Government-by-Tycoon Isn’t New

I read and found very interesting this meditation on “meritocracy” and school reform.  In it the author rightly notes the prominence of some very wealthy corporate leaders in pushing a form of education reform that most educators don’t want.  She rightly notes the hubris of them assuming that they know better than  teachers how to educate children, and that everything teachers are pushing are out of narrow self-interest.  The odd oversight in this piece is that the public schools project has always been a playground for the odd coalition of rich tycoons and good-government reformers.

It’s worth reading The Underground History of American Education to see how this has worked.  19th-Century industrialists needed to inculcate in the workforce a healthy discipline, fear of authority, and comfort with inflexible and arbitrary work conditions.  Wild youth, unaccustomed to form and structure, made for terrible factory workers.   Furthermore, a general dulling of curiosity and dislike of intellectualism was often desirable above and beyond the general comfort with drudgery and mistreatment. School is very effective at instilling all of these qualities, and so industrialists generously funded school reformers who sought compulsory public schooling for very different purposes.  This isn’t secret  so much as it is generally forgotten.

While it’s wise to be suspicious of the “Underground History” of anything, Gatto’s book is worth a look and the evidence presented is compelling.  If nothing else, the factory-like nature of the public school setting certainly makes it ring true.  It’s an odd combination, and I’m not quite sure what to make of the interest industrialists have always taken in the public education.  It is, obviously, somewhat creepy.


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