Monday, May 2, 2016

Dangers to the Soul of Education: Big Business and the State

Konstantin Gorbatov, Harbor in Naples, 1930

SATURDAY, April 30, in Redhook, about 100 miles due north of New York City, teachers, professors, and organizers came together with about 40 attendees at the Avalon Initiative's "Enough Already" conference. The purpose? To "save the soul" of education.

Images from the
Avalon Initiative
At first it was slightly disorienting, to this attendee at any rate, to find Gary Lamb and Patrice Maynard, who are both supporters of Rudolf Steiner's social ideas, organizing a conference at which advocates for government-run public schooling were prominent among those invited to speak.

True, Steiner himself held that every child had a right to an education.  But he also thought that a healthy educational system could only be based on freedom and choice for teachers and parents.  To avoid eventual social disaster it was essential, he maintained, that education be made independent of the state yet available to all children regardless of their financial resources.  So how did it come to pass that of the seven speakers the organizers had at the conference, four had no noticeable problem with government-run education per se?  For example, there was Marla Kilfoyle, Executive Director of the Badass Teachers Association, a national activist organization "dedicated to stopping the privatization of our public school system," according to a sheet handed out at the conference.

Paul Gauguin, Bathing, Dieppe, 1885

The solution to the little conundrum soon became evident. The two sides were in agreement with respect to the main purpose of the conference: to resist an alliance between the government, educational testing companies, and technology companies.  That business/government alliance, speakers said, was seeking to advance corporate interests and politicians' ambitions by establishing an increasingly pervasive control over the education of children and thus over all the money involved in schooling.

Some of the presenters outlined how technology- and testing companies, driven by profit rather than by solid educational research, had envisioned turning public schooling throughout the country into something like a vast computer game programmed around Common Core testing standards or the like. Conference attendees were informed that some $8 billion a year was being spent to bring technology into the schools, and that the amount would quickly double.

That is indeed a large market over which companies can be expected to compete hungrily while seeking convenient policies and legislation from politicians, who are too willing to go along in order to get the corporate money needed to fund expensive election campaigns. The dream some of the technology companies have expressed, attendees were told, envisions making human teachers more or less redundant, but retraining them as something like data consultants for pupils. Children would be working increasingly with computers, which would be programmed to assess educational progress every five minutes.

Farmers Market #19, Melon Man, 2013,
courtesy of the artist, Julie Ford Oliver

The massive testing regimes more and more being pushed into schools by profit-driven business and the federal government, some of the speakers said, have led to pushback from teachers and parents outraged at the pressures being placed on children. One panelist told of how, in order to take some of the stress off children, time limits to complete the state-mandated tests had in some cases been extended by several hours.  But instead of taking pressure off, the change sometimes made things worse: some students, apparently partly to save teachers from losing their jobs, were spending six hours per day for three consecutive days taking the tests, going over and over them, only to end up in tears when the tests finally had to be taken away. 

Also noted at the conference was how mandated state testing in schools tended to centralize the decision over what is "worth knowing" and what is the "right answer" to every question, whereas schooling should do more to raise children capable of imagining new questions and new answers. Students should not be taught to conform to a brave new world molded by an ever more pervasive testing regime set up by politicians and businessmen.

Odilon Redon, The Barque, early 1900s

Gary Lamb, Patrice Maynard, and all the others who organized this conference or spoke there deserve tremendous thanks for all the incisive presentations, as well as for the new alliances forged and the convivial conversations had among the various and interesting participants.

The Avalon Initiative's "Enough Already" conference may yet be the subject of another post here.  

Take Action for Educational Freedom: Two Things You Can Do
  • Support tax credit scholarships: politely call (far more effective than emailing) your senator or representative (if s/he is not available, ask to speak to the staffer who handles educational issues) and explain that you support tax credit scholarship policies that allow individuals and corporations to receive tax credits in exchange for donating funds to non-profit scholarship organizations that then can make scholarships available to poor and middle-class families to use at a school of the family's choice. 

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Below, from the Avalon Initiative website, are images of, and blurbs about, the presenters who came to the "Enough Already" conference.  Jane Ried of the Aurora Waldorf School is not shown, but also played an important part.

Images and blurbs taken from the Avalon Initiative website

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