The Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin once lamented that art dies when the same model that produced the Ford Model T is applied to art. What of the Common Core, the new rational model of educational measurement schools nationwide, including in Tennessee, are adopting? It is, as student speaker Ethan Young proclaimed at the Knox County School Board regular meeting in November 2013, the very selfsame model, or as he puts it, "an industrial model of school."
Public education has long been intimately linked to the economic formations governing social formations. In other words, school systems are tied to whatever economic regime is dominant. For example, the baby boomer generation saw its schools produce students in a similar way to how the generation manufactured the material wealth that built American infrastructure on an incline for decades.
A system like the Common Core isn't exactly new, but it is more robotic than previous incarnations of public education. It could only have been produced after the 1990s, when a new form of economic rationalism invaded the bureaucratic systems America depends upon to function — when "the data" became the sole instrumental method of measuring success, as seen in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and No Child Left Behind in the 2000s.
In this model, faces are worthless, as are personalities; the bottom dollar, or the highest grade, is the only worthwhile datum in the entire enterprise.
Isaac Asimov published "I, Robot" in 1950. His stories did not concern public education, university students in 2014, or the foundational models of infrastructure development America is stuck with today. However, parallels abound between the thinking of the bureaucrats — however necessary they are, and they are necessary — and the thinking of the robot which seeks to reproduce itself. The dominant epistemology of bureaucracy is cold, dissected data; so, too, is the dominant epistemology of the public school becoming cold, dissected data.
Students are not being trained how to live, think, question or rebel. Instead, they are being taught how to behave, listen, obey and universalize their minds according to a standard plot developed by bureaucrats, many of whom have never taught a class a day in their lives.
As Young said, "The task of teaching is never quantifiable." Education is being mechanized, its knowledge formalized but devalued, and its students objectified and passed through the ringer darkly. America already has trouble sustainably manufacturing cars. Why apply that same model to human life and the life of the mind?
From the outset under our current pedagogical regime, every student is primed to learn. But it is worthwhile to briefly examine the nature of this learning. From toddlerhood on, students are graded on what amounts to a population scale.
They come to think of themselves as their grades: an A student, a B student, a C student, and so on. Decades ago, Aldous Huxley caricatured such a practice in "Brave New World," yet the caricature persists in living form. Students are taught to self-objectify in order to survive in what we adults call the "real world" and thereafter to reproduce the current economic regime in all its facets. This insight is the greatest gift of sociology – social systems reproduce over the heads of their individual participants.
We think of the grading system as a natural reification of knowledge. But it is no such thing. It is merely a heuristic schools use to tattoo their children according to their employability, their status in the hierarchy.
Michel Foucault asked in his "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison", "Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?"
While education is indeed the supreme tool society uses to ensure its children grow up to be happy adults, the sort of social engineering propagated by the Common Core is not. Rather, it is bureaucracy come alive, impersonality rendered animate, and Frankenstein's pedagogy. Ought we be weary of it, and weary for it, considering its great importance?
Education is not only the lifeblood of our civilization, but also its thermometer. If our education system is producing robots, we need not infer intensely that we are producing robots.
Jeremy Brunger is a senior in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.