The Handwriting on the Wall: Resisting Technoglobalism's Assault on Education
By: Langdon Winner
(Draft of a chapter published in Tech High: Globalization and the Future of Canadian Education, Marita Moll, ed. (Ottawa: Fernwood Pub., 1997)
Judging from recent newspaper headlines as well as the rhetoric of today's political campaigns, evidence of the decline of the middle class in North America has finally become common knowledge. Waves of corporate downsizing have generated agonizing commentaries on the two decade long decline in incomes for blue and white collar workers. By the end of 1994 real wages in the U.S.A. had declined to levels of the late 1950s, a fact that even the booming economy of the middle 1990s has not significantly altered. Faced with layoffs, plant closings and economic upheavals, families and communities confront falling wages and declining prospects. Opportunists on the political right now fan popular fears, pointing to scapegoats -- immigrants, welfare mothers, government bureaucrats, etc. -- as the real source of widespread distress.
For liberals, the favored response to signs of social unrest is now, as it has always been, to boost economic growth. Alas, that strategy no longer carries the warm glow it had in decades past. For it is increasingly obvious that the material benefits of growth presently flow only to the top twenty percent of the populace; everyone else is sinking. Seizing upon the oxymoron of "corporate responsibility," even conservative politicians feel compelled to address an obvious sickness in democracy: rapidly growing inequality.
The sources of these complaints can be traced to the rise of the global economy of the late twentieth century under the guidance of transnational corporations. Flexible arrangements of finance, communications and production now easily extend to every corner of the planet. Capital formerly invested in public and private institutions of North America is now mobile and is, in fact, rapidly on the move. Aided by convenient channels of information technology, those who control the world's wealth are now liquidating organizations, vocations, and social practices of every description, regardless of how crucial they are to the vitality of local communities. The same cost-cutting impetus that inspires corporate downsizing now informs the reduction of government budgets and public services. Individuals, households, villages, towns, states, nations, and regions have all been put on notice: you will be evaluated solely on your ability to "add value" in the global marketplace. As other sources of skilled and unskilled labor become increasingly accessible, those who control the world's wealth no longer feel constrained to fund social budgets for unemployment, welfare, medical care for the poor, disabled and elderly. Hence the "safety net" that even Ronald Reagan swore to maintain is finally being cut to shreds. Under these conditions, the accustomed role of North Americans as producer/consumers crucial to the health of the industrial economy now faces stark reappraisal. Other populations will work for less, are eager to buy the goods pouring from the factories, and are governed by leaders who avoid making obnoxious social and environmental demands. The implicit social contract that formerly linked ordinary Americans and Canadians to the business sector has, for all practical purposes, been nullified. The promise of steady employment, advance up the ranks, gradually rising wages, adequate benefits, and a reasonably secure life for oneself and one's children -- all of that is in jeopardy. What is emerging in its place is a social contract founded on the premises of a renewed Social Darwinism in which everyone is defined as an entrepreneur who must struggle to get ahead in the dog- eat-dog world of the "free" market. In this view, if somebody is not prospering, it is their own fault, definitely not a problem in the structure and operation of our economic and political institutions.
The evolving arrangements of technoglobalism and ideologies associated with them place strong pressures on the institutions and practices of education. Many of the forces that have transformed corporate structures, shifted the distribution of wealth and undermined the coherence of human relations in society as a whole now promise to alter and degrade education at all levels, from kindergarten to the doctoral degree. The social sub-contract that formerly linked education to modern industrial society is now being renegotiated to respond to the business and technological realities of the new economy.
From the standpoint of transnational corporations, education presents both problems and lucrative opportunities. Seen as a problem, traditional modes of education are far too costly, resistant to change and not well matched to the rapidly changing needs of global commerce. Looking to move resources to more promising locations, business interests now lead the chorus of complaints that taxes are too high and that too little benefit comes from public expenditures, including expenditures on education. While politicians must still pay lip service to their unwavering commitment to education, even a cursory look at local and national budgets shows how deep have been funding cuts for teacher salaries, school supplies, libraries, infrastructure, and other essentials. Because taxes must be cut to prevent business from moving elsewhere, there is, alas, simply not as much government funding for schools and higher education as there arguably should be.
Seen as an opportunity, the "business" of education now looms as a potentially enormous profit center of great interest to corporations in banking, communications, information technology, entertainment, and the like. Long controlled by public schools and relatively change-resistant colleges and universities, the education "industry", estimated to be as large as $600 billion a year, seems ripe for capture by business leaders who hate to see all that perfectly good money invested in ways they do not control. Financial analysts at firms such as Lehman Brothers and and Montgomery Securities now track education as an emerging profit sector. As Mary Tanner, managing director at Lehman Brothers, explains, education is "a local industry that over time will become a global business." (1)
There are a number of specific ways in which the assault on the integrity of scholarship, teaching and learning takes place. As I examine a number of these policies and institutional mechanisms, I will cite examples from the United States. But as books like Jamie Swift's Wheel of Fortune make perfectly clear, many of the same developments are now changing the practice of education in Canada as well. (2)
The most prominent trend at present is, of course, educational downsizing. Driven by pressures to cut costs, cutbacks and layoffs have become a fact of life in today's schools, colleges and universities. In primary and secondary schools, teachers and teachers aids are laid off, class sizes balloon, and students with special needs receive less attention. Programs in the art, music, athletics, extracurricular activities, and after school programs are curtailed or eliminated. School libraries reduce their hours, trim their holdings and "consolidate" to save money. To an increasing extent, educational institutions, like the corporations, are expected to run "lean and mean."
Mirroring developments in the industrial workplace, outsourcing in education has become a fact of life as well. In some cases this involves eliminating services formerly handled in house by salaried employees -- janitorial work, copying, maintenance, etc. -- and giving those jobs to outside contractors. More crucial, however, is the rise of outsourcing within the curriculum itself. Rather than build capabilities to teach a particular topic -- history, or chemistry, for example -- schools and colleges ponder the advantages of having students take such courses on-line. What the outsourcing of anti-lock brakes is for GM workers, distance education will be for teachers and professors, although the teachers and professors will probably be the last ones to catch on to this development and its long term importance.
Just as the corporate world is now increasingly staffed by temporary workers who often work at low cost and without benefits, so also are growing numbers of classes taught by those who have no permanent standing. Serving American colleges now a large and growing reserve army of "Roads Scholars" who shuttle from job to job as adjuncts and visitors, never landing permanent positions. Working in arrangements entirely similar to part time contract workers in industry, their practical connection and sense of loyalty to any particular institution is non-existent. Over the long haul their employment produces a decline in the quality of academic programs, since there are fewer full-time teachers available to undertake the initiatives needed to make the wider processes of educational life advising, degree committees, seminars, etc. operate reasonably well. In the end what looms is the elimination through attrition of tenured academic jobs.
Another strategy of cost-cutting is simply to computerize more and more of the activities of education. Innovations here arrive under a variety of glamorous labels - - interactive learning, distance learning, the virtual classroom, and the like, but the ultimate result is always the same: replacing people with technology. To an increasing extent, information machines now convey the texts, lectures, lesson, exams and the like, becoming the real media for downsizing and outsourcing in the education industry. As such innovations proliferate, conventional schools and colleges face the distinct possibility that the "services" they provide will be taken over by high tech "alternative service providers" in the commercial sector.
Business firms now spend $30 billion dollars or more per year on corporate training. A growing slice of that is spent on multimedia applications, including CD-ROMs. (3) From the corporate perspective, compact discs are far more flexible and controllable than the settings and routines of conventional education. A five inch disk can go anywhere, be used any time. Indeed, if one visits any up-scale computer software store these days, one finds a growing list of educational products for the PC. During a recent visit to a shop in Albany I saw CD-ROM boxes that said to contain "Middle School" and "High School." There was no package for "College" as yet, but, of course, it's just a matter of time.
The cost-cutting and technology strategies I have mentioned are accompanied by an ideological campaign that defines education as nothing more than a commodity for sale in the market at a competitive price. In this model what were once called "students" are redefined as "customers." An arrangement of this kind shifts power away from teachers and toward purchasers. Seeing only short term payoffs, seeking good value for money, "customers" of this sort often insist upon buying what amounts to neatly wrapped, narrowly defined increments of vocational training. The old-fashioned idea that education ought to cultivate the sensibilities (including moral sensibilities) of "the whole person" is, of course, the first casualty of this "stack em high, sell em cheap" approach to teaching and learning.
Eager to respond to market forces, some universities have joined the stampede to transform their offerings. In recent years, The City University of New York, for example, has pruned back its once grand, widely available academic programs, replacing many of them with vocational teaching. In many universities, packages of "distance learning" are tailored to the demands of corporate sponsors and delivered by satellite link. Wherever one looks in American education these days there is an emphasis upon teaching programs that will prepare students for the immediate needs of corporations, the ability to write Web pages, for example, rather than for students' enduring educational needs.
Sensing an opportunity to cash in on the emerging growth industry in "educational services," many corporations are now targeting their products, advertisements and public relations materials to both school and university markets. The National Education Association in the U.S. recently drafted guidelines warning teachers to think twice before using any of the slick pre-packaged lesson plans provided by business firms, offering their distinctive commercial slant on school subjects. (4) The penetration of Channel One in the classrooms in the U.S. brings a steady stream of television advertisements right into the classroom.
The overall effect of these measures is to tie education ever more closely to the requirements of the transnational economy and the logic corporate priorities. Of course, in many respects these influences are nothing new. Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, education has been closely and deliberately attuned to immediate and emerging needs of industry. To some extent each generation of students has been tailored to fit what the business firms have demanded. Remarkable at present, however, is the sheer intensification of this relationship, threatening earlier assumptions about the proper link between business and education.
An important casualty of the ongoing commodification of education is a erosion of teacher autonomy. In many ways, subtle and not so subtle, teachers' decisions about what ought to be taught and how is being replaced by thinly veiled strategies of economic and political coercion. The raised fist of corporate power was vividly displayed, for example, at the National Education Summit held in Palisades, New York in March 1996. One might suppose that an "education summit" might include teachers and even some students. Get real. The list of participants contained 49 corporate leaders, 41 state governors and 30 people labeled education experts (mainly political hacks of present and past political administrations). During their two days of deliberations they agreed that the failures of the schools required something more than the goal setting done ever since a 1983 summit concluded that America was a "Nation at Risk" because its schools were such deplorable shape. Needed now, the 1996 summiteers concluded, are tougher standards, ones established and applied at the state level. As if to make good on their concern, the corporate executives promised to locate their facilities only in school districts where standards are high and to abandon those that fall behind. As Governor Roy Romer of Colorado observed, "The executives are saying, 'We're the customers for your products, meaning the graduates of schools. We have something to say about what kind of products they ought to be.'" Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, echoed this view saying, "They're the one's hiring, so it makes sense to know their needs." (5)
The message from the summit was all stick, no carrot. There were no offers of additional financial support, no new initiatives to remedy the material and social ills that students face everyday, no proposals to reduce class size, repair decaying infrastructures, or revitalize the skills of overworked teachers. The rhetoric of the summit echoed the "get tough" approach now favored in all areas of public policy in our time. Indeed, it is possible that this foreshadows an emerging theme in political speech, one that demonizes the schools in much the same way that welfare recipients been demonized in the recent past. After all, if educational institutions are the cause and not the result of social decline, an attack on them seems fully justified, perhaps even patriotic. Now that politicians feel that "welfare reform" has adequately punished "welfare mothers" for persisting in their poverty, an appealing next target of public scorn could well be school teachers and college professors. Check your local listings for radio talk shows that will soon begin hammering away at this theme.
At stake at the Education Summit and in increasingly common pronouncements from politicians and businessmen is one of the thinly veiled threats that have become so common in the age of global economics. "Yield to our corporate demands or we are out of here!" The worldwide, virtual corporation uses its power to extract concessions from states and local communities. Along with tax breaks, subsidies and the relaxation of environmental and workplace regulations, it now wants effective control of what is taught and how. Favored now are classrooms with "high standards" (the CEOs will let us know what they are) at rock bottom prices, and with plenty of high technology to acclimate students for computerized, surveillance- centered workplaces now upheld as the desirable norm.
At colleges and universities the assault on education seen in K-12 schools is not absent, simply more subtle. During the past decade the language and vision of "re- engineering" and "total quality" used to justify innovations in transnational firms has become a common educational philosophy of administrators who manage academic life. The creation of university/industrial research centers during the past twenty years, along with the prominent place of businessmen on university boards of directors, now provides the corporations direct conduits into the inner workings of higher education. Research support gradually shapes the curriculum. Friendly corporate contact with students influences the topics of their papers, theses and dissertations, works that are sometimes corporate research projects slightly re- worded to sound like context free contributions to universal knowledge. While still appearing to uphold high academic standards to protect their independence, colleges and universities have become increasingly direct, increasingly obvious channels for corporate training, recruitment and ideological penetration.
The same educators who deny this is happening are often the ones most actively bringing it about, typically under the banner of bold educational "reform." In recent years, for example, a great deal of energy has focused on notions of "leadership" and "creativity." The new modes of training encourage students to work in groups and to learn methods of problem solving -- brainstorming, simulation, group process methods, and so forth.
As one dimension of what a university ought to do, teaching about creativity and leadership makes good sense. Democracies need leaders and creative citizens, after all. But some of my colleagues have begun to insist that training under this rubric, narrowly attuned to the needs of industry and taught by people who are not faculty members, should be accepted for full credit in the humanities and social sciences. The attitude here is, basically, why study Shakespeare, nineteenth century urban history or some other academic topic when you could be learning leadership skills you could put to work in a nifty business setting immediately after graduation? Proposals of this stripe are, of course, presented as exciting innovations, ones that will better equip university graduates for the "real" world (wherever that is). In fact, the focus on "creativity" is strongly associated with another term, "productivity," which is itself always pitched in a corporate context. My colleagues in engineering like this approach, as do the businessmen they encourage to visit the campus. Alas, exercises in creativity and leadership classes never stress creativity and leadership that might be helpful to rust belt communities, young blacks in the inner city, the rural poor, or the old and infirm. No; don't be silly. We are looking for "innovation," the design of a new hair dryer that can be manufactured with 30% fewer parts. Faced with assignments of that kind, students are often exhorted "Remember, class: Think big!"
At stake in the developments I've mentioned here is the very integrity of scholarly activity. The real danger is that so many educators will embrace thinly veiled corporate ideas, contexts and initiatives that after a while the extent of our corruption will no longer be noticed.
Faced with the kinds of pressures and coercions I have sketched here, how should we respond? By "we" I mean we teachers, as well as our students and the parents who trust us to prepare young people to flourish in an increasingly chaotic and troubling world. What can we do together?
On one level what stands before "us" are a series of battles over the way educational institutions are organized, what they stand for and how they will operate in the future. Many teachers are engaged in day-to-day the specifics of such battles -- battles over funding, battles over curriculum, battles over standards, battles about the merits of proposed educational innovations and battles for control of educational policy. As one enters whatever fracas happen to be at hand, it is crucially important simply and clearly to describe the pending changes for what they are. The first best power that we have, one that we must make available to our students and their parents is the power of self-description. For if we cannot answer the key questions - - Who are we? And what are we about? -- if instead we let others prescribe the language of the debate, then truly the game is over and we might as well donate our books to the museum immediately.
Take for example an idea that students are "customers" who come to schools and colleges looking to purchase a commodity. It's an idea that even some academics now find appealing. In this way of thinking about education, the customer is always right and has needs that must be served. As I compare these expectations to my own experiences as a teacher, an obvious tension appears. Over the years I've found that my students are frequently wrong and often have little sense of what they need at all. Indeed, they approach teachers looking for wisdom and guidance, hoping to be show more fruitful paths of learning than any they had know about previously. In that light, teachers are people entrusted by the community to employ a diverse collection of means, often unexpected ones, to motivate, direct and reward developing skills of learning. What students receive in the process is not a commodity that can be easily stored in box and wrapped as a product for sale. The benefit that a good education provides is not a storehouse of knowledge to be bankrolled and then doled out, but (if all goes well) a set of well-tuned habits of inquiry and critical thinking that a person continues cultivating throughout a lifetime.
Refuting the errant notion that students are "customers" is merely one instance in which educators must insist upon reclaiming the power of self-description. One reason why we must do so is that deleterious changes often arrive with the most enticing labels attached to them. Characteristic of the business management language games of the 1990s is to describe destruction as something called "reform". And it is not uncommon in the fashion of the times to say that these reforms are, borrowing a phrase of from progressive movements, aimed at "empowering" people, empowering them by diminishing the obnoxious influence hold government and public institutions (including schools) have over them.
But the slippery language of reform and empowerment need close scrutiny. What are the forms that will prevail after the "re-forms" have run their course? At my own university now we have recently embarked on what our leaders call curriculum reform said to empower students. In principle, this is something I strongly favor. To achieve a more comprehensive, more balanced kind of education for technical professionals a goal worthy of any devoted reformer. But what has actually happened is something much different. At the heart of our bold transformation was a breathtaking move that rescheduled courses from three credit hours to four. Instead of taking five three unit courses, a student must now take four four unit courses. Thus, what the university has done amounts to nothing more than changing the size of academic boxes and shuffling them around. Along the way, of course, it became possible to achieve the same coverage of course material by downsizing the faculty by roughly 20%, an accomplishment that was quickly secured; once again, attrition was the method of choice. A bemused faculty listened to the soft sucking sound as teaching jobs disappeared into the ether. Proponents of this "curriculum reform" argued that students would be able to spend more time in each subject, giving each more leisurely attention. But, of course, it is easy to petition to take five courses not four. One likely result, therefore, is that in students will drive themselves all the harder and try to finish in three and one half years. It appears that the law of unintended consequences will soon take effect. In the end, what was created was simply a method for achieving increased productivity. Fewer faculty will teach more hours. Students will have to absorb more "information" in a shorter period of time. As a strategy for corporate rationalization this makes wonderful sense. But as a way to give students a more agreeable learning experience, it leaves much to be desired. (Then again, what the "customers" don't know can't hurt them.)
A reasonable observer might expect that anything worthy of the term "reform" would surely include new ideas for substantive improvement. But in the recent episode on my campus, nothing of the kind emerged. When I heard that the campus was to re-evaluate its curriculum, I offered myself as a person ready to talk about improvements in the content and approach of our teaching. I imagined a grand conversation in which the educational ideals of Aristotle, Dewey, Hutchins, Illich and others would be hotly debated. But as soon as I announced my desire to join a debate of that kind, my phone stopped ringing. Another beguiling term used to describe educational renovations, one of the signature buzzwords of the 1990s, is "interactive learning". At first glace one might suppose that "interactive" would have something to do with people meeting, talking and sharing ideas. It turns out, however, that this is not the case; all that is required to earn the label "interactive" is to have a computer involved somewhere in the works. Thus, no longer is it considered "interactive" merely to convene a discussion in which people talk to each other about the content of books they have read that week. No; to be "interactive" means that you have equipped the room with computers, monitors, fiber optic cables, Web browsing software, and the like.
Students, by the way, are less easily fooled by such measures than many administrators and technology-oriented professors suppose. A survey of more than a thousand students conducted several years ago by a sociologist at my university sought to gauge what students believe is important in their education as compared to what they are actually getting. Students answered that they wanted clear explanations and fair tests, but felt they were not receiving enough of them. They indicated that they wanted caring professors and reasonable workloads, but felt there were serious shortages of both. At the very bottom of the list of needs was "integrated use of computer in the classroom." On that point the students, bright undergraduates preparing for careers in science and engineering, said they did not need much of it and already had more than they wanted.
Despite the results of the survey and occasional outbursts of student grumbling about "interactivity", my institution continues, like countless others in North America, to press ahead with plans to computerize as much of the curriculum as possible. While there are many reasons why this policy is now so energetically pursued, one of the most powerful, in my view, is that computers make wonderfully visible showpieces. When prospective students and their parents visit the campus, when members of the board of trustees gather for their occasional meetings, campus administrators and info-preneurs can parade them past the rooms full of high tech equipment to enthusiastic choruses of "ooohs" and "aaahs." A similar visit to a classroom in which students had just mastered, for example, the basic issues in Plato's "Protagoras,"would simply not have the same, riveting impact. For that reason, teachers who try to engage young minds with conventional methods such as reading and discussion but without the use of powerful computers and flashy video displays, now face a distinct disadvantage. In education as everywhere else, we live increasingly in a world of visual imagery. When the evidence of successful learning is hidden quietly away within a young person's mind, what is there to show parents, trustees and grant administrators who demand to "see tangible results"?
Both of the developments I've mentioned -- curriculum "reform" and the spread of "interactive learning" -- are by themselves apparently minor changes. That is why it is hard to summon up much energy to fight them. It seems almost petty to raise a ruckus about changing from three unit boxes to four unit boxes or to argue that computerized classrooms are technological solutions frantically in search of problems. But if one follows the whole drift of such changes, especially their strong links to budget cutbacks, the larger consequences of the new policies for education are highly significant, ones that reflect lasting changes in the basic commitments of education at all levels. As dispiriting as it may be, therefore, those who still care about the quality of education must address and, when necessary, resist even the small innovations that now threaten to erode the quality of teaching and learning in our time.
In that light, it now falls to educators in Canada and the U.S. to make energetic arguments in areas where we had lulled ourselves into thinking that the need to defend principles was a thing of the past, that the social consensus supporting fundamental practices in education was strong enough to sustain what teachers do. An increasingly common view of tenure, for example, is that it is simply a selfish privilege foolishly given to overfed mossbacks who feel that somehow they are immune for the job loss and wrenching career changes that confront ordinary people these days. I can easily understand how ordinary working folks might begin to look at teachers and college professors and begin to say, "Hell, my job doesn't have tenure. Why should theirs?" What such sentiments overlook, however, is the value of academic freedom and the long history of threats to its security. People tend to forget that in the United States, for example, the creation of the tenure system came at the turn of the century after a series of notorious scandals threatened the integrity of scholarship. In some social science departments, faculty felt compelled to change their party registration according to the latest election returns. In one notorious incident, Professor Edward A. Roth, sociologist at Stanford, was fired from his job when Mrs. Leyland Stanford, trustee of the University, became angry with Roth's persistent criticisms of the practice of importing cheap Asian workers for American agriculture and industry.
Renewed efforts to refresh public memory about creation of the tenure system are especially urgent now, for there are concerted efforts to undermine academic freedom and tenure system by persons who think they know better than scholars which paths of inquiry are fruitful, what constitutes good research and what "values" young people should be learning. The ghost of Mrs. Leyland Stanford is stalking the halls of academe, this time howling about the influence of postmodernism, multiculturalism, and supposed "political correctness" of so-called "tenured radicals." While the categories are somewhat different, the thrust of these complaints recalls the viciousness of McCarthy era red baiting.
Less ominous than the frontal attack on tenure, but probably far more effective in practice, is the increasingly common policy of hiring well-paid but untenured "research" or "clinical" professors, often people imported from industry, to teach courses and to enjoy short term stints in the halls of ivy. Meanwhile regular positions are simply not filled when faculty retire or move on. In that way, tenure could easily vanish as an institution aimed at protecting the integrity of scholarly inquiry and teaching. This would carry us back to the days of a century ago when business leaders thought they could intervene directly in appointments and prescribe what happened in the classroom.
Although it is crucial to be engaged in today's battles over curriculum, funding, hiring practices, tenure and the like, there is a distinct danger that we could find ourselves in the ultimately futile position of being hunkered down, defending a citadel under siege. What is needed to sustain us in the long battles ahead is a renewed a vision of what education is about and what its relationship to the larger society ought to be.
In discussions of education and most other social issues nowadays, we often hear nowadays that "the economy" is supreme above all other concerns. "It's the economy, stupid," candidate Bill Clinton's advisors repeatedly warned him during the presidential campaign of 1992. But, in point of fact, any economy rests foundations the economy itself did not produce and can never supply. At the basis of all production and exchange stands the complex web of practices, relationships, norms, habits of communication and sustaining institutions that philosophers call civil society. Among the key settings of civil society are family, neighborhood, community, church, clubs, voluntary organizations. It is here that people find a sense of belonging, a feeling for what matters in life, an understanding of how things get done, a willingness to accept shared social commitments. Within the settings of civil society people learn the basic skills and virtues that they carry into economic life and formal citizenship.
Among the virtues of a healthy civil society, for example, are the norms practices of basic honesty, including honest economic exchange. To see how this operates and why it matters, one need look no farther than the former Soviet Union and its painful transition to a market economy. Mistrust spawned by authoritarian governments, both czarist and communist, have left a legacy in which skills needed to organize simple, reliable economic relations are largely absent. After the fall of communism it has been all but impossible to make the new market system work, except as a collection of criminal cartels. For many Russians, the moral basis for a free economy is simply missing, a victim of many decades during which dictatorial power crippled many of the crucial practices and institutions of civil society.
By contrast, the world's free nations have long depended upon a flourishing civil sector to generate enormous and diverse kinds of value. Political scientist Robert Putnam refers to this as "social capital" (a somewhat barbarous term) that describes the broad range of rules, roles, relationships, activities that serve as the glue which holds human communities together. (6) In our time, however, we see the basic relationships of civil society placed under severe stress, undermined by relentless pressures from the global economy. Using Putnam's metaphor, the "social capital" upon which communities depend subject to periodic liquidation as transnational firms seek out every conceivable avenue for achieving efficiencies and extracting profits. The results for civil society loom before us in failing marriages, spiraling drug use, domestic violence, crime, homelessness, decaying cities, and other signs of society in disarray.
Along with stable families, perhaps the most crucial institutions of civil society are those that teach people how to learn and how to think. Primary and secondary schools are places in which society's basic norms, practices, and ways of knowing are passed from one generation to the next. Colleges and universities serve an equally important role, ideally serving a places where the fundamental ideas of civil society are perpetually subject to critical scrutiny, places where students can pause to ask questions that are not always open for debate elsewhere in society: What are valid purposes for our knowledge? How ought these purpose be realized in practice? How can we balance the freedom we desire against our duties to other people? Through what means can all members of society manage to live peaceful, prosperous, dignified lives?
Traditional practices in education presuppose a strong link between what an individual student learned and the prosperity of civil society; community and person were strongly intertwined in the pedagogical project. More recently, however, it grown common for educators worried about survival to move in an entirely different direction, devising ever more effective ways to link what they do to the global market and its major actors. Hence we see a frantic scramble to exhibit the new virtues of a technoglobal ethos. Many administrators and teachers are saying, in effect, "We'll show them how good we are at producing knowledge that can be turned to profit. We'll show them how flexible we are in providing the human products that transnational firms demand."
To my way of thinking strategies of this kind, promising though they appear in the short run, point us in exactly the wrong direction, implicitly embracing the interests of those already too wealthy and too powerful. Why must we so quickly yield to demands that our students serve the narrow priorities of the big players in global commerce? Needed instead is a vision of education strongly connected to the enduring needs, concerns and increasingly urgent problems of society as a whole, especially to people left behind by the upheavals involved in building a twenty-first century economy.
I have no grand program for defining or realizing this vision. Every teacher, every student must attempt it in ways that make sense for him or her. But it is worth taking note of examples in which connections between educators and the needs of civil society are flouring. I recently visited one such place: The Ark, an arts and literacy center in a decaying section of Troy, N.Y. Located in the ground floor of a decrepit nine-story public housing block, sustained by donated time and materials, the Ark offers some 150 boys and girls from poverty-level homes after-school programs in reading, music, painting, pottery, and homework help.
In 1994 a group of professors and students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- artist Branda Miller, architect Frances Bronet, and grad-student Ann Sundberg -- organized a class on Social Spaces and Electronic Installation, using grant money to connect the Ark to the World Wide Web. They installed computers and modems and taught the boys and girls the HTML programming language that is used to create interactive pages on the Web. With these tools in hand, the kids put together a Web site filled with their photos, drawings, poems, biographies, and editorial comments.
The experiment was successful from the start, involving dozens of kids in projects both lively and fruitful. As part of the plan, the RPI team created a regional network called WYRED (for Wired Youth in Rensselaer County Every Day) connecting the mainly African-American and Latino children of the Ark to students at two mainly white suburban schools. At special workshops, the children of the Ark taught their suburban colleagues how to write their own Web pages. Another event involved planning a dinner for homeless people in Troy, placing the children's recipes on the Net, along with photos of the feast. More recently some of the Ark's older boys and girls have started "Sparks," an electronic 'zine with a hard-hitting first issue on "Money" -- an interesting topic for kids who have so little of the stuff to spend. (7)
The projects at the arts center in Troy have succeeded not because they flaunt the big magic of the computer. Instead, they work because they embody a strong, well-tested vision. The Ark was organized two decades ago by its two devoted co-directors, Mary Theresa Streck and Jay Murnane, both former teachers, who decided to take action in response to what they describe a "terrible storm" raging through the city. To this day, they liken their work to that of building an ark, much like Noah's, to help children "get through the storm to a better place." In that light they place the fancy new computers in roughly the same category as the kilns, wheels, books, art materials, and countless hours of volunteer time people have donated over the years. All are pieces of a vessel at sail on perilous seas, one that tries to buoy youngsters who have so much stacked against them with a sense that they are competent, creative, and important.
Evidence that the newly computerized Ark sometimes reaches its Mt. Ararat is displayed in the autobiographical blank verse that the children have written and posted on the Web site. These "biopoems" express the kinds of hopes and dreams all kids have, but reading them one cannot help but notice signs of a dreadful predicament. Several children casually mention the menacing threat of violence nearby. Here, for example, is the poem of Ivan Garcia, aged 10:
Ivan: Lover of sports, mom, two brothers, sister Who feels Great, Happy, Good Who needs patience, attention, TV Who fears getting killed, bad grades, failing Who gives clothes, money love Who would like to meet Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
What matters is not so much that we can read Ivan's poem on a primitive Web page. What matters is the process by which the poem was produced, one that exemplifies the practice that Paulo Freire, in his classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, called "giving voice to the voiceless." (8) For here is a boy from a minority community, in a bombed-out neighborhood in the North American rust belt, defying all odds to proclaim: "I am here! Listen world, I have something to say." Surely, nothing on the We, or in all the writing on the global economy, more significant or informative than that.
Calling attention to his example, I am not suggesting that all our efforts should be local ones. Indeed, a pressing task in our time is to think about global society its strengths, virtues, needs, and current troubles in ways that involve all people living on the planet. We must seek to understand how other people around the world experience the kinds of problems that engage our attention at home. Rather than compete with them in a race to the bottom, we need to join with them in asking some down to earth questions: What kind of economy should be organized to meet the needs of everyday life? How should democracies act to realize a decent, sustainable future?
Questions of this sort are usually the first ones set aside as people talk about globalism and technological innovation as a set of inevitable trends. Economist Lester Thurow, for example, describes the changes we face as ones generated by a set of deeply seated, ultimately non-negotiable "tectonic forces."(9) In stories that fill our in magazines, newspapers and television screens, the message seems to be that individuals and communities cannot hope to alter the trajectory of contemporary economic forces any more than they can influence the motion of the earth's tectonic plates. Abroad in the land are ideas of determinism and fatalism far more pungent than any of the discredited deterministic theories of the past. Today we are asked not only to acknowledge economic and technological forces as our true destiny, but to celebrate joyfully the world produced by their relentless, unguided dynamism.
Confronted with insistent advice of this kind, teachers might raise their hands and announce: Excuse me! On whose authority has the future been foreclosed? Who decided that one peculiar model of a global economy, is the only one possible? Why must we accept this misshapen vision of the human prospect? And who decided that the changes ahead lie beyond our ideas, voices and participation? We watch in stunned amazement at the naked effrontery of initiatives launched in the name of "globalism," "flexible production," "free trade," "reengineering," "total quality," "interactivity," "distance learning," "wired education," and "the virtual classroom". We've discussed these bizarre agendas with our students and, frankly, they are not much impressed. In fact, the students insist on being included in the discussions, plans and decisions about what the future holds. As their friends and scholarly mentors, we are committed to working with them to realize their dreams for a better world. Now, show us our place at the table.
This chapter is a revised version of a keynote address give at the Education for Life Colloquium held at Queen's University in April 1996, sponsored by the Mathematics, Science and Technology in Education Group.
1. Quoted in Phyllis Vine, "To Market, to Market...The School Business Sells Kids Short," The Nation, September 8/15, 1997, pp. 11-17.
2. Jamie Swift, Wheel of Fortune: Work and Life in the Age of Falling Expectations(Toronto, Between the Lines, 1995).
3. Karen Kaplan, "School's Out CD-ROM's In," Los Angeles Times, Business Section, April 8, 1996.
4. "NEA Sets Guidlines to Curb Influence by Special Interests," The Associated Press, Nando.net, April 13, 1996.
5. Peter Applebome, "An Education Conference With a Corporate Agenda," The New York Times, March 28, 1996.
6. Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Current, no. 373, June 1995, pp. 3-9.
7. The Ark Web page URL is: http://www.rpi.edu/dept/iear/wyred/index.html.
8. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Myra Bergman Ramos trans. (New York: Continuum, 1986).
9. Lester Thurow, The Future of Capitalism: How Today's Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow's World (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996).