“Word Magic,” Education, and Market Forces

Writing about writing instruction, Lou LaBrant, in “The Individual and His Writing” (Elementary Education, 27.4, April 1950) sounded an alarm about “word magic”:

There is other sematic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)

While LaBrant’s message about powerful and clear writing—as well as powerful and clear thinking—remains important lessons for students, it appears that there remains political advantage in word magic, particularly in how leaders frame discussions of education in the U.S. and the importance of the free market.

For example, a persistent refrain from self-proclaimed education reformers, political appointees, and government leaders is “poverty is not destiny.” However, in the U.S. poverty is demonstrably destiny, as is affluence.

“Poverty is not destiny” is word magic, but it doesn’t make that come true. A more credible claim, an ethical claim, is “poverty should not be destiny,” and then we need to do something about it.

In fact, the entire accountability era of education reform built on standards and high-stakes testing along with a variety of market-based reforms is driven almost entire by word magic, and not evidence. Huge claims such as the U.S. economy depends on a world-class public school system continue to dominate public discourse despite decades of research that show little or no positive correlation among test scores, international education rankings, and economic competitiveness. None.

There are, then, two powerful but misleading forms of word magic that must be confronted before genuine and significant education reform can occur in the U.S.: (1) the ability of public schools to overcome poverty, and (2) the ability of the free market to eradicate poverty and inequity. [In short, both are lies.]

Is Education the One True Way Out of Poverty?

Matt Brunig has challenged one of the central uses of word magic in education reform:

The New York Times ran a long and very good article on poverty. In it, they quote Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

Bruenig concludes: “This thinking is the biggest enemy of poverty reduction. Poor people are poor because they don’t have enough money, not because they don’t have enough education.” In fact, Bruenig has shown that privilege is far more powerful still than education:

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

And thus, turning next to Michelle Rhee’s use of word magic, Bruenig explains:

But I come in when Loomis writes this about Rhee: “Rhee says that we can’t solve poverty until we solve education. This is absurd on the face of it.” Anyone who says this is an enemy of poor people, full stop. And there are plenty. Recall earlier Arne Duncan said it: “What I fundamentally believe and what the president believes […] is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

To be super clear, let’s distinguish between three claims here:

  1. Education is a way to end poverty.
  2. Education is the best way to end poverty.
  3. Education is the only way to end poverty.

These are all false….

In the U.S., poverty is destiny, but poverty should not be destiny. As well, education is not the one true way out of poverty, but education should be more transformative than it currently is.

Word magic surrounding the power of education is also accompanied by number magic—the persistent claim we use to bribe students into taking their education serious (as detailed by the College Board):

Figure 1.2: Expected Lifetime Earnings Relative to High School Graduates, by Education Level

The claim suggests that level of education equates positively to higher levels of earning potential. But this too is likely a lie.

Instead the formula is actually as follows:

privilege/poverty = educational access/quality = lifetime earning potential

Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.

And thus the real problem with U.S. public education isn’t international education rankings of test scores, it isn’t having standards that are too low, and it certainly isn’t the need for next-generation high-stakes tests.

As detailed in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Jean Anyon exposed that public schools tend to reflect and perpetuate social class in the U.S.:

In the two working-class schools, work is following the steps of a procedure….

In the middle-class school, work is getting the right answer….

In the affluent professional school, work is creative activity carried out independently.

Schools, then, are not failing in the ways political leaders claim, trapped as they are in word magic, but are failing to be the transformative public institutions that they could and should be.

The great irony is that the true failure of universal public education is a lesson about the need for the publicly funded Commons and the failure of the free market to achieve ethical goals of democracy and social justice.

Can the Free Market Eradicate Poverty and Inequity?

If any commitment is poisoned by the power of word magic, it is the blind faith afforded the free market in the U.S. The free market holds a misplaced first priority in the U.S.—with the Commons marginalized and demonized. (Despite some simple examples of how the Commons are first in important: How might the free market dependent on private property function in the U.S. without the highway infrastructure, the judicial system, or the police force?)

Embedded in that faith in the free market is, as Bruenig explains, a misconception about poverty itself:

When you say you want to “solve” poverty, you generally assume poverty just exists as an independent-from-policy phenomenon and that we are then going to tackle it with policyinterventions. So we talk about it as if it’s akin to someone being trapped in a burning house that we then come from the outside of to rescue.

But that is not true. Poverty doesn’t just happen. Poverty is created. It is a consequence of policy. We have in our society a set of policies that govern the distribution of income. That set of policies distributes income very unevenly such that a lot of people have very little and are thus impoverished. Poverty is not a thing that just exists that we then try to solve with policy. It is a thing that is brought into existence by our (distributive) policy in the first place. In the burning house metaphor, policy sets the house on fire.

What I am saying is that we should stop setting houses on fire.

Free market capitalism is amoral; in other words, the market has an insular ethic of supply and demand, what the market will tolerate.

For example, during the scar of slavery in the U.S., there was a market incentive to treat slaves as property, but not as humans. Calling for treating slaves as humans was a role accomplished by the Commons, a collective of people driven by human dignity.

But we need not go that far back in history. Consider the HIV-positive scandal in the pornography industry, as reported by Kathleen Miles:

Owning nothing but a backpack full of clothes, Cameron Bay started working as an escort, hoping to rebuild her life. A few months ago, she performed in her first-ever porn scene — an orgy with 10 people, she said. After just nine more scenes, she discovered she has HIV. Nobody’s sure where or when she contracted it.

During her scenes, none of the male performers she had sex with ever used a condom, she said. One female performer told her, “Don’t even bring it up because they have somebody waiting to replace you.”

“I learned that there’s always someone younger and sexier, willing to do something you’re not. It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Bay said in an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post. “I think we need more choices because of that. Condoms should be a choice.”

Cameron Bay is the face of the free market, the human cost of competition without the ethical context of the Commons. Condom use, a regulation, could have provided the safety net if the Commons were afforded first priority. But it isn’t.

And since many here will simply discount the choice this porn actress has made—many will marginalize her with glee, I imagine, disregarding the sexism in her circumstances and the power of reduced circumstances to distort the concept of “choice”—Bay’s comment is exactly why Walmart and other companies across the U.S. can and have turned much of the workforce into wage-slaves: There is always someone willing to take the reduced circumstances of a part-time job without benefits because the horror of poverty exists to keep this dynamic in place for the benefit of those running the free market.

Referring to her opening quote from Alice in Wonderland, LaBrant ended her piece on word magic focusing on democracy:

Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)

Yes, “misuse of language…is a terrible thing,” and few misuses are as damaging as to continue lies about the power of education and the free market to overcome poverty.

Instead of word magic, we must speak and then act about creating an equitable society in which poverty is never created—and within that equitable society, we must also recreate an education system also driven by equity, democracy, and a genuine respect for the dignity of children.

Instead of political lies, we need direct messages about direct action, as Martin Luther King, Jr., represents:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished….

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.


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