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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Schools and the Freedom Struggle in an Orwellian World

By Harry C. Boyte — March 06, 2017 5 min read
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Dear Deb,

Your criticism years ago of parental-choice-as-vouchers is still valid: “The notion that we can leave it to the whims of individual parent choice in marketplace fashion is problematic. Good parents are inclined to put their own children’s immediate interests first (‘Who Is Making the Decisions?’ , February 28, 2007).”

Communitarian conservatives ignore the atomizing, privatizing dynamics you point to. Vouchers-as-policy destroys “the civic.” We also need to find common ground for the challenges we face in the coming Orwellian world.

Last year in the Wall Street Journal, Yuval Levin illustrated neglect of the civic role of schools in “The Next Conservative Movement,” in discussing empowerment. He touted the Catholic idea of “subsidiarity,” devolving power to the lowest possible unit. But he turned citizens into consumers. “Where the old progressive model was the universal public school system - offering one product to all and administering it in as centralized a way as public opinion would permit,” he said, “the new conservative approach would direct its resources to let parents make choices for their children and allow the education system to take shape around their priorities.”

Consumers are not citizens and private power is not civic power. Levin forgets the wisdom of the architect of modern conservative thought Robert Nisbet, who argued in his classic, The Quest for Community, that the unchecked marketplace erodes the civic authority and roles of congregations, families, neighborhoods, and civic associations. Capitalism by itself generates “a sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity.”

Trump and DeVos’s proposals to spend $20 billion dollars on vouchers illustrate what happens when market choice is taken to the logical conclusion. Market logic is damaging especially for poor and minority young people. As Kevin Carey reported in the New York Times, a study of Louisiana’s voucher program showed that students in largely black and low income families from troubled public schools who used vouchers to attend private schools showed “large negative results in both reading and math.”

Yet if conservatives have blind spots about the market, progressives also have things to learn. Conservative communitarians like Yuval Levin are far more alert to problems of expert-knows-best technocracy than progressives.

Levin calls for “revival of mediating institutions” from “families to churches to civic and fraternal associations and labor and business groups” as counterweight to expert-knows-best technocracy. One seldom if ever hears this on the left.

Progressives are aware of the disasters that come from destroying public things (like schools). But Big Data is their world, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign dramatized.

Richard Kahlenberg, in his “America Needs Public School Choice, Not Private School Vouchers,” sponsored by the Century Foundation, touts public schools’ roles in teaching democratic values like equality and inclusion in his challenge to policies of President Trump and Betsy DeVos. But he omits mention of agency, our capacity to shape our environments, and its destruction by high stakes testing and the rise of the technocrats.

Parents who raise questions about their children’s education know all too well the technocratic problem. As Luke Bretherton pointed out in a review of recent books on community organizing for school reform, “What comes across time and again is the hostility ‘non-experts’ provoke... [P]ublic engagement with education challenges and demands a move beyond technocratic, top down, one-size-fits all, centralized and procedural reform initiatives to draw on a wider variety of experience, knowledge, and a diversity of solutions.”

We face a new reality that prompts cross-partisan coalition building.

Last week you noted the emergence of “personalized learning” without human beings. More than irony, it intimates George Orwell’s 1984.

In “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?”, featured in Scientific American on February 27, nine scholars detail the dangers of growing domination by political and economic elites. What my South Africa colleague Xolela Mangcu has called “technocratic creep” is metastasizing.

“A centralized system of technocratic behavioral and social control using a super-intelligent information system would result in a new form of dictatorship,” they argue, describing how everything is increasingly connected to the information grid. Whether expert elites are corporate or governmental makes little difference. “Today algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think, and what we feel, possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves...the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own...[but] we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully.”

They conclude “we are at the historic moment” and propose “a new social contract based on social cooperation which sees citizens...not as obstacles or resources to be exploited but as partners.” As Yvonne Hofstetter puts it, “We are called on to fight for our freedom against the rise of intelligent machines.”

The authors advance many strategies for regaining human control over information technologies, advancing “collective intelligence of persons” through decentered, human-directed information systems.

There are also profound resources for this fight in the democratic movements, civic organizing, and educational experiments we have been discussing.

Against privatizing and disempowering trends we need a citizen movement that re-grounds schools and colleges in the civic life of places, recalling John Dewey and Jane Addams’ idea that schools should be “social centers.” Such a movement can overcome the zero-sum trade-offs between neighborhood schools and diversity of race, class, and ideology through a new mission for all schools and colleges, public, private, and parochial. It can multiply civic sites where people with different partisan views, interests, and backgrounds deliberate, learn, create knowledge, and do public work.

These are crucial sites of citizen power in the face of the smart machines.

Educators, like all citizens, must answer the call.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.