Beyond good and evil: complying with the Montana Behavioral Initiative

surveillance camera at school

Monitoring and surveillance is becoming the dominant interest of today’s “evidence-based” school reformers.

Yesterday was spent listening to school reformers against the backdrop of breaking news about the murdered children in Newtown. This was enervating. School reformers do not, by and large, talk about any actual world. They are most comfortable at an abstract level of discourse, where all their dreams seem possible. They had me thinking about how Orwell’s depiction of society governed from the center via propaganda and surveillance was apt.

Montana schools have adopted Montana Behavioral Initiative as the basis of school culture and student discipline. It’s driven by low-level psychology–behaviorism–and it assumes “success” as the main goal driving the choices we make about how to act. We will have lots of little rules (stated “positively” of course) all linked to little rewards and little punishments (now called “consequences”).

The functionaries see their system as the world–they create propaganda, implement programs, collect data, refine their programs. They create a total reality in which the goals of their programs are not questioned, in which data measures the depth and breadth of their program’s penetration into the consciousness of the subjects (us). Interventions are designed to extend the effectiveness of what they are doing. It’s a little circular and self-referential system, which functions as a world. They are somewhat dull-witted when confronted with statements or events that do not fit their ideology.

Schools are “free” to identify their own “core values” around which to organize their “data-driven” systems (monitoring and surveillance). Of course, when such “values” are chosen through the usual consensual models (small groups contribute little tidbits on big sheets of paper which then get “reported out” to the white board at the front of the room to be lopped off to make a list compliant with expectations from on high), one can be sure that the values that survive will be accurate summaries of the conventional wisdom. So since teachers are low- to mid-level bureaucrats, we predictably end up with catalogs of the bureaucratic virtues.

Our new program will be built around the acronym POWER, with P for pride, O for ownership, W for work and R for respect. I can’t at the moment recall what E is for.  Being “positive” and “authentic” are “pluses.” I have not yet heard mention of double pluses, but they can’t be far away.  Such is the nature of our tribe.

If the room had been filled with Spartans, our list might have included ferocity, strength, and loyalty. If we had been in the Catacombs of Rome, faith, hope and charity might have made the list. A gathering of Confucian scholars in ancient China hoping to counter the mad influence of King Zhou would likely have listed benevolence, honesty, loyalty, integrity and propriety.

But we are a tribe of bureaucrats, so our virtues tend to be those which support success in bureaucracies. Aristotle was the great teacher who in Nicomachean Ethics  first helped us understand that every community is formed mainly by which virtues are taught and practiced. Not very long ago, it would have seemed possible to base an education program on Aristotle, with teacher talking about the way such virtues as honesty, courage, generosity and justice link individual happiness and community well-being.

A discussion among educators familiar with Aristotle–or the cultural heritage of western Civ in general–does not any longer seem possible, but it does still seem odd to have education captured by a tribe of little bureaucrats, who imagine they can control everyone with an ever-expanding system of surveillance linked to consistent rewards and punishments, aiming at “success,” as though we need more “successful” people. The focus of the talk was on how to get nearer to 100 percent–all students passing all classes, all students getting a diploma. What was not discussed was what grades or diplomas might mean–or what they should mean.

The very concept of freedom seems outside the thought world of professional educators. In place of freedom as the long-standing goal of liberal education, we have substituted “success” and “compliance.” I take it as the totalizing imagination of little functionaries who imagine their little system is the world, and that when their system is fully implemented, all will be well.

Our central planners have, to a great extent, reduced the economic possibilities in our communities. Not very long ago, a kid who did not love school and the kingdom of abstraction enshrined there could graduate from high school, get a job at one of the local saw mills, and make enough money to provide for a family–a house, two cars and a boat if he so desired.

The saw mills are gone, by design. Our central planners and reformers have for decades been urging us to believe that we only need a “knowledge” economy and that actual production and manufacturing can be left to poor nations. Now, they are “reforming” schools to serve their new economy, where everyone will be fluent enough in literacy and numeracy to collaborate on abstract tasks assigned from above. Schools are being perfected, in the sense of becoming nothing more than adjuncts to a centrally planned economy.

We are far enough into this process to see clearly that this will leave many people unemployable, but that’s not a problem, from the point of view of those who believe we were made for the system. The unemployed will be fully organized into the administrative state, living on the dole and thus submitting to constant surveillance as fully employed bureaucrats monitor their housing, their income, their diets, their health care. In that system, it makes perfect sense for central bureaucrats to monitor the blood glucose levels of citizens–probably more properly described as “subjects” or “patients.” In that system, it might soon seem normal that morning calisthenics mandated from the center and monitored through new technologies makes perfect sense. The potential for tutelary programs to more fully manage the lives of the poor gives a certain sort of heart a flutter.

At our staff meeting, we did not talk about good people and a good society and how the two relate. We have, as our cultural heritage, a vast and profound literature on those topics. But instead of reading some of it, we are referred to the OPI website, which has a lot of information on how to do “it”, but nothing at all on what is worth doing.

Einstein observed quite early in the twentieth century that “perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age.”  The ends–the big goals toward which we strive–are left to the central planners and functionaries. We are taught to collaborate and brainstorm about means. The message to teachers yesterday was “You will use behaviorist psychology and more complete monitoring to improve compliance of students with school rules in the classroom, in the halls, in the parking lot, and even in the restrooms. With that goal unquestioned, get in small groups to collaborate and brainstorm suggestions (that the facilitators will revise for compliance with central objectives into documents by which you will be held accountable.)”

Are we really content to teach kids that our main desire is for success, defined as a free cup of coffee for complying with the rules (positively stated, of course)?

I’m probably a little out of step, since my culture continues to teach that pride is not a virtue but a sin, and I think on days when kindergarten children are murdered in school, our discussion would be more truthful and thus more useful if it included those old words: good and evil.