Teaching Opinion

The Problem With Technocrats in Charge

By Harry C. Boyte — September 29, 2015 5 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

It’s possible to develop policy “mandates” about democracy in schools. But we need to change the way they are created and advanced. Today mandates, like professional systems, replace relational approaches with informational approaches to make the case. “Evidence-based,” “data-driven,” and the like are the justifying terms. These put the emphasis on rational, abstract justifications designed by experts using supposedly “value-free” scientific methods, which are in fact never value-free. Democratic and relational practices disappear.

Even when mandates are developed through citizen initiative they are remembered differently. For instance, the Oregon priorities for Medicaid reimbursements (the sort of policy mandate that Sarah Palin called “death panels”) passed with overwhelming support in the legislature in 1990 because thousands of citizens were involved in developing them. But the story has been now recast in expert terms (see “Oregon Health Services,” AMA Journal of Ethics, April 11, 2011).

Pope Francis can help illuminate the problem that we face.

In the Climate Encyclical Francis argues that growing concentrations of wealth are partly driven by the “technocratic paradigm,” a way of thinking and acting which creates a pattern of detached expert control. The pope obviously values science, but he argues that elites (of both left and right) vastly exaggerate its role as the source of knowledge for human progress. He proposes that other kinds of knowledge are crucial. Pope Francis was shaped by the populist “theology of the people,” a challenge to socialist and modernist strands of liberation theology which theologians of the people believe rely too much on scientific ways of thinking and categories like class struggle. These theologians use a “cultural” lens, with emphasis on local cultures, “folk wisdom,” national cultures and traditions.

As a young man by the freedom movement (Martin Luther King once told me he identified with the populist movements of the 1930s), I resonate strongly with such views. I also like Francis’ emphasis on people as “co-creators,” building society through people’s work in a way which creates connection with our commonwealth. At the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador last summer, he argued that “As Genesis recounts, after the word ‘cultivate,’ another word immediately follows: ‘care.’ Each explains the other. They go hand in hand. Those who do not cultivate do not care; those who do not care do not cultivate.”

The health mandate in Oregon had wide support because citizens worked to produce it. They “cultivated.”

From this vantage, the task is not only to describe “democracy schools” - important as such descriptions are. It’s also how to overcome the technocratic paradigm which puts experts on top, not on tap, and marginalizes lay citizens and non-expert knowledge.

What do you think?


Dear Harry and friends,
Even though Pope Francis and I fundamentally disagree about the role of sex, for example, like you he’s my ally on the most critical issues facing us. He has reintroduced us to the language we seem to have forgotten in the last half century and that we may once--at least on the left--have taken for granted. We are truly in a battle not only over the New Deal but virtually all of the advances we took for granted in the first three quarters of the 20th, and some of the 19th century! Not only are prisons now run for profit but prisoners are once again being used to do the labor once done by unionized workers. The idea that progressive taxation is good and monopolies bad is no longer assumed.

I think you are right to say that the “technocratic paradigm” is driving a very dangerous way of thinking. But, perhaps we disagree on why. Maybe my marxistical background shows. The “drivers” I’d argue are not driven by technocratic thinking but by old-fashioned self-interest disguised as “science”.

Example. The current policy drivers promote the idea that test scores are neutral and objective. Fact: Not true. E.g. The ETS pool of items for use on future tests contains items that black people answer right more often than whites. Guess what? Those items are not used because “we all know” that Black people aren’t as smart as Whites and therefore... Circular, self-serving logic. Jay Rosner (of Princeton Review) reports that if Asians now get it right more than whites, they use such items. Progress?

Evidence-based logic would toss out the whole past 30 years of test-obsessed reform. It’s not techno-thinking, but whose expertise we honor. Experts are not the folks who do and know the work best.

My hope is that you and I -- plus our readers - can better articulate what we mean by “public schooling.” Does it have something to do with whose expertise counts? Have we good reason (e.g. civil rights) not to leave it all decisions to the “locals”? Catholics have a word for this dilemma: subsidiarity. I know charter schools that fit my definition better than many a traditional public school, but I’ve seen many that are truly “private” except that they use public monies. Vouchers take this a step further.

Alas, traditional public schools often exclude their community and the school’s participants in any important decisions too--especially if they are poor and Black/Brown. Mayoral control and Federal mandates replace teachers, parents and the community--not to mention children. How might we rethink “ways” more consistent with democratic principles of self-governance?

Might a shared vision of different possibilities, ones we can point to examples of and that make it easier to build a people’s school reform movement?

Deb, you may focus more on what “democracy schools” look like and I, from an organizing background which begins with “the world as it is,” focus more on how to get there. But despite differences in background, we clearly have a shared concerned for building schools that serve a democratic purpose. So let’s start. What can we agree are key ingredients? And add along the way what are roles of key actors - communities, teachers, students, families, principals, unions, teacher educators, political leaders, others - in getting there?

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