Small Fowls Screaming over the Yet Yawning Gulf

Economy, Education

It was the last week of our Executive MBA program and we were drinking car bombs on the patio outside the fake Irish pub in Pittsburgh’s dull, chain-infected South Side Works development, a few blocks from the better bars on Carson Street. One of the few concrete lessons I learned as an MBA student was how to get staggeringly drunk in the middle of the day. As an aesthete, a Francophile, and a frantic, obsessive exerciser, I tended to limit my day drinking to a single glass of austere white wine with lunch, and even that only when vacationing in Europe, perhaps in New York if I was feeling particularly louche. But The Businessmen, as I had come to affectionately call my classmates, were titans of lunch-hour beer drinking, driven in part by a general spirit of fratty, macho competition, but in larger part by the growing realization, as our program crawled toward its conclusion, that our classroom experience was bogus, and the only solution was to drink.

This was actually my biggest surprise in MBA-land. I was ideologically and temperamentally opposed to the degree; as a matter of principle, I rejected the very idea of the thing. But it was a couple of years ago, and I hadn’t yet sold a book, and I’m a non-profit manager, and everyone said that I needed the fucker on my resume. I expected to learn a bit of the phony math of finance, formalize my accounting experience, brush up on my stats, ignore the catechismal belief in the divine efficacy of labor cost arbitrage, and despise my classmates, a cohort of thirty-to-fifty-year-old managers and executives from much larger and more horrible companies than my own. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, while the academic portion was even dumber, more banal, and more ethically objectionable and politically suspect than I’d initially imagined, the guys—The Businessmen—were really pretty fucking great.

I suppose that traditional MBA students in fancier schools with dreams of Goldman Sachs salaries are emptier vessels for the promised miracles of this most American of religions, this socially acceptable Scientology, but a bunch of guys who’ve worked the trenches of the American Corporation for a decade or so are pretty immune to the evangel. Yeah, we all buckled down, or tried to, and learned to calculate the Net Present Value of a growing annuity, or whatever, but when it came to Porter’s Five Forces or the balanced scorecard or disruptive technologies and transformative innovations, well, our eyeballs went right back to our laptop screens. Which brings us back to the patio of Claddagh on a cloudless, 80-degree day in July. “Hey Nicky,” one of the other businessmen yelled. “How much money did you spend shopping online during the program? Order of magnitude!”

Nick had somehow acquired both a bottle of Malbec and a pint of Guinness, and he looked about ready to slide off his chair and curl up under the table. “Oh man,” he said. “At least fifteen grand!” We all had laptops, and we all used them uniquely to while away the hours and hours of nonsense to which we were subjected in the pursuit of a thing that our various bosses and mentors felt was important for our CVs. Nicky shopped. Stewball  read ESPN and Deadspin. Papa Stokes seemed to do actual work for his actual job. Solutions hunted animated .gifs, which he broadcast to the rest of us via gchat. I tended to watch pirate feeds of bike races on cyclingfans. A chacun son goût.

Inescapably, I recalled those hundreds of hours staring at my twitter feed or listening to Sean Kelly mumble about Tour climbs in my earbud while some earnest academic tried to cajole us into thinking strategically for the strategic disposition of future strategies when I read the Times’ latest survey of crackpot education-industry profit-taking—in this case, a scheme to sell the undercarriage protection package  a bunch of shitty tablets to a lot of schools based on the vaguely MBAish idea that education needs “disruption.” The article’s author, Carlo Rotella, is the director of something called American Studies at Boston College and presumably a living human creature, but the writing could have been produced by a New York Times Article Generator Algorithm; brief Statement of Authorial Skepticism followed by Interviews with Interested Parties, Reluctantly in Favor, followed by Entrepreneurial Boosterism, followed by Designated Third-Party Doubter, followed by Assurances of Good Intentions on All Sides of Debate, Despite Their Differences. This formula is deeply ideological, although it presents itself as a kind of position of intellectual neutral buoyancy, merely immersed in the vast, rolling waters all around it.

The story is this: Joel Klein, a vaguely ghoulish but fairly typical on-the-make ex-public administrator, gets himself hired by Rupert Murdoch, whose money people see the potential for profit in selling shiny trinkets to America’s beleaguered schools. Rotella calls this “the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems,” deliberate phrasing that’s meant to indicate the author questions, modestly, the application of for-profit business models to public goods, although it mostly just reveals the author’s own unrecognized ideological assumptions. Selling crap to the taxpayers is capitalism; government purchasing is the market. Whether an incinerator in Harrisburg or a billion-dollar jet that doesn’t fly in the rain, the business of American business is public rent-seeking, and education is just one more tank of money to siphon off. No one is “turning to the market”; a lot of administrators, like Klein used to be, are performing their pre-designated market function by purchasing marked-up commodities. Most of them assume that they, too, will one day move up the salary scale when GE hires them to sell brain implants in the next round of disruptive change. This isn’t a misapplication of the system. This is the system.

Disruption is a very of-the-moment pseudo-coinage of the business world; it’s meant to imply a historical process rather than the more mundane reality that “disruptive” and “transformative” change is as old as business itself. You figure out how to make some shit, and then you go out and convince a bunch of people that they really need to buy it. Do they? They will when they hear about its amazing, time-saving features. The old anecdote about the housewife saving not one second of housework by purchasing a power vacuum applies here. I say this as a lover of technology; but a true aficionado knows the limits of his hobbies. I happen to think and write better in the evening when I’ve had a glass of wine, but I don’t prescribe a universal program of Côtes-du-Rhône in our elementary schools.

And in any case, when you look at the sales pitch, you see the same old clichés about the workplace of tomorrow peddled as the great social inflection point whose crisis-borne arrival necessitates the adoption of these critical tools that just happen to cost $199 a pop. The simple fact of that traditional dollar-short-of-an-even-hundred commercial pricing model ought to tip you that something may be slightly crooked here, the transformative promise more marketing than prophecy. “Robin Britt, the Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF)”—no, really—leaps Ballmer-like to the front of the room and engages in a little future-is-nowism for the crowd:

His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.

Oh, please. We all have jobs, and we all know about the “team-based environment.” This notion of the collaborative workplace is totally in vogue and totally crap. Maybe that shit sells to the new crop of 23-year-old business students, but the rest of us work for a living, and we’ve heard it before. Everyone still has a boss, and the annual review is the same as it ever was. Meanwhile, the idea that the 19th-century schoolhouse was an emergent social property of the age of mass production misdates the assembly line by at least half a century; the notion that industrial production is a non-cooperative endeavor is spoken like a man who, though he “holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina,” has never seen a shop floor; the idea that most jobs consist of intellectually engaged programmers tossing tablets across the table at each other as if they’re in the Enterprise Ready Room is as divorced from the working reality of America today as the Just Hang In There poster on the Guidance Counselor’s wall from the anxious quotidian existence of the average high-schooler.

The even more basic fallacy is this: that education is a process of injection molding whereby our plastic youth are forced into a utile shape for the machinery of future business profit, AKA employment. Even were this the meaning of education (it’s not, but assume for a minute), the model fails. You’re telling me that giving a third-grader a piece of prior-gen computer technology today is really going to prepare him for the world of tomorrow? Can’t we just teach these poor kids to read and let them play Oregon Trail every once in a while as a treat? Yes, yes, a lot of successful sorts want schools to look more like business, although business mostly looks like a lot of disengaged peons watching their eBay bids and thumbing through Facebook until 5 o’clock. They want disruption and transformation, a classroom full of the dynamism of market capitalism. Except they still believe in all the pieties of universal education, and yet they propose that the solution to its ills is an economic system in which the majority of new ideas and enterprises fail utterly.

23 thoughts on “Small Fowls Screaming over the Yet Yawning Gulf

  1. Dear gods im Himmel this is good.

    I happen to think and write better in the evening when I’ve had a glass of wine, but I don’t prescribe a universal program of Côtes-du-Rhône in our elementary schools.
    I find I think and write better while standing. And I think (but not write) even better still while walking. Of course, at my age, by the time I get home from the walk I’ve forgotten all the earth-shattering Eurekas! I had along the way, but I still got to see a squirrel chasing a cat across a front yard. Progress.

  2. The even more basic fallacy is this: that education is a process of injection molding whereby our plastic youth are forced into a utile shape for the machinery of future business profit, AKA employment. Even were this the meaning of education (it’s not, but assume for a minute), the model fails.

    Can we get an a, if not the, meaning of education? It seems like preparation for employment is at least a strong undercurrent of K-12 schooling, and my work sure feels like an elementary school sometimes. I have to sit at my desk for a specified length of time, I get assignments from the teacher (my manager) that I don’t want to do, I get a report card (the annual review, which is like the report card and parent-teacher conference all rolled into one), etc. Beyond reading and writing and basic math, aren’t the kids being taught habits—or having certain habits reinforced—that will make them good cubicle jockeys some day?

    (As far as the tablets go, yeah, in full agreement there.)

  3. The decimating of teaching how to write in the sand, and also onto more permanent surfaces (when the typewriter ribbon obsolesces or that electricity goes out (let alone when an apparently highly expected, and totally unprepared for, Solar Storm hits) was a death knell warning for humanity.

    Of course it has never been acknowledged in any meaningful way, whatsoever, [On] the Web.

    I will never forget the moment, in the pit of Silicon Valley California, hearing a young women, in the late nineties, whose mother was apparently a minor Sly Con Valley Matriarch (of course through a Patriarchal line), bragged about not remembering how to write, free hand ….. in the cursive ……

    1. Of course, though, the cursive is still being taught to the kiddles of the Sly Con Valley Billionaires; ..in extremely select, highly unaffordable ‘teaching pods’ (I am not referring here to those public education usurping “Charter Schools”) throughout Sly Con Valley.

      1. I mean, ….after all, …the UZ is a Republic! A Republic of a teeny weeny handful (of inbred sociopaths, such as Jack The Ripper, …and … more currently: cREEPIZOID Alexander of the N$A $pace$hip Enterpri$e), after all. …. Certainly it is not a Democracy, in the most benign definition of that term.

  4. Very much in the key of Henry Miller, novelizing his experiences in the office of the messenger outfit he worked for in Tropic of C. (I forget which one.)

    But I’m afraid that comparison also suggests you should have saved the passage for your next novel.

    Remember what Frost said: talking is like the downstairs faucet and writing like the upstairs one. Too much of the former output yield too little of the latter.

    Same for blogging as for talking.

  5. Disruption!!!!!!!! ,indeed. … Fucking ghouls, and the N$A, etcetera, running that show where all but the billionaires are constantly hooked up, vulnerable, violated and exposed ONLINE!!!!!! :…. We have abandoned our children to the internet – Young people are addicted to a virtual world that is designed to keep them hooked with little care for collateral damage

    “Becoming an adult human requires imitation and role models, it takes patience and practice, and it needs both solitude and community. Instead, many of our children have smartphones in the hands that we should be holding.”

    (Those Sly Con Valley elite schools for the progeny of billionaires agree with and understand her sentiments very well, ……well okay, those billionaires probably have their Nannies hold the kiddles hands.)

    1. And may Bezos (corpse loving bottle fly buzzzzzzzz sounding surname, if ever there was one) rot in the Hell he obsesses in attempting to bring into being; and his fawners and sickening wannabez[os] do due time in some sort of purgatory.

      1. Yes indeed, Beeban Kidron:

        “Becoming an adult human requires imitation and role models, it takes patience and practice, and it needs both solitude and community. Instead, many of our children have smartphones in the hands that we should be holding.

  6. Aw, man. Rotella is the only professor I took more than one class from (on purpose) at BC. He’s hep. I can’t argue with the substance of any of what you wrote, of course, but this is a gentle reminder that the “unrecognized ideological assumptions” that you mention are 99.9996% of common parlance in the social sphere, and that Rotella’s no more of a rube for buying into them than I am for reading Deadspin just so I can make small-talk re: my manager’s fantasy football team. Or: lay off, man; he’s cool.

    Also, Rotella writes regular freelance pieces for the Globe, among other pubs, so this piece, despite its “I’m a teacher, too” gloss, may be a sacrament in a tradition you and I both hold sacred: Nice Work If You Can Get It.

    1. That “point” will likely be when it has been made abundantly clear that the undeservedly poor, in the United States, and the planet earth at large, ….were thoroughly written off with the advent of Social Media!!!!!!! …not only did those ‘puterless poor and old broke folks have to pay those sales and shipping taxes and Not Online purchase PENALTIES , but they totally lost their voices ……. to that Machine which has now proven to only be a machine for the N$A, et al; High Finance & Military algorithms, scoping out who the next drone victimes will be. ……

      Things have gotten far, far worse, not far, far better, since the advent of Social Media!!!.

      1. (sorry – … so caught myself in the move to obsolesce ‘humans’ (versus AI (alien intelligence???????????) nanosecondry algorithms [created and condoned by a teeny handful of deranged HUMANS]) being allowed the time to meditate and then: commment on a thought, …that ……- “victims” not “victimes”.)

  7. Lightweights! I had a Wall Street exec apologize to me in the 70’s because he didn’t have enough heroin to share at lunchtime.

  8. Never mind that after fuck-knows how many years of reading The Other Place I managed to go until now without finding you here, am I misunderstanding the timing or did it die because you were doing an MBA?!?

    I apologise in advance for my ignorance.

    ….business papers.

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