“Hello. We’re the ones who control your lives. We make the decisions that affect all of you. Isn’t it interesting to know that those who run our lives would have the nerve to tell you about it in this manner? Suffer, you fools. We know everything you do, and we know where you go. What do you think the cameras are for? And the global-positioning satellites? And Social Security numbers? You belong to us. And it can’t be changed. Sign your petitions, walk your picket lines, bring your lawsuits, cast your votes, and write those stupid letters to whomever you please; you won’t change a thing. Because we control your lives. And we have plans for you. Go back to sleep”—offers George Carlin in “The Control Freaks” from When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
With the passing of Carlin, the world lost the personification of a much-celebrated warning from Ernest Hemingway (a comment about writers that is equally well applied to any member of a free society): “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit-detector.”
Universal public education is the latest victim of The Control Freaks—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, entrepreneurs and education hobbyists Bill Gates and Geoffrey Canada, and education socialite Michelle Rhee—and the media along with the public are in sore need of BS detections, notably each time The Control Freaks call for greater accountability and utter the refrain “world-class work force.”
For those as tired of The Control Freaks as Carlin, here is a list of how to know when to watch where you are stepping:
• The winners are always protecting the status quo because that status quo created the rules that made them the winners. The Control Freaks driving education reform in the U.S. today are all speaking from the winners’ circle, but they have devised a clever game plan for keeping that winners’ circle tightly drawn and exclusive—demonize any criticism as protecting the status quo. While this ironic strategy is rhetorically powerful and effective, it proves hollow when the discourse is peeled back and the facts are exposed. Winners always believe the rules of the game are fair and that they deserve to be winners (and implicitly that the losers deserve to be losers). The dishonesty stinks here, but what really smells is that The Control Freaks are characterizing more of the same as reform and discounting that the true status quo of public education is that it struggles under the weight of poverty—not the burden of “bad” teachers or the crush of bloated unions.
• Speaking from a status of authority demands compliance from that status and not from evidence or expertise. The Control Freaks have crafted a powerful narrative that repackages a century-long onslaught against public education inside a twisting and internally contradictory message that schools are utter failures and the only source of overcoming every ill that society faces . That narrative tosses in quips about “bad” teachers and corrupt teachers’ unions, but never even whispers the word “poverty.” The education reform debate doesn’t benefit from authoritarian mandates, but the public must demand authoritative messages that gain that authority from experience, expertise, and evidence. For example, the reforms de jour for The Control Freaks include a relentless public relations campaign for Teacher for America and corporate charter schools (such as Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone). But the rhetoric surrounding TfA, KIPP, and HCZ fails against the evidence that challenges TfA and charter schools. And while The Control Freaks drum up business for TfA and the growing charter machine, we should hear in the background Carlin’s warning—”Sign your petitions, walk your picket lines, bring your lawsuits, cast your votes, and write those stupid letters to whomever you please; you won’t change a thing.”
• Simplistic claims create the perception that solutions are equally simple. Howard Gardner has examined the effectiveness of leaders, and the disturbing conclusion he drew is that black-and-white discourse works for leaders—and conversely, that nuance fails. This bodes poorly for education reform since teaching and learning are complex endeavors, since the education dynamic is inextricably linked to the larger society. Why do political and corporate leaders succeed by creating simplistic problems and simplistic solutions (despite the evidence that the same exact claims and solutions have never worked—for example, thirty years of accountability in education at the state level)? It appears humans are wired to impose their beliefs on the world instead of working from the evidence, especially when that evidence challenges those beliefs. When The Control Freaks start into their simplistic routine, we should prepare to hold our noses.
• Celebrity culture perpetuates mere celebrity over credibility. The Control Freaks are in the media at a startling rate, considering that Duncan, Gates, Canada, and Rhee are not actual celebrities. The celebrity tours, however, have become an orchestrated media blitz that includes film, Oprah, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert—turning the so-called liberal media into a naive vehicle for perpetuating corporate agendas on the back of false prophesies about public education. Consumer America has built an economy on spokespersons with no expertise driving advertising—supplanting expertise for celebrity. Education is now faced with the dynamic that happened in medicine during the 1990s when medical doctors began to bend to “customer” pressure and overprescribed antibiotics. When the expertise of those doctors was circumvented by customer demand, the result was antibiotic-resistant infections. The medical industry had to reclaim its rightful authority. So must educators.
• Calls for accountability always come from those standing above and outside accountability themselves. The most offensive odor, however, radiating from The Control Freaks is the call for accountability coming from wealthy entrepreneurs/education hobbyists and political appointees—all of whom live in the rarified air of the economic elite. More rank still is that The Control Freaks are calling for teachers being held accountable for conditions beyond their control and for standards and testing mandates that they did not create (and often do not endorse). Another contradiction coming from the false prophets is the marginalizing and deprofessionalizing of teachers couched inside calls for holding them accountable for their roles as educators. Professional accountability must be paired with professional autonomy and focused only on those outcomes within the control of the professional.
• “World-class workforce” is code for “compliant.” When have we as a culture actually unpacked what central quality the corporate and political elite want in our students and then in our workforce? I would argue never because, if we did, we would have to confront that the answer is “compliance.” Schools require quiet and still students who do as they are told and parrot back what they are told to ingest and believe—at least this is the condition The Control Freaks envision by their calls for accountability/standards/testing and their endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools that prize obedience over agency.
The Control Freaks are winning because that’s what winners do, and in effect, everyone else is losing. But winning doesn’t mean they are right. Poet Adrienne Rich speaks to the fatal flaw at the center of the rise of The Control Freaks in education reform:
“Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally ‘gifted’ few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.”
Yes, we are now escalating the second direction, and the offensive odor is overwhelming. But we somehow seem not to notice.