March 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Media ensure a comfy rise for Bill Shorten

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Liberals' broad church survive schism?

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Middle-East time bomb: youth unemployment

ENVIRONMENT Europe's freeze further proof of global warming!

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cashless debit card records positive results

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals' Tasmanian victory: the implications

OPINION The height of absurdity: education as business

ECONOMICS AND CHINA Eyes averted from the dragon in the marketplace

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM The state attacking the Church: lessons from history

FAMILY POLITICS A Trojan horse for monitoring children

NORTH AMERICA The cultural and political mosaic that is Canada

CINEMA Mary Magdalene on film: a new interpretation

MUSIC Audio-visual: or, how to watch your music

CINEMA The Adventures of Tintin: A light amid the bleakness

BOOK REVIEW Taking arms against the gender fluid fad

BOOK REVIEW Narrative history from a great writer



INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Sexual exploitation at Oxfam symptom of culture of death

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The height of absurdity: education as business

by David James

News Weekly, March 24, 2018

“Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own.”

Having a PhD on Shakespeare and confronted with what I thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) a terminal decline in journalism, I decided that I would embark on a change of career.

The Vortex Centre at Gippsland Water Factory may provide a template
for school buildings more attuned to the way education
of children is presented to would-be teachers.

After three decades as a business and finance journalist, I thought I would spend the last part of my working life as a teacher of literature and English. It would prove closer to my heart than the arid circularities of economics and finance.

Teaching literature would also be a welcome escape from a subject in which I had specialised for about two decades: management. The topic (round) had been at once ridiculous and extremely important. Ridiculous because the language and concepts of management are absurd and pernicious; I spent over a decade satirising them in BRW magazine (and, briefly, The Age) and produced The Business Devil’s Dictionary to draw attention to the silliness and wickedness of the language.

Important because what happens in the working environment is absolutely crucial to people’s lives, and it is shaped by the language of management.

For example, when people are referred to as “human resources”, it turns them into an inanimate substance, something to be acted on rather than something that acts – with obvious implications. (As I commented in the Dictionary, human resources are disappointing because they are mostly water).

So it was with much hopefulness that I decided to undertake a Diploma of Education (it was the last year that it was possible to do just a diploma: now every student has to do a two-year Masters). Having a PhD I thought getting in would be no problem. That was my first mistake. I was informed that I was not qualified. When I asked why, I was told that I had the wrong combination of subjects in my undergraduate degree.

I had an honours degree in English Literature, but my minor subjects were Music and Russian. I could only qualify if I had a major in Music, and Russian was not recognised. The PhD counted for nothing.

I almost gave up, but found that there was one exception: Albury-Wodonga. Because it was on the border, the university there was subject to New South Welsh stipulations, which recognised my undergraduate combination, as well as Victorian. And they had a course that could be partly done online. So I was able to do the Dip Ed after all.

I was looking forward to a change of direction, and teaching something dear to my heart. And, above all, getting away from management and business language, of which I had experienced more than my fill.

So, imagine my consternation when I sat in the first lectures and was confronted with … management language. There are few people in Australia better positioned to recognise and analyse this type of language. I had interviewed many of the people who came up with it in my time in business journalism. I was not only able to identify the concepts that were being trotted out to the trainee teachers, I knew who had invented them because I had interviewed them.

Not only had I not escaped, I was descending even further into the awful abyss of management drivel.

How on earth had this come about? Three reasons suggest themselves. One is that education as a subject is classified as a social science. This is, to say the least, disturbing. The social sciences are relatively new and immature disciplines – not to mention deeply suspect in many of their epistemological assumptions.

The very idea of a “science” of human behaviour requires, at best, an extremely loose definition of the word “science”. To state the obvious, the physical world of physics, chemistry or biology is not self-aware in the way that human beings are. It is Orwellian, suggestive of social engineering, to think that the methods of science can be applied to humans, not least because those humans can be aware of it happening.

The immaturity of the social sciences also raises questions. I am far more interested in what Aristotle has to say about education, for example, than I am in the inanities of the behaviourists, Pavlov or Skinner, whose ideas about stimulus and response sound more relevant to veterinarian practice than to teaching children. But while we had to hear about behaviourism, there was no mention of Aristotle in the course, or indeed anyone before 1850. Apparently we only “discovered” how to educate people in the last 150 years.

Management theory is also riddled with social science, which explains the crossover. Early management theory rose in part out of social psychology, and social scientists have found a market for their ideas in the area ever since (they marketed themselves as “behavioural scientists”). There is thus an unhappy marriage between the two disciplines.

A second reason for the appearance of management nonsense in teacher education is that education is increasingly seen as a business or industry. This is simply false. In business, the customer, the receiver of the product, necessarily defines what is value. It underpins all business transactions. In education, the teacher necessarily defines value. The receiver, the student, by definition does not know what value is because they lack knowledge (that is what a student is).

The result of the misapplication of business thinking to education reverses the role of students and teachers, in a way that almost ensures that the quality of the education will deteriorate. Philosopher Roger Scruton traces the inversion of the relationship between teacher and student to the American education theorist John Dewey, who, as a pragmatist, came up with the notion of “relevance”.

“What could be more evidently a travesty of the nature and duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom?” Scruton writes. “And yet what idea is more likely to recruit the tender hearted, the ignorant, and the lazy? What a gift to the idle teacher, and what an assault on the child!”

Such inversion has worsened because there is a lot of money involved in education. Education has become big business, even though it is not a business at all. So, it is thought necessary to adopt the disciplines of business, even though they are completely inappropriate.

A third reason why management rubbish has penetrated teacher training is probably because most bureaucrats in senior roles in the Education Departments need to have MBAs (it would make an interesting piece of research to find out just how many have them). In an MBA the student learns the basic principles of management, most of which are suitable for the production line rather than something as complex as the classroom.

We can be certain that no attempt is made in these MBAs to deal with the subtleties of education, not least because most of the academics, as I found having interviewed dozens of them over the years, are not particularly well educated themselves. They tend to be trained in straightforward empiricism, case-study comparative methods and statistics-based ideas of variance.

For the most part, larger, more philosophical questions are for other disciplines (although there were exceptions, such as the late Fred Emery, whose ideas of socio-technical systems were very advanced).

The increased focus on MBA training explains something that is especially absurd in the teacher training: the use of quality assurance (QA). As many teachers will attest, quality control has become the bane of their existence, forcing them to spend almost as much time filling out forms as teaching. I know of one teacher at a TAFE who spends hours making three photocopies of each student’s work because that is required for the QA.

Here is a brief history of QA, which was utterly dismissed by business in the 1990s, because it was shown to be a complete failure. It is a spinoff of Total Quality Management (TQM), which is a statistics-based insight that shows that much of the variability of repetitive production systems, which results in poor quality, is not caused by the failure of the workers, but by the way the system itself is configured. Reducing that statistical variability in the system (Six Sigma being the most rigorous version, at the top of the Bell Curve) improves quality without additional cost.

It was an insight that transformed Toyota, and enabled the Japanese car industry to destroy Detroit’s automobile industry in the 1990s.

To implement TQM effectively, which remains perhaps the only management theory of any value, it was necessary to involve workers in the reconfiguring of the system. For the autocrats of the business world, however, that smacked too much of industrial democracy, so another version, QA, was invented. This was anti-democratic, imposing on workers massive amounts of paperwork and meaningless crosschecking.

Unsurprisingly, it was a disaster. Businesses tried it for a while, then realised it only increased costs and did not improve quality. Unhappily, the proponents of QA seem to have found another ready market in education. The failure will be just as complete, but the bureaucrats imposing it are not as accountable as business managers, and teachers just have to put up with it. That is the price of allowing low-quality management ideas into the education system.

I did complete my teacher training and then, despite dozens of applications, failed to get any offers for my services. Despite all the rhetoric about employing older teachers who have life experience, the reality is that ageism in schools is rife. Fortunately, some opportunities appeared in journalism, and I found other options.

My fond idea of teaching something that I loved, and getting away from business jargon and management nonsense, had been exposed as entirely wrongheaded. In fact, rather than merely writing about management nonsense, which at least allowed me to keep a safe distance, I would have been subject to management nonsense.

I can only think of the teachers who have to contend with that, no doubt wondering what on earth is going on, with the deepest sympathy.

David James is a Melbourne writer, musician and journalist and writes News Weekly’s Music column.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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