This was written by Adam Bessie, assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Ca. A version of this appeared on dailycensored.com.

By Adam Bessie

“When you are basing the effectiveness of teachers on lots of softer things, whether the kids feel good, whether the classroom is happy, whether we’re creative (don’t get me wrong, those things are important), but if the kids can’t read…that’s not acceptable,” former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee asserted indignantly in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, defending the standardized test-based reform movement that she has touted to an applauding media.

Rhee is fighting a battle against these “softer things,” as The American Thinker recently observed, an image she cultivated in her iconic stern pose on a now-famous cover of Time Magazine – humorless, severe, standing imposingly and holding a broom, ready to sweep away “bad teachers” like errant spitballs, and and with them, “softer things” like creativity, and perhaps, empathy.

Rhee displayed little empathy for “bad teachers,” and in fact, has built her career – and her fame – by sweeping them out the front door. As educator Mike Rose reported in a recent blog, Rhee casually invited a film crew documenting her to watch her fire a teacher live, in a real life version of Donald Trump’s “Apprentice.”

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” Rhee said to John Merrow’s crew while shooting a segment for PBS NewsHour called the “ The Influence of Teachers ,” inviting them to televise the teacher’s career execution. “Do you want to see that?”

Indeed, empathy has been swept out of the education debate. This was demonstrated in a recent study that was more frightening than the results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, but that has been all but ignored by reformers such as Rhee: college students today are dramatically less empathetic than previous generations.

In a comprehensive 2010 study from the Personal and Social Psychology Review, University of Michigan researcher Sara H. Konrath found that “empathic concern” has dropped “sharply” since 1979, and more quickly in the last decade. “]A] lmost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago,” Scientific American Mind reports in a recent article exploring Konrath’s findings. In other words, Konrath’s findings suggest that new college students – who will one day lead our country – are less able to feel for anyone other than themselves.

Where’s the empathy emergency?

It turns out that that today’s reformers don’t see an empathy emergency because empathy is not valued in our culture, a reality that Harvard-based physician-researcher J. Wes Ulm describes in his 2010 essay for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, entitled “Cache of the Cutthroat.” Ulm argues that Social Darwinism – a perversion of Charles Darwin’s theories – has seized control of our economy and culture.

In “Cutthroat Capitalism,” it’s not just survival of the fittest, but survival of the most ruthless: all behaviors, no matter how ruthless or “cutthroat” are “fair” in competition, and “qualities such as compassion and empathy” are roadblocks to “success and social advancement,” Ulm claims. Cutthroat Capitalism is the unregulated free market, the Wall Street ethos, in which “ferocious, mercilessly competitive conditions weed out the weak while preserving and enhancing the strongest members of an institution, a market, or a civilization as a whole.”

In Cutthroat Capitalism all that matters (to quote the Wall Street star turned sideshow Charlie Sheen) is winning. Nobody cares how you won, what corners you cut to get there, who you harmed in the process, nor what you snorted or injected, so long as you come out on top. Gordon Gecko would be proud.

Gordon Gecko Elementary School

Unsurprisingly, from Cutthroat Capitalism, which values economic savagery that Gordon Gecko applauded, the Cutthroat Curriculum is born, in which the methods of the unregulated free-markets are being applied to our children.

The Educational Venture Philanthropists or the “Billionaire Boys Club,” as education professor Diane Ravitch dubs Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family in her best-selling book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System ,” are using their vast fortunes to remake public education in the image of the Cutthroat Culture from which they emerged victors.

The Broad Foundation’s primary goal, as Ravitch demonstrates, is that “schools should be redesigned to function like corporate enterprise,” a goal that it accomplishes by training education-outsiders to become superintendent CEOs. And thus, it comes as little surprise that Rhee – a public education outsider who acted like a CEO during her tenure in the Washington, D.C. public school system – is the star of the “Billionaire Boys” and the corporate reform movement they bankroll, for her cutthroat methods mirror the sort of management style they used to succeed.

And while the corporate reform movement sounds like the work of the neo-conservative business elite, some of its greatest political allies are Democrats – especially President Obama, who spoke of education in economic terms in his 2011 State of the Union.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes the economic focus of the Obama administration explicit in a speech previous to the State of the Union, describing the goal of public education to create a “seamless cradle-to-career educational pipeline,” as if the children are raw material to be processed and sold on the open market, like iron ore.

And certainly, Obama/Duncan’s Race to the Top — which Ravitch referred to as George W. Bush’s “3rd Term in Education,” — implements this business-oriented focus by favoring the free-market standardized testing regime of No Child Left Behind. Not surprisingly, following Obama’s lead, the New Democratic Coalition met with Rhee — the face of corporate education reform — to help make American education “the most competitive in the world.”

From the perspective of corporate reformers and complicit Democrats, who employ the language and ideology of corporate America, public schools are factories designed to manufacture potential employees, human products who can compete effectively on the global market, and help the United States “Win the Future.” This is a striking departure from the original mission of public schools, which conceived of our schools as not just skills centers, but civil institutions which cultivate democratic values – empathy, compassion, citizenship, creativity, and other “softer things.”

Towards an Empathic Nation

Our limping economy clearly demonstrates the consequences of the sort of Cutthroat Culture that Rhee, and the “Corporate Takeover of American Schools” represents. While it might be good for enriching the few, Ulm argues that this ruthless way doing business ultimately bankrupts the public by incentivizing corruption, rewarding “unscrupulous behavior,” and promoting “short-termism” at the expense of long-term gain. And worse, it “commoditizes human beings,” treating them as products to be exploited.

Ulm concludes that in encouraging selfish individualism, “the most cutthroat societies collapse in a state of corruption and acrimony — their ‘winners’ ultimately hoisted on their own petards... Social-Darwinist systems fail, and fail on their own terms.”

Ravitch poses a nearly identical argument to Ulm, that the “Billionaire Boys” in bringing this Cutthroat Culture into the schools, have reaped the same sort of “unscrupulous behavior,” which she documents extensively in her book. And much like Ulm, Ravitch concludes that this culture of selfish, free-market individualism threatens our schools, as it has our economic fabric: “Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of our national economy in 2008 and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children.”

Not only does this mindset imperil our already weakened public schools, making our children’s “hard skills” like reading worse, but more importantly, it also encourages just the sort of ruthless behavior that makes for a morally bankrupt country, one in which the citizens are callous towards the plights of each other, and anyone else in the world.

As Ravitch reminds us “we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies… and forming citizens for our democracy, not just for teaching basic skills.”

If we do not heed Ravitch’s warning, a generation of children who do not value empathy will soon become our leaders – CEOs, politicians, administrators, teachers, neighbors, voters – who will make cold-hearted decisions about the direction of our community, our nation, and our way of life. In essence, by ignoring public education’s responsibility to not just produce consumers and workers, but also empathic, well-socialized citizens, the United States is endangering 21st century democracy.

That’s not a future I want to win.


Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described “The Influence of Teachers.” It is not a film but a production on PBS.


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