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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2004

Making Bad Schooling Worse

James Rinehart

Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean State

Alan Sears. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press, 2003; 282 pp; ISBN: 1-55193-044-7; paper $26.95 CA.
At the core of this sweeping indictment of all levels of the Ontario school system, past and present, is a comparison of the liberal education of the post-World War II welfare state era and the reforms of the Harris government. The book examines some developments in colleges and universities, but most of it relates how elementary and secondary schools went from bad to worse.

Alan Sears maintains the education system has always been racist and sexist in that knowledge is imparted from a European male heterosexual point of view. This emphasis fails to meet the needs or reflect the experiences of people with non-European ancestors, women, gays and lesbians. However, liberal education was susceptible to demands for inclusion. In the 1970s, official multiculturalism and pressure from minorities opened a bit of space for pedagogical alternatives to Eurocentrism and removed some of the more overt racism and sexism.

Despite promoting the idea that some are more gifted and deserving than others, liberal education tried to accommodate even the slowest students and prepared them for paid and household labour. Sears claims, however, that its central and defining mission (in part via liberal arts and history courses) was to develop moral citizens with a Canadian identity. Citizenship training conveyed to students expectations for a secure future and gave them a sense of entitlement to stable jobs and welfare state programs.

Driven by a profits squeeze and an ascendent neo-liberal ideology that "aims to push the market deeper into every aspect of our lives by eliminating or shrinking non-market alternatives," corporate and state restructuring began in the 1970s. This resulted in an economy characterized by a rapid increase in contingent jobs, privatization, deregulated markets, globalized production, and cutbacks in and stricter eligibility requirements for welfare and unemployment benefits, among others.

This harsh economic environment, which Sears calls lean production, is at the root of the Harris reforms. He maintains the expectations and sense of entitlement imparted by liberal education were seen by the Tories as incompatible with the new lean economy and as barriers to preparing students for both good and bad jobs.

To set the stage for reformist measures that would deal with the "disciplinary requirements" of a lean economy the Harris government manufactured a "crisis" in education. The reforms raised the number of mandatory courses, made passing standardized tests a requirement for graduation, focused on teaching job-relevant skills, instituted career planning starting in the early grades (students keep portfolios that relate learning to occupational goals), assigned lots of homework (play is equated with a lean production taboo — waste), strictly enforced stringent disciplinary codes and cut back liberal arts courses to make room for courses in math, science, computers and business.

Sears contends these changes were aimed more at developing discipline, an entrepreneurial mind-set and pared-down expectations than at skills acquisition. The reforms created a more competitive educational environment, increased the number of failures and drop-outs, reinforced sexism and made an "important break" from multiculturalism.

The author's defense of the latter two consequences is not entirely convincing, but the projected increase in failures has been confirmed by a recent report of Professor Alan King. One-quarter of the students who started grade 9 under the new curriculum are unlikely to graduate, compared with one in five under the previous system. The main hurdle is the difficulty of grades 9 and 10 math and science courses required for a diploma.

In addition to social science theoretical literature drawn from several countries, Sears' critique is based on historical and contemporary policy statements, documents and reports of government, educational consultants and business organizations. For the most part he does not examine the extent to which these policies have been implemented. Consequently, the analysis is not anchored in the kind of hard evidence that will convince skeptics, a fact the author admits at the outset. Sears is an activist whose "bold generalizations" are intended to be provocative and "to inform the direction of analysis and activism."

Although there is no discussion of the impact on education of the Tory penchant for tax and spending cuts, it makes sense to understand the reform measures as a response to the emergence of a lean economy and the market orentation of neo-liberal ideology. However, Sears' analysis of historical developments in education makes it clear these reforms do not represent, as he suggests, a sharp break from past emphases on preparing students pedagogically and attitudinally for wage and household labour. Nor does he make a strong case for the claim that post-1970 cultural and economic changes, in conjunction with the reforms, exacerbated the school system's racism and sexism.

The final chapter discusses resistance to the Tory reforms and presents Sears' view of what education should be. He has no faith in reforms within the system. Exciting teachers, smaller classes and a progressive curriculum won't solve problems inherent in an institution that has always been rooted in and shaped by a capitalist system. His ideal, based on the work of Bertold Brecht, is an inclusive, egalitarian, give-and-take participatory relationship between teachers and students in a milieu which is enjoyable, engrossing and playful. Sounds nice, but as Sears acknowledges, it's a utopian goal.

James Rinehart is Professor Emeritus, department of sociology, University of Western Ontario and author of The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process and co-author of Just Another Car Factory? Lean Production and Its Discontents.