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The Problem With Bill Gates's Vision

Ohanian Comment: It's good to see a community college professor speak out against the Gates agenda. Where are the colleges of education?

Reader Comment:
I'm glad you're beginning to make connections that Marxists have been making for over 100 years. While I don't advocate that you become a Marxist, you might want to consider how Democrats and Republicans, awash in corporate money, have actually been bi-partisan when it comes to smoothing the path for corporate venality, very much at our expense. An easy way to get started would be to consider "reforms" that have been passed over the years and who those "reforms" have benefited - every single time. You may want to do some research on who has been trying to warn people about the root causes of everything you're talking about - and oh so much more. Many of them are some flavor of Marxist, many are socialists, many want good things for all people and are afraid of what big corporations can accomplish for themselves at the expense of working people. Some Marxists have spent their entire careers studying how Capitalism and corporations work and how they shape every aspect of our lives - including how we think. For example, here is David Harvey on neoliberalism:

We have to understand what corporate forces are thinking -- and how they think. There is no better place to start than Marx. But the truth is, Marx is beyond intellectually demanding and requires years of study. Almost every single american who has said something negative about Marx (and like all human beings and most academics there are plenty of negative things to say) has never studied him. Never cracked a book written by him. Period. Harvey has already done the work and has gone on to understand capitalist ideologies like neoliberalism, which is the most dangerous set of tools in the corporate/political workshop. If you understand Capitalism, you understand that it is about ceaseless accumulation (often this is what they mean when they say "growth"). If you understand neoliberalism, you understand that it is about privatization in the service of ceaseless accumulation and the exploitation of working people all over the world.

Until we understand the forces at work, we will look at the things happening to us (corporate rule at our expense, the commodification and privatization of everything -- everything from schools to the water we drink) and only be able to see the individual tentacles that have their suckers wrapped around our heads. We need to see the whole vampire squid (if you are unfamiliar with the reference, read Matt Taibbi) for what it is -- in fact, it is bigger than the vampire squid, but let's not get bogged down in how to symbolize Capitalism in a cartoon image. We have to understand how Capitalism and neoliberalism inform and direct the corporate agenda as we fight it -- and we need to take a look on who is actually with us and who wants to profit from us -- or benefit from dissuading us from challenging corporate power -- in the colleges, in the voting booth, and in our entire world. If we aren't fighting corporate rule while attempting to understand the ideological forces driving it, we are lost.

I commend you for thinking about these things and making the effort to educate people in multiple ways. It's time for all of us to take the next step and become politically active. It's time to realize the political labels we use when discussing politics don't apply in a country that has been forced so far right, the center can hardly been seen anymore. And yes, it is time to replace Capitalism with a fairer, more just, more equal way to organize our lives. A way that values human beings over profit. (emphasis added) If we don't start working towards that now, the future is truly lost - lost to corporations run amok, lost to the politicians they buy, lost to a world literally ruined by profit seeking and exploitation. The lines have never been more clearly drawn. Let's have a sense of urgency about what we are faced with. Let's work together to change this venal system that is quickly reverting to feudalism.

By Rob Jenkins

The Microsoft magnate-cum-philanthropist Bill Gates made waves in the community-college world a few weeks ago when he suggested that two-year colleges should use more MOOCs.

Most of us who actually teach community-college students understand that, while there may be a place for MOOCs in the curriculum, relying on them too heavily would be a mistake. (I wrote about this extensively in A Massively Bad Idea, and I won't reiterate those arguments here.) But the notion of MOOCs as some sort of educational panacea dovetails neatly with Gates's constant championing of online learning and what seems to be his overall vision for higher education.

I don't begrudge the man his vision, nor does it bother me that he uses his millions to advance it. That's his right, and I don't doubt that he believes he's doing good.

I just think he's wrong. I think much of what he assumes would be good for higher education would actually be bad for higher education--and, more specifically, for community-college students. And I believe that faculty members, along with responsible administrators and legislators, have a duty to stand up and say, "No, that's not going to work. It's not a good idea." (emphasis added)

The essential problem with Gates's vision is that, at heart, it's corporatist. I understand that "corporatism," for historians and political scientists, refers to a specific economic theory, and I apologize for co-opting the term. I'm using it here in much the same way one might use "statist" to describe a person who believes in the primacy of the state. A corporatist, in that sense, is one for whom social institutions--particularly education--exist to serve corporations.

I came to this conclusion while pondering the obvious similarities between Gates's vision for higher education and the methods used by the public schools in the area where I live. I've often noted that our school system, in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, employs what I call a "Chamber of Commerce" approach to education, one that is heartily endorsed and to some extent influenced by the local business community. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the system has earned numerous recognitions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

The primary goal of the COC approach, I've observed, is to produce mostly "good employees," who at the high-school level take vocational and deceptively named "college prep" courses--which do not, in my experience, prepare them for college. At the same time, the COC approach seeks to develop a relatively small number of "future leaders," who are funneled into honors, gifted, and Advanced Placement classes.

In the interest of full disclosure, my children benefited from this approach. They were identified as gifted early on and placed in the best classes with the best teachers who gave them a great deal of individual attention. But that doesn't mean I believe it's the best way to run public schools--and I certainly don't believe it's a good model for higher education.

Yet that seems to be what Gates and other like-minded individuals are attempting to recreate for colleges and universities at the national level: a system in which the majority of students--those at community colleges and smaller regional institutions--are stuck in large auditoriums watching talking heads on giant screens, while a much smaller group of elite students gets to attend "real" universities where they receive personalized instruction in small groups. Such a system would certainly work well for corporations, as it would create both a large "trained work force" and an elite managerial class.

I'm not a Marxist. I don't have a problem with corporations that operate legally and responsibly. I understand that corporations can act as economic engines and do a great deal of good for society. But as a community-college faculty member, I don't believe their priorities should necessarily be my priorities, any more than I believe that the primary purpose of a college education is to train students for particular jobs.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the position Gates is advancing these days with his well-financed emphasis on work-force development and online education. I hope those of us who believe education has a purpose higher than merely to produce worker bees--even at community colleges--will speak out against this vision and advocate for our own. Only by uniting in our opposition to the corporatist agenda Gates represents will we be able to combat the millions being spent to promote it.

— Rob Jenkins
Chronicle of Higher Education





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