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.