In the epilogue of his great, little book On Tyranny, Author Timothy Snyder talks about something that I believe is important in our COVID-19 world. It is obvious that the way we lived pre-COVID-19 and the way we find ourselves living now is considerably different. No one would have predicted two weeks ago that public schools would be engaged in a vast experiment in virtual education…at least I would not have guessed it! This is a time of radical change.
Politics of Inevitability
One reason that we were unable to predict such a radical change is what Timothy Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability”. He describes “politics of inevitability” as, “the sense that history [can] only move in one direction: toward liberal democracy” (p.118). I want to extrapolate the ideas that Snyder talks about in the realm of politics and history to challenge our thinking in education…especially as it relates to the world in which we find ourselves. I define politics of inevitability as practiced in the education world as, “the sense that education and schooling can only move in one direction: toward industrial efficiency”.
Industrial efficiency in education takes the pin makers in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and substitutes children for pins. Industrial efficiency is a non-humanistic view of the world where children are interchangeable cogs that serve the wider economic system. The education and schooling system are merely agents of production, producing workers for our economic system. As a result, industrial efficiency in education has been viewed as an inevitable good, largely un-criticized by people in the system. In other words, the system was always (and incrementally) moving toward a better end. An “end” where education and schooling are always “becoming” improved. A belief that what is not good today in the education and schooling system will be replaced by something better in the future.
It seems to me that educators largely assumed that “education” and “schooling” were always progressing toward a better end, without questioning the underlying assumptions of new policies or procedures. The biggest underlying assumption was that it was inevitable that education and schooling was getting better. When one believes in inevitability, you become complacent. If a new policy leads us incrementally away from what is best for kids, and toward efficiency, that’s okay since it is “inevitable” that education and schooling are getting better. When new “administrative guidelines” are adapted that alienate students and staff, no one questions it because it seems justified as reasonable, inevitable and more efficient.
Inevitable Thinking in Education
I believe there has been a lot of inevitable thinking in education over the past 25 years. High stakes testing, “accountability”, and school report cards have all been adopted without digging deep into the core reason they were adopted. The changes just seemed inevitable. Well, that quaint view of our world has been blown up over the last three weeks. Nothing about our education and schooling is what it was just a few short weeks ago.
Leading in a time of crisis and chaos forces us to question our assumptions. Most of us on an hourly basis are having our assumptions tested. In a way, we must embrace the uncomfortable feelings from that cognitive dissonance. Being forced to challenge our assumptions makes us realize that possibly, just maybe, what we always thought was the best and appropriate in education and schooling was just a little off.