Education and the Rigorous Tying Up of Milk ☆

It always surprises me when people seem to get away with the argument that we need better education in order to maintain our national primacy. Tired nationalism keeps on kicking. And yet, isn’t it interesting how compelling it is in its apparent simplicity? Even as we become sensitive to the atrocities of Empire, the notion of staying ahead educationally seems reasonable and compelling.

If this is the prime ideological context for education in this country, then ironically the call for rigorous education is couched in the most un-rigorous of dreams. Rigor is merely de rigour: a question of etiquette and protocol.

Education as the diplomatic extension of war. The Luke-warm War, we could call it.

Interestingly, Larry Cuban, takes an alternative tack. Instead of pushing into the absurdity of the competitive drive, he simply decouples its educational assumption. Just because we want to stay ahead, doesn’t mean more education is the answer:

Presidents H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have sought national goals such “common core” standards so that the U.S. would be better able to compete with Asian and European for global markets. Now, President Obama has reaffirmed that goal. In a talk to the nation’s governors he said:

“[Asian nations] want their kids to excel because they understand that whichever country out-educates the other is going to out-compete us in the future. So that’s what we’re up against. That’s what’s at stake -– nothing less than our primacy in the world…. And I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governors Association to develop common academic standards that will better position our students for success.”

The link between more and rigorous schooling–everyone goes to college–and enhanced economic competitiveness is gospel among both political conservatives and liberals. Since the 1970s, The mantra of “human capital” preached by economists and adopted by national and state policymakers of both political parties as biblical truth depends upon correlational evidence–lifetime earnings associated with level of formal schooling. Seldom do the facts of a largely knowledge- and service-driven labor market enter policymaker debates . For example, in a technology-dependent economy, 70 percent of current jobs require only a high school diploma. Twenty percent require a bachelor’s degree and only 10 percent need technical training.

Does this leave our dream intact, and just call for a rethinking of the numbers? Or does showing the un-grounded nature of the dream itself ask us to reevaluate why we find the narrative so compelling?

Or is it more difficult than that: is it the call for rigor that is operative, which is precisely in opposition to any rigor achieved? We must keep ourselves busy. In this case, the most radical proposition would be that we don’t even want to keep ahead of the world, we just want to not have to think about what we are doing in the name of education. This would be the more elusive danger.

I am reminded of the joke about the farmer who refuses to lend his neighbor a rope because, he claims, he is using it to tie up his milk. The neighbor points out how absurd that is, to which the farmer responds, “Maybe, but if I don’t want to lend you the rope, one excuse is as good as another.”

The joke, of course is that you aren’t supposed to say that to the person’s face. It is de rigour to at least come up with a reasonable sounding excuse. But the truth is that we hardly want to be bothered.  In this sense, pointing out the absurdity of logic changes nothing. Whether we are using our rigor to tie up milk or not hardly matters, what we prefer is not to have to come up with a good use for it. In that case, the real joke is not that we have said the unsayable at the expense of the neighbor, showing competition to trump reason.

The joke is instead that the neighbor is our excuse for why we rigorously tie up our milk. The neighbor is expendable, but as a necessary expense to cover up the absurdity that the tying of milk is essential.