Razing Miss America's Platform
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh
Last year President Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. It provided $300 million to promote "seamless" transitions from the academy to the daily grind. This year it again looks like captains of industry will "advise" educators in how they should prepare their charges for a "seamless" transition to the world of work. Perhaps by happy coincidence, Shawntel Smith's Miss America 1996 "platform" also was "school to work education."
Despite the combined endorsement of Clinton, Congress and Miss America, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act is a federal boondoggle of majestic proportions. Why? Because schooling is already too successful in preparing students for "seamless" transition to the world of work. History proves this irrefutably. Here is one obscure, but representative example. Seamlessly applying their academic training, World War II market-research pollsters in the Treasury Department quickly detected that anti-Japanese hate propaganda sold far more War Bonds than anti-German indoctrination. Their academically inspired market polls revealed the average American thought the Japanese to be "ungodly, subhuman, beastly, sneaky and treacherous." Subsequent bond drives featured malevolent, myopic "Nips." War Bond sales soared.1
Collateral racist hatred also was inflamed against Japanese-Americans; but, in another too smooth school to work transition, in this case from law school to courtroom, the Supreme Court had already 'protected' these loyal Americans by approving their 'internment.'
In the Vietnam War we once again see how even the "best" schools too seamlessly serve the world of work. Were Harvard and Georgetown graduates unwilling to get us into, or mismanage, this catastrophe? Not on your life! As New York Times reporter David Halberstam reminds us, the Vietnam War was started and kept endlessly going by "the best and the brightest" college graduates the nation could muster. "Seamlessly" they applied their schooling, and artillery replaced ground patrolling in populated areas. "Seamlessly" they employed napalm, phosphorous, tear gas and various kinds of defoliants as a general practice. "Seamlessly" they used "body count" as a measure of progress.
Even at the highest levels, schooling flowed "seamlessly" into the world of work. Consider Henry Kissinger, the would-be Metternich of Southeast Asia. He went from Harvard graduate student to architect of an immoral war as smoothly as a slug slides under a stone. How about Mc George Bundy, the academic whose Yale and Harvard schooling was a springboard for becoming Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. In this powerful position he effortlessly applied his elite schooling to getting tens of thousands of working and middle class kids (not to mention hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants) killed or maimed. If these examples are not sobering enough, think how successful Richard Nixon was in making the transition from school to work. He must have oozed effortlessly from first grade to the White House using the same tactics (and the same briefcase?) for the entire journey.
Are these aberrations, deviations, abnormal? No. Schooling is eerily effective in getting folks ready for whatever "the world" demands. Consider the many corporations where employees lack recognition , are besieged with never-ending management platitudes and treated like chattel. Does this sort of thing take school graduates by surprise? Are they dumbfounded, bewildered, unable to make the transition? Not on your life! Way back in the 1940's I remember my second grade teacher getting me ready for all this and more. Her managerial philosophy was, "When morale improves, the beatings will stop." At the time I didn't appreciate how progressive this was. Now I realize she was "preparing me for the world of work."
And how about those massive merger layoffs? After spending the best years of their lives working for a corporation, are employees astonished to find themselves on the street and out of luck so that the company president can pocket $10 million extra? Not if they attended a typical school-as-factory, they aren't. Here they already learned (by living in such a school) that their humanity doesn't count.
One expects more refined occupations, banking for example, to be well-served by schooling practices; but they are even better supported than we might imagine. Consider the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980's. Most executives involved in these calumnies must have had excellent academic credentials. But were they disoriented by what they had learned in school when their big 'opportunity' came along? Evidently not. In fact, considering the enormous breadth of the scandal, their schooling prepared them all too well.
Turning to another refined line of work, consider the recent Prudential Insurance "churning" fiasco. State and federal lawsuits allege that Prudential agents and sales managers engaged for years in 'twisting' or 'churning' insurance contracts to gain lucrative commissions at the expense of clients.2 So did the schools fail Prudential's needs?3 No. Adapting in the same way that paid off in school, the vast majority of agents and managers complied with company orders and did what they were told. Moreover, they did it all too well. Only one former agent had to be fired for refusing to participate in these fraudulent activities.
Lest you think Prudential was an aberration, consider that Metlife and Equitable Life Assurance Society agents are alleged to have complied with similar company "needs."4 In both these corporations the school to work transition was entirely too successful. In short, neither corporation had any trouble with employees who refused to cheat clients, even when they were elderly and infirm.
By the way, in case you think this larceny was unapproved, senior Prudential managers are alleged to have not only known about 'churning,' but even helped train newer agents in the technique.5 Some of these executives surely were M.B.A. types; but did that refinement cause them to balk at "churning?" Not on your life. Transitioning seamlessly from school to work they went with the flow. (By the way, Miss America 1996 works as a marketing director of Northeastern State University and plans to earn a master's in ... business administration.)
Frighteningly smooth school-to-work transitions don't stop at the masters level either. Even Ph. D.'s, M.D.'s and J.D.'s (those are lawyers, you know) glide all too effortlessly into sordid careers. I once knew a fellow with a Ph. D. in psychology, for instance, who quit his academic job to work for a major tobacco company. Here he applied his knowledge of operant conditioning to selling people on smoking. Did he have trouble switching from running rats to pushing cigarettes. It was no trouble at all. In fact, he told me his detailed knowledge of B.F. Skinner's theories was invaluable in making a "seamless transition."
Admittedly, less refined occupations, entertainment for example, present a bigger school-to-work challenge. Even here, however, schools do too well training a pool of both producers and consumers. Did Madonna spring full-blown from the brow of Zeus? Not on your life! She studied dance in college and probably perfected her values there as well. Similarly, TV executives do not lack for production staff (or guests) for, say, the Jenny Jones, Richard Bey or Ricki Lake shows? No, regardless of how base, vile, and demeaning, folks eagerly line up for these positions; and, sadly, their school-to-work transition is probably as effortless as breathing.
Speaking of "seamless transitions," consider the passage from school to the Miss America Pageant itself. Here, where mass culture throbs in an orgasm of pure expression, the transformation is so smooth as to be invisible. The same phony smile and unctuous compliance that might win you the American Legion Award in middle school, can lead seamlessly to national celebrity, $250,000 in appearance fees, and, what else, a $40,000 scholarship to continue to learn how to please. Amazing grace, how sweet thou art!
Training shallow apparatchiks to more cheerfully and cleverly do a corporation's bidding is NOT what teachers should aspire to. An educator's first duty, however difficult and troubled by non-school factors, is the formation of more decent and discerning human beings even if that fails to serve a "seamless" transition to the world of work.