THE CHAPTERS THAT FOLLOW detail innovative finance schemes that are promoted by investors through false promises of numerically quantifiable accountability, efficiency, and cost savings. These schemes represent not only swindles and lies perpetrated by rich investors intent upon getting richer, not only the culmination of decades of neoliberal ideology and corporate culture, but also a much broader crisis of truth and knowledge that extends through education, culture, and politics.
This chapter explains the central role of radical empiricism and the hostility to theory in education and journalism in the contemporary crisis of truth and knowledge that underlies the swindle of innovative educational finance. In the contemporary crisis of truth, in place of theory, argument, and evidence, people are seeking foundations for assertion in forms that offer a false promise of certainty—numbers and bodies. My discussion focuses on the contradiction between the simultaneous faith in fact for public, academic, and policy discourse and yet the widespread disregard for fact, evidence, argument, and truth in these domains. The first sections take up this contradiction in education historically and at present. The second part addresses journalism, and the third discusses how both can be understood as the alienation of fact, the replacement of fact with dogma. This problem of knowledge, evidence, and fact is driving a dangerous turn toward not just decontextualized numbers and a frenzy for empty displays of efficacy to ground assertion but, worse yet, essentialized identitarian forms of politics that seek to ground truth in allegedly good and bad bodies. As I explain, the crisis of truth, fact, evidence, and theory is profoundly wrapped up with the recent resurgence of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and sexism as well as rampant conspiracy and political authoritarianism. As Zygmunt Bauman contends, material precarity produced through growing inequality and the upward amassing of wealth drives people to seek security in the Strongman. My argument here is that the estrangement of fact compels a similar frenzied pursuit of security in the false promise of material grounding found in numbers and bodies.
Across social institutions, an imperative for positivism demands data accumulation, data display, data-driven leadership, and data-driven accountability regimes. In the tradition of positivist rationality, facts are alienated from the conditions of their production and appear to speak for themselves, to be meaningful on their own, requiring no interpretation.
A number of fields have succumbed to “data-driven” rhetoric. Police departments use CompStat to aggregate and crunch crime statistics and then orient their policing activities to “juke the stats.” Journalism remains bound to the guise of disinterested objectivity. Perhaps more than any other field, the imperative for positivism pervades education. Public schooling uses test-based accountability in which learning is equated with numerical test scores and changes to teaching and administrative practice are to be guided by the numerical outcomes. Superintendents, principals, and teachers are, according to educational rhetoric and doxa, to be driven not by theorizing educational situations but rather by data. “Data-driven” discourse presumes that the data are not collected with underlying theoretical assumptions or interpreted with theoretical assumptions.
All of the major recent educational policies, such as the revised teacher education accreditation body Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, formerly the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Pearson-run student teaching assessment platform edTPA, and the Common Core State Standards, have underlying assumptions. These policies assume that knowledge is a deliverable commodity, that teachers are delivery agents, and that students are knowledge consumers. These policies share an approach to learning and knowledge characterized by an active denial of how knowledge relates to the experience and subjectivity of students and teachers. As well, these policies refuse to take into account how learning and knowledge relate to the world and the capacity of subjects to use knowledge to shape it. That is, dominant educational policies presume a conception of agency in which the social power of the individual derives from the acquisition and exchange of socially consecrated knowledge. Agency in this view does not stem from the use of knowledge to interpret, judge, act on, and shape the social world while reflecting on what one does. Instead, agency appears as consumption and display of knowledge for academic promotion and later material consumption.
Similarly, value-added modeling calls for K–12 administrators to measure teacher performance by standardized test outputs and links compensation and job security to the numbers. Universities defund the interpretive humanities and expand fields not just with commercial application but also with empirical orientation, while theory is replaced by a renewed archival research and emphasis on data collection. Higher education is regularly being subject to calls for quantifying student learning through tests and then tying financing to the outputs. Student income loans make this explicit as private tuition lending is tied to the expected future earnings of the student. Similarly, the Department of Education under Obama began measuring the value of universities based on the future earnings of students relative to the costs of the education. Of course, these projects not only belie an instrumental rationality in which interpretive forms of learning have no place but also lend themselves to being linked to commercial exchange and commercial competition.
The expansion of radical empiricism coincides with a crisis of truth, evidence, knowledge, information, and education. This crisis of truth appears in educational discourse as particularly market-based educational policy and practices are promoted and implemented regardless of a lack of evidence for them or even despite counterevidence. For example, vouchers, charters, school turnarounds, and urban portfolio models are all privatization schemes that are either unsupported by empirical evidence or undermined by empirical evidence, or for which empirical evidence are impossible to obtain. Nonetheless, all of these schemes are promoted by rightist think tanks. The Department of Education under both parties has embraced unsubstantiated policies swayed by advocacy organizations. Both conservative and liberal think tanks largely remain with the radical empiricist model, bickering back and forth in policy briefs over numbers and measurement methodologies and seldom going beyond disputes over efficacy. Do, for example, charter schools slightly raise or slightly lower very low test scores in schools in urban and rural poverty? Such an empirical question displaces scrutiny of how schooling is implicated in the reproduction of radical economic inequality not only through the unequal distribution of educational resources but through the unequal distribution of cultural capital. The focus on positivist measures of numerical efficacy elides questions about and contests over the economic, political, and cultural purposes and roles of schooling. Implicit in the efficacy debates is an assumption that schools assimilate people for the existing social order rather than seeing schools as a site and stake of struggle to imagine and enact a freer, more equal, and more just society.
The practices of K–12 schooling and the field of education have a long history with radical empiricism. Empiricist theories of learning date back to Locke and Rousseau with a conception of the student as an empty vessel needing to be filled with knowledge or as a blank slate to be written upon. While August Compte conceived of positivism in the nineteenth century, it was not until the early twentieth century that positivist models of teaching and learning were developed from the ideals of industrial efficiency and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. The school was reconceptualized as a factory. Across the United States, the Gary Plan was implemented, according to which the time and space of school were organized to model a factory with shifts and bells. Knowledge was imagined as an industrial product that needed to be ever more efficiently produced and transmitted and to be consumed by the student. Teachers’ work within this view ought to be seen like factory work and could be broken down and made more efficient, sped up, and measured. From the 1930s to the 1960s, scientific management surged in education. It was bolstered by the rise of educational psychology and its eugenic legacy that sought to establish an empirical science of intelligence, learning, and ability. The eugenics legacy of testing and standardization of knowledge and the learning process merged with the industrial manufacturing promotion of standardization of knowledge as product and process needing to be made ever more efficient.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a growing body of liberal and radical educational scholarship pushed back against radical empiricism. This literature drew on the earlier progressive and radical educational theory of Dewey and George Counts. Social and cultural reproduction theorists and proponents of critical pedagogy also appropriated from Marx, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, and critical sociology as well as from feminist theory, pragmatism, black studies, and poststructuralism. Unlike the dominant positivist discourses, radical education theory emphasized the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, the politics of knowledge and curriculum, and the assumption that all educational practices are undergirded by theories whether recognized or not. Against the assumption of a universally valuable and disinterested view of schooling, radical educational theorists drew on Gramsci to emphasize the extent to which the school and the curriculum are sites and stakes of class and cultural struggle. Against the positivist view of the subject as a receptacle for commodified units of knowledge, radical education theory, such as that of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, emphasized that theory is always behind educational practices and that the question is really whether teachers are aware of the theories that they employ. Radical educators pushed back against the tendency of psychological and developmental radical empiricist approaches to biologize, naturalize, and individualize educational practices. Instead, they emphasized the social, political, and cultural aspects of pedagogy and curriculum. Against reformist tinkering and empirical efficacy debates, radical educators emphasized the radically democratic potential of schooling to foster critical consciousness and political agency by making acts of interpretation the basis for acts of social intervention and collective self governance.
While critical educational studies drew on a broad array of critical theories in the social sciences and the humanities, the majority of subdisciplines in education in the latter half of the twentieth century were predominantly influenced by empirical psychology. In the late 1990s, economics became the dominant trope through which educational studies were framed. The dominance of economic framings of educational problems and solutions from the 1980s to the present owes in no small part to the expansion of neoliberal ideology in education and the related accountability movement.
From the 1980s to the present, radical empiricism has played a central role in the radical restructuring of public education by bringing together two key trends: (1) neoliberal privatization in its various forms paired with (2) the radically empiricist accountability and standards movement. Neoliberal privatization involved public-sector defunding, privatizations like charters and vouchers, commercialism, managerialism, and the ideology of corporate culture. The accountability and standards movement involves heavy standardized testing; high-stakes testing in which funding depends on raised test scores; standardization of curriculum; and the expansion of technologies for tracking, testing, and homogenizing. Privatization and accountability are two mutually reinforcing trends with radical empiricism at their centers. Neoliberal privatization has been justified since the early 1980s by incessant declarations of the failure of public education. Such declared failure has been framed through the register of market and military competition, but it has drawn most heavily on selective claims as to numerical standardized test score failures. Test-based failures have been claimed through reference to international and domestic comparisons such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA scores as well as to the low test scores of urban schools. Public school failure declarations erase how the tests represent the class position of students, their cultural capital, and the radically different histories of investment in schools and communities. Working-class and poor schools that were deemed to have “failed” in part through reference to the scores were considered ripe for experimentation, especially with the market. Hence urban and rural poor schools were targeted for privatization in the form of chartering, vouchers, for-profit contracting, and corporate managerial reforms.
The accountability and standards movement has itself been a massive for-profit industry in test, textbook, and electronic curricular products. The standardization of curriculum has been promoted as allowing greater control over the delivery and consumption of knowledge. Standardized testing and prescriptive standardized curriculum products have come to dominate public school curriculum. Standardized tests erase the process of knowledge making by disappearing the people who make the tests as well as their social positions, interests, theoretical assumptions, and ideological commitments. Facts in this view come from nowhere, are delivered, and are either properly or improperly consumed. As standardized tests disappear from view those real people who deem particular knowledge valuable, they frame knowledge as being grounded by institutional authority rather than good arguments with solid evidence. Standardized tests also evacuate the necessary act of interpretation of fact that is foreclosed by the prescribed choices of four or five possible answers. Such practices make learning seem mechanical, as though one collects little pieces of knowledge along a path that is there before one encounters it. Such practices also obscure the politics of knowledge—that knowledge is contested and that contests over claims to truth are linked to broader material and symbolic interests and social positions. They falsely universalize knowledge that is partial and that represents ruling groups. Standardized testing practices actively displace the possibility of critical pedagogical practices that draw on theory to make central to teaching and learning investigation of the relationships between knowledge and power. Contrary to standardized testing, which emphasizes consumption of decontextualized fact and monological depositing of knowledge, critical pedagogical practices foster knowledge making through dialogue to create the conditions to comprehend and act on the self and society.
Venture philanthropists like Gates and Broad have spent millions to promote educational administration and leadership that are “data driven.” They have funded database tracking projects that aim to align numerical measures of test performance to behaviors and then use the data to inform and control behaviors of teachers. More recently, as I discuss in chapter 4, philanthrocapitalists like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and major technology companies are promoting the replacement of teachers and dialogic forms of learning with mass-produced corporate knowledge products that can be quantified and standardized. In this case, the disregard for the specificities of subjectivity and context is sold as their opposite. As I discuss in my recent book Scripted Bodies, a number of radically empiricist projects now pair positivism with control of bodies. For example, nootropic drugs or smart drugs, typically amphetamines, are used to drug kids into attention for standardized test performance or to drug kids into controlling themselves so as not to disturb other kids’ testing. Grit pedagogy revives behaviorism through tactics for learned bodily self-control—a new corporeally targeted neoliberal character education. In the tradition of positivism, the dominant educational reforms presume that knowledge and learning are delinked from both the experience of the learning subject and the broader social world.
So, on one hand, educational policy and practice have become thoroughly dominated by the assumption that what matter most are just the facts. On the other hand, there is an incredible disregard for facts, information, evidence, or reasoned argument when it comes to the most dominant educational policy pushes. For example, Donald Trump’s secretary of education Betsy Devos spent twenty years promoting educational privatization in Michigan. Devos promoted for-profit chartering and vouchers. Both policies have an empirical record of poor performance in test-based achievement. However, there is a long legacy of right-wing promotion of failed market-based reform. There is a long empirical record of the disaster of vouchers internationally—a record of gutting the public education system; of vastly exacerbating unequal-quality schools; and of causing the proliferation of cheap, bad, for-profit schools for the poor. Vouchers in the United States have long been promoted as a way to get a foot in the door for educational privatization. Once a single market-based scheme can be launched, then right-wing think tanks can call for more studies and more experiments.
Another clear case in point of a complete disregard for evidence is the right-wing promotion of charter schooling as a catalyst to replace public schooling with a private industry. Andy Smarick in the Hoover Institution’s magazine Education Next was quite explicit that the right should champion charters in the short run to justify declaration of charters as a public failed experiment and to justify more widespread privatization. Paul T. Hill, like Smarick, calls for “churn” or “creative destruction.” Hill, of the neoliberal Center for Reinventing Public Education, relentlessly promoted “urban portfolio districts” to expand charter-based privatization and admitted in his advocacy work that there would be no way to empirically ascertain whether the urban portfolio model of “churn,” opening and closing schools and chartering, would result in improvements in academic performance. However, Hill insisted that the privatizations afforded by the model justify it. Smarick, Hill, and other market fundamentalists aim to replace public education with a private, for-profit industry in education.
The thinking of such ideologues was behind the radical privatization of public education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Chicago following the razing of its public housing projects. Following the storm, the New Orleans public schools and the teachers’ union were dismantled and replaced by a network of four charter districts. Chicago closed a significant portion of its neighborhood public schools and replaced them with charters. Recently, scholars like Sean Reardon at Stanford and journalists like David Leonhardt of the New York Times have promoted claims that New Orleans and Chicago represent evidence of school improvement following radical neoliberal restructuring (school closures, privatizations, and union busting), pointing to small increases in standardized test scores. While New Orleans by 2017 saw a three-year decline in test scores, most studies of Chicago charters find nearly identical test scores as neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, those making these claims of improvement are being sure to ignore the massive displacement of working-class and poor students and families from these cities combined with rising family incomes. Standardized tests consistently correlate with family income. Following Katrina in New Orleans, the poorest families were dispossessed of their communities. The four new charter districts represent a different population than the one prior to the storm. Similarly, following massive planned gentrification/public housing and neighborhood school closure coordinated by the Commercial Club of Chicago and more than a decade of steadily rising family income in the city, the tests are measuring different students and, most importantly, richer students. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explained, test scores correlate to family income because the tests measure the knowledge, tastes, and dispositions of professional and ruling-class people, who also happen to be the ones who commission and make the tests. So what appears to be happening is a situation where rich investors are pushing the poorest people out of cities, putting in place market-based school reforms, testing the new population, and claiming that it was the reforms rather than the dispossession that caused the alleged change. These selective empirical studies that aim to use numbers to settle the question of neoliberal educational restructuring raise more questions than answers. Did the tests go up or down? Are these the same or different students? Ultimately, these narrow questions miss the point that the privatization agenda has no way of addressing the brutal inequalities between those living in the rich and poor parts of these cities or the ways that schools organized around standardization, testing, and privatization exacerbate and legitimize such inequality rather than challenging it. The ideologues not only misrepresent positivist standardized tests as definitive evidence of meaningful learning but also fail to account for epidemic cases of charters pushing out the students who are the hardest to educate, including those needing special education, English language learners, and those identified as discipline problems. These claims of neoliberal restructuring working are examples of ideological uses of evidence for justifying a privatization agenda.
Mark Fisher described in his book Capitalist Realism this fictive performance of quantifiable efficacy as “market Stalinism.” The contradiction between the imperative for radical empiricist approaches to policy and practice and the abandonment of evidence and argumentation is playing out in media culture, more specifically, in news and journalism.
Following the election of Donald Trump, numerous essays in the popular press have offered explanations for how a flagrant and compulsive liar with no regard for truth or evidence could garner widespread support. Although many politicians lie, the quantity and brazenness of Trump’s lies represent broader disregard for empirical evidence and for education. As of August 4, 2018 (not that anybody’s counting, but . . .), Trump publicly lied or made misleading statements 4,229 times. Examples of the disregard for evidence range from insisting that Obama was not born in the United States to rejecting the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, scapegoating undocumented immigrants by accusing them of rape and murder, making impossible claims about financing a border wall, describing his loss of the popular vote as winning by a landslide, and nominating figures like Mike Flynn to head the National Security Agency (Flynn falsely claims that Sharia law is being built in the United States, and his reputation for untruth got his statements derided in the military as “Flynn Facts”). Examples of his disregard for education include stating that he “likes the uneducated” to appointing education secretary Betsy Devos, who remains committed to expanding vouchers and for-profit charter schooling even as her efforts in Michigan have resulted in overwhelming empirical evidence that these policies worsen schools and lower test scores. Devos has also financially supported organizations dedicated to expanding the use of public money for private religious education. As Devos’s nomination moved forward, additional statements and actions raised questions as to her commitment to truth, fact, and evidence. These ranged from defending guns in schools to protect against grizzly bears, as she stated in her Senate confirmation hearing, to her investments in a sham brain treatment center that shows children with autism and ADHD movies and interrupts them when they stop paying attention. In fact, getting more guns in schools does not make schools safer: guns appear not to be the best defense against the scourge of grizzlies (pepper spray does work). There is no empirical evidence either for the movie-based brain treatments.
Popular press explanations for the acceptability and even widespread embrace of untruth include varieties of “blame the internet.” One version of “blame the internet” offers the “fake news” narrative in which the abundance of ersatz news stories rendered the population incapable of distinguishing real from fake news. The stories about “fake news” imply that “real news” could allow citizens to make informed choices, just as such “real news” covered the 2016 election with nearly no investigative journalism or dissection of the untruths spoken by politicians, let alone minimal analysis of policy proposals. However, “real news” suffers from saturation by commercial promotional content.
Media theorist Robert McChesney has demonstrated that the decline of investigative journalism must be understood as the result of corporate media consolidation rather than internet competition for news outlets. The decline of investigative journalism has resulted in news content consisting of about 90 percent public relations content. As corporate media venues covered fake news and its role in the election, right-wing media outlets propelled by Trump’s claims began characterizing mainstream media news itself as fake news. Outlandish fake news stories were generated to drive internet click-through profits, especially during the 2016 presidential election. Web entrepreneurs wrote sensational stories, such as one about Hillary Clinton operating a pedophile prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor: “Pizzagate.” An armed vigilante intent on saving the victims fired his rifle in the restaurant, only to discover that Hillary Clinton and the children she was pimping were not there.
The problem of the news media involves not only the extent to which content production has been compromised by commerce but also the extent to which educative institutions have failed to provide citizens with the tools to interpret the quality of sources and veracity of claims. For example, most Americans have not learned about the standards and varieties of editorial review, such as journalistic and scholarly review and the differences between these and an internet posting. Functional literacy now requires the capacity to distinguish sources of information lest we all heroically invade pedophile prostitution pizza parlors. Yet functional literacy is not enough.
One crucial element missing from the discussion of fake news is the way that both professional journalism and fake news disavow the politics of knowledge behind claims to truth. Mainstream journalism effaces its own framing assumptions and theoretical presuppositions behind the framing of narratives, the collection of facts, and the interpretation of the meaning of those facts. Rightist critics of media began describing mainstream journalism as fake news, alleging that mainstream journalism is a collection of false facts rather than criticizing the values, assumptions, and positions that underlie the narratives. Following allegations that fake news was involved in Trump’s election, Trump himself declared CNN “fake news,” and he has been repeating and expanding this accusation. Trump got this right, but for the wrong reasons. CNN’s problem most of the time is not ludicrous, made-up stories but rather the failure to provide examination of competing values, assumptions, and ideologies behind claims to truth as well as the relationship between these symbolic contests and material ones. The lie built into mainstream media is the guise of disinterested objectivity in which ruling-class and dominant cultural group interests are obscured and universalized, as the New York Times motto puts it, as “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” Corporate media juxtapose falsehoods in the fake news with their own allegedly disinterested and neutral “true” news coverage. The missing element from both perspectives is consideration of the theory behind the organization and interpretation of fact. The lie of disinterested objectivity is the same lie built into standardized tests and curriculum.
Another popular press explanation for the crisis of truth has to do with the nature of the Trump supporters. Rebecca McWilliams, writing in The Nation magazine, provides the “Hunter Thompson Hell’s Angel’s revenge theory” of the angry white working-class male. In this explanation for the affirmation of untruth by the electorate, decades of alienation driven by neoliberal globalization have resulted in an economically and politically excluded population of white men who are driven primarily by revenge against political and educated elites. In this narrative, Trump’s rejection of fact, evidence, and truth is not a problem for supporters because they are well aware that politics is a show and, most importantly, believe that Donald Trump the showman will stick it to elites (of course, after the election, he proceeded to stock the government with Wall Street and billionaire elites). This perspective suggests that the real promise of Trump was one of subverting the elite establishment. In fact, the more transgressive Trump’s statements became, the more credence they gave to the perception that he was a true threat to the ruling establishment and not beholden to the rules of a game that elites had rigged against most of the population. Hence Trump provided a point of identification for citizens in which his lies were a catalyst to a greater truth that the mainstream media, political class, academics, and economic elites largely didn’t want to admit—that an ostensibly fair system is in fact a system rigged by and for elites at the expense of most. Like critical theorists, the Trump voter is deeply suspicious of appearances. However, the critical theorist wants to take experience, appearance, and claims to truth on a detour through theory.
Theory provides an examination of the values, assumptions, and ideologies that undergird claims to truth. It allows facts to be interpreted and situated in terms of broader structural and systemic patterns, history, and context. Theory also allows one to comprehend how the interpretive scaffold of the subject is formed by the social and how the social is formed of subjects. Theory allows one to reflect on one’s actions, and it expands the language to mediate experience and interpret facts. Theory expands political agency, and political agency is crucial for a democratic society.
The Trump voter employs conspiracy rather than theory. Conspiracy imagines that there are superagents endowed with the ability to secretly determine outcomes. Within the logic of conspiracy, those on the outside of the conspiracy are left with spectatorial agency—able to get a glimpse of the conspiracy but without the tools to make sense of what produced a particular social phenomenon or experience. Bad superagents, the conspirators, conspire to conceal fact, propagate lies, and shape history in the shadows. Only good superagents who allegedly embody truth, such as a charismatic and strong leader, can reveal the conspiracy (that is, fabricate it) and then shape history on behalf of the victims of the conspirators. The conspirators, on the other hand, do not simply speak untruth; they embody untruth. The problem for the Nazis wasn’t that the Jews believed the wrong thing and needed to be reeducated to the right views. It was who they were, their essence, their nature. The problem for Trump and the alt-right is not radical Islam but Muslims themselves—hence the ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries under the pretext of security, despite the fact that there had been no terrorist attacks by individuals of those nations since before September 11. For conspiracy, the identity-based grounding of the enemy is not a coincidence but rather consistent with the need to give a material grounding to anchor the accusation. The body functions like numbers in the world of alienated fact, providing an aura of foundation to scapegoating and lies.
From vaccines causing autism to fluoride in drinking water, birtherism, chemtrails to 9/11 conspiracy, Holocaust denial, QAnon, and so on, a frenzy of irrationalism belies a deep distrust of facts and yet a faith in fact unmoored from the history and context that gives fact its meaning. In a culture in which positivism suggests the supremacy of the fact, fact is decontextualized and dehistoricized, appearing to come from nowhere—to be all powerful and yet deeply suspicious. In such a context, the repetition of baseless assertion and lies flourishes.
Another popular explanation for the embrace of untruth could be called the “mainstreaming of postmodernism” position. This view suggests that we are now living in a “posttruth” era in which most people recognize that uncertainties about facts, spin, or partial narratives are the new norm. Such a view could be seen in popular discourse when George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Karl Rove, derided journalists in the “reality-based community” who criticized the president for ignoring reality. Rove claimed that, by acting, those in power make a new reality. Stephen Colbert named the tendency to ignore facts in making assertions “truthiness.” Oil and tobacco companies have long embraced postmodern truth by hiding their own empirical studies of lung cancer and human-caused climate change and insisting that there are a multitude of competing narratives and bodies of evidence and hence these dangers cannot be grounded. In the absence of definitive proof, let’s keep burning fossils and cigarettes. Critics of this mainstreaming of postmodern truth view refer to the material limits of epistemological uncertainty. Facts matter like the fact of gravity when jumping out of a window. However, Trump’s open and irrational rejection of empirical evidence is very different from antifoundationalism in its pragmatist, postmodern, or critical theory forms, in which competing narratives, arguments, and evidence call into question the possibility of access to certain knowledge of objective reality. As in science, these positions share a comfort with truth being provisional, antifoundational, and fallible and with the best theoretical assumptions, arguments, and evidence winning until better ones can displace them.
The Alienation of Fact
How do we make sense of this glaring contradiction between, on one hand, the imperative for positivism in which the fact is positioned as the supreme self-evident value and, on the other hand, the abandonment of fact, evidence, or even truth itself when it comes to speech and policy? What explain these contradictions playing out in both educational and media discourse are (1) the alienation of fact and (2) the related replacement of reasoned argument with faith/dogma.
Critical theory has a long tradition of analyzing how dogma sediments in social consciousness. German social theorist Theodor Adorno, for example, drew on the sociological analysis of George Simmel to offer an explanation for the allure of positivism. Adorno explained that in a capitalist world in which everything is for sale, everything loses its value other than as a means of abstract exchange. This loss of value renders all things abstract, and everything in the social world is experienced as floating and ephemeral. Numbers promise to restore the solidity and certainty lost through alienation. We can think about this with regard to standardized testing. Standardized testing has now been dominating public education for nearly twenty years, since No Child Left Behind was launched in 2001. Knowledge is decontextualized and truth claims are delinked from their conditions of production in the standardized test. That is, by disappearing those who make claims to truth, their interests, and social and ideological positions, standardized tests ground knowledge claims in the institutional authority of the test. Yet the attachment of numbers to the test performance provides a scientistic aura of certainty that recontextualizes knowledge and the test taker within a system of educational exchange that leads through academic promotion to a promise ultimately of economic exchange. The attachment of numbers to truth claims and their false promise of certainty and solidity has resulted in a now dominant way of thinking about learning as earning.
Numerical quantification applies not science but a guise of science or scientism, invoking a careful and systematic process of measurement. It also suggests disinterestedness, objectivity, and universality. It provides a feeling of control by invoking abstract objectivity and universality. While numbering things offers a response to the alienation of market exchange everywhere, it is also alienating in its tendency to delimit the relationship between subjectivity and the objective world.
To extend Adorno’s insight, we might consider those activities to which the attachment of numerical quantification is anathema. Numbers do not promise certainty and solidity in certain contexts. Think about your closest relationships, the people you care most about. Imagine those you love providing a numerical rating for your affections. “Dinner with you was an 8.5.” Imagine telling a joke with a friend and getting a numerical rating in return. What these examples highlight is that our pleasures for human intimacy and intersubjective connection are contrary to the promise of numerical control offered by positivism. Quantification as a remedy for alienation simultaneously offers a guise of control while creating more alienation. Those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often have a need to apply numerical rituals to experiences. For example, to leave a room, someone with OCD may need to open and close the door a certain number of times or count the number of steps to the door. The counting provides a temporary feeling of control otherwise experienced as lacking in these individuals. The numbers do not fix the obsession; they just briefly soothe the anxiety. Is not the ideology of positivism a kind of collective OCD offering a soothing yet false promise of control over a physical world experienced as slipping away, as melting in air? The alienation of fact involves the disappearance of the conditions of production of fact, the mystification of fact, and the treatment of fact as dogma to be transmitted and received.
What stands behind the absence of evidence and reasoned argument in educational policy and practice is faith—a faith in markets. The faith in markets is not only the result of decades of neoliberal ideology and the promotion of the there is no alternative (to the market; TINA) thesis but also of decades of schooling in which knowledge has been positioned as true by virtue of the authority of the claimant. The era of standardized testing has effectively accomplished this equation of truth with authority by alienating truth claims, making them appear to come from nowhere and having authority by virtue of their anonymous authorship. Standardized tests do not come with the tools to question or dispute; they defy dialogue and follow the logic of monologue.
In my book The Failure of Corporate School Reform, I discussed the relationship between the new uses of positivism in education and market fundamentalism or capitalist dogma. What I termed the new market positivism is typified by the reinvigorated expansion of long-standing positivist approaches to schooling: standardized testing, standardization of curriculum, the demand for policy grounded exclusively in allegedly scientific (really scientistic) empirically based pedagogical reforms, the drumbeat against educational theory and in favor of practicalism. The new market positivism signals the use of these long-standing approaches toward the expansion of multiple forms of educational privatization.
In the Fordist era, positivism neutralized, naturalized, and universalized social and cultural reproduction under the guise of the public good, the public interest, but also individual values of humanist education. Critical educational scholars of the 1970s and 1980s referred to this obscuring of the capitalist reproduction function of the public school as the “hidden curriculum.” The economic role of schooling as a sorting and sifting mechanism for the capitalist economy was largely denied. As Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Passeron pointed out, mechanisms such as testing simultaneously stratify based on class while concealing how merit and talent stand in for the unequal distribution of life chances. Reproduction in the new market positivism still neutralizes and naturalizes the unequal distribution of life chances through the unequal distribution of cultural and social capital. Class mobility in the United States is far less possible today. But the new market positivism also openly naturalizes and universalizes a particular economic basis for all educational relationships while justifying a shift in governance and control over educational institutions. Testing, database projects designed to boil down the allegedly most efficient knowledge delivery systems and reward and punish teachers and students—these are not only at the center of pedagogical, curricular, and administrative reform but also are openly justified through the allegedly universal benefits of capitalism. The new market positivism subjects all to standardization and normalization of knowledge, denying the class and cultural interests, the political struggle behind the organization and framing of claims to truth. The new market positivism links its denial and concealment of the politics of knowledge to its open and aggressive application of capitalist ideology, that is, the faith in the religion of capitalism, to every aspect of public schooling.
In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm suggests that the very possibility of modern rationality comes from disobedience, dislocation, and estrangement. The child’s “no” introduces a separation from parental authority. For Fromm, the social and historical conditions for self-reflection come from the alienating effects of capitalism. Only by being estranged from the land and labor and from social relations can one make an object of analysis of oneself and society. Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and others followed Fromm’s thought in advocating the making of both subjective experience and analysis of the objective social world objects of critical analysis. In the tradition of critical pedagogy, the process of theorizing self and society creates the conditions for humanization and agency by countering capitalist objectification in its many forms.
As both liberals and conservatives continue to embrace positivist forms of education and journalism, they contribute to the alienation of fact and the crisis of truth it makes. Against the “bad alienation of fact” of radical empiricism that decontextualizes and dehistoricizes truth claims, critical pedagogy puts forward what we could call a “good alienation of fact” that seeks to contextualize and comprehend not only the theoretical assumptions and ideological underpinnings but also the broader material interests, social forces, and symbolic contests that are imbricated with claims to truth. Critical pedagogy estranges experience and truth claims by denaturalizing them and treating them as an object of analysis. Critical pedagogy reinvests claims to truth with the conditions of their production—that is, the history, context, and social contests that give truth claims meaning. It provides an approach to knowledge that emphasizes how acts of interpretation of fact can form the basis for social intervention. Critical pedagogy fosters democratic dispositions, including linking the process of learning to engagement with public problems and the commitment to dialogic forms of learning and public life. As such, critical pedagogy asserts the potential for fact, when theorized and interpreted, to be a source of agency rather than an oppressive, alienated force.