Over the last three decades, there have been a number of excellent books written to explore the direction education reform has taken. Some look narrowly at specific programs or policies; other take a broader perspective, following the historical trends that bring us to our present moment.
Robin Eubanks’ Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became a Weapon falls into the latter category. This means that, while there are many points at which she might have begun to tell her story, she starts with the thought of Johann Fichte, a German philosopher bridging the late 18th – early 19th centuries. Fichte, a Freemason who reduced the idea of “god” to moral behavior, envisioned a “socialized” national education that would “mould the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by the same interest.”[i] The educational system, therefore, had to be egalitarian: “So there is nothing left for us but just to apply the new system to every German without exception, so that it is not the education of a single class, but the education of the nation.”
This new education system was not designed to appeal to a student’s free will because “recognition of, and reliance upon, free will in the pupil is the first mistake of the old system.” The education system Fichte had in mind “destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can henceforth be relied upon with confidence and certainty.” Generations of children, schooled in blind obedience to the State, were well-primed for the tyranny of Nazism.
John Dewey, the American educational philosopher who lived and wrote a century after Fichte, “was greatly taken with Fichte’s communitarian vision and [the idea of] using education to create a new, self-less individual.”[ii] To those ideas, Dewey “supplied the intellectual weapons for a decently social democratic, non -totalitarian Marxism,”[iii] understanding education to be a tool for social transformation.
“This view of Dewey as the creator of an implementation strategy for a Marxian society is confirmed by what Lenin did in 1918,” Eubanks explains, “when he and the Bolsheviks were broke and the Russian Civil War was still raging. They started translating and publishing Dewey’s books on education into Russian. Schools of Tomorrow was first, followed by How We Think in 1919, and The School and Society in 1920. In 1921, the Soviet government published a 62 page pamphlet excerpted from Dewey’s Democracy and Education, even though the Russian Civil War with its death toll of 7,000,000 was not yet over. Clearly the Kremlin considered Dewey’s recommended educational practices to be an essential weapon to gain control over the Russian people.”[iv]
In all this, the progressive educator is not primarily concerned about individual achievement – whether or not a given student has acquired a specific body of knowledge – but in a collective achievement, in which all students have been programmed to serve a common end. In fact, individual achievement, such as universal literacy, may hamper collective goals of “equal outcomes.” Eubanks’ thesis – and the conclusion of numerous other writers focused on the history of education “reform” – is that contemporary reading pedagogy is not designed to produce literacy but compliance with social reform.
A quote from Louise Rosenblatt, an early 20th century American educator who was strongly influenced by Dewey, makes her point: “The individualistic emphasis of our society builds up a frequent reluctance to see the implications for others of our own actions, or to understand the validity of the needs and drives that motivate other people’s actions. The fact that the success of the individual must so often be at the expense of others places a premium on this kind of blindness to the needs and accounts of others. We teachers of literature need to take this cultural pressure into account, since it is so directly opposed to the attitude of mind we are attempting to foster. For the very nature of the literary experience is a living into the experience of others and a comprehension of the goals and aspirations of personalities different from our own.” [p. 79]
The movement to get John Dewey’s educational ideas into public schools has received sustained support. The Progressive Education Association (PEA) was founded in 1919 and ran a project, the Eight Year Study [1931-39], which waived standard college entrance requirements for the students of 30 high schools. Alternative curricula and assessments were developed, designed to move from a “narrow” academic focus to more “student-centered,” “discovery” learning. An example of how this fundamental change of focus played out in practical ways can be seen in the 1989 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics “standards” that separated “math performance” from proficiency in “math fundamentals.” Students would no longer be required to know “rote” information but to discover “creative” routes to answer mathematical questions.
Progressives built on the PEA’s work of the early part of the century with a succession of educational reforms, among them “the 1970s globe-centered schools, the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the Transformational Outcomes Based Education curricula of the 1990s, the Goals 2000 Standards Based Curriculum, and now Common Core and its Competencies emphasis. The goal in each of these has always been to push a non-academic, affective, and vocational emphasis in the classroom without that being readily apparent.” (pp. 68-69) Most students are to be trained in practical life-work, predetermined by their “school system” as suitable. Very few will be educated.
This history of progressive educational theory and its steady, century-long march to our current controversy over Common Core is instructive and sobering. It is more than apparent that those who seek to implement these educational reforms have calculated parental resistance. In chapter four, Eubank tells the story of attending a 2013 talk on Digital Learning given by Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.[v] “In the midst of questions, Michael commented about the expense of the new planned Common Core assessments, and the length of class time they would be taking up, and the outcry over the federal role over pushing the Common Core. He proposed that Competency would make a nice fall back to become the actual focus of 21st century K-12 schools. Plus shifting to a Competency-focus would show that the states remained in charge of education. No more need for political outrage about federalism being violated…. The very idea that what had been the end game goal for decades was now being sold as a politically acceptable compromise to the hoop-la over the Common Core, and proof that the states and localities had not lost control after all, struck me as a Through-The Looking-Glass moment.” (p 123)
“Competencies,” Eubanks explains, is the next catchphrase used by the supporters of a progressive government-education/workforce system. “Competencies,” “outcomes,” and “objectives” are synonymous terms that are discarded when parents begin to understand to what they actually describe. “Competencies, once joined with the rest of Common Core,” or whatever future iterations will be called, “looks like it was designed for just that purpose of regulating workplaces as well.” (p. 130) She later observes that “competencies” (under various appellations) have been used in other countries to create a “paper credentialing system” that gives government and big business control over individual workers and their employment opportunities. (p. 156)
The consequence of this, ironically, is not a classless society but a rigid caste system. Workers must do the work for which they’ve been trained (for which they are “competent” and “qualified”) because there is no other work for which they can be hired. “To get the requisite Qualification, what you believe and do must fit the Profile or affective Attributes. That strikes me as just as intrusive as anything any of history’s tyrants aspired to.” (p. 158) Those who have obtained an education, by contrast, will be in an elite position.
“We are not serfs yet,” Eubanks states in the book’s Introduction. This presumes a window of opportunity – that our society can still resist the trajectory toward totalitarian governance. Eubank’s
principle weapon of resistance is “to make the serf’s collar visible” – and runs a blog by the name of Invisible Serf’s Collar (www.invisibleserfscollar.com
). The idea is that, if there is a “new feudal system rising,” its success will depend, more or less, on its ability to function unrecognized. People who imagine themselves constrained may rebel; people who imagine themselves free will tolerate fetters.
An historically rich, fact-based education is another requisite: “Refusing to allow the transmission of the cultural knowledge that created such unprecedented success by pointing out that society is not yet perfect and problems remain is either cultural suicide or homicide.” (p. 349)
[i] Johann Fichte quotes are taken from his Addresses to the German Nation ; translated by R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull. Open Court, 1922.
[ii] Eubanks, Robin, Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became a Weapon, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2013 (p. 21).
[iii] Alan Ryan , Dewey, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 (p. 284).
[iv] Credentialed to Destroy…p. 40.
[v] Clayton Christensen describes “disruptive innovation” as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” Applied to education, Christensen argues that the need for individualized educational paths rather than a standardized curriculum, can be met using computer-based instruction. Together with Michael Horn and Curtis W. Johnson , Christensen has written Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.