Over the past year, the Trump administration’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational program garnered $300 million in pledges from big tech companies. Implicit in this push is the commonly accepted though questionable notion that millions of cutting-edge STEM jobs await US workers but go unfilled because public schools have failed to prepare students for them. The STEM bandwagon rolls on at the expense of social studies, art, history and literature — all deemed “irrelevant” to career success and to education as a commodity — while promoting often biased and inaccurate corporate curricula.
Open inquiry scarcely figures in corporate-funded curricula, according to Gerald Coles’s recently published book, Miseducating for the Global Economy. Coles points to materials developed by the Bill of Rights Institute (an organization created by the billionaire Koch brothers) as an example of the ideological distortions present in corporate-funded educational materials. For example, the curriculum developed by the institute teaches students that “the Occupy movement violated the rights of others.”
Though Occupy protested abuses of the richest 1 percent, the Bill of Rights Institute curriculum is not concerned with this. Instead, according to Coles, it asks whether the police crackdown on Occupy was justified — and answers “yes,” because the New York Occupy demonstrators had purportedly damaged both the park and adjacent neighborhood. Somehow this was construed as a First Amendment violation and “consequently the government had a right to inflict pain (with pepper spray, for example) on the Bill of Rights abusers.” Occupy protesters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, engaged in similar malfeasance, according to the lessons.
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Coles reports that the institute has also developed curricula for North Carolina, in accordance with the state legislature’s 2011 Founding Principles Act, a bill based on model legislation provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council – a conservative group also funded by the Koch brothers.
This book also discusses the Khan Academy’s digital curriculum, observing that, “by 2012 Khan Academy videos had been viewed more than 200 million times by ‘6 million unique students each month.’” By 2017, Khan Academy had nearly 57 million users. Founded by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, the Khan Academy offers lessons that promote personal freedom and strong limits on government intervention, as opposed to “collectivist” programs like Social Security. The Khan Academy “Globalism II” video also takes swipes at “anti-democratic strongmen” Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, arguing that “nationalizing resources and using the revenue for the poor is a terrible idea.” Meanwhile, according to Coles, the Khan curriculum fails to mention Chavez’s use of oil revenues to expand public education, instead attempting to instill horror of collectivizing oil.
Coles also discusses another online curriculum, one founded by Bill Gates, called “Big History Project.” It narrates a soothing tale of the rise of modernity, with allusion to the horrors of the slave trade, though the curriculum offers no details on the effects of settler colonialism and early capitalist imperialism on Indigenous people in North America. There is no mention of the genocide of Native Americans, Coles reports.
Then there is the Ohio Center for History, Art and Technology, which teaches the need for businesses “to work globally and how product development and marketing may need to differ from region to region.” The Center urges students to visit corporate websites and imagine which products they would like to market globally. The emphasis here is not on critical thinking.
Miseducating for the Global Economy lists six imperatives that structure corporate-funded curricula:
1) the global economy must be presented as a natural phenomenon;
2) schools must be silent about the global economy’s hierarchical structure;
3) the global economy’s nature is not open to critical inquiry;
4) the curriculum must assume there are winners and losers, and the student’s job is to get an education to become a winner;
5) schooling assumes the legitimacy of businesses paying people as little as possible; and
6) schools must not teach about the global economy’s harm to the Earth and its ecology.
Corporate curricula thus have an agenda – promoting capitalism at the expense of open inquiry – which also spills over into the corporate attack on public education. “Schools are scapegoated for the failures of the economic system,” Coles writes, arguing that corporations, responsible for a growing economic “precariat” (the population whose temporary or part-time work is precarious) in the US, palm off the blame onto schools with a dubious narrative about an abundance of high-skilled jobs, for which schools are not preparing Americans. This narrative is a lie. There is no such abundance, just capitalism’s aim to focus attention elsewhere while it fails to create high-paying jobs, leaving the service sector as the fastest-growing US employer. Coles exposes corporate hypocrisy on this point by detailing how U S corporations contrive to underfund education, primarily through tax evasion.
Billionaire Bill Gates argues for slashing education budgets. Dismissing the multitude of studies showing that reduced class size benefits students as “an erroneous policy ‘belief’ that ‘has driven school budget increases for 50 years,’” Gates argues for the financial savings of large class sizes with a sort of highly paid super-teacher. Ignoring extensive research on this topic, “the self-styled educational researcher, whose company, Microsoft, moved its vast profits offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes, [said] ‘You can’t fund reforms without money, and there is no more money.’”
Overall, Coles argues that schools really do meet corporations’ need for exploitable service sector workers. In fact, “the worst nightmare for corporate leaders and the rich would be universal school success, in which vast numbers of graduates were fully able to do the purported extraordinary number of STEM jobs said to be awaiting them in the grand global economy.” For the few jobs that really do exist, corporations strive to keep schools occupationally oriented and distracted from questions about the true nature of our economy. Studying global capitalism “is the last topic corporate powers governing the economy want in the curriculum.” In fact, capitalism is the word one dare not speak in education. Hence the euphemism “the global economy.” Corporations constrict the curriculum deliberately, limiting political and historical discourse. “The corporate mission,” Coles writes, “is to derail students from imagining [what educator Maxine Green calls] ‘alternative visions of the world – visions of what might be, what ought to be.’”
With relentless corporate focus on STEM and job preparation, the humanities, arts and social science have suffered. Coles reports North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s doubts about whether state universities should teach liberal arts: “I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.” McCrory cited gender studies courses in particular.
Similarly, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, now a senator, complained about the failure of liberal arts and social science programs to contribute to Florida’s economy: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs.”
Nationally, Republicans have opposed federal funding for university social science, and, of course, climate change study. In keeping with this hard-nosed business slash-and-burn approach to the liberal arts, the 2010 Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences co-chair was, Coles reports, John W. Rowe, former CEO of Exelon Corporation, owner of more nuclear plants in the US than any other company, under whose leadership Exelon failed to report large radioactive water leaks. Other panel members, according to Coles, included former CEOs of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, a right-wing New York Times columnist, bigwigs from banks and investment companies, and so on.
One very disturbing aspect of this corporate propaganda — about public schools’ failure to prepare students for the workforce — is its acceptance, indeed wholesale swallowing, of the corporate-centric education, by teachers’ union leaders. Coles quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, that “today’s public school teachers are on the front lines of our collective efforts to compete in the global economy.” This parallels a US Chamber of Commerce vice president’s view that “a first-class education system is the only way for Americans to compete … in the global economy.” The National Education Association advocates preparing “the next generation for new careers for this new global economy.” No matter that most of those new careers in the US will be in the service sector, scarcely requiring a high school diploma.
Coles argues that in “the global economy ideology, ‘dog eat dog’ is a reigning necessity … with schools defined as … critical for providing … skills that will determine which dog will prevail.” But students must never name or study capitalism. Why? Because, Coles answers, “consider the problem of legitimizing an economic system that is a disaster for billions of people worldwide.” To that system, in which low-wage hard work not requiring an advanced degree constitutes most people’s employment (if they are “lucky” enough to get it), the billionaire response is: “blame yourselves, blame the schools, but don’t blame us or our global economy.” So we get what Coles calls “education … in which a student could be very competent in a technical skill but understand virtually nothing about the context of that skill, the global economy.”
In contrast, Coles cites a 2015 Zapatista-held “Seminar of Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra.” In it, the word for dispossession, “despojo” was repeatedly used. “Despojo is an active word, conveying agency, class and power, a word synonymous with ‘to be stripped violently of everything that sustains you.’ The term … embodies the ‘key experience of capitalism’s innumerable losers.’” There is none of that in the Obama administration’s common core curriculum or in those other corporate-sponsored curricula, which, Coles writes, imply that the vast numbers of poor in the US are educational underachievers.
The educational darlings of corporate America are, of course, charter schools, favored for providing public funds to private companies, a non-union teaching workforce, absence of constraint when it comes to corporate curricula and success statistics easily inflated by excluding students public schools do not have to take – “poor achievers” and those with learning disabilities or discipline problems. To emphasize the disconnect between charter donors who exploit children abroad while funding education at home, Coles lists donors of one big charter chain: the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Its donors include the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund of the Gap fortune, whose “KIPP philanthropy money for youngsters has been accumulated in India, where child workers, some as young as ten, have produced Gap clothing in textile factories ‘in conditions close to slavery’”; Walmart, recipient of “more than $7.8 billion a year through taxpayer subsidies coming from public assistance programs, such as the food stamp program, which low-wage Walmart workers need to survive and support children”; the Broad Foundation, whose leader Eli Broad at one point “contrived not to ‘owe a penny’ on an ‘estimated $54 million in taxes’”; the Citi Foundation, part of Citigroup, which received a $7 billion penalty for its mortgage fraud which helped blow up the economy in 2008, and others. For all these foundations, donations to charter schools are peanuts, especially compared to those corporations’ unpaid taxes. Yet, Coles reports, unaware of the tax cheating, parents and teachers respond to these well-promoted corporate donations with gratitude.
Whether designing biased educational videos, constricting course content or promoting curricula that smear movements like Occupy, US corporations help miseducate students. And they do it on the cheap.