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The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42

Bill Gates attends the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at The Sheraton New York Hotel on September 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo: via Shutterstock )

Bill Gates attends the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at The Sheraton New York Hotel on September 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo: <a href= via Shutterstock )” width=”308″ height=”461″ />Bill Gates attends the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at The Sheraton New York Hotel on September 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo: via Shutterstock )“O Deep Thought computer, we want you to tell us … The Answer,” ask philosophical technicians Fook and Lunkwill in Douglas Adams’ epic space satire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“The Answer?” queries Deep Thought, their ultimate creation, a truly thinking computer that puts Siri to shame. “The Answer to what?”

“Life!” urges Fook.

“The Universe!” says Lunkwill.

“Everything!” they yell in chorus.

And after 7.5 million years of ceaseless computation, Deep Thought finally arrives at The Answer, delivering it hesitantly to Fook and Lunkwill’s distant ancestors, warning them that, well, “You’re not going to like it.”

The Answer to The Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is …


For American public schools, colleges and universities, Deep Thought’s absurd answer might be exactly the same to the Great Question of Education Reform – at least according to our richest technicians, such as Bill Gates, who are absolutely sure they’ve got the problem solved.

“[American children are] not being educated for the – for technology society,” Melinda Gates explained to the PBS NewsHour, clearly stating the problem. And since Melinda is married to a billionaire technician, and since their foundation has funded the NewsHour, she too believes she has exclusive access to The Answer for fixing our “fundamentally broken” school system. This Answer is that our school system needs to be updated to a market-based, competitive, technologically oriented system, much like the rest of the 21st century industries. This means more charter schools, more testing, more technology but fewer humans, less job security and no unions to organize the remaining human workers (like the rest of the economy).

Of this, Melinda has no doubt. But Deep Thought might.

The Gates Paradox

For the Gateses and their Silicon Valley disciples who have also invested millions in The Answer – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix’s Reed Hastings – our public school system is really just a large operating system. It is not a messy, social, human enterprise but, rather, a technical problem, one that can be solved through quantification, effective programming and, most of all, through data, data, data – and numerical data, at that, which should be analyzed, evaluated and synthesized by ceaseless computation, preferably by Deep Thought.

These Tech Titans have no doubt about The Answer, no lapse in faith as to its certainty – but no check on their power, no accountability if it turns out to be wrong.

I call it the Gates Paradox – the power of your voice in the “education reform” debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom (and your proximity to Silicon Valley) multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten.

Or, expressed in the native language of the technicians, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE.

Needless to say, I – as a community college English professor who works directly with working-class and immigrant students – score very low on this metric, and, thus, I have to resort to writing essays with references to 40-year-old science fiction to express my voice.

The Gates Paradox explains not only why educators have been roundly ignored in the education debate but why The Answer is now enshrined as federal law. President Obama’s Department of Education has complete faith in the technocratic, market-based reforms forwarded by the Tech Titans. According to recent speeches, Obama has argued that our schools need a software update, so that students can be downloaded with the “21st century skills” they need to “win the future.”

Under Race to the Top, education policy discussions sound indistinguishable from a board meeting at a No.2 pencil-factory: productivity, efficiency, metrics, data-driven, value. And the technical, humanity-free jargon is well-suited to the policies implemented by Obama and his program Race to the Top, which places utter, near-religious faith in this highly technical, market-based view of education: under RTTT, education, like all human enterprises, can (and must) be quantified and evaluated numerically, to identify the “one best way,” which can then be “scaled up,” or mass-produced across the nation, be it No. 2 pencils, appendectomies, military drones or lesson plans on thesis statements.

It’s not surprising that Race to the Top looks like it was taken straight out of The Gates Foundation reprogramming handbook for the Public School Operating System – because it was, quite directly, as Dissent magazine’s Joanne Barkan found in her groundbreaking article “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule our Schools.” As one of the richest men in the world, with no experience in education and extensive experience in Silicon Valley, along with underwriting numerous think tanks, lobbying agencies and big-budget programs and films to express his voice, Gates scores quite a bit higher than I on the Gates Paradox and thus can create education policy, rather than have to submit to it, as teachers must.

Philanthro-Barons and the Education-Industrial Complex

One common critical explanation of Gates and the rest of the Silicon Valley Tech Titans’ passion for education reform has been avarice – that ultimately they are in public education to open up a new market, to privatize for profit, all sold to the public cynically in the name of social justice and basic human rights. In essence, this education philanthropy is a plutocratic power-grab, a means by which the uber-rich can retain their superiority, as Barkan argues in her latest essay “Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy.” She aptly describes Gates and his followers as “philanthro-barons,” wielding their fortunes in the public sphere with impunity and without oversight – especially in public education.

Surely, these “philanthro-barons,” “philanthro-capitialists” and so-called education entrepreneurs have worked to convert public education into a private marketplace, as I have discussed at length in Project Censored 2013. Some have an abiding faith in the market and a hatred for the government, truly believing children will be served better by private enterprise; others, like billionaire Rupert Murdoch, see a huge profit to be made off our children’s schooling – a $500 billion sector. And certainly the “education market” is being tapped into, as what veteran educator Anthony Cody and others have called “The Education-Industrial Complex,” a well-organized corporate conglomerate of philanthropic funds (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), for-profit multinational publishers (Pearson), tech start-ups (Dreambox, Coursera), conservative think tanks (ALEC), nonprofit advocacy groups (StudentsFirst) and President Obama’s Race to the Top, the federal law that provides a favorable policy climate for this corporate style reform and, ultimately, corporate takeover (Diane Ravitch’s last two books detail these efforts with exhaustive evidence and relentless clarity).

Greed, though, isn’t sufficient by itself to explain the zeal with which the Tech Titans pursue the reform agenda, which feels less like capitalism and more like religion – like a work of a missionary or a cult member. Gates and his billionaire tech disciples are not just in it for money but rather, to proselytize and convert – to share the Gospel of Efficiency, and worship at the Church of Progress.

Taylorism and The Gospel of Efficiency

In the Church of Progress, all human problems are essentially technical in nature and can be solved through technical means. The modern prophet of progress is Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the father of the assembly line, whose theory of so-called “Scientific Management” relentlessly pursued industrial efficiency, the “one best way” to do any task. In Taylor’s scheme, the worker was standardized to fit into the system and was just another component, another replaceable device, not unlike the pistons he worked with. And this best way for the worker, invariably, is not the most moral way, not the most unique, most humane, most democratic nor creative – but rather the most efficient.

Taylorism, and the Church of Progress, is not just a means of more efficient management and production – it is an end, a way of life: The means is the end. The Church of Progress is not about using technical means to increase profit alone but rather to cultivate an efficient, orderly way of life, one in which the qualitative is replaced with the quantitative, explanation with exponents, experience, intuition, tradition and individuality with algorithms. Ultimately, true believers strive to replace uncertainty with certainty. If applied broadly, across all areas of human endeavor, Taylor and his technocratic disciples – like Gates, the rest of the Titans and the Silicon Valley start-up demi-gods – believe they can find a sort of mechanical utopia, a promised land of perfect rationality, efficiency and abundance … if only the rest of us would just get with their program (quite literally).

If Taylor is a prophet of the Church of Progress, then its central doctrine is an unbridled optimism about technical progress – that newer, more efficient means are invariably and unquestioningly better and will take us more rapidly to this orderly, peaceful utopia. This progress is not just in terms of better machines but better methods of organizing and managing people – methods and machines that together ensure an efficient, orderly outcome. To believe in such progress is a matter of faith, and to question it is heresy.

The Titans have been given their wealth and power in large part because of our worship of technical progress as a means to solve all problems in life – not just in industry but in our entertainment, our friendships and our love lives. Indeed, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Hastings have made their fortunes in providing technical solutions for these very human problems – in promising and delivering order and efficiency where there was once uncertainty, spontaneity and awkwardness. In short, humanity. We look to our Titans to bring down tablets (not stone, but digital) that will illuminate the conveyor belt to our mechanical utopia, to provide us meaning and to give us The Answer.

If the Titans can solve friendship and love with algorithms, why not education? What can’t they solve?

Solve for Forty-Two

“The answer does not lie in the rejection of the machine but rather in the humanization of man.” – Paulo Friere

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl, the great ancestor of Fook and Lunkwill. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” replied Deep Thought, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

Loonquawl’s real-life counterparts in Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, have never really appeared to understand the question, either. Indeed, for the Church of Progress and its disciples, the only possible purpose for education is to further technical progress, to better prepare students to become technicians themselves: engineers and managers.

To Gates, his Titans and our Department of Education, this technological society of the future is here, a fixed thing, a solid entity, a certain point that already exists. It is progress. It is inevitable. It has already happened. Thus, there is no way to avoid it. Given the bounty we’ve received from such progress, why would we? Thus, we must make sure that our schools and our children are able to conform to the standard of this future technological economy.

This complete and utter faith in technical progress and its inherent goodness, though, leaves no room for questions and, certainly, little for imagination. This relentless focus on standards, efficiency and productivity has transformed our schools into what Henry Giroux aptly describes as a “Dead Zone of The Imagination,” in which education is not an open journey of exploration and enrichment – of beautiful uncertainty – but, rather, a “prescribed subject matter,” reduced to training for a fixed, certain outcome. Our schools, under the allure of the Church of Progress, become much like the Dead Zones of the Environment, dying wastelands sacrificed at the altar of our technical progress, in which nothing can live nor grow.

Rather than ask our children to imagine what the 21st century will look like, rather than ask them to question the society into which they were born, rather than study our values, our morals, the quality of our lives, our democracy and our environment, the technicians want more technicians, ones who will ask how but never why.

“None of our wise men ever pose the question of the end of all their marvels,” sociologist Jacques Ellul concluded nearly 60 years ago in his broadside against The Gospel of Efficiency, The Technological Society. Under the allure of this Gospel, our children may find exciting new ways to deliver mobile content, but will they consider why and to what end? They may make powerful technical progress, but will they make equally powerful progress with democracy, equity and morality?

The Answer must be no – that is, unless we follow Deep Thought’s artificially intelligent wisdom to that little Loonquawl in us all: “So once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”

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