Manifest Destiny 2.0: Meet the New Colonizers


It’s that wonderful time of year again. That time in June when I can read what I want, rather than reading freshman ten-page papers and syllabi that demand I now coordinate all my courses to the new Common Core Standards. (Author pauses here to wipe the spatters of vomit from her computer screen…).

So I’m taking time to pull from my bookshelves those books that have really transformed my worldview and understanding of it. One such book is called A Sideways Look at Time (2004) by Jay Griffiths. It’s well worth the read. It looks at how our understanding of time and calendars were fundamental to the colonizing of the world by Western ideas during and since the Enlightenment era. And looking over highlighted passages a thought struck me. Colonizing bodies needed to control how other people understood, and experienced time, as a means to solidify their hegemonic actions. And it took decades, if not centuries, to really erase the sense of time and space of its non Western (and non Christian) predecessors, to create a “new normal,” which to date, most of us take for granted as “natural.”  Griffiths states, “With its dominant ideology, the West declares its time is the time” (p. 27).

It occurs to me now that what standardized concepts of time and space (i.e. clocks, calendars, and maps) were to the Western colonizers of previous eras, data collection/ownership is to corporate ownership of 21st century. This is not just happening “poof “…now out of nowhere. Dominance and hegemony don’t happen overnight, in one year, or even one decade. They operate under the slow creep of time, creating a subtle yet pervasive affect on the social mindset, and the world view, of a people. Griffiths points out that, “society begins to think in the forms it has structured for itself, linear and artificial, over-fragmented, modeling itself in the imagery of its machinery.”

Today’s obsession with the streamlining of, and collection and surveillance of data: from collecting phone records, wire tapping, cookies, FB advertising, and now children’s test scores and other private information; makes evident that the streamlined and synchronous effect of the Common Core and standardized testing mandates, demands we regulate our bodies and minds to this new generation of corporate shape-shifters until we think it a natural and normal act to do so. Even years before now, McKinsey and Co was on the trail of this idea:

Data have swept into every industry and business function and are now an important factor of production, alongside labor and capital. We estimate that, by 2009, nearly all sectors in the US economy had at least an average of 200 terabytes of stored data (twice the size of US retailer Wal-Mart’s data warehouse in 1999) per company with more than 1,000 employees.

The corporate takeover of public education, a form of profit as much as it is a form of control and social engineering, has been in the works for a while. Every generation believes it is the “it” generation. It’s the end of the world, it’s the age of Aquarius…it’s the… fill in the blank.  And they’re all equally right. Each generation is marking its own particular moment the broader sweep of this corporate movement. This is why having a historical perspective in understanding what corporate-controlled education is, how it got here, and how to fight it is so important. Know your enemy.

While other scholars might rightly correct me on this, for me, much of what we’re seeing today started back in the 1980’s…the age of Reagan. Reagan was a huge fan of eliminating federal programs, specifically the Us Dept of Education. While I’d do a jig of joy at Arne’s dismissal from that post, I don’t believe in throwing out the baby out with the bath water. Going a little farther back in time we must remember that federal oversight, or decision making, has (in its shining moments) brought us both the end of slavery and desegregation (at least on paper) of schools and other public institutions in the 1950’s. This has everything to do with everything. The free-market approach toward education today is quite possibly a long-planned scheme to essentially erase (or over-ride) the rulings of Brown v Board. How else do you explain the increase in racial segregation since then, and now even AFTER recent reforms which are ironically touted to help poor black and brown children. Instead reform policies have decimated their communities, their schools, and done anything but bring in major monies to charter school investors. The school to prison pipeline is doing quite well these days. Gentrification is the new redlining and real estate investors are “all in” on new charter polices. Poor schools or community services in impoverished areas have NEVER been adequately funded or staffed, so how can we claim that THEY’VE failed? We ignore the fact that as a society we have consistently failed them.

It was in the 1980’s that the notion of “standards” and high stakes testing were born. Sure we’ve had standardized testing ever since the eugenics movement of early 20th century, but Reagan’s folks really nailed it. They laid the groundwork, the slow creep of public acceptance, for the supposed need for standardized testing and national standards. Remember, this was the decade of “A Nation at Risk.” Among other things the report called for Standards and Expectations … and standardized tests of achievement at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.

The 1980’s also brought us the birth of the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC) . This was the era that rolled out the red carpet for multinational corporations to really swing their big …”hammers.” Corporate dominance met at the cross- roads of technology and things have been going their way ever since. Without technology to create enormous vehicles for data collection (both known and unknown to us) and clouds in which to store this information, corporations would not have nearly the toe hold today that they are gaining. Again McKinsey and Co. celebrates this fact:

Computer and electronic products and information sectors, as well as finance and insurance, and government are poised to gain substantially from the use of big data.

And in recent years it has become apparent to the corporations that there is big money (and big data) to be gotten in public education. It’s the land grab of the 21st century. Possible denial, in-fighting, and dissent among the ranks aside, ALEC members and corporations have played a huge role in developing and promoting the Common Core standards and other education reform initiatives (perhaps much to the dismay of their more naïve Tea party members).  Hell, even Rupert Murdoch, owner of FOX news, sold them out by creating his million dollar data- base gathering and storage company called inBloom. Without the Common Core there is no universal data to be mined. As a party, they may need to do some deep soul searching about this- a “long dark tea time of the soul” perhaps?

But this brings me back to author Jay Griffiths. The standardization of time was central to the global colonization of other cultures, countries, and peoples. According to Griffiths, “Synchronization is highly political; totalitarian states adore it, from the vast synchronized gymnastics of facist countries to the synchronized Heil Hitler salute. Synchronization illustrates the totalitarian desire to subsume the individual into the mass. It also, similarly, represents a wish to blur specific, various times into a global monotime” (p. 76)

Now, it’s the synchronization, aka standardization (and ownership) of data and information, starting at pre-K and following us through adulthood that will be the colonizing instrument du jour. “The West’s dominant attitudes to land and time are-still-the will to enclosure, a desire for private ownership and empire building” (p. 46).  One might suppose that now that most non-Western cultures have been controlled, subsumed, or simply obliterated, the corporate empire turns inward, colonizing us; not by time management and land control, but through a “datapalooza”in which all we know, or can know, via our educational system will be mediated by and managed by corporate powers.  Let me try a cross comparison and see if this works:

Griffith’s writes: “In this invisible ideology, those in power in the West have long been colonizing time by defining their time and the time-the Puritans, Newtonites, Franklinites, and Granthamites-and using their definition as a tool to (their) power; the rich seizing the time of the poor; Europe strangling Africa in slaveries past and present; patriarchal time overruling women’s time; Christians colonizing non-Christians; everyone taming children’s time.”

Now, here’s the same sentence with the names changed, but not to protect the guilty:

In this invisible ideology, those in power in the corporate world have more recently been colonizing education by defining their curriculum and modes of evaluation-the Gates, Waltons, Broads, and ALEC-and using their definition of what counts as important learning as a tool to (their) power; the data collectors seizing the knowledge and information of the children; TFA strangling teacher education programs in schools past and present; corporate-driven agenda overruling developmentally appropriate and meaningful learning; charters colonizing non-charters (formerly known as public education); everyone taming children’s time. (I kept the last sentence the same. I guess some things never change).

The standardization and control of data will do for the corporate global paradigm what the standardization of time did for the colonizers of centuries past, the effects under which we operate as if they were laws of the universe and not the social constructions that they are. Let’s look at who are the greatest cheerleaders for this educational data frenzy: technology moguls Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch, The World Bank, global management consulting firms like McKinsey and Co(who have volumes of papers, panels, and website space dedicated to the all mighty “big data”), and Pearson (the world’s largest and most powerful education publishing company. Not as visible but equally important are the behind-the-scenes organizations like insurance companies, RAND (the data collection and analysis non-profit), the Council for Foreign Relations and the US Department of Defense.

People hailing from the right wing like to call it “Big Brother.” They’re right… to an extent. The federal government has sold the public up the river to the highest bidder-literally.  Achieve (in a partnership with Pearson) became the purveyor of the Common Core standards after putting in their “call for proposal” following a request in which the US Dept of Education sought corporations, companies, or anyone with the money and clout, to BID on the job of designing and managing a common set of standards and the means to gather the data from it.

Books, like Tom Poetter’s The Education of Sam Sanders (2006) saw it coming. Sadly, it was intended to be a work of fiction, set in 2029. We’re ahead of schedule. As one reviewer of the book wrote: “If we do not collectively oppose such unconscionable practices now, schools may actually become like the one chillingly portrayed in The Education of Sam Sanders where teachers become mere score keepers and learning is mere memorization of facts coming via the state’s computers, instead of generated from student interest and learning outcomes internalized through engaging projects.”

My reader skeptics might be saying, “Come on, get real. We’ve been giving up data and privacy for a long time now. It’s just the way it is.” Yes, I concede I do online banking, swipe my debit card, use my social security number on applications. I utilize technology and I accept the  sharing of my data on many levels. But, I have two points of contention: First, my actions are by my choice. Requiring parents and children NO CHOICE but to give up their child’s private records in the name of standardized tests which are themselves highly questionable and objectionable is a different story. Second, just because some technology brings us convenience, efficiency, and pleasure does not always mean more is better.  Standardization, with the aim of data ownership via technological “innovations,” has the potential to be quite harmful for generations of small children. Just because we can put learning online for school age children, where they stare at screens all day inputting data, and calling this “learning,” doesn’t mean that we should. Or at least not in the record numbers that are cropping up in classrooms all over the country. The fact that organizations who developed and push for a common core of learning, and have done so wholesale across more than half the states and in every classroom, without even knowing yet if it’s even good for children, because “standardization” and more efficient “data tracking” are beneficial to their own pocketbooks, speaks volumes.

Such a movement is not merely vying for profit and control within the existing paradigm-it will completely change our global paradigm of reality. “While once you could say that time was so local that for every genius loci, a spirit of specific place, there was a genius temporis, a spirit of specific time, the history of Western timekeeping has been one of standardization and of globalization” (p. 43).

Soon, we will be saying, “Once, you could say that learning, knowledge and meaning were so local, that education embraced the situated, lived meaningful processes enabling individuals to think creatively and divergently about their world(s). Once, there was a time when learning had a genius temporis, a time of its own beyond the universal clocks of testing weeks and pacing guides. Once we had a public education system that was not wholly owned and dictated by the mood swings and interests of the corporate elite. Once, we had something called childhood.” Is that the “new normal” we wish to see?

And in this historical moment, where resistance seems both necessary and futile, I will take Griffith’s advice:

 The given choice is either look forward to the future as progress (and who could refuse?) or look backward as only            backward …it is an utterly false choice; believing there are only two choices is putting oneself at the mercy of a mere construct. Someone else’s construct, at that. When you’re given a choice of only two roads, an old saying goes, take the third. In this case, the third choice is one of neither moving forward or backwards but of looking around, not accepting that time need be a straight line at all” (p. 263).

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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