A Narrative Within A Narrative

Corporate and social media cover controversies like arrows that point to interesting and important things.  Of course, the talking points, memes, and narratives cannot be taken at face value — they are likely to reflect the least true and least important aspects of whatever is going on.  In this light, months of controversy about efforts of US public schools to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students and teach history and current events from more points of view suggest an underlying story or stories that we are NOT supposed to notice.   As goals such as historical accuracy, inclusion, and providing everyone an excellent education seem beyond reproach, it is natural to wonder how the debate devolved into:

With multiple Republican led states passing bills banning teaching “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in schools and candidates in a bell weather governor’s race fighting over it. 

In Virginia, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin claimed CRT was widespread in Virginia schools and made his objection to it a talking point.  In contrast, Democrat Terry McAuliffe flat out denied CRT was taught in Virginia and claimed the idea was: “a right-wing conspiracy…totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin.”

The focus on Critical Race Theory, per se, is Distraction’s Exhibit A as it mires dialogue in an academic question – what is CRT – rather than on what people care about, which is whether these changes in schools and by extension society promote truth and justice or divisive, harmful ideology. Like with so many other issues, the corporate and social media circuses seem designed to pit us against each other, rather than to look and think more deeply about our common ground.  The divide between those shouting “communist!” at those shouting “racist!” is too wide and deep to be anything other than the product of a manufactured narrative. 

What is that narrative distracting us from noticing? We’ve seen a massive surge of interest and language around “antiracism,” in the last few years – with the rise of Black Lives Matter, one high profile shooting after another, and the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots that roiled numerous cities in the summer of 2020.  Corporate adoption of antiracist talking points was very noticeable around that time, as corporation after corporation put out statements of support for Black Lives Matter.  The language used in this sudden embrace of social justice – words like “equity,” “sustainability,” “inclusion” and “diversity” – is similarly near-ubiquitous in the mission statements and marketing materials of government and non-government organizations at every level from local school boards to the United Nations (UN) and World Economic Forum (WEF).  These labels are seamlessly intertwined at this point into pillars of the Great Reset, such as stakeholder capitalism, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Many people seem to think that the widespread adoption of such language really means that those in the halls of power have truly heard the call of peace and justice for all.  I’m afraid it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The powerful know that the best way to channel real energy and pressure for change from the masses is to co-opt it by choosing to emphasize, publicize and promote certain ideas, people and actions over others, such that the end product serves their own aims.  This is exactly what I think has happened in the antiracism education movement sweeping our country.  In particular, I think certain concepts, as taught, serve to increase division, hamper communication, direct the conversation away from everything that truly threatens the status quo, lower expectations for standards of living, and promote the financialization of educational outcomes.  

A few concepts, racism vs. antiracism, white privilege, and equity, from one school’s antiracism education program illustrate these points.  A middle school in Virginia used this slide deck as part of its 8th grade curriculum this past spring.

The first slide in the deck introduces the concept of racism versus antiracism with a quote from Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist: “…our children are either going to learn racist or antiracist ideas.” Right off the bat, the curriculum conveys that race is the only correct lens through which to view and understand reality. It also suggests a “you’re with us or against us” mentality that is continued in slides 81-89 as antiracism is defined as consciously, actively and frequently making antiracist choices, with the alternative defined as “(un) consciously uphold[ing] aspects of white supremacy, white dominant culture and unequal institutions and society.”  This dichotomy explicitly divides everyone into the good and bad guys and implicitly dismisses the universe of concerns that aren’t easily categorized along a racist/antiracist dichotomy (such as environmental concerns).  It also makes thoughtful dissent and discussing ideas that may be outside of the box considerably more difficult.  Anything you say, after all, that is not “antiracist,” is defined as racist.

This ideology shuts down valuable communication, truth seeking and ultimately solutions as people strive to stay in the “antiracist” column.  For example, police have killed disproportionate numbers of black people in recent years (slides 33 and 53).  The strong implication regarding causality for these deaths in these slides is that police officers use more force with black people due to racism, perhaps unconscious or implicit racism (slide 7).  While surely individual racism is the main factor in some cases, other factors may be more important, such as drug laws or the militarization of the police.

Take the case of Breonna Taylor, who an officer shot to death in her own apartment in a middle of the night drug raid. According to social justice advocates as portrayed in the media narrative, the officer’s actions and eventual acquittal were obviously due to white supremacy, even though Breonna’s terrified boyfriend fired first and hit an officer.  A worldview that simplifies issues into racist or antiracist easily leads to certainty that the officer and the jury were racist.  This conclusion keeps anger and fear in the forefront, narrows the conversation, and diminishes the potential to change the institutionalized procedures that make such shootings likely, such as middle of the night warrants and raids. It would be more productive to understand and change the historical and social roots of a criminal justice system that prioritizes apprehending people for non-violent crimes over people’s lives than to blame “racists.”

Examining long term social patterns, their historical underpinnings and their interactions with race may be beyond an 8th grade discussion, but the level of depth regarding cause, effect and solutions laid out in this slide deck is reflected in a wider conversation that seems fixated on polarized explanations that lay blame most prominently on individuals.  Keeping the conversation focused on racism keeps it off economic, class and social causes that cut across race, even though more black people are more negatively affected by many of these issues than white people. Focusing the issue on wider social problems that don’t stereotype individuals into race based oppressors and victims like the binary of racism versus antiracism does would benefit everyone as racial enmity were replaced with common cause. 

Many of these topics are implicitly subsumed under the category identified by Kendi in the quote above as “unequal institutions and society,” often called systemic or institutional racism. Even when these terms are used explicitly and defined to cover current inequities that have resulted from historical, as opposed to current individual racism, they still emphasize individual culpability in the use of the word ‘racism.’ Despite all efforts to redefine the word, it remains stubbornly next to “nazi” as a pejorative in our culture.  They also, obviously, frame the underlying cause as racism, failing to distinguish between racism itself as a motivation and using racism to divide and conquer. We would be better off turning our attention to longstanding patterns that affect almost all of us negatively, however unequally, to the benefit of very few.

Another concept in the deck (slides 37-41) that is becoming common in this type of education is “white privilege.” In one video, a white woman and a black man compare the number of times they have encountered different situations, including being called a racial slur, being followed in a store unnecessarily, having someone cross the street or get out of an elevator to avoid them, and fearing being stopped by the police.  The word “privilege” suggests that a person has something “extra” that is not an integral birthright, which someone else has bestowed upon them and thus can take away.

If it is a “privilege,” to be treated kindly and respectfully, though, then the fundamental dignity and worth of a human being is rendered precarious, extrinsic and undeserved. Emphasis is not placed on decent treatment and conditions for all as a goal, let alone on how to get there, but rather focuses on the privilege disparity between white and black people and the obligation that white people thus incur to even the playing field. The concept of privilege, taught this way, implies that “a good life” should be thought of in some way as something special, out of the ordinary, and achievable only through taking it from someone else.  It is the direct relationship between white privilege and the lack of these benefits to black people, after all, that requires white people to be antiracist to be morally just, as though discrimination were a zero sum game.   

“White privilege” focuses attention on the need to compete with other people, scarcity of resources, lack of fundamental worth, and division. It renders the wider cultural paradigm of exploitation and domination in which the “advantage” bestowed by white privilege has meaning invisible and unquestioned.  A different viral video that aims to explain white privilege shows college students racing to a finish line, in a Mother May I type set up in which they may advance if certain conditions are met.  It is notable that even criticisms of the video fail to point out that, maybe, just maybe, our cultural conception of life and success as a race with inevitable winners and losers could be a big part of the problem.

One noticeable aspect of Great Reset propaganda is an attempt to lower expectations of what it means to lead a “good life.”  For example, the World Economic Forum published an essay on their website on the idea of an entirely renting economy, “You’ll Own Nothing and Be Happy,” which they removed after widespread condemnation and lampooning.  We are also subjected to endless articles on the “exciting” future of food (for the masses) in lab-grown and insect meat, and other technological horrors.  Then there’s the push from governments, NGO’s and corporations alike for augmented and virtual reality education.  As Unicef, says, you know, we need virtual reality education because “…there will never be enough money allocated in the budget, qualified teachers or places in schools for the population we have.”  In this context, it doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch to wonder whether “white privilege” could be part of a widespread psy-op to encourage people to more easily accept these kinds of changes.  The more people can be made to feel that they are somehow helping others by feeling guilty for and eschewing what had previously been considered their due (normal respect, kindness and a degree of ease in life), the more they can be manipulated to believe that a lower standard of living for all (except the owners) is socially just.

From https://www.unicefinnovationfund.org/broadcast/updates/unicef-innovation-fund-graduate-nubianvr

While the concepts of antiracism versus racism and white privilege hamper the ability to identify, let alone work on underlying structural problems and threats, “equity” has been by far the most weaponized.  The word is cropping up everywhere because it is a key lever in reframing surveillance capitalism and 4IR technology into “social justice”.  “Equity” is usually presented, as it is in slide 71, like this:

Clearly, this is a very straightforward and concrete example to explain the idea that equity is about meeting everyone’s needs, even when the needs are different or greater.  It is easy to agree that, of course, in a just society, everyone should indeed get what they need.  A family with a special needs child provides a good example of how doing so can benefit everyone in the family.  As long as a family is well-resourced (emotionally, financially, physically) they should be able to meet each child’s needs even though they give more attention and care to the child that needs more.  Typical siblings stand to benefit from the experience themselves in myriad ways.  Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to make equity work for everyone in the top down, corporate captured bureaucracies known as schools.  Someone or something must be trusted to decide and measure who needs more, who needs less, and how needs should be met.

The old education model used Individualized Education Plans for a tiny and well-delineated minority of students to meet different needs.  This model, though, is ceding to one where “equity” demands that every child be assessed and monitored continuously in order to justify potential interventions. Surveillance, data extraction and the weoponization of that information should sound familiar as the model Facebook and other tech giants use as they harvest your every move online, feed it to algorithms to predict your future engagement and sell your attention to advertisers or other interested parties. As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, points out, “…surveillance capitalism is the dominant economic institution of our time… [which] draws surveillance economics into the “normal” economy, from insurance, retail, banking and finance to agriculture, automobiles, education, health care and more… predictions of human behavior are the product.”

Did she say … education?!

The groundwork to use “equity” as an excuse to monetize children was set up in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which followed No Child Left Behind as U.S. national education policy.  ESSA opened the door to wide scale privatization of education and set up conditions for monitoring and data collection through its emphasis on “pay for success,” “evidence based interventions,” and “competency based education.”  Pay for success provided a new funding stream to allow private investors to fund specific programs (evidence based interventions) and receive interest on their investment if pre-determined narrowly defined outcome metrics (competencies) are achieved.  It is rarely explicitly stated that the vast majority of interventions are through educational technology, which, of course, is also vital to assessment.  Technology scales for greater profit than can be achieved through human centered intervention.  ESSA goes a long way to promote educational technology, but what to do about parents and teachers that balk at replacing lower student teacher ratios and independent professional teachers with online “personalized” instruction from artificial intelligence?  This article praising ESSA makes it plain that that is exactly what it promotes:

“…we’ve known for decades that personalized learning is a vastly better approach.  A 1984 study led by education psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that students given one-on-one instruction consistently performed two standard deviations better than their peers in a regular classroom. That’s enough to vault an average student to the top of the class.

Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier have made this personalized approach possible. Indeed, venture funding in the edtech sector has increased from almost $400 million six years ago to an expected $2 billion this year. Powerful, adaptive edtech means that all students can have — as part of their instructional team — a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.”

https://www.americanactionforum.org/insight/education-technology-in-the-every-student-succeeds-act/

How smoothly and easily the power of human connection, attention and creativity is dismissed!

“Equity” provides an imperative to close achievement gaps by providing everyone what they need to succeed.  Yet, critical truths remain unsaid and unseen: teachers won’t be empowered with enough time or independence to meet needs creatively, underlying contributing or causal factors to need won’t be addressed and everyone cannot succeed in a culture of competition. Online personalized learning funded and controlled by for profit entities, then, becomes the obvious solution to the problem of how to meet everyone’s needs.  The narrative cycle of posing a problem – equity – then a reaction – worried parents concerned about their own kids in a hyper competitive economy, and finally providing a desired solution – personalized learning – is evident in this news story about Virginia’s new math initiative.

Under the new Virginia Math Pathways Initiative (VMPI), all kids will take the same math classes before 11th grade, after which they can diverge.  This system will replace the old one of tracking or ability grouping in which some kids accelerated through the curriculum faster than others, such that they would start more advanced math classes sooner and end up with more math under their belt.  According to the article, in response to parents’ worries that the new math plan would hold their kids back, a Virginia Department of Education spokesperson promised that “Differentiated instruction [would be] catered to the learning needs of each child (appropriate levels of challenge and academic rigor…within a heterogeneous learning environment…” but he did not say how this would occur in practice.  He may not know, but I think it is pretty clear what will happen next.

Companies like Dreambox are more than ready to make sure your child reaches his or her potential!

“DreamBox continuously assesses students to present them with targeted lessons.  The program collects 48,000 data points every hour a student uses DreamBox.  It tracks each student interaction and evaluates the strategies used to solve problems. It then immediately adjusts the lesson and the level of difficulty, scaffolding, sequencing, number of hints, and pacing as appropriate. This allows students, whether struggling, at grade level, or advanced, to progress at a pace that best benefits them and deepen conceptual understanding.”

https://www.cobblearning.net/rountreefarmer/dreambox-math/

Note that, while the Virginia Department of Education states that the new math pathways program comes from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, it’s name and ideas are strikingly similar to the Pathway initiative funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have led to many changes in other states.

Concern for “equity” amply does its job by distracting some parents from noticing or critically analyzing educational changes due to the social justice rationale.  It silences others’ dissent towards greater or this specific use of technology in education by framing all concerns as racist.  Other parents are set up through fear of a competitive culture with growing scarcity to accept personalized learning as a savior that will enable their child to either “get ahead” or maximize their potential.  It completely obscures the step by step construction of an “educational” system that sells children’s futures to the highest bidder and sets everyone on a re-skilling treadmill to compete in a global digital economy.  The greater media narrative of conservatives versus liberals around the issue as a whole can be easily seen in this context as a device to make people think they understand both what is happening and what people disagree on when neither is true.

While surveillance capitalism today has as its central goal selling more stuff, it’s longer term goals are more about selling YOU.  First, there’s the necessity of selling yourself as an employee in the economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which the vast majority of our current jobs are automated.  This automation will not just include the obvious cashiers and truck drivers, but also most service providers for most people, such as teachers, doctors and therapists.  Nearly every specialized online platform for these services that today gives you interactions with a person is collecting data to feed into artificial intelligence to build better algorithms so a person will no longer be necessary.  Educational technology that adaptively teaches, ie. “personalized learning,” without a human, also, of course, uses user data to improve their algorithms and thus expand their market (and profit). Note that there is no need to keep or use any personal identifiers to use your data this way, avoiding what many believe is the chief privacy concern.

As many more people will need jobs and many more people will need to work in the digital economy to keep it going, new training and assessment mechanisms become necessary to choose among the winners and losers.  Normalizing online learning for the long term is important for a near future in which “life-long learning” is required for workers to keep up with advancing technology.  “Workforce development” (formerly known as education) will train children from the beginning to earn points or badges as they meet employer-defined metrics in endless learning modules – for the rest of their lives.  At the same time, all this performance data will be kept in a real “permanent record.”

The second way that surveillance capitalism within education makes the child, quite literally, the product is through new investment vehicles and procedures.  The beginning of the financialization of students is already present in the Pay for Success and Public Private Partnerships that encourage for profit corporations to tailor educational programs and goals to maximize private profit. However as surveillance monitoring increases through educational and other technologies and algorithms improve in their predictive ability, it will become feasible for investors to not only choose educational programs to invest in (as they do already), but even individual students. This recent Atlantic article discusses this emerging economy:

“To be clear, the financialization of everything isn’t an unalloyed benefit. The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of [offering shares in himself], Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/financialization-everything-investment-system-token/620804/

Of course, the author of this piece pretends that everyone could also be an investor, as though the poor and rich are equally as likely to invest as they are to be invested in.

Investing in any particular individual or group could mean providing healthcare or educational or other services — if the predictive analytics indicate that they are a good bet.  These predictive analytic algorithms are being created now with data corporations collect on children through educational technology.  They don’t need to attach the data to personal information to build models.  They can use anonymized data to build models that allow early detection of likely winners and losers now, and apply them to new children in the future.  New financial instruments have recently been developed to own and trade ecosystems services – perhaps students will be next. If such financialization occurs, wall street can trade the commodities (children) as they do others, like mortgages, with all kinds of creative financial instruments that turn people’s lives into a high stakes game for profit.

Yeah, that’s a lot to get from “equity,” isn’t it? But when “equity” suddenly appears on most corporate websites, it’s past time to consider whether the term has been hijacked.  Similarly, media narratives that rely on the most simplistic objections and arguments to objectify the “other” in such strident terms as “communist” or “racist,” deserve a second look.  In the case of antiracist education and the national fervor to defend or outlaw teaching “Critical Race Theory” in schools, there’s a narrative in a narrative.  Corporate media, owned by the same handful of players that own everything else (eg. Big Tech, Big Ag, Big Pharma, and FinTech) casts the story in the most divisive terms possible, as though the story is the conflict.  They hope you will share the demonizing memes their algorithms push forward on social media rather than look deeper. At the same time, the specific character of the educational antiracist movement sweeping school districts tells its own story about modern America and what ails it.  That story casts our deepest problems as stemming from racism and suggests “evening the score” between the races as the solution.  When discussion of the rules of the game is taken off the table, though, evening the score can only lead to changes in who wins and who loses.  And that set-up, of course, leads beautifully into the oligarchs sweeping in as the biggest winners of all.