The Technocratization of Public Education 24

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is directing $1.1 million to fit students in seven US pubic school districts with “galvanic skin response” bracelets. The devices are designed to measure students’ receptivity to teachers’ lessons through biometric technology that reads and records “skin conductance, a form of electrodermal activity that grows higher during states such as boredom or relaxation.” [1, 2].


The funding is part of the Gates Foundation’s $49.5 million Measures of Effective Teachers project that is presently experimenting with teacher evaluation systems. As Melinda Gates put it on the PBS NewsHour, “What the Foundation feels our job is to do is to make sure we create a system where we can have an effective teacher in every single classroom across the United States.” [3]

The effort of extraordinarily wealthy elites to further subvert educational practices through “neuromarketing” techniques is the latest example in a long sequence of educational reforms dating to the early 1900s. Indeed, the Gates Foundation’s fixation on stimulus-response measurement and data collection is a fitting chapter of this history.

State sanctioned education in the United States has become a type of task-oriented training, quite apart from what education once involved–the cultivation of the human will and intellect. Children in most public schools today receive this type of conditioning, while the more affluent often send their offspring to private institutions or home school. What passes for education today is to a significant degree the legacy of late-nineteenth-to-early-twentieth century German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt and the Rockefeller family’s philanthropic project.

A professor at University of Leipzig, Wundt was the originator of what he termed a “new” or “experimental” psychology that stripped psychology of any of its potential philosophical concerns with the soul, will, or self-determination of the individual. In Wundt’s reconfiguration of psychology the mind is merely an apparatus that responds to given stimuli, and through the measurement and recording of the stimuli and responses of the subject the psychologist in the laboratory (subsequently the teacher—and now the students—in the classroom) can determine the effectiveness of one stimulus-response method over another, as well as the functional capacities of the student.

For Wundt and his followers the human being is the sum total of her experiences; devoid of character and essence that might interfere with the ends of the collective unit. This view of the human psyche set the stage for the establishment of eugenics, psychiatry, and the social engineering carried out in public school classrooms.

Wundt exerted tremendous influence through his American doctoral students who studied at Leipzig and returned to transform US education. One of the most influential of these adherents was G. Stanley Hall, who after studying at Leipzig came back to the US in 1883 to teach at Johns Hopkins, begin the American Journal of Psychology, and mentor American intellectual and educational icon John Dewey. Others include James McKeen Cattell, who returned in 1887 and took a faculty position in psychology at Columbia in 1891 where he minted 344 doctoral students. James Earl Russell, another of Wundt’s students, became director of Columbia’s Teachers College in 1897 and remained in the position until the late 1920s [4]

For the next thirty years Cattell, Russell, and Dewey, who ended a ten year stint at University of Chicago and joined his fellow Wundtians in 1904, played substantial roles in transforming public education along the lines that would firmly establish Wundt’s ideas and approaches in American public education. At the same time, Columbia Teachers College became the largest teacher training institution in the world. By the early 1950s roughly one-third of all deans and presidents of accredited teaching schools in the US were graduates of the Columbia program.

While Wundt’s apostles were well positioned to wreak havoc on US education, their mission was greatly aided through funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. John D. Rockefeller saw education as a rewarding object of patronage, pointing to the $45 million he used to establish the University of Chicago in 1890 as the investment that fused the Rockefeller name with liberal philanthropy. He and his handlers, which included his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Frederick Taylor Gates (no relation to Bill Gates), concluded that education paid off especially well in terms of burnishing the family’s image.

As John Junior became more involved in the family’s philanthropic efforts he devised new avenues for Rockefeller money, founding the General Education Board–what became known informally as Rockefeller’s “education trust.” The Board channeled especially sizable funds in to reshaping elementary education in the American South through the application of Wundtian experimental psychology approaches.

Gates remarked famously on the General Education Board’s ambitions for the many deprived public schools in the South, where the trust would play a substantial role in educational reform. “We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science,” Gates announced.

The task we set before ourselves is very simple, as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are. So we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm. [5]

In 1916 the General Education Board proposed establishing a school with a new curriculum that excluded Latin, Greek, English grammar, and classical literature, while emphasizing different teaching methods for history and literature. In 1920 the Lincoln School was established and became the laboratory school for Columbia’s Teachers College. Until its closure in 1946 Rockefeller spent $5 million on the institution and thousands of burgeoning educators who visited or trained there were reminded how the program was something they should emulate in their own communities. [6]

As American education was being overhauled, and with it the consequent diminished possibilities for an informed public opinion, the view of popular democracy among elites following World War One also grew dim. For example, Walter Lippmann, a founding member of the Council on Foreign Relations and proponent of Anglo-American accord throughout the 1920s and 1930s, maintained in his writings that decisions of substance cannot be left to the man in the mass who lacks proper expertise in domestic or foreign affairs, but must rather be the province of trained experts.

Indeed, the theme of qualified expertise was similarly emphasized by public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, who advised his clients to use expert figures the public held in high regard, such as scientists or medical doctors, to gain the public’s acquiescence on a topic or to promote a trend or product. Overall, the use of experts to manage and mobilize public opinion emerges relatively alongside an educational system that had come to understand and treat the student as a stimulus-response mechanism.

Most professional educators at the college or university level regularly encounter the legacy of Wundtian psychology and the Rockefellers’ educational undertakings. Students often exhibit an inability to think logically and independently either aloud or in writing because formative educational experiences—combined with the lifelong instruction of mass media—recognize and address the individual not as a full human being capable of profound acknowledgment and understanding, but rather as a sensory apparatus upon which stimuli is targeted and a response prompted and measured (i.e. the correct answer or product purchase). Thus the common responses when the student is asked to reflect on and discuss course content are unsurprising: “What do you want?” “How much should we write?” “Will this be on the exam?”

In such an educational and cultural environment where the recognition and cultivation of individual will is discouraged and the deferral to expert opinion is all but obligatory, the result is a combination of skepticism and cynicism. Erich Fromm recognized this phenomenon in the 1940s by pointing out how the perception among individuals that only trained experts could address complex problems—and then only in their own specific specializations—discourages people from using their own minds to seriously think about and address concerns facing themselves or society as a whole.  “The result of this kind of influence is a two-fold one,” Fromm wrote in 1941.

One is a skepticism and cynicism toward everything which is said or printed, while the other is a childish belief in anything that a person is told with authority. This combination of cynicism and naiveté is very typical of the modern individual. Its essential result is to discourage him from doing his own thinking and deciding. [7]

This very type of apathetic malaise acts to short circuit political engagement as much as to lessen the exercise of simple common sense in everyday decisions. On cable and broadcast television, for example, where most Americans still rely on heavily to form a view of the world, one will encounter an endless sequence of experts wheeled before the camera to provide an opinion for the viewer.

The technocratic application of neuromarketing to what passes for education today is a fitting outcome in a society that has become almost completely controlled by a scientific elite. As was the case one hundred years ago this technocracy is funded and directed by the super wealthy, and trained to refine and implement what they see as most efficient practices for sculpting and managing the collective mind. This self-selected class and its overseers also recognize how such a brave new world operates at optimal efficiency when the bulk of the population has been effectively zombified through stultifying stimulus-response rituals –a process that after many generations has come close to complete fruition.

Notes

1. Valerie Strauss, “$1.1 Million Plus Gates Grants: “Galvanic” Bracelets that Measure Student Engagement,” Washington Post, 11 June 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/11-million-plus-gates-grants-galvanic-bracelets-that-measure-student-engagement/2012/06/10/gJQAgAUbTV_blog.html

2. Diane Ravitch, “Just When You Thought It Couldn’t Get Crazier,” dianeravitch.net, 9 June 2012, http://dianeravitch.net/2012/06/09/just-when-you-thought-it-couldnt-get-crazier/

3. PBS NewsHour. “Melinda Gates on the Importance of Evaluations in Shaping Effective Teachers,” 4 June, 2012, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june12/melindagates_06-04.html

4. Paolo Lionni, The Leipzig Connection (Sheridan, OR: Heron Books, 1993 [1980]). Available at http://ebookbrowse.com/lionni-the-leipzig-connection-systematic-destruction-of-american-education-1993-pdf-d338275746

5. General Education Board, Occasional Papers, Issues 1-9, New York, 1913, 6, http://books.google.com/books?id=QzhDAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

6. Lionni.

7. Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom (New York: Avon, 1969 [1941]), 276.

© James F. Tracy 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Republished at GlobalResearch.ca on June 14, 2012.

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24 comments

  1. Pingback: The Technocratization of Public Education « Delusions of an imprisoned mind

  2. Great article. I taught HS math and science to dropouts, and recorded them on video. You can timeline observe them growing more frustrated, looking around aimlessly, doodling, pulling their hoodies up to hide their earbuds, fumbling in their pockets for their cell phones, eyes glazed over.
    and for the really stultifying teacher, students will often just fall asleep.

    Now let’s say you’re Bill Gates at your wireless dashboard, watching 20 galvanic skin responses over at Southern HS as a perfessor launches into rehash of Kant’s Misrepresentations of Hume’s Philosophy of Mathematics.

    The students mental activity will begin to spike as their entire brain fires trying to entertain itself, or at least not to fall asleep. Then their breathing will become more rapid, and their skin begin glisten with discomfort.

    Wow! This perfessor is a genius! Look at the psychometric readout!! ; )

    [We turned the class around, improved test scores 300%, using animated mnemonics and rapid pattern drills, team game show style, on the OPC. You see, once students get the lingo and logic, then it becomes a game.]

  3. This entire project is a terrible waste of money and a terrible disservice to teaches who will feel they aren’t trusted. The best way to improve education is to read what John Taylor Gatto has to say in his books, including “Dumbing us Down” by getting to the root of the issue. Gatto says that the overall purpose of mandatory public education is to teach students “reflexive obedience to authority”. Authority means “experts”.

    • The money is likely well spent from the perspective of the Gates Foundation and its broader goals. I agree that the students and teachers are at once involved in a demeaning process against their wills. Gatto’s work is indeed of tremendous importance, and is a most appropriate link between the technocratized classroom and public sphere.

      • I thought Gatto was involved with privatizing public schools! Most of the private owned charter schools propose to train young children for the workforce using s-r-s methods. Am I seeing double-speak here?

        • I can’t speak for Gatto’s stance on privatizing public schools, or whether it necessarily follows from his analyses. I think it’s safe to say that a good deal of public education has been sabotaged, and some see privatization and charter schools as solutions and moves against centralization. More powerful forces see opportunities for profit and an acceleration of workforce training.

  4. I’m Brazilian and were in public school during dictatorship and private for high school to public College.
    I’m not a genius but I always questioned everything and only bought the required books after knowing they were good.
    I used to separate two things: knowledge to the tests and knowledge I wanted to learn.
    All those dates and stuffs we had to memorize for the tests I cheated, wrote them at the eraser, legs, desk… lol, no matter where, or memorized for the day of the test.
    I noticed that all the teachers that people loved where those who went beyond the curriculum and spoke about real stuffs.
    I met three of them or four.
    I don’t know if they can really manipulate that much.
    This is a subject I’m trying to understand. I tried a SAT test and it’s amazing: that knowledge is good for nothing.
    I just think that not all people are that manipulated.
    “Why am I learning this thing? It has nothing to do with my life, Ill never use it” is a phrase that many students say for themselves or to their friends.
    “School sucks.” “Let’s skip this class…”
    I believe that teenagers are very critical and they are always mocking some teachers.
    I think they know the “game”.
    I hope so.. I understood it and my my friends too.
    Just found this game:
    http://www.stickpage.com/theclassroomplay.shtml :)

    • Ana-
      If you know from fairly early on to only buy the books that were of significance and worth holding on to that suggests a great deal about your common sense. Most college text book sales go to support a substrata of the global media cartel that requires a new edition of a text every year or two, often needlessly from disciplines where the foundational literature is more or less static over several years. This is one of the reasons I don’t assign such texts, and will do so for as long as the administration at my university affords me this small degree of academic freedom. Also, the professors I found most valuable were those who went beyond a specific curriculum to inform their teaching with examples from historical and current events, issues, and/or biographical insights. They struck a balance between scholar and, to some degree, performer. I like to think that I learned from them and offer something similar as a teacher. -JT

  5. Excellent article and great history! Have you ever read Who Shall Survive? Foundations of Sociometry, Group Psychotherapy and Sociodrama by J. L. Moreno, M. D., published 1953 Beacon House Inc., Beacon, N. Y. ?

    • Thanks for your kind words. I will surely have to catch up with what sounds like a most intriguing and significant title. Thanks again! -JT

  6. Hi James
    I am making a documentary about a school closure in Peterborough Ontario Canada. In my investigation as to why our local school board would want to close one of the most beautiful, inspiring, successful schools in Canada, I have been led to your article as well as some very interesting documentation of what is presently driving the education agenda in Ontario. Would you be open to an interview for our documentary?
    thanks for an excellent article!

    Marc

    • Hi Marc,
      I would be happy to assist with an interview if it would be helpful. If you can provide me with your info on the blog’s contact page that would be great, or email to JFTracy (at) fau.edu.
      JT

  7. Pingback: The Technocratization of Public Education « Learning Change

  8. Pingback: The Technocratization of Education with James Tracy « TaJnB | TheAverageJoeNewsBlogg

  9. Stimulus and response is valuable in my field, which is a world language, especially on the introductory level, where the lexical deficiency limits the expression creativity. I had no idea that this is the underlying philosophy in American education system. I can’t image how this philosophy can be implemented in subjects like history or English without absolutely killing the original thought and forming opinions and I can’t imagine a curriculum in those subjects completely oriented in stimulus-response. But what do I know.

    I can imagine that a SR curriculum can work well for the “intellectually less fortunate” since they know what to do and can stay on task, but it’s a killer for the ones who don’t want to be told what to do and to think. But hey, we have the panels of experts, which means not all of them surrender into shipplehood.

    I don’t think this philosophy will be in decline for as long as we define our well-being in material values and the personal success in possessions. Look at your life today. How many times a day you hear you should “buy” something, and how it’s going to make your life easier. And how many times a days are you told to “seek” second opinion, or to “question” something? If your mere function in this life is to buy something, which by the way makes people like Bill Gates richer and richer, who with money and power will try to change anything?

  10. I have just discovered your blog, and I love it!

    Thank you for explaining why education has gone down the drain for the last hundred years. It seems that everybody has a Ph.D. nowadays, especially in the Caribbean. At the same time, these supposedly exceptional people find it impossible to hold a sensible conversation: they look like empty shells, unable to come up with a conversation topic, or to utter an opinion. Now, I understand why.

    With regard to Bill Gates and little “elite” friends, I believe that when their wealth reaches a certain level, they should be submitted to a healthy Native American custom: the potlach. Democracies are perverted when some of their members are so rich that they can buy politicians and decide the fate of the rest of the nation, or even the rest of the world. It is totally obscene to see Gates, Winfrey, or the couple Pitt/Jolie at Davos. These individuals have never been elected. They have no business there.

  11. I taught in Hillsborough County, FL my first year teaching (2010-2011 school year)- the first year the Gates Foundation funded a multimillion dollar overhaul of the old method of teacher observing. While I was incredibly skeptical of the system, due to my overwhelming mistrust of the Gates Foundation, the system itself was not bad. In fact, my observer frequently enjoyed my conspiratorial teaching style and recommended that I apply for the Florida Council of the Social Studies new teacher award and received the finalist award. However, this program, like many other of these types of programs is likely to degenerate into something perverse. The Gates foundation definitely has to encourage districts to adopt their methods.

    Anyways, I’ll look through the massive portfolio of paperwork I received from the Gates people and see if I can find anything interesting to report.

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