The managerial approach to education

Freddie deBoer attempts to explicitly spell out the prevailing philosophy of education in our culture. He calls it “the educational philosophy of managerialism, which is the truly dominant ideology of our times.” He begins:

1. All students regardless of context have essentially the same prerequisite ability to meet arbitrary performance benchmarks in all educational tasks. The persistence of variation in academic outcomes is the result of pathology, whether systemic (bad schools, bad teachers) or individual (bad work ethic, lack of grit, refusal to delay gratification).

2. Academic outcomes are permanently and universally plastic; that is, no matter where they are currently, any given student or group of students can be moved to any rank or performance benchmark in any given academic ranking or task.

3. As there is limited or no ability to affect parents and parenting through policy, parents and parenting are not to be discussed in consideration of academic outcomes.

I think it’s a very perceptive description.

Expressive individualism to the left of us, expressive individualism to the right of us

Alan Jacobs writes:

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

Along these lines, it’s interesting that Marx and Engels’ eloquent description of the massive transformation of traditional European society by the bourgeoisie in the first section of The Communist Manifesto does not mean that they want to undo the capitalist phase of history. Instead, capitalism provides the “creative destruction” necessary to get to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the subsequent classless paradise.

I realize that Jacobs’ reference to “international capitalism” and “the Market” lumps a vast collection of actors and decisions into one artificial being, but if we think about the culture of global capitalism it can ring true to a certain extent. Think of the ways that we are encouraged to express our individuality through our purchases. As Yuval Levin points out in The Fractured Republic, both left and right traffic in expressive individualism, where we are encouraged to be ourselves (supposedly) rather than conform to external standards. Levin also points briefly to Francis Fukuyama’s discussion of the post-1960s “renorming” in which some argued successfully that the norms of competition could provide the incentive for disciplined behavior after the moral upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Economic freedom is a very good thing in my book, but when international capitalism becomes a totalizing ideology, that’s very bad.

Jacobs writes, “I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.” You can see how he applies this to education in the post.

Bacon and Rousseau go to college

Following Irving Babbitt and connecting his work to C.S. Lewis’s later Abolition of ManRobert Koons portrays the modern university’s incoherent curriculum as descending from the anti-teleological scientific approach of Francis Bacon and the sentiment-based morality of Rousseau. 

Eliot’s elective system at Harvard was in part a curricular consequence of Rousseau’s philosophy. The student is “compelled to be free” by being denied the opportunity to undertake a coherent and well-ordered course of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseau is essentially the resurrection of ancient Greek sophism. Translated into education, the result is what Babbitt calls “the democracy of studies.” The modern university is a mere cafeteria of courses, with no structure or principle of selection. Plato also predicted this outcome in The Laws (819A): schooling as “encyclopedic smattering and miscellaneous experiment.” Babbitt observes that a bachelor’s degree now means “merely that a man has expended a certain number of units of intellectual energy on a list of elective studies that may range from boiler-making to Bulgarian… a question of intellectual volts and amperes and ohms.”

The elective system has been sold to generations of students as a charter of individual autonomy, freeing each student to devise his own education. In practice, the system empowers professors to abandon anything resembling a coherent, student-centered plan of studies, offering in its place whatever narrow and idiosyncratic courses are most convenient to them, from their perspective as producers of original research. This endless quest for novelty drives professors of literature and history off of the customary highways of great works and great deeds and into the hinterland of minor works by second-rate authors, and the minutiae of everyday life in remote times and places. We professors give little or no thought to selecting subjects that elevate and enrich the moral imagination of the student while giving much thought to subjects that elevate and enrich our own research programs.

The modern synthesis of Bacon and Rousseau represents a Devil’s bargain: Humanists accepted the dominance of the natural sciences and technology in return for a protected role as junior partner, wrapping the naked pursuit of profit with the robes of academic tradition and the artes liberales. In turn, natural scientists protect the humanists from political pressure, freeing them to pursue Rousseauistic liberationism.

It’s important to be careful about giving individual thinkers too much credit, but Koons’ description of this bargain is devastating and largely accurate, I think.

The whole essay details Koons’ thoroughgoing indictments of the modern university system and his proposals for changing it. I’m interested to know what readers think of his analysis.

The flattening of the disciplines 

Carl Trueman notes an important trend in the way that contemporary educational institutions flatten the distinctions between disciplines and relegate the content of classes to insignificance:

As I prepared to return to the classroom this week, I remembered my very first foray into full-time teaching, some twenty-three years ago. I had just been appointed to the faculty at the University of Nottingham, and it was required that I attend a three-day training session on how to teach, and then to do a refresher course of similar duration two years later. On both occasions, my wife went into labor by day two. Felix culpa indeed, for I was then allowed to leave the pointless course prematurely and return to the real world. We had not timed the pregnancies that way, but what can I say? God is good. God is very good.

I remember the sections I did attend for the desolate and desultory nature of their content. Not a single thing I heard was relevant to anything I have ever subsequently done in a classroom. There were plenty of buzzwords: “goldfish bowls”; “shared educational journeys”; “transferable skills”; etc. And there was the usual pious claptrap: “There are no teachers, only learners. Lecturers and students learn together on their mutual journey.” I remember thinking at the time that that was self-evidently false. I was being paid to teach. My students were paying (albeit indirectly, in those days) to be taught. Follow the money, as they say.

What was most striking, however, was the reduction of teaching to the merely technical. What discipline we taught was apparently irrelevant. The room was full of historians, theologians, philosophers, medics, nurses, engineers. But that did not matter, because education was ultimately not about disciplinary content. Rather, we were to use our disciplines to teach “life skills.” Given that most of us in the room had made the disastrous decision to pursue Ph.D. studies and thus dramatically to reduce our usefulness to society as well as our earning potential, the possibility of our helping others with their “life skills” seemed rather remote.

This relegation is not necessarily intentional, but it does reflect the loss of confidence by educational institutions that any knowledge can be declared essential. Teachers may believe that, but humanities and social sciences courses are often offered as interchangeable credit units for the purposes of the institution. If philosophy is literature is history for the purposes of graduation, then what institutional support is there for the content actually mattering? Teachers obviously have issues to think through here as well, because they gain individual freedom when the institution does not care about content. More institutional affirmation that certain content is essential would mean more institutional influence on the classroom.

Rootless education

Yes, there is some overgeneralization and no, I wouldn’t want to use the expression “know-nothings,” but there’s a lot to be said for this article by Patrick Deneen. It’s like a brief version of C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” for 21st-century education. A key paragraph:

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

Hat tip: Albert Mohler

The problem of secular education, concisely stated

Current Wheaton College and former University of Washington professor Robert Tracy McKenzie:

For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

Not that any form of education is challenge-free, of course, but this is a perceptive observation.

Jake Meador: “Class and the Benedict Option”

At Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador recently considered how class might affect the feasibility of the “Benedict Option.” Using education as a test case, he first pointed to the importance of thinking well about the kind of schools to create:

In the first place, we need to be clear on exactly why we’re proposing a withdrawal from our nation’s public schools. If the withdrawal is purely defensive in nature, then it is likely to fail. If we have no further objective in our approach to education than protecting our children from the bad people out there, then we really have no philosophy of education at all.

Rather, we’ll simply end up with what some of our nation’s Christian schools functionally are—prep schools for the white upper-class that are in 80% of their curriculum indistinguishable from the public schools.

Then, how can Christian education be accessible to everyone in a Christian community?

Of course, in a healthy church environment you can probably further mitigate some of these problems. A good friend of mine who grew up Dutch Reformed told me once that there was not a single family in his church whose kids were in public school out of necessity. In his church if you wanted your kids in a private Christian school, the church made it happen. And yet the rarity of stories like the above highlight the very reason we’re having these BenOp conversations in the first place.

In far too many cases the communal ties that bind religious communities together are slender and easily cut. And so a family attending a well-off church that wants to send their kids to private school but cannot afford it will often end up sending their kids to public school out of necessity despite the fact that their fellow parishioners could help them pay for private school. It is out of this weakened sense of Christian community that many of the church’s contemporary problems have grown.

And so we end on a dilemma—to create BenOp communities that are accessible to everyone (and not just the rich), we need thick communities bound together by love and a shared commitment to care for one another, even when that care comes with a price in dollars. Yet the lack of those communities is precisely why we need some sort of BenOp. To put it starkly, the conditions necessary to create BenOp communities do not exist which is both why we need some sort of BenOp and why we may not be able to attain it.