Power and Education

Paul Krugman opens his column today in The New York Times by saying, “I sometimes mock ‘very serious people’ — politicians and pundits who solemnly repeat conventional wisdom that sounds tough-minded and realistic.” These are the people at the Lippmann end of the John Dewey/Walter Lippmann polarity, the elite who believe they have the knowledge and skills to present the issues of the day in such a way that the rest of us, in this democracy, can make appropriate decisions. Theirs is the delusion of the meritocracy; they believe they make their pronouncements based on insight granted by their greater success, that they actually do know more than the rest of us, no matter the topic.

We all fall into this from time to time. Even Krugman: A year-and-a-half ago, he characterized the attempt to institute Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as “entirely praiseworthy.” That conventional wisdom is appearing more and more idiotic each week. Not only does it buy into an un-examined idea that “standards” are prima facie valuable, but it ignores the value of learning (through pilot programs, etc.) before instituting and the fact that there needs to be a public buy-in before something is imposed on the nation. In fact, CCSS is one of the best recent examples of conventional wisdom masquerading as thought.

Most of the time, though, Krugman is the one national columnist who manages to avoid herd mentalities, even among the elite. Today, he tears apart the shopworn idea that problems of inequality in America can be solved by education, an idea lampooned even as far back as the 1960s by no less than Bob Dylan:

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school

Yet, today’s education “reformers” continue to trot this out to justify their attempt to dismantle American education. Krugman quickly dismantles their assumptions, ending with this:

As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power….

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

In other words, diverting attention from the elite to education is nothing more than another way for the elite to shore up their own position. There’s no altruism in the “reformers” (quite the opposite–fortunes are being made through charter schools and education “support” industries and companies such as Pearsons) and no idealism. There’s only an attempt to control the conversation so that the real questions of economic inequity–and their solutions (Krugman lists a number)–are not considered.

The strength of the Dewey end of the polarity is that it relies on what we often refer to today as ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ on the people as an indiscriminate group–rather than relying on a self-defining and self-perpetuating elite. The only way to keep the crowd powerful is to keep it educated–not trained for jobs, but educated in the world and its cultures.

This may sound as though it is in contradiction to Krugman and his headline “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” but it is not. Power does not come from education, but education is not knowledge (and, though we often conflate the two, much of which we claim is “education” is merely “training”). What we are hearing today is not simply conventional wisdom but is a bait-and-switch, telling people that “education” can allow all boats to rise but making sure they won’t. The “knowledge” being touted certainly isn’t power.

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