What depressing things have we learned about education this week?
We have learned that Apple makes iphones, and all the other stuff we love, in China. There’s a giant factory, or what the NYT calls “the largest, fastest and most sophisticated manufacturing system on earth,” in Chengdu where tens of millions of gadgets (including the one I am typing this on!) are made. At Foxconn, employees “work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk.” That sounds bad, right? But it doesn’t end there. There are a lot of underage workers at Foxconn, apparently. And a few deadly explosions here and there, as expected. As a result, workers have a tendency to throw themselves off of buildings rather than continue their rotten lives.
Gosh, why don’t they just go find better jobs somewhere else?
The thing is, Apple (like many other US companies that make stuff overseas) has managed to eliminate all of the barriers to capital accumulation (I’m riffing on David Harvey, as usual) such as the labor barrier (Chinese workers are cheap! Many at Foxconn make $17/day) and the geographic barrier (making stuff in the US is too expensive on account of bothersome things like minimum wage and overtime laws. Plus China doesn’t have all those inconvenient environmental regulations).
According to Harvey, the final barrier to capital accumulation is time. You almost have to admire that the global capital machine has managed to make time itself pretty much irrelevant! The NYT explains that there is very little lag between some exec in California dreaming up a product and the first gleaming prototype coming off the assembly line in Chengdu. The company can simply imagine some fanciful thing, such as a computer that you carry in your pocket that takes pictures and video and also makes phone calls, and then – poof! – it exists the next day, like magic.
What does all of this have to do with education?
Educational credentials are basically irrelevant in this scheme. First, they are irrelevant because Apple doesn’t need American workers at all. And it certainly doesn’t need educated workers. It isn’t interested in employees who can read, write, ask questions, or think broadly. And it most certainly doesn’t need people who might ask themselves, “say, is this the only way to run a global economy, or might there be some other way to do things?” No, Apple does not need or want those people.
What corporations need, on the contrary, is a “technical workforce.” The NYT describes it thusly: “In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.” (italics mine)
Let us wrap our heads around that for a minute. Lately, we’ve heard endless arguments that education is the key to economic recovery, when the truth is, corporations like Apple don’t need people with diplomas at all! Companies say they want “engineers,” but that is a tricky word because we think we know who engineers are: smart people who went to a university and studied science-y things. In fact, Apple is not talking about college-educated engineers from MIT or any other institution. This is what Henry Giroux meant when he explained, in his essay on student fury in the Occupy movement, that “what the ruling class wants are technicians.”
Corporations (and, increasingly, corporatized universities) prefer “engineers” in the strictest sense of the term: people who make and do things quickly and efficiently without thinking about it too much. You don’t need a college degree, or a background in the Liberal Arts, to click glass screens into place on millions of iphones that pass you on an assembly line. Even if you are the boss of the people who do that job, you still don’t need a bachelor’s degree from an American college. You just need to be a good technician.
Horrible man, Steve Jobs was at least honest about corporate prerogatives. He explained to Obama during what must have been a delightful dinner between the president and the .01%, that outsourced jobs “aren’t coming back” to the US. Ever. Yes, why would they? The US has lots of college-educated citizens, many of whom can’t find jobs right now. So when corporate apologists say there aren’t enough educated workers to fill the jobs available, what they really mean is that there aren’t enough Americans willing to live in dorms away from their families so they can work for low pay in circumstances wherein suicide is generally considered a reasonable alternative to having to go to work the next day.
It’s not as if Apple can’t afford to do better. Their most recent quarterly (not annual, quarterly) report listed the company’s profits as $13 billion. Rather than ask our corporate overlords to make a penny less in exchange for exhibiting some basic human decency, we have to turn our educational institutions over to them as well. Schools have to prepare workers for the global economy, after all.
One champion of a corporatized curriculum is Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale. He really does deserve his own post so that I can properly express how odious and vile I find all his “research” in which every economic problem in the world has been caused by people majoring in the wrong subjects in college. Good grief. Carnevale’s prescription is to restructure the curriculum in K-12 schools and colleges to more closely match the needs of global capital. The labor force, in his view, must adapt to a world of Foxconns. Not incidentally, this is why charter schools are so interested in sticking all the poor kids in the same segregated school, scrubbing them clean of any remnants of their home languages and cultures, and teaching them how to march around like robots. This is excellent preparation for the day when these students will take up their pre-ordained positions in the global supply chain.
Unfortunately, Obama has no stomach or will to put up a fight. He’s too worried about getting re-elected with all that dirty Wall Street cash. In his State of the Union, Obama made it clear that he intends to turn every last educational detail over to the likes of Steve Jobs (he’s dead, but so what?). Turning community colleges into “job training” centers just furthers the tiering of higher education into expensive, elite colleges that broadly educate wealthy students for professions and a second tier of low-status colleges that must compete with each other for federal money while they offer the narrowest, vocational job training to the poor and working classes.
I can’t even bother to end this post on a pithy or snarky note. It’s all just too upsetting.