What industry wants...industry gets
As an introduction to little discussed relationship between the business world and education, one might well review the recently published At What Cost? report. This study was the handiwork of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF). At a superficial glance, it appears to be little more than just another of those interminably dreary assessments dealing with the quality of education. Produced at a cost to the OSSTF not the taxpayer of $75,000 and dealing with education in Ontario, it might as well have been written for the whole of North America. Why? Because, for a number of reasons, it is a remarkable document.
First of all, it is written in a refreshingly lucid and easy to read style with none of the jargon one has come to associate with the teaching community; it reflects the views of parents, teachers, business groups, school trustees and administrators; it attacks the basic weakness of the Ontario (for Ontario read North America) system of education that is, the appallingly low standard of English among students graduating from high school. Most of all, the study is a thoroughly professional assessment of the system by educators themselves.
With some justification, educators have often been charged with adopting an unprofessional attitude towards the rest of society and organizations such as OSSTF of being little more than trade unions. With publication of At What Cost? the OSSTF has earned the teaching profession (in Ontario at least) an equal place alongside the engineering, medical and legal professions.
Having said what the report is, one is bound to take issue with the authors for their failure to recognize and explore the relationship between the business world and the very specialized field of education. One aspect of this relationship stands out in sharp focus: It is that for the past 30 years the "productive output" of the secondary school system in North America has been geared to satisfying industry's almost insatiable appetite for technicians and production workers.
Output has not always been synchronized with demand, a failing which cannot be laid at the feet of the teaching community. Not parents, not school trustees, not Departments of Education (except in the passive, we'll-do-as-we're-told sense), but the business community said, "Give us the workers we need for our production machine."
As more than one observer has commented, society transformed its high schools into Ford Motor factories so that, by and large over the years, those workers were supplied. The pendulum is now swinging the other way, despite the efforts of politicians and captains of industry to solve our economic ills and reduce high levels of unemployment. Output exceeds demand so that we now have the ridiculous situation in which educators are under pressure from the trade union movement as much a part of the business world as any corporate board of directors to serve society in a custodial capacity. Anyone who fails to recognize this euphemistic phrase for babysitting should go back to school.
It is entirely reasonable to say that the general level of education is higher today than it has ever been, but this is no reason, as Voltaire would say, for believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Educators have been coerced into developing a grossly unbalanced curriculum in which the study of language in all its forms (syntax, grammar and literature) takes second place to mathematics and its related subjects. Under what has come to be known as the credit system, introduced since the abolition of external examinations, the study of language and particularly the English language is almost optional. It is no wonder that parents, universities and employers are waxing vociferous over the deplorable ignorance of high school graduates in the matter of language. The most significant recommendation of the At What Cost? authors is: "Secondary schools must provide a basic education which emphasizes language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking . . . )"
With little compunction, it would be easy to charge educators with dereliction of duty in this important area. Why, for instance, was the trend not recognized and remedied years ago? Educators, in fact, have had very little say in the matter. Is that so astonishing? Not when one realizes that the whole development of Western society since the end of the Second World War has militated against the study of language. This brings us back to the business world, its relationship with educators, and what one might call the managerial elite.
To understand the low esteem in which the study of language is presently held, one must look back almost 40 years to the publication of James H. Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (John Day & Co., New York, 1940). In this excitingly original work, Burnham expounded his theory of the managed society, one which was soon recognized as a perceptive view of Western society for the following 40 years.
In his critical essay, "James Burnham" (University Observer, Chicago, Summer 1947), George Orwell was among the first to single out Burnham as one of the foremost thinkers of the day, a man who merited a place alongside Gaetano Mosca (The Ruling Class), Georges Sorel (A Note on Myth and Violence) and Robert Michels (Political Parties). In fact, Orwell was so influenced by The Managerial Revolution that his novel 1984 is based directly on Burnham's theory of the managed society. The three economic superstates which both writers described North America, the European Economic Community and the Communist Bloc have come into being as predicted. Similarly, the managed society, together with its managerial elite, is the reality of our age.
There is ample evidence to lead one to the conclusion that businessmen in the Western world were not slow to accept the truth of Burnham's theory. As was pointed out elsewhere, ("Canada: Economic Colony," The Guardian Weekly, December 1971), we have evolved into a production machine society. More specifically, North America is one vast production machine which needs three things to keep it going: material to feed it; workers to man it; and markets to consume its output.
To satisfy the second criterion, the powerful business lobby in the Western world began applying pressure after the Second World War in the same way that educators are now being pressured to serve as custodians. A knowledge of language was not considered an important part of the make-up of the finished high school product. As a result, in the late '40s and increasingly from then on, a fundamental shift occurred in the philosophy of secondary school education. Latin and traditionally classical subjects were dropped from curricula; science and mathematics were emphasized; politicians, educators and education administrators bowed like reeds under the pressures exerted by the new technocrats.
A more recent effect of the space age requirements was the introduction of the "new math." Proponents of the new mathematics may well argue that they are absolutely vital for dealing with modern technology, in which case their claim would support the contention that educators are in the hands of the managerial elite. What, precisely, was wrong with the old mathematics? Were they too closely associated with the steam age to be considered suited to a nuclear age? New mathematics can only be viewed as a tool with which to equip the next generation of workers for a computerized society. Yet it is both a paradox and contradiction that the engineers who developed computers had a perfect understanding of Boolean algebra, infinitesimal variables and binary notations on which "new mathematics" is directly based.
What, one may ask, has all this to do with the study of language? It is that the business world, which now so loudly condemns educators for turning out so many next-to-illiterate secondary school graduates, is largely responsible for the present situation. By its excessive demands, the business community has helped deny young people access to the rich store of human experience contained in all forms of literature. There are, of course, deeper currents of cause and effect to be explored than can be tapped in a necessarily limited article on the subject. However, the sad fact is that new generations of educators, themselves now the products of a system far gone, are as a group incapable of expressing ideas in simple and articulate language. Is this too outrageous an accusation? One has only to read the convoluted drivel offered to explain high school courses to illustrate this point. Examples are not difficult to find. A 1976 Toronto English course, described as "Applied Humanities," was explained as:
an interdisciplinary unit which interfaces various disciplines concerned with the action and interaction of man as an organism shaped by his psyche, history and societies that form his cultural media.
One of the aims of the same course was
. . . to improve the student's ability to communicate effectively through the study of verbal and writing skills, and to enhance the student's general effectiveness by promoting effective communication in task-oriented 'groups.
journalist who turned in copy like this would certainly risk being
thrown out of the editor's office and deservedly so. This
is not so much a direct criticism of educators as of the system in
which they themselves have been taught. And it is against this background
of cause and effect that one must question the wisdom of a society
which permits a single, identifiable group (a group in the shape
of the business community) to exert the influence it
so obviously does.
The relationships between politics and education, child psychology and education, social development and education, to mention a few parallels, have all been long recognized, researched and dimly understood. The relationship between the needs of the managerial elite and education has been all but ignored. It surely deserves greater thought and understanding than it has been given to date. Some post-graduate student in search of a subject for a doctorate thesis in secondary school education would tap a rich vein if he or she settled on the relationship between business and education. The idea is freely offered.
I am well aware that the observations and conclusions herein implied will be displeasing to many people who read the article. That will not detract from the truth of them, if they are true. Contrary arguments may persuade others to disbelieve, but truth, as Burnham said, is a function of evidence, not belief; and the evidence of experience points to the deliberate production of workers for a production machine in which a knowledge of language and literature is of little importance. When the buyer (meaning industry) demands a certain quality, the seller (meaning the educator) must deliver that specific quality. This has been done for the past 30 years to no one's ultimate satisfaction.
If one is to level direct criticism at the teaching community, it must be at its failure to assert its professionalism long long ago, a professionalism to set standards of quality in education and meet them.
For secondary school graduates who wish to "do their own thing" educators must first teach them where the center is a prerequisite for anyone who wishes to be eccentric. That a balanced curriculum, in which a firm grasp of language as well as science (including mathematics), lies at that centre is surely something no reasonable person will deny. In this context, the At What Cost? report of the OSSTF should be made compulsory reading for teachers, school principals, educators of whatever degree and, last but not least, all captains of industry.
Quod erat demonstrandum!?
Published in the ATA Magazine, Toronto Forum and other journals