School & District Management Opinion

Educating to Compete in the “Global Economy": Creating Idiot Savantism

By Anthony Cody — May 24, 2012 9 min read
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Guest post by Gerald Coles.

The U.S. needs an educational system that will “ensure our kids are ready to compete and ready to win” in the global economy, said Delaware governor Jack Markell when the National Governors Association and State Education Chiefs formally launched the Common Core State Standards, the new guiding light of American education.

Markell’s call repeats the chief goal in the Standards’ mission statement, as well as the imperatives corporate leaders have demanded of the nations schools. “The more states that adopt these . . . standards,” insists Bill Gates, “the closer we will be to . . . becoming more competitive as a country.” Similarly, Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel Corporation, notes that the “standards are essential for producing” the “educated work force America needs to remain globally competitive.

It’s a bipartisan vision shared by President Barack Obama and presidential contender Mitt Romney. “A complete and competitive education” is necessary so that “our kids can compete for the best jobs [and] America can out-compete countries around the world,” says the president. “Global competitiveness begins in the classroom,” echoes his challenger.

Examination of the actual facts on the number of unemployed well-educated, highly competitive STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers in the U.S. reveals that the goal concocted for the nation’s schools is nonsense, that there already is a significant number of highly-educated “losers” who have neither themselves nor the U.S. schools to blame for not having a job. Nonetheless, schools are being forced to construct and enforce an education that not only cannot fulfill the Standards’ chief mission statement, but further attempts to do so will misshape students’ intellect and emotions.

The misshaping comes through various ways. Standards education demands instruction that is heavily scripted and lockstep. Standards education narrowly defines reading as the extraction of information from a text, thereby discouraging thinking that extends beyond that extraction. By deemphasizing fiction Standards Education truncates cognitive and emotional development. It ignores students’ developmental differences. Standards education cloaks the issue of the resources that schools and students need for successful teaching and learning. Learning is appraised largely in terms of outcomes on standardized tests.

These damaging effects are substantial and by themselves justify abandoning this policy and its imperatives. However, even more damaging will be students’ achievement of the Standards’ chief mission: becoming educated to compete successfully in the global economy. This education would promote a form of idiot savantism in which the student would be very competent in a technical skill but understand virtually nothing about the context of that skill, i.e., the global economy.

This outcome would occur because corporate-driven organizations, such as the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, created through the National Center on Education and the Economy and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing Company, Walmart Foundation and similar corporate foundations have, in policy documents such as Tough Choices or Tough Times, not only presented arguments favoring Standards education but have included assumptions and “policy prescriptions” about the global economy that guide Standards education.

Shaped by these corporate imperatives, Standards education allows schools to nibble only around the edges of the “global economy,” In this nibbling, schools can teach other languages, cultures, religions, literature and history, all to prepare students, as one exemplary school system put it, to “confront global issues.” However, excluded in Standards education is the opportunity to transcend these circumscribed areas and help students think fully and critically about that economy and the curricula portraying that economy.

The following are key imperatives, based both on Standards curriculum guidelines and the dominant conceptions of the global economy in corporate documents such as Tough Choices or Tough Times, for how schools must teach and what students must learn about that economy.

Our Good Global Economy, Now and Forever

1) Schools must teach about the global economy as if it had a fundamental nature and construction, similar to a natural phenomenon, within which human beings must act to meet their needs and promote their well being.

Doing so, schools must focus solely on providing students with the skills, creativity, and innovative abilities necessary for successful employment within this natural global economy that will, in turn, provide for their needs and well being.

2) Schools must be silent about the pyramid structure that is the fundamental essence of the global economy, i.e., the minute number of the rich who are at the top of the pyramid, the relatively small portion of the upper part of the pyramid that is comprised of elite workers who are paid well, and the huge bottom portion of the pyramid that contains the rest of humanity.

With respect to this pyramid, students must not think about facts such as the following: the richest 1% of adults in the global economy owns 40% of the planet’s wealth, 10% owns 85% of the planet’s wealth, and the bottom 50% of humanity in the global economy owns barely 1% of the global wealth.

Students must concern themselves only with securing a place at the upper portion of the pyramid and not think about the morality of the pyramid.

Students must not think about whether a different, more equitable structure and distribution of global wealth should enfold humanity.

3) Schools must never identify or call the global economy a “human created” global economy or a “class created” global economy because those terms imply that the very nature of the global economy is open to students’ critical inquiry, inquiry that could include unacceptable questions about the extent to which that human- or class-created economy serves the needs of humanity, fosters equality and inequality, damages the Earth, promotes wars, creates real and false needs, and so forth.

Students must not be taught to think and ask questions about why the needs of humanity, rather than competition (capitalist competition, but it will not be called that) is not the major driving engine of the global economy and largely determine what work will and will not be available.

When the “global economy” is studied, students must confine themselves to learning only the permissible salient characteristics of production and distribution (e.g., the global production and distribution of the manufacturing process, the global connection of employees, the greater dependence on knowing foreign languages, etc.).

4) Schools must assume that there must be winners and losers among workers in the global economy and the job of students is to acquire an education that will enable them to become winners.

Students must not think about whether there could be an alternative global economy that would not be comprised of winners and losers. Nor can students think about how seeming educational winners can still become occupational losers (e.g. as evident in the currently high percentage of unemployed college graduates).

In learning to compete and win in the global economy, students must not be encouraged to reflect about feelings of indifference and even callousness they might have towards the well being of the losers.

5) Schooling must proceed on the assumption that within the global economy it is legitimate for businesses to pay people as little as possible and thereby drive a “race to the bottom” within humanity.

Students must not question this fundamental assumption or consider alternatives as they try not to fall towards the bottom. Students must not think about how the corporate promotion of a race to the bottom is an inevitable consequence of “business” (i.e., capitalist) competition in a global economy.

7) Schools must not teach about the harmful effects of the global economy on the Earth and its ecology, and how a different global economy could transform the planet’s ecology and human survival.

Students must not think about how and why the Earth’s resources are used and misused, and about why, for example, as the World Bank reports, the wealthiest 10% of humanity uses approximately 60% of the world’s resources and creates about the same percentage of pollution.

Consequences and Alternatives

The problem is not solely, as Diane Ravitch observes, “the nation forgot that education has a greater purpose than preparing our children to compete in the global economy.” More than that, achieving the Standards’ chief mission of competing and succeeding in such a dog-eat-dog global system obliterates any sense of understanding of this economy and of concern for the human community. Instead, Standards education encourages a disconnection to and responsibility within that community, one filled with ignorance, selfishness, heartlessness, and indifference.

There are alternatives to Standards education that are locked out of that curriculum. For example, the teacher organization Rethinking Schools publishes a curriculum volume titled Rethinking Globalization, that provides materials for teaching about this phenomenon. The volume includes a variety of instructional materials on inequality, poverty, world wealth, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, “free trade,” the debt crisis, global sweatshops, attacks on trade union organizers, child labor, world hunger, global warming and ecological destruction.

Are these latter curricular materials “biased and partisan” compared with those in Standards education? The authors address the question, explaining that “teaching is biased when it ignores multiple perspectives and does not allow interrogation of its own assumptions and propositions. Partisan teaching, on the other hand, invites diversity of opinion but does not lose sight of the aim of the curriculum: to alert students to global injustice, to seek explanations, and to encourage activism. This is the kind of teaching we hope Rethinking Globalization will encourage.” Fundamental in the educational process is the creation of students who develop critical abilities that allow them to question all they are taught and are being asked to do.

Of course the corporatists driving Standards education will have none of this “partisan” teaching. For them, achievement of the chief Standards mission should mean the creation of perfect employees, that is, “perfect” according to their definition, employees aptly described in Tom Lehrer’s song about a leading scientist: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?/ That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

What do you think? Does the drive for “global competitiveness” prevent education from wrestling with the ethical and systemic issues the author identifies?

Gerald Coles is a full-time researcher, writer, and lecturer on the psychology and politics of literacy and education. He is the author of several books, including Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies, as well as numerous articles in education, psychology and psychiatry journals. Before devoting himself to full-time research and writing, he was on the faculties of the Department of Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. His chapter, “Reading Policy: Evidence Vs. Power,” will appear in the forthcoming
Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy (Sage). He lives in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at geraldcoles@rochester.rr.com

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.