Living in Dialogue: Corporate Reform: Turning a Profit at Public Expense

I wish I didn’t have to write a positive review of Alex Molnar’s Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold.” But, as Molnar explains, the toxic effect of neoliberal, market-driven school reform provides an exceptionally clear example of privatization’s threat to America’s public wellbeing. So, as we wrestle with the new threats to our democracy that are posed by Trumpism, we have to come to grips with his persuasive account of how America’s democratic mission of public education was subordinated to corporate power and profits.

Molnar was born in 1946, at the beginning of the Baby Boom and the post-WWII economic boom. Although he’s much, much older than I am (I was born in 1953) he gets to the heart of the era’s educational matter when recalling:

Not being economists allowed us to naively imagine that since humankind had, for the first time in history, the productive capacity to eliminate material deprivation and the means to do so with ever fewer hours of labor, it would be necessary to develop education programs and curricula to help large numbers of people figure out how to best make use of their new-found leisure time.

Molnar cites a Swedish mother’s response to the invention of the washing machine:

We have loaded the laundry. The machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.’ Because this is the magic: You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books.

My Oklahoma City principal made the same point when he took each of our elementary school classes to a special event in the nearby junior high school. We saw a documentary on technology and the predicted decline of the work week to as little as 15 hours. Our principal presented the case for what I later learned was known as “leisure education.” He said that the purpose of schooling was not to prepare us for the workforce, but to enable us to live meaningful, creative, and fulfilling lives.

Pax Americana had plenty of problems, but people from all races and classes knew that tomorrow would be better than today. Starting around the time of the early 1970s, our mindset started to reverse itself. Being from Oklahoma, I see the 1973 Energy Crisis as the turning point. It kicked off an era of deindustrialization, as well as states undermining their own welfare by offering greater and greater tax breaks in order to lure jobs away from each other.

During the 1980s, Reaganomics accelerated the deindustrialization process by offering three sets of tax breaks for closing factories and moving them elsewhere.  And Margaret Thatcher further championed our retreat from community values. Thatcher proclaimed:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

And that brings me to Molnar’s point that I have not wanted to fully face. He writes, “Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of the U.S. public relations industry, argued that ‘engineering consent’ was at the heart of democratic social control.” Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute the invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.

It was during the Reagan administration that the myth of school failure took off, and the beginning of consent being engineered for privatization. The overnight loss of almost all of my state’s good-paying, blue collar jobs, along with the rise of AIDS and the crack and gangs epidemic, overshadowed the damage done by A Nation at Risk. But we went along with the process where the “destruction of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. was characterized as an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice.” It was a first shot in the campaign to “make use of the economic crisis in impoverished communities — and the argument that school failure was the leading cause of economic misery — to make their case for a radical transformation and privatization of public education.”

Then, John Chubb’s and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools “provided the beef, offering a concise guide to the strategic logic that steered U.S. school reform from the 1990s to the present. The solution to problem of democracy, Chubb and Moe argue, is the ‘creative destruction’ of marketplace competition.”

For the next two and a half decades, we endured “the hollowing out of the U.S. working class” and successive financial, technology, and real estate bubbles culminating in the catastrophic global financial collapse of 2008.”  It was against this backdrop of regressive economic policy that the war on public education began in earnest.

Now, education reform is “firmly in the hands of people for whom, doing well by doing good, was axiomatic.  ‘Strategic philanthropy’ became their modus operandi.” Molnar doubts “the world has ever produced such a large pool of rich education ‘visionaries,’ ‘disruptors,’ and ‘revolutionaries.’” In other words, the “Davos class” that gave us corporate school reform makes the same case as Margaret Thatcher, saying that poor victims of the fight for survival must be rescued by the winners of the no-holds-barred Free Market.

I would have never bought such a line from Thatcher, Reagan, et.al, so why was I so slow in accepting the case made by Molnar? Why did it take a Trump presidency to force me to fully face the facts about the greed, as well as ego, that has propelled school privatization?

Regardless, Molner is correct that school reform’s “neoliberal ideological fig leaf is slipping. What is now on display is something more primitive and feral: avarice and greed.  They do what they do simply because they can. And, they will keep doing it until they are stopped.”

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside. A former oilfield roughneck and...