When historians of the future get to work on the current era of American history, they might very well dub it “The Age of Authority (1980-20xx[?])”. The incarcerated prisoner, eligible to be worked as a slave under the terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, is one side of the era’s commemorative coin. The other side is the militarized police officer, decked in riot gear and toting an assault rifle under the guise of defending the land against terrorism. One is victimized by repression; the other feeds his family from it. One is being held accountable for his actions; the other has a blank check. Fueling it all is an interlocking network of private contractors who have profited from the era’s boom in prison construction. They use these profits to hire lobbyists who push for tougher laws and longer sentences. President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, enshrining in law the suspension of habeas corpus, only promises to swell the prison population more. The prison system is a beast, largely feeding on the most oppressed people in the United States.
The Age of Authority finds expression in education reform as well. In the previous era of American history, the one symbolized by the protests of the 1960s, reform was agitated from the grassroots by Americans acting collectively as citizens. By contrast, education reformers today are the most elite members of society (i.e. Bill Gates), effecting reform from the top down. They use money to fund think tanks, school districts and political campaigns, allowing them to dictate policy. Much like with the prison system, victims of their policies are usually the most oppressed members of society. Schools are mandated to perform on standardized tests or else face getting shut down. The schools with the lowest scores, which are the schools with the lowest incomes, get shut down under the guise of accountability. Veteran teachers who serve these neighborhoods are railroaded out of the system. Children are shuffled around from school to school, ending up in classrooms with much more inexperienced teachers, unentitled to workplace rights and livable wages.
Meanwhile, those on the right side of the system: the Secretary of Education, mayors, chancellors, superintendents and principals, have little to no accountability at all. They are on the right side of the system, making their livings from the incessant march of reform. Much like the police officer who brutalizes protestors fears no reprisal, the school leader who brutalizes children and teachers has a blank check. Why else would Mayor Bloomberg in New York push for merit pay policies that failed on him (and us) before, or the principal of Bronxdale High School be able to sexually harass his staff? They are the beneficiaries of schooling in the Age of Authority.
Of course, the biggest losers of all are the children of the poor. They get inexperienced teachers who recite pre-packaged curricula. Their schools are increasingly infested with the ethos of “no excuses”. Children with enough independent thought to challenge their parroting teacher are suspended, expelled or receive corporal punishment. There is no room for deviation from the script. Standardized tests, guided by the national Common Core Standards, will be the culminating experience of their school careers. This means 13 years of rote memorization, filling in bubbles and wearing uniforms. In the ultimate vision of education utopia pushed by Bill Gates, children will eventually sit in front of computer screens and click on bubbles after watching a lecture by Salman Khan on Youtube. In truth, there is very little ground to cover between the inexperienced teacher and the teaching computer. Both of them are programmed with scripts and neither of them have anything in their bags of teaching tricks other than an exhortation to try the same thing again until the correct bubble is chosen.
Meanwhile, the children of the reformers themselves are being educated to be tomorrow’s elitists. They have a one-way ticket to an Ivy League school where they can take economics, business or computer science. These are the subjects with a closed system of circular logic, perfect training to be an authoritarian in the Age of Authority. They will be trained to speak in the unforgiving language of binary, whether it is zeroes and ones or supply and demand. Binary thinking leads to binary morality where right is right and wrong is wrong, or where rich is rich and poor is poor. They will be trained to assume their own superiority. The language they internalize in their education leaves them unable to imagine an alternative to the Age of Authority. They will go on to be Authority’s most virulent apologists. At the same time, children of the poor will go on to be its most willing supplicants.
It is often said that the education reformers want to train the children of the poor to be mechanical workers and consumers. While this is true, it is also obvious that the reformers are training their own children to be as mechanical and unreflective as everyone else. The future is one where the reformers hope everyone internalizes their station as a natural condition. Their vision is feudalism. Just like feudalism in Europe, it will be rigidly stratified. Just like feudalism in Europe, this stratification will be perpetuated by training people in fundamentalism. In Europe, fundamentalism meant the church, where God had ordained the existing state of affairs as natural. In the Age of Authority, fundamentalism means a certain set of class-specific discourse that keeps people’s thinking firmly within the bounds of the status quo.
Yet, it is impossible that the school system will be so efficient in breaking the human spirit. There will always be those indomitable people who will fill in the wrong bubbles, wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things, sometimes even on purpose. Those will be the ones slotted for the prisons. If the Age of Authority cannot break you, it will eat you, digest you and spit you out the other end. You will be fodder for the prison slave system, forcing everyone in its charge to wear county orange so as to make each individual impossible to spot.
Education is the final frontier for the Age of Authority. Having already dominated every other facet of life, the only thing left for the elite to do is reach into the souls of children in order to train them to play their proper roles.