Educational Luddites Unite! Save the Buggy-whip Manufacturers!

Editor’s note: Michael Strong is the chief executive officer of Flow, Inc., an organization that encourages entrepreneurship to elevate the human condition. This article is adapted from a February 2006 article in the Free Liberal.

I am a great believer in academic freedom and as culturally liberal as almost anyone in universities. But the more distance I gain from academic life, the more I am struck by the extent to which academic opinion is obsolete.

For example, Peter McLaren, an education professor at UCLA, described one of his education courses (in 2003) this way:

“We begin by examining the intrinsically exploitative nature of capitalist society, using some introductory texts and essays by Bertell Ollman, and then tackle the difficult task of reading of Capital, Volume 1, and the labor theory of value. We look at this issue from the perspective [of a] number of Marxist orientations and I try to present the case that capitalism can’t be reformed and still remain capitalism.”

I am at first saddened, and then disgusted, at the extent to which McLaren is wasting his students’ time.

The twentieth century was a violent and tragic century because in its early years both the left and the right deserted classical liberalism. We can be optimistic about a twenty-first century if market-based democracies spread around the world. Although there are still serious challenges in launching successful market economies in many nations, we need to work together to help those nations succeed in growing market economies.

McLaren is not helping this cause.

Many others are. Oxfam, the global NGO, now promotes trade to alleviate global poverty. Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh launched a microfinance movement that has made successful entrepreneurs out of millions of women in the developing world. Hernando de Soto of Peru has launched a global program to give property rights to squatters around the world and to eliminate the over-regulation that prevents them from becoming successful entrepreneurs. De Soto’s work has been described by Bill Clinton as “the most promising anti-poverty initiative in the world.”

These are heroic movements that deserve our attention and support. And yet last year, when I talked to a recent college graduate last year who had majored in “globalization,” she had not heard of any of these initiatives. It was as if a computer science graduate had not heard of the personal computer. How could this be?

In too many cases professors in the humanities and social sciences (outside economics) are unreconstructed leftists. Bertell Ollman, whose Marxist texts are used by McLaren, is a great example of such a scholar. A specialist in “dialectical materialism,” he was not convinced by the fall of communism that Marxism is false. Ollman published the following in September 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“Paradoxically enough, the objective conditions for socialism in the USSR are now largely present, but because of the unhappy experience with a regime that called itself ‘socialist’ the subjective conditions are absent . . . on the other hand . . . the Soviet Union might be saved by a socialist revolution in the West as our capitalist economy goes into a tailspin.”

This absurdity was published by the American Political Science Association (APSA), the leading organization of academic political scientists, in its journal PS: Political Science and Politics. Who but a professor of political science could believe, in 1991, that “the conditions for socialism in the USSR are now largely present”?

Not only did the leading political science association in the country consider Ollman’s opinions worthy of academic publication at the time, but the New Political Science section of the association gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2001. In Ollman’s acceptance speech for the award he stated, “After all, my main goal as a scholar, teacher, and political activist has always been to help abolish capitalism.” It is as if the Association for Computing Machinery were to give a lifetime achievement award to a slide-rule manufacturer in 2001—a slide-rule manufacturer who sought to abolish the microchip!

And when I read that McLaren is using Ollman’s texts in education courses I really have to wonder about his judgment. Wouldn’t it be more useful for people in education courses to learn how to help students learn?

It would be one thing if these people were fringe figures. But not only is Ollman an APSA-award winner, McLaren is a global academic superstar for his work in “critical pedagogy,” with institutes being named after him in Mexico and Argentina.

As it turns out, I am an expert in a “critical pedagogy” of my own creation. I am the author of a book on Socratic education, have consulted for hundreds of schools across the country, and have created a charter high school ranked the 36th best public high school in the nation based on the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement tests. (Moreover, the students passed the tests at double the national average.) I have also created programs in which I’ve raised verbal SAT scores an average of more than 100 points per year, equivalent to the very best laboratory efforts in the field of “learnable intelligence.”

But because I don’t have an administrator’s license, I was forced out of the highly successful charter school that I created. Without a Ph.D. in education, I would not be allowed to train teachers at a university. People like me are not allowed to create the personal computers of twenty-first century education because people like Peter McLaren control teacher education and certification on behalf of a belief system that is as obsolete as are the machine tools of the mid-twentieth century.

We need to speak truth to power. And the truth that we need to speak is that the academics who control the publishing of textbooks and curricula, teacher licensure, and the education of most journalists are in many cases out of touch with reality. They continue to live in 1968. That was a world of “revolutionary activism” in which people used slide rules and typewriters and J.K. Galbraith claimed (in The New Industrial State) that “the entrepreneur no longer exists in the mature industrial enterprise.”

We now live in a dynamic world of dazzling technological, social, and micro-entrepreneurship. We recognize that decentralized systems beat command-and-control systems and that the entire corpus of Marxist thought is out of date.

The opportunity cost of allowing tenured radicals to continue to control academic life may be compared to the opportunity cost of allowing the slide rule manufacturers to have controlled the “calculation” business from 1968 onwards. That cost would have been very high, and this one is, too.