Saturday, June 16, 2012

Could Ike Have Foreseen the Education-Industrial Complex?

In his farewell speech in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the new military-industrial complex.  What he perhaps did not foresee was how that complex would become a paradigm for policy making outside the field of defense.  In the excerpt below I changed a few words, such as “military” to “education” and “federal contract” to “foundation grant”, and am struck by how Eisenhower’s prescient warning rings true for education in 2012.
"This conjunction of an immense education establishment and a large education industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the education-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge commercial and education machinery with our peaceful methods and goals, so that we may prosper together.
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-education posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.  In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary teacher, toiling in her classroom, has been overshadowed by task forces of researchers in foundations and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a foundation grant becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
The structure of the military-industrial complex has become a meme. It has recreated itself in the schools and universities of America.  A shadowy, revolving door world of government and quasi-government agencies, think tanks, foundations, corporations, universities, political and advocacy groups, and private contractors, form the ecosystem of education policy.  Oh yes – and unions, to be fair.  We need to call this out – it is the Education-Industrial Complex.
A self-reinforcing scientific-technological elite, detached from the everyday realities of the work, performs vast social engineering experiments behind closed doors in a cloud of group-think and acronyms.  Fueled by the endemic soft corruption of revolving six figure sinecures, as members pass easily from government to foundation to university, etc., this elite presumes to manipulate the masses of citizenry for their own good.
I have seen this with my own eyes.
It will take an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to deal with the consequences.  But where will that citizenry come from if their education is being engineered by people whose interests are money, status, and power, rather than democracy?

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