Trump’s Corporate Coup d’État and the Elimination of Human Teachers

Many educators, students, and policymakers are trying to figure out what a Trump Presidency means for public education. In this post, I’d like to propose one answer: a Trump administration means the acceleration of a privatization program that has been underway over the last 25 years. More specifically, a Trump administration means a shorter road to teacherless classrooms where traditional courses are replaced by credentialing and badging programs designed by corporations and funded by the federal government.

The blueprint for this system overhaul emerged from the Department of Defense and various pieces are already in place. As Alison McDowell has shown in her impressive research, in 1999 Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 to create the “Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.” The order, according to McDowell, sought to “bind education to the needs of industry and the economy.” Watch her 10-minute clip, “How Exactly Did the Department of Defense End up in My Child’s Classroom?”

What is the purpose of teacherless classrooms and digital credentialing programs that don’t require brick and mortar buildings and what do corporations and the Federal government have to do with it? Years ago, I wrote about a comment made by Francis Fox Piven that struck me as incredibly important: “We used to think,” she said, “the ruling class wanted to use education to reproduce the class structure. Now I’m not sure they’re interested in reproducing anything.” This comment surprised me at the time it was uttered because it challenged me to rethink “social reproduction” theories in education.

Years later, we’re getting closer to clearing up any uncertainly Piven’s question might have provoked. The ruling class wants to reproduce human capital. They want individuals whose skills, aptitudes and interests are tightly aligned with the needs of employers. And as soon as corporate profits start to fall (as is inevitable under capitalism), the ruling class wants human beings who can be quickly retrained and reprogrammed to perform the next revenue-producing task, whatever it may be.

Does this sound exaggerated to you? Last week, Trump met with Yale computer scientist David Gelernter who the President is presumably considering as an advisor. Gelertner supports the goal of eliminating 90% of colleges and replacing them with “certified transcripts.” As for classroom teachers, they will be replaced by “digital guides or mentors” that will help individuals navigate a landscape of online training modules that are – in the lingo of the Department of Education – “industry aligned,” in other words, what people study and learn will be dictated by what employers need and by what corporations believe they can profit from.

Still sound overblown? In January 2017, the Department of Education, still headed by Obama appointee John King, released “Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education.” In the report, the Department – which funds public higher education via the federal student loan program – is explicit about what the colleges of the future should look like.

The plan is to virtually eliminate traditional classrooms.

This vision of the higher education sector would further allow students to move much more fluidly in and out of different types of institutions, depending on their needs, and transfer as they relocate or pursue increasingly demanding education and career paths…. Learning for students in this ecosystem [will occur] not just in an educational setting, but at multiple kinds of organizations, such as community or non-traditional providers of education, in their homes, at their places of employment, and in other settings enabled by mobile and portable technology

The plan is to sublimate human interests and passions to corporate needs and to the desires of the employer class, however narrow or short term.

[N]ew programs and providers of education have begun to emerge within and in partnership with institutions, offering new models of learning opportunities such as industry aligned, job-based training programs; online learning; short-term boot camps; and competency-based education.

The plan is to use Big Data to eliminate full-time human educators from sites of teaching and learning in favor of digital guides who will help students take on skills quickly to meet short term workforce needs before returning to online badging systems to retrain during recessionary periods. The DOE advises “coaches, advisors, and mentors” to:

leverage robust data to provide students with the guidance to succeed through times of transition. This support may include proactive advising and outreach by phone, text, and email. Actionable data should also be made available directly to students through analytics dashboards.

The above scenario is not a fait accompli. The takeover of public education by corporations and a compliant federal government will be met with an extraordinary amount of resistance from students, teachers, and families, many of whom have been fighting against the privatization of public schools for years.

Mounting an effective resistance means understanding how the terrain has changed under the new regime. Many left thinkers have already sounded a warning. At the anti-inauguration in Washington on January 20, Naomi Klein called the election of Donald Trump a “corporate coup d’état.” Corporations, Klein said, “already had a huge amount of influence, but now it’s almost like they’re tired of playing the game, they’re tired of the cajoling and the bankrolling and the legalized bribery, and they’re just going to do the job themselves” as part of Trump’s cabinet.

There are a still many questions about what an effective resistance strategy looks like, but one thing is clear: if we want a well-funded public education system that is designed by teachers, students, families, and run in their interest, we should get ready to fight.

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