant heads

The capitalist today, if he wishes to remain one, must support the government, and even lead the way, in giving the children whom he may one day need on the machines an education such as a hundred years ago very few children of manufacturers ever got. It goes against the grain with him, but he has no choice. Today, and still more this is true of the future, it is not the country which is most highly educated at the top, but the country which is most highly educated at the bottom that takes first place and decides the worth of the dollar." (“The Caretta,” B. Traven, circa 1926)

The crisis in education has become a subject worthy of headlines, the op‑ed page, and other “public” forums, typically with the lament that education's failures are the source of a steady decline in US industrial productivity. The failures are robbing the country of its competitive advantage. Worse yet, though unstated, the cream of an admittedly faulty crop need new ways to rationalize their relative privilege. Excellence will be the standard, and economic progress the goal of a new educational strategy.

According to the National Commission on Excellence in Education report, A Nation at Risk, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.... We [sic] have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Businesses complain about the high cost of finding qualified entry‑level personnel. Six out of ten PacBell applicants are rejected because they can't pass a 7th‑grade‑level test; 40% of BofA applicants fail tests requiring alphabetizing names and putting 5‑digit numbers in sequential order; Wells Fargo wannabes suffer a 50% failure rate on similarly mindless exams. These people literally won't do.

A 1985 Bureau of Labor Statistics report finds that, even when high‑tech industries are broadly defined, they “will account for only a small proportion of the new jobs through 1995.” Opportunities abound for the custodian, cashier, secretary, kitchen helper, security guard, or doorkeeper (in that order). Disregarding the calls for a higher degree of “schooling,” low‑paying, low‑skill jobs keep growing.

Despite deliberate efforts to de‑skill the workplace, in part because it's easier to control fragmented servants who process information they'll never really understand, skilled labor is still required. Smart machines have needs, too. Each automated step forward demands a support staff—although today much of the expertise comes from contracted technical support, payroll‑ service bureaus, independent tax consultants, etc. Generally self-employed or small-business employees, these workers are scattered and unable to cooperate, and are frequently trapped in technologically obsolete fields.

The experts agree: The failure of the schools threatens the nation's competitiveness and the USA's status as the richest country in history. In response to what A Nation at Risk calls “a rising tide of mediocrity,” policy‑makers propose the standard of “excellence” as the focal point of a comprehensive educational strategy devoted to the future of high‑tech America.

Education Is Their Business

From the late 1830s through the 1840s, “common schools” were established to “shape character,” in response to increasing urbanization and the demise of skilled craftsmen and self‑sufficient farmers. Schooling was widely applied, though the female, slave, Indian, and the ghetto poor were usually not educated (might give 'em ideas). Even a casual look at the requirements for being a teacher (female, unwed, proper, etc.) shows that something more was expected than reading and writing.

Between the 1890s and 1920s, schools smoothed the way for the development of more intensive bureaucratization. A new professional elite of “education executives” trained in the hierarchical organization techniques of scientific management and the edicts of business efficiency reorganized the school to mirror the modern factory. High school also served as an institution to “Americanize” potentially “radical“ immigrants.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill made higher education possible for more people, and a multi‑tiered system evolved: community colleges for the minimally trained working class; large, state universities for future mid‑level bureaucrats; and elite, private institutions for the progeny of the ruling class. A “knowledge race” with the USSR necessitated a vast outpouring of federal funds for scientific R & D and a class of engineers and physical scientists, wedding the “multiversities” with the military‑industrial complex.

As the universities developed into centers of political dissent in the late '60s, interests such as the liberal Trilateral Commission cited the “crisis in democracy” as a cause for great alarm, and recommended, among other things, that business move away from utilizing the university for research purposes. The faculty and students were deemed unfriendly to the needs of the status quo. The threat of a capital “strike” encouraged reform in the profit‑oriented universities.

To maintain its economic viability, the university now leases and/or sells its resources—labs, computer centers, faculty—for corporate use. The trend is to render the campus more amenable to corporate partnerships and research contracting. Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, and Route 128 are models of private spin‑offs of the universities, serving the interests of the high‑tech industry. At the same time, policy‑makers increasingly rely on private (i.e. corporate) think‑tanks to mobilize public opinion and set long‑term policy goals for the state. These institutions, not surprisingly, are the authorities behind most commissioned reports regarding educational reform.

Reeling & Writhing, revisited

As information replaces material wealth and traditional authority as the foundation of social power and status, the power of technocracy grows. In its educational form technocracy is meritocracy: a means of determining “value” based upon allegedly objective standards such as testing, quantification, and approved methods of abstraction. In response to demands for equal access to educational (and other) opportunities, “excellence” relegitimates meritocracy by asserting the fiction of value‑neutral criteria.

As the attack on social equality moves ahead, and depoliticization reaches new extremes, the ideology of “excellence” validates the increased power of the knowledge brokers. Technocracy by its nature cannot turn its world view over to public evaluation. “Excellence,” a conveniently malleable standard (one of Clinton's catch phrases), grafts a dimension of quality onto an otherwise value‑less perspective.

The crisis in education, according to the managers of the latest frontier, is caused by laxity, apathy, and a decline in respect for authority. Calls for excellence are mere attempts to bolster discipline and inculcate respect for those above you on the social ladder: the self‑proclaimed self‑achievers.

To be less than excellent is to be mediocre, and a failure to society. Meritocracy declares that success or failure is in the hands of the individual, so you've only yourself to blame as you crash through the safety net.

Clubbing Together

It should be no surprise that many high school graduates can't locate the US on the world map, or think the Declaration of Independence is a communist document. Preventing such ignorance is not useful. But the values of gym teachers and Rhodes scholars (conformity, competition, patriotism) are useful. Perhaps nowhere but in the US has the opposition between critical thought and discipline been brought to such a fine pitch.

Americans are a product of a deliberate system. The desire for a class of technically proficient idiots has been satisfied; the learned will try to convince you that buying and selling go back to the last ice age. From high office to low, not just a lack of knowledge, but a willful inability to think is a regular product of US schools.

Most of the pieces on education in this issue were created by such products; we'd like to think that we haven't totally failed in looking at this omni-present institution. Mickey D. savages the school system in "Making Stoopid." Dolores Job details her very personal saga of Catholic‑schoolgirl‑turned‑social‑critic as she decries her education in “Fat Lot of Good it Did Me.” Our Southwestern correspondent Salvador Ferret checks in with a revealing tale of toil, teaching 6th grade in Espanola, New Mexico. In Chris Carlsson's "Remaking a Public" social relations in school are cited as an example in a call for a reanimated public life as a basis for a renewal and renaissance in education. Lawrence Tripp's fiction (currently) explores some possibilities and problems with augmented learning.

Kwazee Wabbit gives us the "Confessions of an Atheist Priest," which looks at both graduate education and the "helping" professions. In the "Downtime" section "Scamming thru College" reveals a somewhat different approach to college. "Downtime" also looks at some office shenanigans by management ("Wake Up and the Smell Tiers") about Bank of America's recent attack on its employees, and counter-bank action ("BofA Infiltrated").

A new addition in this issue is a section on transportation and related issues; this time we have an unabashed call for bicycling ("I Love What You Do for Me"), a report/recruiting call on "Critical Mass," a recent action in the Bay Area to demonstrate bicycle presence, and an essay on America's latest home-action craze, car jacking.

The reviews section looks at topics ranging from Dumpster Diving to the victims of London's class war in the 18th century, not neglecting modern comics and the bigger issues of the Oil War(s). Greg Evan's "High Cost of Sleep" and Primitivo Morales' "Take No Chances" are un-utopian fictions for our time, while Gloria Frym's insightful short story tells the story of a museum guard in "Distance No Object." Antler returns to our pages with "I Beg To Disagree," while other poetry explores topics ranging from grading papers to applying for a job in our poetry section. An extensive letters section rounds out the magazine.

We want to hear what you think -- please write us! We want to take note of all those people who produced material for this issue that wasn't used -- we were swamped with many excellent articles and fictions pieces we had no room for. To all contributors, published or not, our thanks!