Inside our Narrative Loop

WIll Richardson, in his recent blog article about the USA Today article about the Khan iceberg, points out that the number and strength of the disruptive forces arrayed against education – both public and private.  I left this comment on his website:

William Lind wrote a series of columns on war titled, appropriately enough, On War, in which he pointed out that wars are won on the moral level long before they’re won on the physical level.

Why bring this up? Because one of the greatest powers a military force can use is to get inside the narrative loop of their opponents, and so thoroughly re-write the story of the war that the some of the opponents’ own allies believe the propaganda; and the story becomes what one side wants it to be, rather than the other.

This is the situation that schools (public and private) are in: we the teachers are being challenged as not tech-savvy enough, not accountable enough, not trained enough, and not agile enough to recreate schools for the 21st century. That’s the narrative presented in the mainstream media, in state and local governments. It’s now common enough that I’ve sat at the dinner table with good friends — who know that I’m a teacher — and yet I still find myself subjected to abusive language calling for, effectively, an end to schools.

Our opponents are inside our narrative, picking it apart from the inside, and they have seized the moral high ground in a lot of ways. Lind’s essays are essential reading for anyone who wants to change the narrative, because first we have to drive our opponents out of our own narrative, and then we have to restructure our own narrative so that they cannot get inside of it.

The fact that we’re having to read essays on war in order to get advice about media strategy is a sign of how far behind in this war for hearts and minds we really are…

I want to develop this theme a little bit farther.  In his essays on the modern-day experience, and how it’s likely to change in the near future, John Michael Greer has recently pointed out Polybius’s model of historythat Greek city-states went through a four-stage cycle which we can characterize as 

  1. Monarchy
  2. Oligarchy
  3. Democracy
  4. Stalemate

He argues… quite successfully, I feel… that rather than being in stage one (where one person alone has taken all power to him/herself) or stage three (where the people have the power), that we are in stage four: that our political and economic institutions are able to continue to hold their existing economic advantages, but not able make significant changes. Nor are reformers able to wring significant concessions or reformation from “the system”.  Nor is any group able to impose its will for a long period of time on the system as a whole — all the other stakeholders fight back against any effort for any one faction to hold or dominate the system.

And it is in this modality that so much effort and energy is being expended at weakening the power of the established educational classes. Without breaking the power of the teachers’ unions, and without dividing the teachers from the students, and the students and their families from the schools, it is impossible to reassign the resources that presently go to schools toward some other effort — like invading Iran, or enriching the .01%, or weakening the political power base which schools and their employees and devotees represent.  Someone… or in fact, as is far more likely, several someones, in several different factions, have decided to go after those resources: that they are but weakly protected, that they are winnable, and that they are worth more than the expected cost to take them.

In other words, disempowering schools and the school teachers that work in them, is part and parcel of the opening maneuvers of a war.

If you’re a local business leader, the tens of thousands of dollars of tax money that go to your local public school system — for bands, for salaries, for football, for textbooks, for whatever — represents tax-breaks your company doesn’t get.   It represents workers who are being mis-trained or even educated to move away from your community.  The school itself is a massive pile of bricks and steel and industrial grade spaces that can be rented, borrowed or even stolen.  The workers in those schools are overpaid intellectuals WITH THREE MONTHS OFF each year.

Suddenly, along comes Khan Academy.  Along comes several billion dollars in venture capital funding, and hundreds of new content-delivery ventures.  Along comes YouTube, Wikipedia, and a host of other resources and websites that provide ‘free educational programming.’ Of course, you need to pay for an internet connection, pay for a computer, pay for access… but hey, captive audience! The kids, they have to go to school, right? THeir parents have to figure out how to occupy their kids learning math facts and when the Battle of Gettysburg was, and they’ll have to pay someone to help them educate their children.

Why should that money go to the state? Especially when those teachers have done such a bad job of it? Especially when the schools flunk all the standardized tests? Especially when the state has to figure out how to serve poor people’s kids along with rich people’s kids?

Understand. I’m not saying that I believe these things to be true.  I went to private schools for most of my education, and I teach now in a private school.  But I’m not sure that I agree that private education in the US substantially outperformed public school until standardized testing and NCLB substantially hamstrung the public schools, by forcing them to concentrate on the testing process rather than providing a well-rounded education.

Wars don’t break out in a moment of relative stability. They break out in a time of incredible disruption.  The American Civil War broke out at a moment when a completely unknown candidate took the oath of office for the presidency, and the Confederacy thought it could win autonomy with the support of the European industrial powers.  World War I? European aristocratic ideals meeting the new industrial technologies of railroad, machine gun and howitzer.  World War II? The fossil fuels meeting  meeting the old industrial technologies of the previous war.  

I can’t say I know too many people who really, really like schools.  Parents tolerate them because it provides cheap-ish babysitting services.  Politicians tolerate them because people leave town and destroy tax bases if they’re bad; but they’re expensive to maintain, and they tie up both capital and revenue in order to run them.  Teachers like them for the paycheck, but apparently enough teachers feel that teaching gets in the way of their lives, that they don’t do enough of it, or at least not enough to suit some colleagues or parents (See comments on this entry from a long time ago, “I don’t know any incompetent teachers“).

Schools, rightly or wrongly, are seen as treasure houses. From the Harvards and Yales to the lowliest public school in Montana, they are concentrations of wealth and influence and power.  There are people who would like that power, or to share in that power, or to break that power, and they will dismantle that power structure if given a chance.

It may be too late to prevent them from doing so. 

The scoffers may tell me that I am being needlessly apocalyptic, and they may be right. But all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.  The notion that the schools cannot be dismantled wholesale or piecemeal should not be dismissed as mere fantasy.  

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  1. I don’t think you’re being needlessly apocalyptic, Andrew. But I do wonder if there’s a middle place between the status quo and a Disruptions of the Monasteries kind of moment. It seems to me that the work being done by Rocketship Academy, for instance, is really disruptive to schools in their areas. Not to private schools, like yours and mine, but to the schools that might otherwise have expected to get those students. And yet, it still looks a lot like school, with a standard time and place for students, even if what’s happening inside looks a bit different. I think we might be seeing the emergence of a self-designed mass customized blended (online+brick-and-mortar) learning model, which will, yes, radically change the way learning works, but is also one that could be easily co-opted by the established schooling industry.

    • Welcome, Mike… I don’t believe I’ve seen you before… always happy to welcome a new commentator.

      Ummm. I think there’s always a middle ground, right up to the point that there isn’t. My mom once participated in a diversity awareness training where everyone got ten notecards, on which everyone wrote “one-word identities” for themselves — My mom picked words like “liberal” “white” “woman” “artist” “volunteer”, “mother” and so on. The group’s members then had to go out and form a group of allies in the room, and the only rule was that you had to have at least one card in common with all the other people in your group.

      You can see where this is going. Gradually, the facilitator made everyone drop a card with an identity on it, in response to a real or perceived crisis. The groups, which were large and happy, had to fracture and splinter. Mom found herself in a smaller group of women. The they had to dump another card, and another. There were more and more groups, built around narrower self-identities. Eventually, mom found herself limited to the identity of “white woman” and made common cause with a person who identified as “black woman”. On the last toss of cards, mom became “woman” and her partner chose “black”, and everyone in the room was standing alone.

      So middle ground can evaporate, and when it does you have “dissolution of monasteries” kinds of moments.

      I think that those moments can also bring havoc to our schools, too… I don’t know that your school is parented by exclusively 1%-er families, but I don’t know of any private school around here that isn’t dealing with families struggling with the cost of tuition. Schools think they have to keep raising their tuitions to make ends meet, but that doesn’t mean that families can’t choose collapse as a legitimate option — they can decide to downshift back to public school if the bills can’t be paid or daddy gets laid off; or they can decide to move to cheaper locales, or end a private school experience before graduation. It’s the middle class and upper middle class families, that make private schools work… and it’s exactly those families which are being squeezed hardest right now. The middle ground fails long before the end game, and it was the largest and the smallest monasteries that got picked off first — the ones whose offensive behaviors were most in the public eye, and the ones too small for anyone to care about.

    • Good points there, Andrew. I can imagine the middle disintegrating, as you have suggested. My question is whether that will happen, or if technology will help sustain the middle. I’m thinking of private schools offering different tiers of programs, like most businesses do – think “price points”, or “membership options”, etc. – to target customers at different income levels. For example, a private school might be willing to let students take their online courses part-time, or even move to a completely blended online model in-house to reduce costs.

      Here, we have plenty of 1%, but plenty of top 5%, 10%, and maybe even below. Some certainly make a tough decision to be able to afford to come. I agree that costs rising substantially more than COL will be unsustainable. Certainly, we can’t keep on the tuition inflation pattern that we’ve seen over the last 20 years.

    • The effect of technology in general has been to break down the middle, rather than raise it up, Mike. YouTube is filled with tens of thousands of people trying to become the next Salman Khan, or the next Justin Bieber. DeviantArt is filled with people trying to be the next Pablo Picasso or Keith Haring. I wouldn’t mind being the next Will Richardson or Sir Ken Robinson, but the chances are vanishingly small of making it to the big leagues. Lots of people get pushed to the edges in a technological revolution… it’s just very hard to predict which ones will be so pushed.

      Mmm. But of course as soon as I hit publish, I’m reminded that schools used to have price gradients in them. You could pay one fee for reading, another for writing, and a third for counting. English schools ran that way, for profit, up into the late 1800s. American schools never went through that modality, but it existed. For that matter, that was how Oxford and the Sorbonne in Paris both operated right through the Middle Ages — the teacher would have a donation box bolted to the door, and you paid the lecture fee on the way in, at Oxford (where teachers controlled the university), or on the way out at the Sorbonne (where the students’ union had considerably more power until after the Black Death). Of course, at both universities the key was that the teachers owned the books, and lectured from them — if you wanted a copy of the book, you had to show up, and copy down what they read aloud, as they read it. That was how you got copies of the great textbooks of the age. Now, we don’t have anything near that kind of monopoly on information. We’re commentators, at best, on increasingly-publicly-available information.

  2. It’s not just teachers or education in particular, it’s pension funds in general. These represent the last large quantity of wealth not currently owned by the small group of individuals who own the rest (what we are these days calling the one percent). The teachers’ funds are among the largest and best-managed, so they are the clear targets for plunder.

    • Mmm. I hadn’t thought through the pension fund angle, but you’re quite right. Looting the pension funds WOULD make a lot of sense. You have some folks who are after the pension funds, others after the land and buildings, others after the tax revenues or the tax breaks they could get… that’s a lot of enemies on the same side, and not many allies for us.

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