Politicians, anti-public intellectuals and conservative-leaning media pundits no longer ask what kind of education is needed in a democratic society. Nor do they value the importance of educating teachers and students to think critically, engage in meaningful dialogue and function as producers of knowledge rather than as objects of its transmission. Curiously, given the disastrous state of the economy since its 2008 meltdown, the leadership driving the new reform movement in education are hedge fund managers, multimillionaires, Ivy League apparatchiks and corporate executives. For them, education is largely about “applying business strategies and discipline to public schools.”(1) Education has become the new frontier for the investment dollar and very likely the next big bubble to burst. But what do the proposed reforms mean for education now, on the ground, so to speak, in classrooms across the nation? Educational theory – the guiding philosophical principles that provide a vision of what it means to be a fully functional educated citizen, as well as the vision of the kind of society educated men and women should aspire to build – has been stripped of its critical and emancipatory possibilities, in this latest demand for educational accountability and innovation, just as pedagogy has been reduced to a managerial and disciplinary process largely driven by market values, a crude empiricism and the ideology of casino capitalism with its relentless prioritization of economic interests over human interests and a politically compliant and technologically savvy labor force over one that aspires to independent thought and ethical stewardship in its efforts to meet the needs of a democratic polity.
What is emerging out of this anti-public model of education is the Wal-Mart approach to schooling, in which students are viewed as a cheap supply of labor, valuable to the extent that they “help employees get more education and to build a better work force.”(2) Evidence of how this business model, with its all-too-obvious flight from social and moral responsibility works is evident in the recent decision by David Steiner, the recently appointed commissioner of the New York State Department of Education, to name the utterly unqualified Cathleen P. Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, as the chancellor of New York City’s public schools.
The appointment of a person who has little involvement in public service and no meaningful experience as an educator to head the largest public school system in the country has prompted a great deal of public outrage and generated a significant amount of coverage in the dominant media. At one level, the protest has centered on the imperial rule of Mayor Bloomberg who, true to his corporate values, once again exhibits his disdain for any notion of governance that solicits public dialogue, values and community involvement. Not only has Bloomberg appointed a majority of his supporters to the Board of Education, but when they disagree with his policies, he simply fires them. To his critics, Bloomberg is elitist, autocratic and largely dismissive to those who challenge him. Surely, this characterization of the New York City mayor has been reinforced by the highly secretive way in which Black was chosen to assume such a vital role in educational leadership. The imperial nature, to say nothing of the thoughtlessness, of his selection of Black was echoed by her comment that “the offer came out of left field.”(3) Though, of course, in accepting the position, she reproduced the distorted assumption that “all the school system needs is a smart and talented manager.”(4) Even the director of education policy studies at the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute – no friend of public education – was puzzled over the official rationale for Black’s appointment and stated that it was naive for Bloomberg to believe that the only requirement necessary for Black to become the head of the New York City school system was that she was a CEO and “that all C.E.O.’s have the skills to lead this large organization.”(5)
As public outrage grew over Bloomberg’s appointment, a number of groups, including the editorial board of The New York Times, argued that one possible compromise would be to appoint a professional educator as a chief academic officer to act as Black’s chief adviser. The only person with the power to insist that Black be provided with a surrogate tutor was Steiner – at which point, the media coverage of the story shifted to Steiner. Steiner has the power, under a 73-year old state law, to prevent Black from taking the position by denying her request for a school district leader certificate, particularly in light of the fact that Black has no advanced degrees or educational credentials whatsoever. He also had the power to give her a waiver under certain specified conditions, one of which was to work with a professional educator as second in command. Only by providing a waiver to Black would it be possible for her to assume the position as chancellor of the school system, a position for which, again, she is singularly unqualified given her lack of educational preparation and experience.
Of course, Steiner, true to his own corporate-driven ideology, eventually granted Black the waiver to assume the job, but with the qualification that she work with a chief academic officer by her side. In agreeing to provide the waiver, Steiner wrote, “Despite her lack of direct experience in education, I find that Black’s exceptional record of successfully leading complex organizations and achievement of excellence in her endeavors warrant certification.”(6) Steiner is stretching the logic of deliberation and good judgment here to the point of disbelief. How does running a successful business qualify someone to run the largest school system in America? And if she is qualified by virtue of that experience, why, as a precondition for assuming the job, is she being assigned a deputy chancellor who, as an experienced educator, is serving as her private tutor – a condition which makes clear how unqualified she is for the position in the first place? Needless to say, once Steiner made his decision, Mayor Bloomberg made clear how irrelevant such an ill-conceived and conciliatory gesture was by pointing out, “There will be one person in charge. Make no mistake about that.”(7)
This kind of mindless authoritarianism by Bloomberg feeds into a type of lethal ignorance regarding what constitutes educational leadership, and is part and parcel of free-market ideology that assumes that all social, economic, educational and political problems can be solved through the template of a business culture increasingly characterized by top-to-down modes of governance, unchecked financial recklessness, a contempt for democratic modes of deliberation, a hatred of unions’ and teachers’ rights, a disdain for all things public and a flight for social and moral responsibility. But the real issue here is not about the appointment of Black to a position for which she is embarrassingly unqualified, but about corporate power and a business culture, along with its pocketed elites, who both detest public education and who pose a serious threat to the educational conditions necessary for critical thought, engaged citizenship and democratic life itself.
Steiner’s pusillanimity is a case in point. When it became clear that he had the power to derail Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Black, The New York Times ran a front-page story on Steiner, portraying him as a sensitive, thoughtful Oxford graduate who was having trouble sleeping over the decision. Or so it was reported in The New York Times, “He has been having trouble sleeping, gazing at a print of Rembrandt’s ‘Philosopher in Mediation’ in his apartment and taking solace in Schubert Opus 100.”(8) Not only was Steiner portrayed as a well-educated, classics enthusiast who dared, at least momentarily, to stand bravely in the way of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to appoint Black as the new school chancellor, but also as a sensitive intellectual who, by virtue of his education and Ivy League pedigree, would surely make the right choice. The hidden order of politics here is that the well-educated elite, even when they have been bought off by the rich and powerful, will end up making responsible decisions. This is a familiar story and legitimates the millionaire/billionaire-driven culture of philanthropy that is now waging a war against public and higher education.
The barbarians in this narrative are not the business elites, but the hordes of alleged philistines who make up the teachers unions and confront every day the growing challenges of engaging students in the classroom. In this widely fabricated and revolting scenario, this merging of the business elite with the alleged best and the brightest, while they may have given us a string of wars extending from Vietnam to Afghanistan along with scandals extending from Enron to the current financial meltdown, are, as a bloc, much too educated and civilized to be viewed as corrupt, greedy, politically challenged or subservient to the naked interests of powerful corporations. Not only does this script rival the banalities of celebrity culture, but it says little that is truthful about the reality of the alleged superior educational views, politics and morality of the elite. In this view, the presumed power of the cultivated imagination of the rich and powerful prevents them from being narrow, craven, inhumane or eagerly subservient to established power. Little is said about the shortcomings of the education that the elite actually receive, nor is there any acknowledgment that Nazi leaders along with Pol Pot and others who reviled democracy also appreciated “great” books and works of art, but that did not stop them from engaging in horrendous crimes against humanity. The truth of one’s politics lies elsewhere; it speaks in and through relations of power, compassion, empathy and public values; it is also rooted in the decisions one makes and the consequences they have regarding the important issues of equity, social justice, equality and the public good.
In the end, Steiner’s soaring imagination and literary tastes simply become a convenient alibi for refusing to engage his politics and the slavish role he now plays as a courier for corporate power and neoliberal ideology. The result, in part, has been a mainstream, media-driven narrative that depoliticizes the most important issues at hand in the Bloomberg appointment, and the role that is played at the highest levels of state power by an intellectual elite who provide support for such malfeasance. The Bloomberg decision raises larger issues about the crisis of public education, the war being waged against youth of color, the rise of the punishing state and its influence upon education and the growing disinvestment in education as a public good. The New York Times story about Steiner takes a crucial issue about educational leadership and reduces it to an utterly privatized account of Steiner’s life. While the article obsequiously gushes to its readers that Steiner is a “walking Bartlett’s, known for weaving Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Dante into his conversation and e-mails,”(9) this is all beside the point. It hasn’t translated into effective new leadership in New York City schools. Nor does Steiner’s alleged intellectual gravitas impact in any way the literacy rates of New York City school kids. Rather, it serves as a shameful cover for divesting them of the resources necessary for meaningful and critical education. The real news is that Steiner is just as much a neoliberal, free-market enthusiast, who has a long record of prioritizing the teaching of methods over theory, substituting training for critical education, advocating for charter schools and supporting the punishing bromide of reducing teacher and student evaluations to the draconian demands of high-stakes testing and empirically based performance measures. Rather than being treated to a celebrity-style commentary about the refinement of Steiner’s musical or literary tastes, the public deserves more. For example, how does Steiner address the meaning and purpose of education so as to do justice to the hundreds of thousands of parents, administrators, teachers and students who believe that education is a central and formative element in teaching young people how to think critically and engage the world, not merely as workers, but as informed and critical citizens? What are his views on addressing the economic inequities faced by so many school children in New York? Or, for that matter, the increasing disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of poor students of color, and the increasing presence of the police in schools, and the list goes on and on.
Not only does Steiner’s actual history of policy making suggest that the outcome of his decision about Black was never in dispute, but it also reveals how conservative politicians such as Bloomberg are putting into positions of power neoliberal apparatchiks, who willingly promote the business culture and social relations so vital to the assault on public schools, teacher unions, teachers and students that marks the rise of the new neoliberal hedge fund, millionaire school reformers. Despite the Times’ willful myopia, Steiner’s conservative credentials are on full display in a number of articles he has published in highly right-wing journals. His disdain for critical pedagogical practice and support for corporate-based notions of schooling was highly visible during his tenure as dean of Hunter College. While at Hunter, he promoted charter schools, reinforced the anti-intellectual nature of teacher education by developing programs that emphasized practice over theory, criticized any attempt to deepen the connection between research and teaching, defined pedagogy as primarily the mastery of methods and abstracted any vestige of critical theory from classroom teaching by emphasizing clinical training – all the while going on record expressing a disdain for any attempt to view teachers as critical intellectuals whose classroom performance could be enhanced through a familiarity with scholarship and critical theory in general.(10) Whatever the high cultural gloss given to Steiner, his decisions and actions at various levels of the New York educational system would reveal just another neoliberal, free-market ideologue whose view of education strips away any vestige of critical imagination, undermines an environment of collaboration and undercuts teacher autonomy from classroom teaching. Steiner’s educational philosophy in the end reduces the purpose and meaning of education to the dictates of a business culture more interested in training than in educating. It is also a philosophy that supports the increased use of disciplinary measures in the schools that increasingly transform schools into laboratories for modes of surveillance that pose a threat both to civil liberties and to democracy itself. In fact, it can be argued that the use of cameras to monitor classrooms poses a troubling threat to poor black students because this type of monitoring tends to produce crime by criminalizing social behavior, removing those populations considered disposable, thus producing more bodies for the school to prison pipeline. For example, Steiner’s trademark support for videotaping classroom teachers as pedagogical practice firmly supports Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that monitoring devices be placed in classrooms as a way of evaluating teacher performance.(11) Little is said about how these technologies, elevated to pedagogical essentials, desensitize children to being under constant surveillance in the workplace and various other public spheres. In this case, the pedagogy of business culture often bears an eerie, if not chilling, alignment with diverse modes of policing.(12)
Schooling in this view is all about preparing people for jobs and setting up policies that remove critical thinking as a serious condition for independent action and engaged citizenship. What haunts people like Steiner, Arthur Levine, Gates, Jack Welch, and the rest of this neoliberal crew is that teachers might actually be educated as critical intellectuals – thoroughly versed in theory and subject matter and not simply methods – and, in doing so, may engage in the dangerous practice of teaching students how to think, hold power and authority accountable, take risks and willingly embrace their role as producers and not merely transmitters of critical information. Steiner’s decision to cave in to Bloomberg’s authoritarian view of education is just another example of a how corporate power and values in education are now working to create what Martha C. Nussbaum calls “generations of useful machines.”(13)
6. See Steiner’s 12=page defense for granting the waiver online here.
Within a few days, it became obvious why Black had been chosen by Bloomberg. In an interview reported in The New York Times, she asked her critics to simply give her a chance. And, yet, she made quite clear that she would pursue the same punishing neoliberal policies instituted by her predecessor, Chancellor Joe Klein. According to Black, she “planned to continue Mr. Klein’s efforts to increase the robustness of teacher evaluations, reconsider the policy of life time tenure and seek to change the law that requires layoffs to be determined by seniority.” In other words, she will use the same slash-and-burn policies made famous by neoliberal educational leaders such as Michele Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, DC, schools. Simply put, she will eliminate tenure for teachers, disregard seniority and the job protections it offers, continue high-stakes testing modes of pedagogy, tie teacher evaluations to stripped-down empirical evaluations, close schools that are underserved and promote the opening of charter schools.
10. For a puff piece that spells out and celebrates Steiner’s neoliberal position on education and some of the policies he has implemented in accordance with it, see Kevin Carey, “‘Teacher U’: A New Modal in Employer-Led Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, (December 13, 2010). Online here.