Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Last Time the Corporate World Meddled with Public Education

Reading Raymond E. Callahan's 1962 tome on Education and the Cult of Efficiency is like being a Bill Murray caught in a Groundhog Day cycle of repetition. Murray eventually realized that continuing a cycle of insane and inappropriate choices would merely continue the cycle.

Public education finds itself in a similar cycle whereby professional educators and administrators are having to bow to public pressures stirred up by the media and corporate headquarters. Their stooges in the state houses and halls of Congress have joined them on the bandwagon attempting to push public education over the cliff.

We know this to be true because it happened at least once before (perhaps twice which is why Callahan published his book in 1962 following the early hysteria of the Cold War and launching of the Soviet Sputnik) dating back to the 19-teens, when a frenzy of economy and efficiency-mindedness destroyed the humanized virtues of learning and turned public schools into assembly line operations bent on providing "service-station" schools to satisfy the public whims. At that time, the frenzy was whipped up by a number of periodical magazines and school administrators did little to nothing to head it off.

"Undoubtedly the sheer number of students to be educated, plus the great moral commitment to educate all the children to the limit of their ability, would have created stubborn educational problems even if Americans and their educational administrators had not been economy-minded and had not developed a mechanical conception of the nature of education. But fifteen years of admiration for the mass production techniques of industry on the one hand and saturation with the values of efficiency and economy on the other had so conditioned the American people and their school administrators that they allowed their high school teachers to be saddled with an impossibly heavy teaching load. The American people not only allowed this to happen but their insistence on economy forced it upon the schools. And just as some of the leading school administrators did not repel but actually invited lay interference, they not only did not resist this increase in class size but actually initiated the steps, advocated and defended them, and put them into effect." (p. 232)

"With the growth of population, the improvement in child labor and compulsory attendance laws, and the change from the classical curriculum, each year after 1910 more students were attending secondary schools and staying longer. With the subsequent problem of increasing costs for salaries and buildings, which was aggravated by the continuous rise in the cost of living, it was natural that administrators would look for ways and means of reducing the costs of secondary education. The largest item in the budget was of course teachers' salaries, and it was in this direction that they sought relief. Clearly the way to economize was to get more work out of teachers, either by increasing the size of their classes or by increasing the number of classes they taught or both." (p. 233)

Thus, public education, and high schools especially, evolved rapidly to be service stations that would meet the need of every student as well as the general public (and private business in particular). Classical education that created learned individuals who would go on to the great universities and become the very corporate and public leaders that were sought, learning their craft along the way as they started out at the bottom of the ranks, was doomed and virtually non-existent in public schools by the mid-1920's. Instead, we established factory-style, overcrowded schools and classrooms and reduced the curriculum to rote memory and recitation. Circumstances in the early 1960's woke us up to this massive mistake but by then, public school traditions and frameworks were so ingrained in the American public that all we could do was water it down even more by creating the cafeteria-style high school, "new math," and whole-language literacy among other proven failures.

"…it was understandable that administrators who were faced with a public that was often critical and almost always concerned with economy, would utilize the service station notion (i.e., the idea that schools would respond to every whim thrown at them to provide or participate in new programs to satisfy the public). It was also true that the American pattern of support and control makes it inevitable that the schools will be responsive to society's needs. But the exaggerated idea of the schools as service stations has been responsible for some unfortunate developments in American education. To the extent that it was accepted it meant that educators relinquished their responsibility for providing educational leadership and became mere technicians who…produced the product according to specifications…, it meant arranging the school program so as to impress the public that the schools were making a major contribution to whatever fetish the nation happened to be concerned with at the time." (p. 230)

"When educators operated under this extreme service station philosophy, they not only did not repel but actually invited all kinds of pressures to be exerted upon the schools." (p. 231)

Now we find ourselves stuck in a deeper rut and once again vulnerable to the amateurs who want public schools to be nothing more than training facilities for private business. In the meantime, a number of public interests work hard to pile on more requirements such as financial literacy, sex ed, and every possible program to skim the pounds off little Johnny and Mary so I as a parent don't have to do any of this at home.

"The public school cannot be made an intellectual handmaiden to all the special interest advertising campaigns now under way in this country. From all these we must declare our independence, that the schools themselves may be free to perform their real functions." ~ Henry Suzzalo, 1927 (cited by Callahan)