"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, September 28, 2012

Twenty-Two Pages of Corporate Education Advertising, Or, The Atlantic Monthly's "Special Report"

This begins a series of readings concerned with the articles and images found in the October Atlantic Monthly which promote the "Reform Agenda" of both conservatives and liberals (as power has no pure politics).  I will primarily be concerned with the conveyance of ideology.  However, I have asked my Errant collaborator Doug Martin to offer investigative analysis of the interconnectedness among the authors and the groups highlighted in the issue for cultural approbation.  I feel we should consider this a national manifesto detailing how our high priests of management intend to proceed regarding the "growing" of our "human capital," as Obama advisor and Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman terms it ("Raising Workers").  This is the Huxleyan brush stroke applied over the Orwellian.

Also please see Paul's post (with great depth of detail in comments from Susan, et al.) from Sept. 8, "The Atlantic's Love-Fest for Rhee, Inexcusable."


Morse Peckham tells us that meaning is not immanent in words.  There is no stable thing called a definition that is consistent across time or even local use.  Any good dictionary, heck, any bad dictionary, will make this clear.  Words fold and unfold and change color and depth as they are exchanged.

Words mean as they are used.  Words mean as utterance and response.  We negotiate their value as we use them.  We decide if they are appropriate or inappropriate according to convention.

Now, extend this out to all verbal and non-verbal signs and you will see that Peckham would have us all set sail on the Pequod of language.  A brief example: in my recent post, "Instructed to Ignorance," I attempted to show the meaning of "Principal" and how he represented a "cultural" instruction for appropriate behavior in school hallways.  I suggested however that the meaning for kindergarteners is something more akin to "big man is scary."  In other words, the principal is not your pal, even if that's a useful mnemonic for spelling.  This is not to denigrate specific people who are principals (though this should be done on occasion if they expressly serve corporate masters); this is an institutional role.  Every dog-training manual I've ever read tells me that training requires immediate response enforcement: if a dog sits when I say "sit" I must re-enforce that action with a treat (freeze-dried liver!) and so create meaning.  The dog behaves and is treated.  The meaning of sit is not "sit"--it's freeze-dried liver.  In schools, this "immediacy" of enforcement is almost never available: there's simply too much going on, too many students, too many appropriate and inappropriate behaviors to be "treated" (or ignored, or if you're so inclined, punished).

This is all to say finally that we are often rudderless upon an ocean of semantic drift.  We are constantly negotiating meaning as we encounter signs.  We are in the midst of a concerted effort to redefine "education" by redefining how we evaluate and value the very parts and pieces that the category subsumes.  We are, most of us, watching our "high culture"--those with money and power--use all of their influence and considerable resources to make new appropriate meanings (utterance and response) in education.  They are redefining "school," "teacher," and "learning" with great speed and force.  In this they also strive to make our current definitions "inappropriate."  This happens by labeling them "old fashioned" (traditional) while labeling the alteration something appropriate to the 21st Century, as if the century were the master we served.

Of course, if you're here reading this you are already aware of this.  My point is that the culture is being trained and some of us are getting freeze-dried liver and some of us are getting rolled-up newspaper and choke collars.


The Atlantic Monthly is a magazine with a national audience and plausibly a kind of influence on "high culture."  Here is how Wikipedia defines it:
The Atlantic is an American magazine founded (as The Atlantic Monthly) in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1857. It was created as a literary and cultural commentary magazine. It quickly achieved a national reputation, which it has held for more than 150 years. It was important for recognizing and publishing new writers and poets, and encouraging major careers. It published leading writers' commentary on abolition, education, and other major issues in contemporary political affairs.
It is reported to have a print circulation of nearly 500,000 subscribers, and though this doesn't make the list of 100 top circ stats in the US for 2011 (The Economist is at the bottom with around 850k--the AARP tops the list with two publications in the 20 millions and it seems to me that we need to discuss the content in those pubs), it can be shown that the articles found between its covers have a "longer reach."

I once might have thought "venerable" was an appropriate descriptive for the publication, especially as our founding father Emerson was a progenitor, but I think this term lost its coherence as applied to current content.  The magazine was sold to a property magnate in 1980, that magical era figure-headed by Ronald Reagan.  It was then sold again and folded into the National Journal Group owned by David Bradley who has defined himself as "a neo-con guy."  Reading the "Ownership" section of the Wikipedia entry will telescope the content that I am setting out to discuss in several posts to come.


The October 2012 issue (the print copy) has on its cover, upper right above the magazine's name, a box (the border is yellow, but not the yellow of caution) framing the words, in all caps, "SPECIAL REPORT: NEW IDEAS FOR SCHOOLS."

As we have been instructed that there is nothing new under the sun by Shakespeare as well as by that more pervasive cultural instruction manual, the Bible, I must come to this with skepticism.  In educational parlance, I am "pre-reading."

Further pre-reading reveals the following:

The "Reform" section, pp 84-101, is bracketed by two double-page advertisements for Chevron.  The first makes known it's corporate reform "partnership" with "Project Lead the Way" (Doug Martin has detailed this program here).  The left page offers a boy clearly "of color" yet non-descript enough to be "any-child-of-color" and surely urban--the boy's hair is oddly disheveled, perhaps this failure of "grooming" indicates lack of parental or community care to the advertising company responsible for this.  The text by the Chevron logo: "Human Energy" (like Heckman's "human capital").  And below that, "Students go on to become employees--including ours [odd to state such an obvious fact unless this is keyed to this particular TYPE of student]."  Then follow some details of money lay-out and focus, "engineering."  It ends, "Education is everyone's concern.  Including ours."  Replace "concern" with "interest" and you get a more honest statement.

The right hand page is simply a statement in bold, large font and all caps: BIG OIL SHOULD SUPPORT LOCAL SCHOOLS.  In smaller font but red text: WE AGREE.  And this "we" is meant to refer to the two signatories to the ad, representatives of corporate "concerns," Dr. Vince Bertram (always a Dr.), President and CEO, Project Lead the Way; and Joe W. Laymon, Vice President, Human Capital, er, Resources, Chevron.

The closing bracket ad offers the same visual format/layout.  Profile picture on one side, shouted message on the other.  But, and this is really quite smart...and you have to always give these folks their due for their wicked intelligence...this spread, in coming AFTER the Reform instructions, delivers a transmogrified product--like alchemy, we have, by the application of the elixir of corporate reform, turned our urban, disheveled boy "of color," into a cosmopolitan, white-collared Asian man (the right kind "of color" for engineering labor).  The text: "Our future depends on innovation to operate cleaner, safer, and smarter."  There follow claims of cash spent on tech investments in "start-ups," ending, "We don't just think like a technology company.  We are one."

The bold, large font statement: OIL COMPANIES SHOULD THINK MORE LIKE TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES.  Again, smaller font, red text: WE AGREE.  Signatories: Dr. John Kelly III (Dr. and Lineage!), Senior Vice President, IBM Research, IBM; John McDonald, Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, Chevron.

I think we must, if we are attentive, read pages 84 through 101 with this bracketed declaration as our instructions on "how to read and why;" to read those pages in the spirit in which they are offered: an ideological advertisement for the corporate interest in "human capital."

That is what I intend to do in several more posts to come.  Read along with me, if you please.  Let us be properly educated together.


  1. For some reason, the rewards/punishment applications of behaviorism don't work very well on freaks like me. The tighter the collar, the louder my voice...Keep it coming!

    1. Amen, Rebel! Thanks for reading and encouraging! I may have an essay to share with you regarding the term "rebel" if you're interested. I might post it here if I can make it speak to this audience.