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Zombie Functionalism and the Return of Neo-Instrumentality in Education

For decades now, the debate in America over education has swerved back and forth between student testing, teacher accountability, standards, competitiveness and what curriculum should contain.

This article is part of Truthout’s ongoing Public Intellectual Project.

For decades now, the debate in America over education has swerved back and forth between student testing, teacher accountability, standards, competitiveness and what curriculum should contain. With No Child Left Behind ushered in at the beginning of the George W. Bush presidency, America entered into the cartographic reality and morbid morass of high stakes testing, the location on the chess board where the Wall Street financiers and seedy politicians wanted to put public school education after years of neglect and underfunding. Why? For not only is the attack on public education one aimed at destroying teacher unions and the public commons in general, but it is also an attack on what is to be taught in classes, the actual methods of instruction, what students are to be thinking about and the educational theories behind a ‘neo-functionality’ that reduces students to mere depositories of pre-masticated thinking (link 1). Testing is an authoritarian tool that regiments both students and teachers while at the same time serving as a rubric for investors who see the scores much like credit ratings.

Privatized curricula that now arise in tandem or alongside privatized or publicly funded contract schools, such as charter schools, standardize this instrumentality within the confines of curriculum that is corporate planned and developed (link 2). Critical thinking is not encouraged in the corporatized standardized, generic curriculum; instead the anorexic bulimic learning model, based on the tyranny of rote regurgitation and memorization, rules the day.

It is apparent that historically, once again, we are faced with a so-called reform movement inspired by an insipid notion of education reduced to functionalism and instrumentalism, the cold wind of dystopian education that haunted the 20th century and continues to roam the educational landscape. What we hear and see today in the debate over education is the same forced blunt trauma to the head we’ve heard for more than one hundred years —- the cackling sounds of the neo-Pythagoreans obsessed with student rote memorization through inauthentic test scores as opposed to assessing student performance in areas of problem solving and critical thinking. This serves them well for in this way schooling under capitalism supports its role as a sorting machine for the corridors of power.

Not surprisingly, this comes along with a brutal attack on humanities at colleges and universities from many who argue that it is simply not ‘instrumental’ or ‘functional’ to offer liberal arts educational opportunities; education must be harnessed to the exigencies of the market. Informational text is replacing fiction in many high schools and middle schools. So, we see the rise of a new gaggle of ideological hacks obsessed and preoccupied with social Darwinism, engineering schooling as pedagogical purgatory for low-wage labor under capitalism.

Amidst all the hollering amongst the Wall Street entrepreneurs and their silly patrons we call politicians about test scores and the future of our youth, it is schooling under capitalism that is important to these reactionaries, not education for youth, not developing opportunities for independent thinking and living. Thus, zombie functionalism has made its way back into the national debate or rather, perhaps, sadly never received a stake in its heart that would vanquish it.

The difficulty for the neo-functionalist arguments of today revolves around the gruesome fact that there is little if no work to be made ‘functional’ for. The economic and social system itself is so dysfunctional that any calls for educational instrumentality or functionalism, would have to address the cascading larger macro-economic and systemic rot. Alas, shockingly but not surprisingly, this is not the case. Schools thus now serve as much as containment centers for students of color and marginalized surplus youth as they do as centers of education.

Defining Terms

Before moving forward perhaps it is best to define terminology. We tend to use language believing everybody has the same definition as we do and thus often fail to communicate and I want to avoid this for clarity purposes. When I use the term “functionalism” in educational parlance, I am referring to functionalist theory which is based on the assumption that society tends towards equilibrium and social order. Under this theoretical framework, social health is synonymous with social order and therefore the role of education is plain and simple —- control and containment within a hierarchical system of economics, family, social control and culture.

Functionalist theory is by nature hierarchical, conformist, elitist and proceeds on the assumption that the social health of a society, which itself is an ideological poster child of the elite, is guaranteed when almost everyone accepts the general moral values of their society without critical questioning. In fact, deviation is frowned upon and anything that threatens the social norm is deemed as subversive and this includes critical thinking. Preparing oneself as lifelong ‘rent-a-tool’ for the plutocratic corporate world powers means obedience is priority that must be taught.

Under this theory of individual and social behavior and thinking, the aim of key institutions, such as education, is to socialize children to accept the “official knowledge” (link 3) of the class society. This ‘official knowledge’ is a well-thought out decision to classify some groups’ knowledge as more legitimate than others. Once labeled the official knowledge, other groups’ knowledge or the narratives of disenfranchised narratives, hardly see the light of day. Social studies texts are one example of censorship and intellectual product placement along with propaganda. They claim their content is to be received as truth without any thought or critical questioning, examination or challenge when in fact the curriculum and the text books reflect the ideology of those in power who produce them, profit from them, and censor their content in the interest of power and control (link 4).

For functionalists, socialization is the process by which every new generation learns the knowledge, attitudes and values that they will need as productive citizens under capitalism. This is rarely said outright, but it is mainly achieved through “the hidden curriculum”, a subtler, but nonetheless powerful, indoctrination of the norms and values of the wider society. Students learn these ‘values’ because their behavior at school is hyperbolically regulated and more importantly, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (link 5), and this is no different when it comes to the morality of market systems, which include competitiveness, go-it-alone-individualism, ‘I’ve got mine, you get yours’, the lack of empathy in favor of narrow-mindedness and fear of the ‘other’, and the belief that people are nothing more than diminutive rational profit-maximizers seeking nothing more than to accumulate more and more in pursuit of happiness or the good life. Students are expected to accept these market values without critically questioning them, until they gradually are unconsciously internalized and accepted as the benchmark for ‘productive citizens’.

Yet education must perform another ‘function’ as a corollary to the indoctrination of “official knowledge”. As various jobs become vacant they must be filled with the appropriate people who can accomplish their tasks and these people are to be ‘trained’ in schools. Therefore, the other ‘function’ of education is to sort and rank individuals for placement in the larger labor market. Those with high achievement levels will be trained for the most important jobs and given the highest incomes, while, those who achieve at lower levels of achievement will be given the least demanding jobs, the least income and the least job security as precarious work replaces work guaranteeing a living wage.

The functionalism of the early 1900’s and proceeding throughout the 20th century, with many challenges along the way to the legitimacy of functionalism’s stated theoretical claims was and currently is a theory based on what Henry Giroux defines as “instrumental rationality”. Instrumental rationality is defined by Giroux as:

The belief that systems and practices should be organized according to principles of standardization, efficiency, practicality, and measurable utility (over and above philosophical, humanistic or ethical considerations). Such criteria have been used to legitimate empiricist and market driven forms of education that serve the interest of a closed and authoritarian order rather than an open and democratic society (Giroux, H. “Disposable youth, racialized memories and the culture of cruelty, Routledge, 2012).

Taking Giroux’s point seriously means that we are left with an instrumentalist neo-functionalism theory today that is viciously destroying critical learning and teaching in favor of obedience training and subservience leaving students bereft of education and clothed in the Victorian garments of a Dickensian life of nightmarish proportions. This, it is argued, is due to a new vile economic and social order of decrepit capitalism that must be preserved, one that is ossified with systematic rot and corruption.

In order to get an overwhelming majority of citizens to accept this nightmarish reality ‘as unchangeable reality’ requires a more vicious form of instrumental functionalism found in the underpinnings of policies such as zero-tolerance programs, militarized charter schools replete with uniforms, the school to prison pipeline, school sites as operations of youth containment, the privatization of education, attacks on unions and teachers as agencies of democracy and embracing hyperbolic-testing as the historically favored sorting mechanism for the burgeoning authoritarian society.

Couple all of this with the theoretical madness of the Ayn Rand philosophy of free market fundamentalism, the belief that selfishness is a virtue and the so-called free market should be the organizer, regulator and arbitrator for all social political and economic decisions, and we have set the table for the current and future disposability of swaths of surplus youth who may never work in the decaying economic social order where low cost labor is employed overseas and work in general is increasingly succumbing to automation, necessitating fewer and fewer employees translating into fewer and fewer jobs and outlets for productive life.

It is said that each time history repeats itself it does so at a higher cost. This intrusion into the darkness of instrumental functionalism is nothing new in American culture and education. As I recently stated in an article for Truthout:

This thinking is not new. The ideological underpinnings for such repugnant beliefs sorrowfully tread back throughout the history of the 20th century and undoubtedly before. William Bagley’s book, Classroom Management, published in 1907 and widely used as a teacher-training manual throughout America in the early 1900s, was so highly praised at the time that it went through 30 printed editions. The book echoed the morbid thinking of many so-called Gilded Age educators at the time. One such passage from the book sums up the thinking regarding children and childhood: “One who studies educational theory aright can see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society” (link 6).

Another argument that we hear today among contemporary conservative educational reformers is the argument that schools must stick to the business of educating children in basic skills. This is nothing new. What is new, however, is how these basic skills are being redefined in face of the changes in the relations and forces of production in post-capitalist society. What was basic in Bobbitt’s time, for example, is not so basic today according to post-functionalists. Where these skills were once tied to an industrial society, they are now being recast in terms of the cybernetic-information society; the society we find ourselves in at the end of the 20th century. These back to basics are now referred to as “common core standards” (link 7), the creation of business elites and their political representatives.

As early as 1913, educational industrialists such as John Franklin Bobbitt spoke of the basic skills and their assessment. Bobbitt stated:

The third grade teacher should bring her pupils up to an average of 26 correct {addition} combinations per minute. The fourth grade teacher has the task, during the year that the same pupils are under her care, of increasing their addition speed from an average of 26 combinations per minute to an average of 34 combinations per minute. If she does not bring them up to the standard 34, she has failed to perform her duty in proportion to the deficit; and there is no responsibility upon her for carrying them beyond the standard (Bobbitt, F. “The Elimination of Waste in Education.” Elementary School Teacher 12 (1912): 259–271. “Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City School Systems.” In Twelfth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Ed. S. C. Parker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1913, pp.21-22) .

The tragedy of educational functionalism and instrumentalist rationality is that it never ended —- it is arguably even more rabid and apparent today and can be found and read in the literature of any right or even liberal think tanks, from the Hoover Institute to the Hudson Institute to Obama’s awful Race to the Top. The difference now is that the tragedy of the commons, the neo-enclosure movements by reactionaries that threaten public education, have developed an even scarier future for children, teachers, citizens and society. Under the new canopy of neo-liberalism, billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are busy socially engineering education in accordance with their own private agendas. Now neo-functionalism and neo-instrumentality threaten to wipe out humanities, arts, music and physical education by requiring students to pass standardized tests or risk school closure. More than that the dystopia painted by the well heeled billionaires like Gates are slowly beginning to take hold in the US, forever threatening democracy and learning.

Neo-liberalism, the burgeoning educational market and the rise of plutocratic autocracy

As Jack Gerson and Steven Miller, two high school teachers and long-time activists in the Oakland Unified School District argued in 2007, Tough Choices or Tough Times, put out by the Skills Commission and heavily funded by Bill Gates and other philanthro-capitalists in December 2006, (Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce 2007 National Center on Education and the Economy) calls for, among other things: making all public schools into something beyond charter schools, something called “Contract Schools”; ending high school for many students after the 10th grade; ending teacher pension plans and cutting back on teacher health benefits; introducing merit pay and other pay differentials for teachers; eliminating the powers of local school boards with the “public” schools to be owned by private companies and all regulation done by private industry (Gerson and Miller, Exterminating Public Education, unpublished, 2007).

The report represents a firm neo-liberal approach to education which would entail the construction of completely new private institutions and systems to replace traditional public institutions; a trend we are witnessing today. Some of the talking points in the report include moving beyond charter schools to privatized contract schools and eliminating high school. No longer are charter schools even discussed as engines of innovation to raise educational standards and practices in traditional public schools.

On the contrary, agreeing with the Education Next report put out by the Hudson Institute, Tough Choices or Tough Times implicitly concurs that charter schools are simply Trojan horses for what entrepreneurs and investors really want, which is the privatization of all public schools for lucrative profits and standardization of both curriculum and its delivery. This of course will and has required mayoral control and the elimination of all school board powers, citizen groups and all regulations in favor of empowering private companies to create a new ‘school system’, both in governance, curriculum and oversight (Smarick, A., “Wave of the Future: Why charter schools should replace failing urban schools,” Education Next, Winter 2008).

So, what will be the role of the state in this new arbitrage of privatization? The answer is simple, to assure that all laws, regulations and oversight remain within the new private system – to assure a ‘free market’ for educational goods and services and unfettered opportunities for continued capital formation. In the words of the report:

First, the role of school boards would change. Schools would no longer be owned by local school districts. Instead, schools would be operated by independent contractors, many of them limited-liability corporations owned and run by teachers. The primary role of school district central offices would be to write performance contracts with the operators of these schools, monitor their operations, cancel or decide not to renew the contracts of those providers that did not perform well, and find others that could do better. The local boards would also be responsible for collecting a wide range of data from the operators specified by the state, verifying these data, forwarding them to the state, and sharing them with the public and with parents of children in the schools. They would also be responsible for connecting the schools to a wide range of social services in the community, a function made easier in those cases in which the mayor is responsible for both those services and the schools. The contract schools would be public schools, subject to all of the safety, curriculum, testing, and other accountability requirements of public schools. The teachers in these schools would be employees of the state, as previously noted (Tough Choices or Tough Times, 2007).

Tough Choices or Tough Times even goes so far as to recommend ending high school for many poor and minority students after the 10th grade, such as those who score poorly on standardized tests intended for high school seniors. Students testing poorly on the mandated tests could go on to ‘vocational’ schools or prisons or the military, while those who did well would be channeled into the corridors of power through the colleges or universities. Listen to the tune of the billionaire songbird:

Our first step is creating a set of Board Examinations. States will have their own Board Examinations, and some national and even international organizations will offer their own. A Board Exam is an exam in a set of core subjects that is based on a syllabus provided by the Board. So the point of the exam is to find out whether the student has learned from the course what he or she was supposed to learn. For most students, the first Board Exam will come at the end of 10th grade. A few might take it earlier — some might not succeed on their first try, so they might take another year to two to succeed. The standards will be set at the expectations incorporated in the exams given by the countries that do the best job educating their students (ibid).

Also suggested in the report is ending remediation and special education aid for low-performance students in an effort to cut costs. We already see this happening now in many major cities. Furthermore, the report is clear on the need for ending teacher pensions and reducing their health and other benefits. The idea is not to motivate teachers to create innovation; on the contrary, teachers are now to be once again ‘trained’ in the “best practices”, to deliver pre-determined curriculum and held to ‘standards’ the new system now imposes. This is hauntingly familiar to demands currently imposed on students and teachers – to be ‘trained’ to meet what many teachers feel are inauthentic state mandatory standards, ill-designed to motivate or create citizenship education for the 21st century.

Tough Choices or Tough Times also points the accusatory finger of blame for educational malaise at teachers, workers, recommending that unions be reduced and/or eliminated. The report also urges ending teacher seniority and introducing competition among teachers through devices such as merit pay and other teacher differentials based on student performance on standardized tests. We see all this being played out now throughout the country.

A playbook for seizing control over the educational means of production

The report is a summary, or playbook for what actually is going on in American education right now. The transformation of public schools into private entities is gradually being implemented and accomplished as the capitalist, neo-liberal agenda makes its ascendancy in economically strapped and often bankrupt urban centers throughout the nation. This can be compared to the global structural adjustment made by the World Bank and the IMF. Certainly they represent a step ever closer to the privatization of education advocated for years by neo-liberals and market-based reformers. As Zein El-Amine, a longtime D.C. community activist and writer and founding member of the Save our Schools Coalition astutely noted, what the public is witnessing is:

The purposeful neglect of public entities, the siphoning of public resources, the attack on public sector workers, and a false promise that a market solution is less bureaucratic, less costly and more effective (El-Amine, Z. and L. Glazer, 2008, El-Amine, Z. and L. Glazer. ‘Evolution’ or destruction? A look at Washington, D.C. in Keeping the Promise? The debate over charter schools. Milwaukee, WI. Rethinking schools in conjunction with Center for Community Change (2008).

The past as the present: Neo-functionalism and neo-instrumentality

It is important to point out that it is here that Tough Times or Tough Choices is a throwback to educational debates of the past. Echoing the calls of the super-functionalists who bemoan America’s ‘competition’ in the world and the entrepreneurial class that stands to make billions off any transformation to a market-driven approach to education where education is seen as a product or commodity to be delivered, the report claims:

The governance, organizational, and management scheme of American schools was created in the early years of the 20th century to match the industrial organization of the time. It was no doubt appropriate for an era when most work required relatively low literacy levels, most teachers had little more education than their students, and efficiency of a rather mechanical sort was the highest value of the system (Tough Choices or Tough Times, 2007).

The new neo-super-functionalism proposed by Tough Choices or Tough Times indeed harkens back to the rise of industrial capitalism of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when society, it was argued, needed schools to preserve, extend, and legitimize the economic relations of capitalist production and the arrival of new forms of unprecedented consumption. Consequently, during this historical period, there was the rise and development of an educational philosophy called social functionalism: education organized, implemented, and controlled to meet the functional needs of society’s business and economic interests. These functional needs became increasingly identified with what was necessary in the workplace for capitalist incessant accumulation.

Directly associated with the social functionalism of schools was an excessive preoccupation with the values of productivity, efficiency, and thrift (Goodman 1995, 6), as we see now. With the development of the assembly line and specifically the contributions of Frederick Taylor to the new science of business management that was being realized on assembly lines, efficiency, productivity, and speed began to capture the imagination of the American public. Factory work relied on workers who could follow instructions, understand simple directions, and work swiftly to increase production with maximum efficiency. With the small shopkeeper increasingly disappearing and corporate power beginning to emerge, the industrialist and the industrial tycoon now became the cultural model for a successful person (Huber, R. The American Idea of Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971).

It is hard not to see the parallel between that historical time period and today. Although contemporary production has shifted to technological, finance and service work as the United States enters into the “third wave” or post-industrialism, infatuation with technological tycoons, cybernet billionaires and the ideology of efficiency and “lean production” and “best practices” now dominates the country’s culture. School-to-work programs are important aspects of many public schools, and have arisen partly in response to the demands of the new social functionalism or what can be termed “neo-functionalism” and the proclaimed need to prepare students for the exigencies of production in the twenty-first century.

The social functionalism prevalent in the philosophy of early-twentieth-century educational discourse, along with a preoccupation for speed and efficiency, was described by the then-leading reformer Franklin Bobbitt, one of the key social functionalists for the school restructuring movement during the industrial age. Bobbitt claimed as early as 1924:

It is helpful to begin with the simple assumption to be accepted literally, that education is to prepare men and women for the activities of adult life; and that nothing should be included which does not serve this purpose. . . . The first task is to discover the activities which ought to make up the lives of men and women; and along with these, the abilities and personal qualities necessary for proper performance. These are educational objectives. When we know what men and women ought to do then we shall have before us the things for which they should be trained (Bobbitt, F. “The Elimination of Waste in Education.” Elementary School Teacher 12 (1912): 259–271. “Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City School Systems.” In Twelfth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Ed. S. C. Parker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1913. , 259–271).

The activities to which Bobbitt referred were tied to necessities that resulted from changes in the relations of production and consumption that were exploding at the time.

Not only did the industrial age have an impact on the purposes and goals of education, but the social functionalism of the time also affected staffing patterns, curriculum construction, and instructional design (Goodman 1995, 6). What Raymond Callahan referred to as the “cult” of efficiency and productivity had an effect on every aspect of schooling (Callahan 1962). Taylorism, (named for Frederick Taylor, the father of the assembly line) the modern science of business management, was rapidly being implemented in school production. With educational goals being restructured and defined as increasing productivity in schools, in essence concentrating on the quantity rather than the quality of what students learn, the factory school began to predetermine outcomes and then plan backward to restructure education so that those outcomes could be reached.

Specifically stated learning objectives that could be measured, controlled, and regulated became the language of the modernist’s educational discourse, not much different than No Child Left Behind or the ‘common core standards’ of current times. These objectives were tied to what was needed or what was divined to be functional in the new capitalist industrial society that was emerging. With an “objectives first” approach to education and schooling, curricula underwent unique changes. Not only were educators at the time concerned with efficiency and production, they also believed strongly in the practice of differentiated staffing (Goodman 1995, 10). Knowledge acquisition was fragmented into disciplines and subjects much like the work on the assembly lines in the industrial factories. The conception of education was divorced from its execution.

The important goal for the social functionalists and efficiency educators of the day was to reduce the number of educational workers by maximizing their instructional efficiency. Thus, not unlike what Taylor advocated for the factory, no one person was to ever be responsible for too many different tasks. Scientism and the instrumentalist approaches of the functionalist educators divided teaching up into distinct and differentiated tasks staffed by distinct individuals.

The reconfiguration of the school day and the redesign of curriculum during the industrial revolution in the early part of the twentieth century helped shape what we now know as the large, factory-style urban public school and the public school curriculum. The appeal to link school to work is not much different than positions taken by certain educational policymakers and business leaders today. And in the same way that Taylorism and the new science of business administration influenced the conception and organization of schooling during the early twentieth century, contemporary changes in production, consumption, and business management theory continue to exert a tremendous influence on the public school debate today. This, in turn, is reflected in the one-sided monologue regarding school choice and the new, neo-liberal adamant call for neo-functionalism found in Tough Choices for Tough Times.

With the rise of cyber learning the entire profession of education is now going through momentous dialectical transformations. Changes in the material relations of educational production coupled with the rapid growth and sophistication in the development of the technological forces of educational production, in essence the computer and the Internet, are having and will continue to have unknown consequences for what it means to teach, learn, generate and assess knowledge and sort through the velocity and amount of information that is now available through the Internet. What we can say is that changes in the material conditions of production, the forces of production and technology are effecting the educational terrain, threatening it with more privatization and recreating the role of teachers and the relationship with students.

Thomas Dewey, Walter Lippmann and the debate over the theory of democracy

When looked at historically we find that during the early 20th century not all activists and public policy makers were enthralled with the functionalism proposed and implemented in the early industrial schools. Prominent progressive educator and philosopher during the early part of the twentieth century, John Dewey, proposed a more serious democratic form of education. Dewey argued against reducing schooling to mere functionalism — boring and repetitive tasks designed to prepare students for future work under capitalist relations, just as many educators today argue against standardized testing (Dewey, J. Education Today. New York: Greenwood Press, 1940. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1976; first published in 1938).

Dewey’s argument against social functionalism rested on the assumption that the role and purpose behind education should be to prepare students to live a life fully in the present, not simply to prepare them for the uncertainties of the future. Dewey argued that for schooling to be merely a preparatory institution for future market needs rendered schools and schooling dehumanizing and denied children the opportunity to find relevancy, identity, and meaning in their lives. Dewey commented:

The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything (ibid, 49).

Walter Lippmann, however, did not agree. For Lippmann, human beings were irrational and could not ever be counted on to participate wisely in democratic life, nor could education provide any tools or consciousness for them to do so. He was a journalist and contemporary of John Dewey, as well as a speech writer for presidents. In the 1920s, Lippmann was in his mere 20’s while Dewey was much older, in his 60’s. Dewey was a philosopher at Columbia University at the time while Lippmann remained a distinctive journalist and essayist. His distinct notion of the ‘public’ and what people were capable of in terms of human agency rendered his notions of education much more problematic for democracy, libratory living and learning.

Much like today, as Susan Jacoby argues in her book, The Age of American Unreason (Jacoby, S. The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008), the brief period of history when Dewey and Lippmann crossed swords was one in which there was growing belief in human irrationality and unreasonableness (Jacoby, 2008); this could be summed up as the belief that people can and could not govern themselves, that participatory democracy was simply an illusion born out of appearances, not whole cloth, and that if left to his own devices, ‘man’ would simply slide towards demagoguery, mob rule or perhaps even worse, barbarism. Many public debates as to whether people could govern themselves or if they would need to be governed by managerial elites existed universally, not simply here in America, but abroad as well. In the case of Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan and the rise of fascism, this debate was in full force. These debates would have huge implications for education as well, especially in the United States. They still are.

The Dewey-Lippmann debates

In the 1920s Walter Lippmann and American philosopher John Dewey debated over the role of people and their ability to effectively participate in democracy and this debate continues to rage. It is this debate, I argue, that needs to be reconsidered for it is a debate that continues to permeate society, even silently, in all forms and as such it impacts on the hidden assumptions behind educational reform and its resistance.

Mark Whipple, in a 2005 article entitled, “The Dewey-Lippmann Debate Today: Communication Distortions, Reflective Agency, and Participatory Democracy” makes a significant point:

In a fundamental sense, the debate between Dewey and Lippmann revolves around their opposing views of (a) the nature of human nature and (b) the nature of democracy and its social function. Lippmann viewed human nature as passive and basically irrational. For Lippmann, much like Freud, the steamy cauldron of irrational desires governed the human mind. These forces were unconscious and easily manipulated. In contrast, Dewey clung to a view of human nature that emphasized its active, experiential, and rational nature (link 8).

For John Dewey, human nature was inherently evolving and the mind an organ of ‘plasticity’, not fixed, but rather shaped through environmental context. Adopting this assumption would lead one to the conclusion that education, especially critical pedagogy, would be able to unleash both the affective and cognitive demands necessary for a healthy emotional, cognitive and social life.

Lippmann was to have none of this. For Lippmann, the answer to problems in democracy was clear: it was a false notion of ‘public opinion’ that was the culprit in modern society and thus this offered an explanation as to why people could not possibly hope to manage or govern their own affairs. For Lippmann there existed a divide between ‘truth’ (reality) and the ‘fictions’ we develop to represent this truth (appearance). Lippmann argued that this cleavage is inevitable and thus resistance is futile. Public opinion was not the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views. For Lippmann, public opinion was the general or aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by an adult population but not born or held through critical thinking and independent thought, but birthed as the necessary creation of elites.

Lippmann particularly viewed the news media as a structural force that prevented citizens from arriving at the truth in matters of social affairs. His notion of “manufactured consent” was later to become one of the central themes echoed by philosopher Noam Chomsky. But Lippmann also cites other structural barriers endemic in the capitalist system as vitiating the ability of average citizens to control their lives through intelligent social agency. These would include such things as ‘‘artificial censorships, the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages, [and] the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world’’ (link 9, Lippmann [1922] 1965:30).

How utterly contemporary all of this sounds and how well it resonates with a more beleaguered and distracted subjective and material landscape. Visual distraction in all forms, from videos to the internet to sports, has now created the template for the restructuring of the human mind, rendering it more susceptible to modern sophistic appeals from the digital ‘circus’ society (Carr, Nicholas, The Shallows, 2011, WW Norton: London).

Lippmann also speaks of what he calls “pseudo reality” as an impediment to citizen-workers developing their own intellect to capture the complexity of the myriad social, cultural and economic events that construct their lives. For Lippmann, pseudo reality is the reconstructed simplified version of events and reality that people must exercise in order to base their choices, and thus actions, on something tangible they can believe in. The citizen-worker reconstructs the social and personal version of historical and contemporary events through their own frames of reference that then work to construct their world views. This pseudo reality amplifies a kind of dummied down version of reality voluntarily adopted through reassembling it and then adopting unconsciously its implications.

In writing about “pseudo reality”, Lippmann claims: ‘‘…. humans are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it’’ (Lippmann, W. The Phantom Public. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009).

Lippmann is obviously dismissive of worker-citizen’s cognitive abilities and argues that citizen-workers have neither the critical capacity nor critical education to examine the ‘shadows’ on Plato’s Cave wall, a distressing assumption indeed. Critical thinking or reasoning is off limits to the ordinary person in Lippmann’s judgment and thus only makeshift reality can be constructed.

Whipple also notes that in his book, Public Opinion, Lippmann emphasized that the public: “… conceives of democratic communication primarily through the medium of vision. A democratic order is possible in so far as the masses are able to construct visual representations that approximate the truth” (ibid).

This is important, for by underscoring and highlighting Lippmann’s notion of ‘vision’ and its ‘medium’ we can gain an insight into his powerful understanding of the role of ‘corporate image making’ or ‘corporate visual media manipulation’. Even though only the medium of moving pictures and not television had been invented at the time he wrote Public Opinion, much later Marshal McLuhan and Vance Packard would take these insights to a much deeper level. Edward Bernay’s book, Propaganda, had come out earlier in 1922 and Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923 and the effects of the Creel Report and the anti-German propaganda unleashed in America no doubt had an effect on Lippmann’s thinking. It certainly did on the thinking of the masses lending credence to Lippmann’s theory.

Marketing, propaganda and the management of citizen perceptions is far greater now than at any time in history; it’s become a multi-billion dollar industry. One only has to look at the Supreme Court ruling in Citizen’s United to see the impact on television ads, marketing candidates and paying large sums to corporate media to penetrate or otherwise influence the minds of citizens. Modern day sophists like Frank Luntz demand considerable sums of money to utilize visual rhetoric to manipulate and engineer consent and although the best known, Luntz is not alone.

Lippmann, if alive today, would only nod his head in vindication of his major assumptions. Even poet, Allan Ginsburg, was quick to remark shortly before his death: “We are in science fiction now. Whoever controls the media-the image-controls the culture” (link 10).

This can serve to remind us of Orwell’s admonishment in 1984, “He who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, G. 1984, Harcourt Brace, Plume Publishing. NY: New York, 2003 reprint, first edition). The media is of course corporate controlled so the visualizations are corporate manufactured and history a corporate construction. Television, radio and the internet are now the largest school districts in the world of commercialized culture and they are controlled, in general, by five or six giant media empires (link 11).

Lippmann goes on to instruct us that due to the manipulation of reality by the media along with the construction and citizen fabrication of pseudo reality the worker-citizen’s incapacity to follow current events means that the democratic process becomes something in which citizens do not and cannot actively participate in; instead they are and must be reduced to consumer-citizens who passively watch the construction of their economic, cultural and social lives by elites; they become passive spectators as opposed to active participants in the decisions that affect all aspects of their lives rendering the notion of human agency mere folly in the eyes of Lippmann. This is not far from Plato’s theory of rule by Philosopher Kings (link 12) or the Aristotelian dismissal and admonition of the mob and mob rule.

In fact, in the first chapter of another book The Phantom Public (eerily entitled in somewhat Nietzschean terms, ‘‘The Disenchanted Man’’), Lippmann expands on his notion of the worker-citizen as citizen-spectator and develops a portrait of a politically alienated mass of people that have no ability to access truth due to their mediated and manufactured reality and their limited critical thinking skills. Furthermore, the situation the masses find themselves in is not a temporary condition for Lippmann; on the contrary, it is the inevitable result of the very limits of human agency itself —- a form of biological determinism.

Public Opinion

In Public Opinion we can get a glimpse now why Lippmann argued that public opinion is really “manufactured consent” by elites, due to the effects of propaganda and mediated reality on the psychology of people. He promoted, advocated and applauded, like many of his contemporaries do today, an idea grounded in the imposition of social governance by intellectual managerial elites, a form of surrender to enlightened expertise, whereby there would be those who would manage the governance of a democracy through ‘objective’ thinking and the rational imposition of principles of science and those who would be ‘managed’.

According to Lippmann these autocratic elites would administer or govern society by applying scientific management principles to democracy in an effort to maintain orderly control, again, something Lippmann was thoroughly convinced the public could not achieve.

Of course in such a society there would be little need for citizenship education. In fact, Lippmann was adamant in his contempt, if not disdain, for what he labeled the “unattainable ideal” – a self governing citizenry. With suspicion of anything democratic and the view that the average citizen was incapable of governance, let alone democratic governance, Lippmann’s view of education as a remedy for all that ails the modern human condition can be summed up in his book The Phantom Public where he declares:

The usual appeal to education can bring only disappointment. For the problems of the modern world appear and change faster than any set of teachers can grasp them, much faster than they can convey their substance to a population of children. If the schools attempt to teach children how to solve the problems of the day, they are bound always to be in arrears. The most they can conceivably attempt is a teaching of a pattern of thought and feeling which will enable the citizen to approach a new problem in some useful fashion. But that pattern cannot be invented by the pedagogue. It is the political theorist’s business to trace out that pattern. In that task he must not assume that the mass has political genius, but that men, even if they had genius, would give only a little time to public affairs (link 13).

Disillusioned with democracy, reform and populism, from Lippmann’s cynical ethical perspective:

The people are fundamentally selfish, interested in themselves, and the press simply feeds to this selfishness and self-interest. Furthermore, the people are not interested enough in being informed that they are prepared to pay the true price for reliable information, so they are content to purchase papers at very low cost, increasing newspapers’ dependence on advertising which, in its turn, further subverts the independence and reliability of the news that is provided. The press sees the reader as more a target for advertising than as a citizen in a democracy. To be sure of gathering together a sufficient number of people to be of interest to advertisers, the newspapers serve up a news diet that fits within the existing range of expectations and stereotypes of the reader, emphasizing, for example, local news over national, and national over international and so on. In any case there is also a problem with news, which simply signals events but does not explain them in their full complexity and context. What news the newspapers choose to select is as much based on convenience (time and effort required) as on the public importance of events. Convenience leads the press to undue dependence on “press agents” (i.e. lobbyists, public relations people etc.). We should therefore not confuse “news” with “truth”. The power of symbols rest, says Lippmann on the irrational character of human emotions, coupled with the ambiguity of symbols themselves. Symbols can be pictures, representations, words or slogans (Bybee, C. Walter Lippmann and John Dewey website, (link 14).

George Orwell was to have more to say on the role of media manipulation and mind control many years later in 1984, where is postulated a “Records Department” as part of the “Ministry of Truth.” Here, the primary job of the Records Department was not to reconstruct the past, but:

…to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels —- with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling book to a Newspeak dictionary. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing often nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of a kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole subsection —- Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak – engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at (Orwell, G. 1983, Plume p. 44).

Using the censorial and fabrications from the Ministry of Truth, citizen-workers would then design the pseudo reality, the reconstructed simplified version of events and reality that were produced and given to them as truth. So called Foxx News and other forces of propaganda come to mind when considering Orwell and today’s reality and falsified truth.

In sum, Lippmann contended that the masses were naturally and structurally unable to form intelligent, democratic actions due to the lack of critical thinking skills necessary to intervene in democratic life. Instead, he advocated for the masses to basically play a passive role in the democratic process as spectators, rather than participants, whose sole civic life surrounded the picking one of two political parties that differed very little if at all. In fact, the bifurcation of the parties into two elements was simply more deception on the part of elites and the ruling class. There was really only one group of elites.

The most troubling implication running from Lippmann’s conclusions about citizen democracy is that the crisis of democracy results not from too little, but from an excess of democracy. Lippmann’s solution for this predicament was to actually shift, or redistribute, political decision making away from the teaming and ignorant masses and direct it towards a centralized body of intelligent elites —- again, a version of Plato’s Philosopher Kings and even more contemporarily, the actual machinations on the ground today as the one percent constitute a plutocracy that now runs America.

Interestingly, Lippmann shared much in common with contemporary elitists, like philosopher Leo Strauss and economists Joseph Schumpeter, although they have never been on record as having met. These contemporary elitists would carry Lippmann’s troubling message much further into the 20th century.

For one example according to Schumpeter’s theory of democracy:

[W]e now take the view that the role of the people is to produce a government, or else an intermediate body which in turn will produce a national executive or government. And we define: the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote (Found in Schumpeter’s Leadership Democracy Forthcoming, Political Theory Gerry Mackie, Assistant Professor University of California, San Diego, link 15).

The “we” of course are the elites, the politicians their lapdogs. For early contemporary elites like Leo Strauss or Joseph Schumpeter the assumption was that without political parties run by elites there could be no basis for democracy, anarchy would prevail. The ‘elites’ were the democracy, the caretakers of the public commons and the parties were their creation of illusion for the masses under the rubric of ‘choice’.

The importance of Lippmann’s argument

Arguably Lippmann’s argument is more compelling now and embraced even tighter by many neo-conservatives and reactionaries than they were when he wrote them in the 1920’s. The ‘public interest’ versus what Lippmann called ‘disinterestedness’ still remain central topics in discussions of governance, power and reform and no more noticeably than within the realm of public education.

This is important, for many who advocate ‘reform’ of the public educational system through the development of charter contract schools, vouchers, and Charter Management Organizations are some of the same voices whom echo both the ideological sentiments and despairing rhetoric of Lippmann’s 1927 prognosis as it pertains to a democratic citizenry.

Many of the charter schools, for example, are back-to-basic charters designed in the carpeted offices of air conditioned buildings in major cities by political elites, entrepreneurs and their subordinates who often have little or no understanding of education, curriculum or the controversies that surround it. The ‘masses’ or the hoi poloi are simply unequipped mentally to harness their own critical and independent thinking and as such, they cannot participate in democracy nor should they.

On the other hand, curriculum is being designed to erase any opportunities for reasoning at all, as in the state of Texas where the GOP’s state platform advocated the removal of higher order and critical thinking from the curriculum (link 16), or in the state of Arizona where book banning was adopted by the state (link 17).

Dewey’s response: Critical thinking education for an informed and functioning democracy

John Dewey responded to Lippmann’s book in the magazine, The New Republic, shortly after its publication. According to Dewey, while agreeing with Lippmann that people’s perceptions could be and are managed by propaganda and demagoguery, especially in an era of mass communications and advertising, Dewey remained more of an optimist when it came to human rationality, democracy, education and self-governance.

Disagreeing vehemently with Lippmann, Dewey argued that class divisions in society were really the culprit and by implication contrary to an ethics of rationality; an ethic he felt so necessary to carry out the public interest. For Dewey, democracy was a system designed for people to develop their maximum potential and this meant that they would need to be educated as a democratic citizenry capable of the management of their affairs. Citizen education for participatory democracy became the themes that Dewey would echo all his life and throughout his writings and activism, while Lippmann would go on to argue that the public’s role in citizen life was to vote for whatever candidate was put forward by the ruling elite and then allow the ‘elected’ official to manage the economy, social institutions, and conditions of human life for the betterment, if not to outright prevent, the rebellion of the masses. For Lippmann, people were to be spectators of their own lives, not active participants, for according to his thinking due to the totalizing effects of cultural deception; advertising and propaganda people could not possibly acquire the rationality necessary to conduct human affairs.

The implications of the Dewey-Lippmann debate of the 1920’s were to have a large effect on theories of education and institutions of learning as we see today. John Dewey would go on to argue against Walter Lippmann’s managerial elitism and liberal authoritarian posturing on issues regarding public affairs, human governance, the role of education and human nature.

For Dewey, democracy was to be discovered through an educated public that had been severely compromised by the advent of historical forces of capitalism and technology that served to restructure both the social reality of life and the psychological dimension of life through mass technology. Education for liberation would be the theme for Dewey’s position on the role of education, for he himself was very clear regarding what he and other progressives conceived of as the purpose and objective of education:

The problem of education in its relation to the direction of social change is all one with the problem of finding out what democracy means in total range of concrete applications; domestic, international, religious, cultural, economic, and political…The trouble…is that we have taken democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew with every generation, in every year, in every day, in the living relations of person to person, in all social forms and institutions. Forgetting this… We have been negligent in creating a school that should be the constant nurse of democracy (Dewey, J. Education Today. New York: Greenwood Press, 1940. Pp. 357–358. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1976; first published in 1938).

Dewey was convinced that democracy was not a “thing” that is found, but an idea that is perpetually created and that if given the correct social relations, citizen education and access to basic needs, people not only could but would learn to govern and manage their affairs in the interest of democracy. His notion of education rested upon a citizenry concerned with developing the ability to visualize the type of society its members wished to live in and then working collaboratively to create it. Lippmann, on the other hand, disagreed, notably arguing that the forces of technology along with censorship and social segregation and social isolation as a result of the industrialized capitalism of his time had so summarily distorted the perceptions of what is deemed ‘the public’, that to allow such an unbridled herd to participate in democracy would be tragic if not farcical.

Although the debates between progressive educators like Dewey and Lippmann were intense and controversial, in the end, functionalism triumphed over progressivism. There are many reasons for the triumph of social functionalism in the educational debates in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century, not the least being the cost of subsidizing and operating public education as an enterprise. Progressive educational ideas arguably would have required new structural configurations of schools, an emphasis on quality education as opposed to educating quantities of students, new assessments, and more creative and innovative curricula. Social functionalist approaches to education, on the other hand, were less expensive precisely because within the factory style of school, students could be “produced” through educational “formulas” on an educational assembly line in much larger numbers than the painstaking craftsmanship required by progressive education (Wirt, F. M., and M. W. Kirst. Schools in Conflict: The Politics of Education. 3d ed. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan, 1992). Education was far more efficient, it was argued, when it was reduced to an ecumenical formula.

Seating educational debate within history

The importance of this history cannot go unnoticed when we examine the neo-liberal, neo-functionalist educational movement for so much of the innovation neo-functionalists claim to be breeding and that is uncritically touted by the media is really a hyper or super-functionalist approach to education, for the new charter schools and ‘portfolio’ schools themselves are wedded to legal state mandated tests that give them little wiggle room for a curriculum that is not geared towards the needs of standardized testing.

Couple this with the for-profit management of many of these schools we can see how the ideological underpinnings of an education tied to super-functionalism also translates neatly into business plans of for-profit charter schools. Basically said, super-functionalism is cheaper, less expensive to develop, can be commodified easily into standardized approaches and practices, and it then can be taught for delivery purposes to teacher-managers responsible for its execution. Done well, charter schools and other neo-liberal approaches to education can then be set up as franchise schools, accounting procedures developed and profits made for investors through the standardization of the whole ‘school package’.

Perhaps even more important, the progressive agenda for education at the time of the Dewey-Lippmann debates was highly controversial and threatened the managerial elite agenda of control and power that, as Lippmann noted and helped advance ideologically, was beginning to take shape in an industrialized, modern America. With the emergence of union activism, independent socialist movements — coupled with the creation of the former Soviet Union in 1917 and the so-called Red scare and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of the 1920s — the last thing that policymakers in education, business, or politics wanted was education for social liberation and individual realization. Business interests, policymakers, and politicians were worried that opening up education to such things as personal awareness, democracy, social exploration and personal development, along with critical analysis might compel the public to examine the social, cultural, and economic relations that governed their lives.

Such a result had the possibility of posing a considerable threat to power, authority, and elite control of social affairs and was of little interest to the captains of an industry and a market society undergoing a huge economic expansion, technological revolution, rising industrialization, and an unprecedented creation and concentration of wealth and industry.

Their notion of education for social function and control was far more pragmatic in an emerging industrial world in which commercialism relied on disciplined workers and irresponsible consumers subject to the perception management and ‘manufactured consent’ admonished, yet implicitly advocated, by Lippmann. As a result, Dewey’s progressive ideas had little support from administrators and other educational policymakers, unlike Lippmann’s liberal elitism of the times which was heartily embraced by the aristocracy, the business class and the then contemporary elite managerial class.

The debate never died

With charter schools, predatory private colleges, the dismantling of public education and a host of other neo-liberal approaches to privatizing education and destroying teacher unions, the debate over the purpose of education and neo-functionalism must now be debated with even more rigor for there is much more to lose – history will demand a higher price for repeating the past. Educators and progressive citizens along with teacher unions must now turn their heads to this historical tragedy that is playing itself out once again in the landscape of public educational demolition. It is time to resuscitate the John Dewey-Walter Lippmann debates of the 1920’s and begin to counter neo-liberal educational agenda with arguments based on moral claims to citizenship education, democracy and freedom.

Casting the educational debate as a moral and ethical debate

For too long the arguments have been centered on a narrow definition of what it means to be an educated person in today’s society. By grounding any argument for educational reform within moral values such as solidarity, an appreciation for diversity, the need for equitable opportunities for all children to succeed as well as the necessity for participation in the power structures that determine teachers, student and working people’s lives is paramount now.

Casting the educational debate within the realm of ethics and values allows for progressive ideas regarding public education to confront head on the values and morals of utilitarian market education, which sees students, teachers and their families as little more than a means to an end. Such values would include an understanding of solidarity, the fact that as working people and the poor we are all facing the same corporate powers that threaten both education and life itself. Another value that should be embraced is an appreciation of diversity in face of our solidarity. We may all be facing the same material forces, but we face them with differences and social constructs such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia all have significant and deleterious effects. Meaningful educational reform would of necessity embrace the value of equity, the belief that we might not all be equal but we should have equal opportunities to fulfill what it means to be human. Similarly, understanding the need for citizens to participate in power must be part of any moral underpinnings for a meaningful educational debate if we are to proceed as a species. The tyranny of hierarchy can no longer be tolerated. Finally, an understanding and environmental awareness must imbue all visions if the species is to survive.

The horrifying Race to the Top, spearheaded by encrusted leaders like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his entrepreneurial and philanthropic billionaire cronies are bounded by opposite values and ethics and they must be challenged with a clear set of ethics and values that can then be used to formulate fresh democratic public policy as it relates to universal, meaningful and responsible education for citizenship development and the revival of democracy for all students. If this is not done, we may find that we have ceded the ethical debate to the technocrats whose ethics and values mirror only the naked starkness of a pernicious market society that is failing and will continue to fail with ruthless barbarity. This is a debate that we as citizens, educators and students simply must have and that we simply cannot afford to lose.

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