Pygmalion, Frankenstein, and the rhetoric of “reform”

Proliferation.  Every month sees new plans and blueprints and pathways and strategies for fixing the education “system” (scare quotes mark a vexed question). To try to read them all, and unpack their rhetoric and intellectual antecedents, I would have to quit my day job to read full time — and I’d need to be part of a team of dozens.

Oh, wait —   So I am!  since there are so many sharp and dedicated folks keeping watch and bringing back report:  we have a nationwide observation network, united by cross-posting and overlapping  blog-rolls.  Of course, the edublogosphere is massive in its own right, but it does do some filtering and focusing, and there’s less of an echo-chamber effect than one might imagine, given how different the voices are, and the perspectives from which they are critiquing, reading, and writing.  I am grateful!  All I have to do is resist the urge (rooted in some kind of scholarly compulsion, integrity, or nerves) to follow every single link in every single linked story….

My title this morning comes from reflections on blog posts by Peter Greene that you should read, if you are seeking to keep track of the flows of ideology that are shaping the educational landscape in our times.  Also because Greene’s writing is both trenchant and fun.

The first one is about a new “vision” document from the Center for Education Reform (very neoliberal and pro-charter). The second post from the Curmudgeon is about a blueprint from the Gates Foundation about engineering post-secondary success.  I use “engineering” advisedly here, because in this document we breath the pure technical atmosphere characteristic of much foundation-driven ed reform:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is built on the belief that significant, sustained, and student-centered change is required for higher education to live up to its potential as an engine of economic development and social mobility. The strategy is dedicated to building human capital by closing attainment gaps, focusing on three levers for bringing about that change

Both the documents Greene reviews take it as “gospel” that we need to set higher standards for our students, which will improve their performance, and this is the way that their lot will be better in life, they will all get Better Jobs in the New Economy, and on the rising tide of test scores and Innovation the whole society (that is, the US economy) will be better.

The term “education gospel” and its content have been dissected in detail many times, perhaps most trenchantly and famously in the book of that name by Grubb and Lazerson (nicely summarized in an EdWeek article here by Lazerson). Lazerson speaks with measured but palpable anguish in his conclusion:

The central dilemma of the belief system we call the Education Gospel is that it wants to use education as a substitute for other social policies to reduce unemployment, to alleviate poverty, to narrow the distribution of earnings, and to end racial differences. This substitution is self-defeating. We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education.

As I was reading all this stuff, I suddenly realized that as I dug down, link by link, to philosophical underpinnings, I came into the presence of a Myth, that is, a deeply grounded explanatory narrative that is exerts its power (as so much in culture) regardless of its correspondence to reality.   This is the Pygmalion myth.  In the story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the (apparently very lonely) sculptor Pygmalion is so smitten by the beautiful statue women he’s created that he beseeches Aphrodite to give him just such a mate.  Upon returning to his studio, his statue has been transformed into a living woman (Galatea), and they live happily ever after.

As it has been applied in educational psychology, Pygmalion is the teacher, the unformed ivory to be shaped is the student, and education is the technology to produce the desired shape.  More directly:  Teacher expectations can make students into better students (and therefore, the story goes, more successful people, etc. ).  Although the classic study Pygmalion in the classroom (Rosenthal and Jacobson) has been much debated (see a lively and methodical review here), the conviction persists that if we only mandate outcomes more precisely, and assess them more intensively, it will all come out as we want.  (But who is “we,” and what is it “we” want?).    Although Jussim and Herber’s review of the controversy suggests that there is a small but discernible teacher effect (under some conditions), it doesn’t seem to work as reliably (nor as cumulatively) as policy-makers seem to think.   Nevertheless, the myth unexamined and over-extrapolated continues to do its own shaping of educational policy thought and action, for well and for will.

Of course, one notes, another version of the Pygmalion myth is that of Dr. Frankenstein and his tragic monster, who once he comes alive undertakes, as far as in him lies, to shape a life according to his own imperatives.  It seems to me that something of the sort has been happening for decades now, with all the incoherence and unforeseen consequences that one might expect from a statue sculpted by committee.

Lazerson makes the point (in one form) concretely, as he speaks about misdirection of effort, opportunity costs, and what happens because of our intent focus on one little part of a very complex fabric:

What is hardest to take is that as the rhetoric of the Education Gospel continues to ratchet up, the social policies essential to make it work have been eviscerated. The fact is that we cannot fix schools without fixing inequality, and we cannot fix inequality without fixing schools. We cannot choose one or the other and expect that either inequality will diminish or education will get substantially better.

The Education Gospel then is a trap, because it turns us into believers that schools can accomplish everything, and therefore we have to do little else. The world does not work that way, no matter how loudly we play our music, no matter how many silver bullets we purport to have, no matter how hard we play the game. The game is played at lots of sites, under quite different conditions, and it does not end when the whistle blows, the buzzer sounds, or the school bell rings. To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.

 

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