Albion Monitor /Commentary

Clinton's Education Scam

by Alexander Cockburn

Ever since they supposedly brought Arkansas schools into the 20th century, Bill and Hillary Clinton have played the education issue as a way of giving the appearance of tackling infrastructural issues of profound importance while doing nothing offensive to entrenched power. The main result of their so-called "reform" in Arkansas was eviction from the school system of some black teachers in poor areas, relentlessly scapegoated by Bill and Hillary in a manner pleasing to the crackers.

Now, we have President Bill talking about his plans to "prepare our people for the bold new world of the 21st century ... the new promise of the global economy, the Information Age, unimagined new work, life-enhancing technology." Off he goes into the future, where "every 12-year-old must be able to log onto the Internet," ready to succeed in "the knowledge economy of the 21st century."

Clinton calls education his "top priority," though it accounts for less than 7 percent of the $1 trillion increase in federal spending
All of this is sweet music to the electronics industry. It reminds me of some lines by James Brook and Iain Boal in their excellent book, "Resisting the Virtual Life:" "The appeal of technologies is often ideological and symbolic, giving concrete expression to values like control, efficiency, utility, punctuality, speed, transparency, hierarchy and power -- values, in our view, too often detrimental to a more human life."

Anyone who wants a taste of this "knowledge economy" should visit the New Main Library in San Francisco, which opened last year. It's replete with the familiar attributes of many modern public buildings devoted to culture. To wit, a vast atrium, where fancy parties can be held, honoring the corporate donors whose names are reverently inscribed on the walls. Alternatively, the atrium can be rented out for private bashes.

Inside the library, anything reminiscent of fuddy-duddy bookish values has been rigorously extirpated in favor of computers that don't work, supposedly accessing catalogs that are inadequate. All this costly electronic gear will of course soon be obsolete. For the 12-year-olds, it's basically a video arcade, like most of American culture these days. A story by Mary Curtius in the Los Angeles Times for Feb. 1 described the observations of the poet Tillie Olsen who "saw youngsters crowded around computer terminals in the roomy and colorful children's center, but noticed none of them prowling through open stacks of books ... Not one book she wanted to check out was available."

Because of the electronic junk, most of the books are in closed stacks and many have been thrown away along with the card catalogs. The whole place is a costly fraud, mostly a boondoggle for the electronics industry.

Clinton calls education his "top priority," though it accounts for less than 7 percent of the $1 trillion increase in federal spending proposed by the president through 2002.

He wants uniform national tests for reading and math. Why? These national standards discriminate by region and class. One of the greatest educational and statistical frauds in American life is the SAT score system now taken as a natural part of the national landscape.

Clinton's proposed credits and deductions to help pay school bills represent more in tax expenditures for the middle class, which will have to be balanced by higher (and regressive) taxes overall.

Database would allow tracking students from pre-kindergarten through high school, with records of "behavioral problems" and learning disabilities
Education is really a local or state issue, and for Clinton now to be promoting it as his great crusade underlines the bankruptcy of ideas for his second term. Educational reform in Arkansas meant, in the end, little more than pillorying teachers. It's probably how "reform" will end this time, too. Chirping about education and the Internet and national standards is a lot easier than talking about poverty, race and class.

And the real "knowledge economy" of the 21st century? It was alluded to in a story in The Washington Post for Jan. 9 by Tod Robberson:

"Several Fairfax County School Board members and parents are challenging a planned $11 million computer database that would let schools compile electronic profiles of students, including hundreds of pieces of information on their personal and academic backgrounds."

This database would allow tracking students from pre-kindergarten through high school, with everything from medical and dental histories, records of "behavioral problems" and learning disabilities.

So: more money into the electronic filing system of the emerging police state of the 21st century. The files will end up being given or sold to not merely the U.S. Department of Education (already planned by the Fairfax board) but HMOs, employers, cops and all others for whom such knowledge means power. Real power, not that poor relative "empowerment."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1997 (

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