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Business Culture and the Death of Public Education: The Triumph of Management Over Leadership

Management divorced from leadership privatizes hope, deskills teachers and treats students as consumers.

New NYC schools chancellor Cathleen P. Black listens to students inside PS 329 on December 13, 2010, in Brooklyn, New York. Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, will formerly begin as NYC Chancellor on January 2, 2011.

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The recent news that Mayor Bloomberg has anointed Cathleen P. Black, the chairwomen of Hearst Magazines, as the new chancellor of the New York City school system is another high profile example of how much business elites in the United States despise public education and its traditional role as a guardian of civic values, democratic politics and public culture. It appears that Black’s only suitability for the job is that she has “extraordinary qualifications as a manager,” has “marketing prowess” and has participated “in a mentor day with Michelle Obama at a Detroit public school and, several years ago, [served] as ‘principal for a day’ in a school in the south Bronx.”(1) This appointment could provide fodder for a skit for “Saturday Night Live” if it were not both true and tragic. Of course, there is a larger script here that points to the increasing power of corporate leaders and a business elite to eviscerate from public schooling any vestige of public values, democratic modes of governance, teacher autonomy, critical thinking and a vision of schooling as a space in which to teach students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Within this stripped-down view of schooling, enlightened self-interest, efficiency and market-driven values rule. In this view, management is divorced from any viable sense of leadership and the connection between schooling and the public good is replaced with a business model of schooling that disregards both the social and any vision not defined by the crudest forms of power, instrumental rationality and mathematical utility.

It is important to note that the business culture at work here not only reduces all social bonds to market relations, it also gives us shocking levels of inequality, impoverishment and a market morality that issued in the second Gilded Age with its ode to rapacious greed, moral impoverishment and an utter indifference to the massive hardships and suffering it produced globally with the economic recession of 2008. Management divorced from leadership privatizes hope, deskills teachers, treats students as consumers and exhibits an utter disdain for any mode of knowledge that cannot be reduced to empirical forms of measurement. It is more concerned with training than educating, and it increasingly relies on punishment models of governance when dealing with teachers and unions while simultaneously using harsh disciplinary measures against those students viewed as disposable because they are poor, black, or viewed as flawed learners. The mode of authority at work in this type of management is not simply punitive and overly dictatorial; it is also a caricature of a viable notion of leadership and social vision. It does not lead, but tramples, bullies and uses fear as its modus operandi. This is a mode of authority and management that believes that money is the only incentive for working hard, making knowledge meaningful and understanding the dynamics of learning. The egoism and cult of efficiency and materialism that informs this view of schooling and the world has no way of recognizing anti-democratic tendencies in the culture, has no language for recognizing how private troubles are related to social problems, ignores ethical issues, and lacks the slightest insight into what it means to educate young people as critical citizens.

Business management of the market fundamentalist stripe now trumps any trace of a democratic social vision, while corporate and private interests take the place of public values and notions of the collective good. Unfortunately, the real story here is not about outsiders from the business world with little classroom or educational experience being appointed to positions of leadership in public schools systems. On the contrary, it represents the rise of a market-driven culture and apparatus of power that fills the void in a society in which informed memory is under siege and neoliberal pedagogy permeates every aspect of the cultural apparatus. Bloomberg’s actions once again suggest the power of a business culture and corporate class that despises debate, hates the formative culture that makes democracy possible and is willing to strip public education of all of those values and practices that suggest that it might serve as a democratic public sphere for generations of young people. Under this market-driven notion of schooling, management has been embraced as a Petri dish for stripping education of even minimal ethical principles and poses a growing threat to public life and the promise of democracy. Mayor Bloomberg’s notion of management does not identify agencies of change, hope and social responsibility because these are attributes that inform democratic modes of leadership. There is no call to liberate the imagination in his view of management, just the often strident, if not illiterate, attempt to measure knowledge, bestow learning with the most stripped-down capacities and sever teachers and education from any notion of self- and social empowerment and social change. Market-driven notions of management do not mobilize the individual imagination and social visions. On the contrary, they do everything possible to make them irrelevant to the discourse of leadership. Bloomberg’s appointment of an entirely unqualified, former Hearst executive is symptomatic of the crisis of leadership we face currently in the United States, when democratic visions and public values fall into disrepute. In this instance, Bloomberg and the market-driven billionaires who support his view of education are now asking the American people to be proud of what we, in fact, should be ashamed of – the rise of a market-driven business culture that hates democracy and the forms of education that make it possible.


1. All of these quotes are from Elissa Gootman and Jennifer Medina, “Mayor Takes Idea of Education Outsider to New Level,” New York Times (November 10, 2010), p. A32.