The Fall of the Technocrats

Bloomberg magazine recently announced that it would begin running an opinion section.  I think this is a good idea, generally, because newspapers and publications need to receive meaningful feedback in order to operate at their best.  The plan from Bloomberg, however, has one serious flaw.  The opinion section will be “ideology-free.”  You might wonder what this looks like in practice–I know I have many questions.  Over at Salon, Alex Pareene offers a pretty obvious litany of complaints regarding this truly unprecedented move.  The main takeaway:

This is the purest expression yet of the pathology of Bloomberg. His “opinion section” refuses to admit that its opinions will be anything other than cold, objective, science-based facts. The Bloomberg position is considered to be the “ideology-free” position. You have to be terribly self-satisfied and fairly stupid to think that whatever you think about things is the “ideology-free” position.

Yes, this is all true.  Someone will be deciding which opinions are ideological, and which are…well, ideology-free, or simply “true”.  I suppose this is Mayor Mike, but he’s hired some big names to make this look like a legitimate effort, and not just an announcement that Bloomberg Magazine is officially a soapbox for its’ founder.  (former State Dept official Jamie Rubin & former NYT op-ed editor David Shipley).

This is typical of the way Bloomberg views education reform and how he has run New York City’s schools since winning control in 2002.  The idea is that there is a right way of doing things, and for everything to work, we simply need to identify a set of “best practices” and replicate them.  It’s a technocratic way of solving problems, and it has had some results for NYC schools, as outgoing Chancellor Klein will tell you himself (via Rick Hess).  However, the reform agenda that Bloomberg & Klein have dubbed “Children First” focuses solely on these kinds of technocratic reforms, while ignoring people, communications, and social forces.

Klein’s style, characterized frequently as chilly and impersonal, is also based on this.  He isn’t interested in engaging with parents, teachers and other stakeholders in education, because he says they have the interests of adults in mind, rather than the interests of children.  If you disagree with the Bloomberg-Klein agenda, you must not favor putting children first.  Either that, or you are representing an ideology and not looking at the facts impartially, as the benevolent corporate executives at the helm of NYC’s schools always do.  They claim the mantle of facts and scientific solutions, leaving little room for opponents to stake out competing views.  We all believe that the solutions we put forth are based purely on evidence, but if we (opinion writers) are thoughtful, we should recognize that we come at questions with biases and, yes, ideologies.  Only by recognizing your unique lens and ideology can a person even approach Bloomberg’s ideal of 100% empirically-based solutions.

There is a pervasive attitude in conversations about education reform that there are right and wrong answers, truths and lies.  There is never a need to speak truth to power, because the powers have all the truth.  And when you control the truth, you do have all the power–it’s a vicious cycle.  And this disrespects the ideas of folks like Diane Ravitch, a brilliant woman with ideas which differ from the NYCDOE orthodoxy.  Most importantly, she has a voice, and she’s not afraid to speak truth to power.  The real tragedy of the DOE’s approach is the way it treats democracy and the impacts it has on the public.  As a taxpayer (in NYC, no less), I have the right to have my voice represented in major policy decisions, and I think that should extend beyond the ballot box.  Bloomberg seems to disagree, and that is very sad.  Without voices from disparate circles advocating for what they believe is best, you can sometimes make the “right” choice, when one exists, but you will rarely make decisions which align with the values of a public you represent.

And that’s what it comes down to: as a public institution, education isn’t just about democracy, education is democracy.  And technocrats like Bloomberg will never get that, because his values were shaped during a very successful tenure in the financial sector.  Education and finance couldn’t be more different, yet the Mayor wants to apply his values across his personal portfolio of projects, regardless of public opinion and values.  Neither Bloomberg nor Klein (nor incoming Chancellor Cathie Black) sent their kids to public schools; they aren’t stakeholders and they never were.  Somehow, despite all their lofty educational credentials and degrees, these folks never got a handle on values and recognizing and acknowledging bias.

As I wrote in a furious email to a friend after first reading about the Bloomberg Views “ideology-free” stance, there is no such thing as an ideology-free opinion.  Everyone views a situation with their own set of prejudices, past experiences and values, which all work together to form an ideology.  The idea that data should inform decision-making is part of Mike Bloomberg’s ideology and bias, but he somehow doesn’t see this.  It’s the difference between respecting differing opinions and always thinking you’re right–an arrogant feature that many of us often have, but a destructive one when it lives in a public official.

To think that you alone can view a situation without the lens of ideology and make pronouncements that are “ideology-free” is absolutely galling and insulting to those of us who recognize and embrace complexity.  In education in particular, we face many very difficult, complicated problems that must be resolved.  The problems we face are multifaceted, and they cannot be solved through a simpleminded, obtuse approach which disregards opposition opinions.  It’s not just problematic for public policy, it’s stupid.

Technocrats will never rule a city or any public entity successfully until they become small-d democrats, too.  It’s clear that in the halls of the Department of Education, both in NYC and in Washington DC, technocratic solutions have prevailed over those reached democratically, with input from stakeholders, academics, experts, and all those concerned.  It may be unwieldy, but it is the only way to truly get at the values to which public officials ought to aspire.

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One thought on “The Fall of the Technocrats

  1. Education isn’t just about democracy; education is democracy – I like it….

    And I agree – Bloomberg will never get that, but I’m not sure many people do/will. And even if we did, I don’t think we, as Americans, have the capacity for meaningful democracy. We don’t know what it is or how it works because our civic education has been so watered down in classrooms, through the media, from our elected leaders, and from our farcical two-party process.

    Democracy is hard, hard work that requires time and effort. The desire to put that work and effort into the process has to come from a desire to improve one’s community. It has to come from on understanding of communal importance. I’m not sure the nation of the rugged individual is equipped for such an undertaking. I’m not quite sure a society whose members continually buy themselves into obscurity and slowly (and largely unconsciously) destroy the community we once had is capable.

    Education certainly an essential tenet of democracy, and it seems quite obvious to me that we’re incapable of either and both at the same time.

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