Friday, April 25, 2008

War, Inc. and A Nation at Risk: The Martial Overtones of Ed Reform

John Cusack's new film, War, Inc., appeared in limited release on screens this past week in Toronto and will show April 28-May 4 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie dramatizes the outrageous marriage of violence and profiteering enabled by corporation-loyal foreign policy, and its satire doesn't come from fiction: billions of taxpayer dollars are used to employ fee-for-hire "private military" or "security" vendors (think Blackwater) in the name of supplementing our nation's poorly-compensated and poorly-outfitted armed services.

So how could the push for perpetual--and now private--warmongering get so far, so fast?

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism offers a brilliant take, arguing that our economic system exploits moments of disaster and suffering to maximize corporate profits on an international scale. In the face of tragedy, brutality, economic losses, real and imagined fears, citizens are enticed to give up their best economic interests, their civil liberties, and their consciences while power and resources are consolidated for a mercenary few.

A longstanding tradition of educational practices in the U.S. has helped this process along, quietly evolving as support for the military-industrial--and now data-tainment-surveillance-- complex. On a parallel track to the "war and worry" economy, schools have become the true domestic front for conflicts abroad.

It's a handy coincidence that the limited release of War, Inc. coincides with the annual barrage of spring tests just beginning for students all across the country.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 may have preceded 9-11 and our "war on terror" by a generation, but it began the drumbeat of crisis-mongering which has enabled the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other academic surveillance corporations to profit from fear-based education policy--all in the name of improving schools and making them safe for success.

It's easy to decry campus shootings, but how long will it be before some school offers a specially-designed "security services" academy track to target "at risk" or uniquely "gifted and talented" kids? Unless we actively push back, it's not an impossibility.

Military terms such as "strategy," "targets," "cohorts," and "marshaling" have become essentially natural in conversations about student achievement, school funding, and teacher training. We say "battery of tests" without blinking an eye. Even the emphasis on "raising standards" has martial overtones: "standard" also means flag.

Thus it shouldn't surprise anyone that the No Child Left Behind Act dictates for student names be provided to military recruiters--unless parents know enough to complete an "opt out" form.

It's also perfectly logical that Reed-Elsevier, one of the major corporate players in the assessment industry (think Stanford Achievement Tests), acquired Seisint Technologies in 2004. Seisint famously developed Matrix software to monitor citizens for Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

The now-constant rhythms of scantron, bubble-the-answer testing have normalized the need for social surveillance while also feeding collective and individual anxieties about failure, school funds/closures/takeovers, matriculation, college attendance and placement, scholarships, and simple economic survival. It's no wonder captains of the test industry look ahead towards a bright future, while the daily-life, real-people context of classrooms gets cast as a weary and antiquated distraction.

A new generation of students has been raised--from grade one--to expect multiple choice questions with multiple choice answers to provide the quickest and most reliable way to know whether they know anything.

The social implications of this compulsion are far-reaching. It takes extra work to scrutinize and question who generates these assigned "multiple" choices.

All the while, billionaire business leaders, including superstars Eli Broad and Bill Gates, stand eager to "rescue" (i.e. privatize) the desperate, distracted, and panicky public education system, donating all-expenses paid makeovers in the corporate model. Euphemisms like "professional learning communities" (where consesus is "demanded") merely perpetuate increasingly well-dressed, professionalized and potentially violent forms of remote control.

Sometimes violence itself is the tie that inspires, even if we'd rather forget it. Harvard President James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), co-father of Educational Testing Service and persuasive advocate for the mid-century comprehensive, mega high school, established status as an education policy advocate because of his experiences with warfare.

As a professor, Conant helped develop chemical weapons for the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. He subsequently chaired the National Defense Research Committee, playing a fundamental role in our development of the atomic bomb. Conant also served on the Interim Committee which decided to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without warning.

War, Inc. thankfully will provide broad audiences with an opportunity to reject easy notions of compartmentalization. In asking "how" and "why", we might remind ourselves that politics, economics and education are inextricably intertwined.

Watch for the release of the film your local area later this spring and early summer. Meanwhile, read a great live blog session with the producers and writers of the movie online at Crooks and Liars.

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