09 April 2009

Ideology and Education

How can a nation whose deepest myths enshrine the ideas of "doing it on your own," "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," and "sink or swim," possibly create an educational system which works for all students?

Look around, we can't build an economic system that works for all. Or a health system. So why would we pretend that "no child [will be] left behind"?

Well, we pretend for the same reason that people who oppose national health insurance, school funding, and parental leave manage to go on TV and claim they are "pro-life." Cynical politics. But that's not my point.

Recently, through Twitter, I came across a blog post which talked about a Texas Tech economics prof's so-called "experiment with socialism." And then, soon after, I was reading an Alfie Kohn article titled "Only for MY Kid" and following that, discussing No Child Left Behind in a class we got into the classic question: Since capitalism requires a certain percentage (roughly 25%) of people to fail - to create an impoverished underclass whose existence keeps the middle class working through fear of that fate, how can a capitalist education system ever provide success for all students?

This is not a merely an academic question. Ideology matters because ideology so often controls thinking in ways which limit our apparent choices. A society devoted to competition - to winners and losers - is not a society which will embrace universal solutions.

Kohn, quoting an Oklahoma school superintendent: '"I thought if it was good for kids, everyone would embrace it, and I thought all adults wanted all kids to be successful. That's not true. The people who receive status from their kids' performing well in school didn't like that other kids' performance might be raised to the level of their own kids'."'

Well, let's look at this story, or parable, which originally comes from a guy named Marc Warnke who calls himself, "The Family First Entrepreneur":

""An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism. All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed."'

Let's forget that this "economics professor" doesn't appear to know what "socialism" is, and mistakes it for the fascist "state socialism" of Stalin's Soviet Union (remember, Nazis claimed to be "socialists" too - it is a much abused word). That's not so unusual among American "economists" - who are far more likely to have been trained as ideologues than as social scientists. Having spent their whole lives hearing nothing but "Socialism, Bad," and their academic lives reading nonsense from the University of Chicago School of Economics ("Architects of Today's Golbal Economic Disaster!"), they really have not had any chance to engage in comparative discovery.

But I wish they could read dictionaries, or travel occasionally, or perhaps even study John Nash's Equilibrium- which explains that the greatest success comes from the combination of self and group interests.

And I wish they were better teachers.

What's wrong with this prof? And how has ideology blinded him?

First, he doesn't have much faith in himself as a teacher, "so no one would fail and no one would receive an A." He has already decided that he can not bring all - or even the great majority - of his students to excellence. His ideology, based in capitalist competitiveness and, of course, the Bell Curve, has already established in his mind that one-third of his students will do badly. If he believed instead in actual socialist theory, he would be able to imagine a classroom where - given differing tools and differing supports - every student might succeed.

Second, perhaps intellectually fatally for an economics prof, he does not understand what is being measured, or how to measure it. "The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy." What is dear TT professor teaching? And what is he assessing? When he began his experiment he shifted from a lecture and reading based lesson strategy to an experiential strategy. But either he himself forgot that or he deliberately set a trap for his students. Essentially, he had shifted the standards without shifting the measurements. He wanted his students to learn from what was happening around them, but he refused to assess that learning.

This is, unfortunately, a typical problem, especially among US economists. I watch news in the US and constantly hear right-wing politicians discuss how "the standard of living is lower in Europe than in the US." They usually go unchallenged when they say this. Yes, Europeans tend to have smaller houses, smaller cars, fewer television sets, and smaller refrigerators than Americans. They are all - in this professor's terms - doing less well. But, we know other things. Europeans are healthier, better educated, they have more leisure time than Americans and parents spend many, many more hours per year with their children. So, a lower standard of living? Or a different set of standards?

This professor, like much of our education system, is likely evaluating things which really do not gauge success for most involved. In schools most tests are tests of test-taking ability. In economics we measure many things, but not whether people are living good lives. It seems to me that if the goal of this prof was to prove that what he pretends socialism is does not work, and his students learned that through his lesson, then the whole class has earned an A. This is not an absurd notion in schools or in economics. If you consider European "standard of living" progress in the 60+ years since World War II, then it seems to me that everybody gets an A. If you consider what the EU has accomplished in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 - current setbacks included - then everybody gets an A. And if you ran a student-centered classroom or school, where all students progressed along their own paths, everyone would effectively be getting that A.

Third, this professor does not understand "democracy." Or - and I don't want to sound insulting here - he has the peculiar American view of democracy, which essentially means, "consumer choice" combined with "winner take all." His students have chosen to take his class, so they get what he gives them. If the majority make bad decisions, bad decisions happen. And once the consumer has made the choice, as in an American presidential election, that's it for their say. (This is something I call "plebesceterial" - the Napoleonic - III not I - vision that you approve the leader, then have no oversight - as Dick Cheney would have it.) But socialism can't really operate with America's vision of democracy.

In socialist nations (the British national government being somewhat of an exception), voting is a more collaborative thing, democracy is as much (or much more) about protecting minorities from majority tyranny as it is about ensuring majority rule, and change of direction is more possible because terms in office are not quite "fixed" (France being the exception here). Few nations not formerly British colonial possesions vote with "first past the post" elections. Most have one form or another of "proportional representation" which allows multiple winners and favors coalition governments.Coalition governments, being less inherently "stable" tend to prove more adaptive. Even the "laughing stock" of socialist coaition history - the much maligned French Fourth Republic - managed to rebuild the nation after World War II, create free universities, establish universal health care, and begin the European Union. So, in a classroom experiment in socialist theory, the students should have been empowered to alter the experiment as it moved along. That would have truly created a class full of learners.

Fourth, he misunderstands the purpose of education. He says, "When government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed." But what is he incentivizing? Not learning. He is really not interested in all his students succeeding - as Kohn suggests. Which is why, going back to my first point, he does not expect them to. Rather he wants them to fight it out - a steel-cage death match in which the winners get credentialed and the losers get booted to the bottom.

Imagine if he taught in a way that made relevant economic information seem important to his university students? The "reward" then would be the knowledge and the understandings. Imagine if he inspired them to understand the economic system well enough to help others understand it as well - to build a better informed citizenry. Then the "reward, " the "success," would be in helping each other comprehend it all. "Rewards," after all, are not all individual or selfish, we are social creatures by nature,people do things - as John Nash documented - out of a complex mix of intentions - both personally and socially motivated. If TT professor were a better teacher he would not need competition to motivate, he would not need grades to motivate. Both have proved to be poor motivators for most, encouraging more to quit than to excel. But TT prof can't see that, he is blinded by his ideology.

In the end "education for all" is a socialist enterprise. It can not be a capitalist one. We can only give all of our students what they need if we tend to follow that old Marxist maxim - giving to each what they need and expecting from each what they are capable of giving. When we let our capitalist ideologies intothe classroom we carry with them the guarantee of failure for that 'left side of the bell curve.'

- Ira Socol

7 comments:

Chris said...

Wow, you have nailed every point dead on. Isn't interesting and sad that our government has chosen to measure the success of "No Child Left Behind" with tests that ensure there will always be a certain proportion of test takers who fail?

And might I add to your comment "Europeans are healthier, better educated, they have more leisure time than Americans and parents spend many, many more hours per year with their children."? Europeans also tend to be multilingual. Very few Americans who were born and educated here can say the same.

Great post. Thank you.

Cassie said...

Bravo, Bravo, Ira. Thank you so much for eloquently getting to the point that I was so concerned about in my blog. I hope you don't mind if I link back to this wonderful post.

Cassie
http://bit.ly/17Eerz

The Goldfish said...

This was a fantastic post.

"the standard of living is lower in Europe than in the US."

It's somewhat of a revelation to read that this is commonly thought. The US has much to recommend it and we are not without our own problems, but I think we all know we're better off over here, now more than ever. During this downturn, folks are losing their jobs, even losing their houses, but we talk about those very few who are homeless and hungry having "fallen through the net". Your net seems to have far bigger holes in it.

EdoRiver said...

Well, I read through this post, as I haven't been here in a while.
1) I was put off by your example because I believe there is more to what happened in that TT classroom. Why? It just sounded too simple. How many believe, in that classroom, that socialism is represented by the simple averaging of the test scores? Really.

Next, I still don't follow that capitalism depends on a certain percent of the pop. failing. Where is this written? I know alot of people who would disagree.

Finally, I haven't followed your links and I probably should before the next post. Regards from Japan

narrator said...

EdoRiver,

THe reason I used the term "parable" in the post is that I doubt the truth of the original story - being spread by a big right-wing blogger - myself. But I have no evidence that Marc Warnke is a liar either. If you do, I'm interested.

But going all the way back to Adam Smith, and surely inculcated in the capitalist myths from Horatio Alger to the academic proponents of "Social Darwinism," is the notion of the "negative example." In capitalist theory 'they' acknowledge that not everyone will be properly motivated by greed for wealth, but that they will need the example of the underclass. You can't put downward pressure on wages, for example, without the notion that "any job is better than no job." There must be a misery level for failure which instructs those near the bottom to keep working.

An exact percentage? No. Schools have created that themselves via the Bell Curve notion. But failure for a noticeable part of the population is required in capitalism. I'm sure people would pretend to disagree in order to sell their political philosophies to those not educated in their theories. They mouth things like, "a rising tide raises all boats." Forgetting that those without boats drown in a rising tide.

- Ira Socol

Mallory Burton said...

Wow, Ira! This post has started me thinking about whether UDL might be easier to implement in Canada than the US. We have managed to create a universal health care system. Our policy toward immigration is to create a mosaic of diversity rather than a melting pot. Very interesting to ponder...

Paul Bogush said...

This...is a great post.

"Look around, we can't build an economic system that works for all. Or a health system. So why would we pretend that "no child [will be] left behind"?"

Wow...great thought.