Jay Steele & Nashville Chamber: Keep Your Hands Off Our Kids

Metro Nashville Schools have been swept up in yet another contentious battle, this one over the firing of a beloved teacher (technically she is being fired from a program she started and ran for nearly 30 years, not fired from Metro. She’s to be moved to another school). For my non-Nashville readers, go to the link and brush up on the controversy.

The removal of Mary Catherine Bradshaw is a political not performance-based move. She appears to have stood in the way of our corporate overlords a shiny-sparkly new education philosophy:

Her firing from the program comes at a time when new Metro schools associate superintendent Jay Steele is restructuring the district’s high schools into a collection of “career academies,” a hand-in-glove enterprise with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to funnel students into high-demand career tracks like information technology.

If the name Jay Steele sounds familiar it’s because I wrote about another of his “pet projects” last April:

Naming rights to academic programs in Metro Nashville’s high schools are for sale, and one school has a buyer.

The Tennessee Credit Union now owns the signage to Antioch High School’s academy of business and finance for a price of $150,000. The school board approved the two-year contract Tuesday night.

Administrators hope this is the first of many naming deals. It’s the brainchild of Metro’s new high school czar, Jay Steele, who had success with the idea as an administrator in Florida.

“It’s not marketing to kids,” Steele told The Tennessean in December. “It’s tight guidelines that would align a targeted industry with a theme.”

Tight guidelines that align a targeted industry with a theme! Just what Nashville’s schools need!

WTF does that even mean? It sounds like business school clap-trap to me. It seems Jay Steele is hell bent on turning our city’s youth into fodder for the jaws of commerce, and I guess we’re supposed to cheer along and marvel at what a great start in life our youth are getting, what great business skills they’re learning and how they will be wonderful worker bees for the corporatocracy. Is that it? Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but was there a problem of some kind I’m unaware of? Were businesses not choosing to locate in Nashville because our kids are dumb?

Look, I get that we need to educate our kids so they can go to college and get jobs; I get that we need to start them off in life on the right foot. I even applaud the idea of offering classes that educate kids for high-demand fields. But for crying out loud this Chamber of Commerce crap has got to stop. Y’all can just wait in line before you get your greedy paws on ‘em, okay? Let them be kids for a little while.

This is dehumanization, plain and simple. It’s telling our kids their value is only in their earning power. They aren’t human beings, they’re human doings. The message is: You’re not valuable to our community because you’re alive, because you’re a child of God and a member of the human family, because when we see you and your friends we’re reminded that there’s another generation coming behind us. You’re valuable because you have potential earning power, someday you too can fight and claw your way up to being an independent contractor with no benefits and a crappy credit score. And someday you can look forward to an exciting retirement, maybe when you’re 75, whereafter you can spend your days on your feet as a WalMart greeter.

This is a really hard concept to articulate and so many others have done it so much better. I just think commerce is a corrupting influence that does not belong in our schools. Anywhere. So to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce: wait your fucking turn. You can have our kids when we’re ready to give them to you. Right now, they belong to us.

And to Jay Steele, look: I know this is a radical idea for some of you young whippersnappers raised in a post-Reagan age, but I don’t happen to think that capitalism is the cure for every problem.

There’s an intellectual debate going on right now, and I’m going to refer folks back to my October 2009 post on the business of dehumanization. It’s the one where I linked to Mark Slouka’s article in the September issue of Harper’s (“Dehumanized: When Math & Science Rule The School,” and a subscription is required).

Slouka wrote:

Like a single species taking over an ecosystem, like an elephant on a see-saw, the problem today is disequilibrium. Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have the language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding “civic indicators,” no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment.

Of course, as I wrote at the time we do have those civic indicators: low voter turnout being a major one.

Slouka’s point was that an emphasis on math and science education at the expense of the humanities is a great way to create worker bees to feed the machinery of capitalism, and also a great way to starve the nation of critical thinking skills and knowledge which breeds dissent. It also devalues art, music, literature and the entire cultural spectrum of things which make life worth living.

It’s hard not to see capitalism’s creep into our schools, and watch as teachers are being devalued at every step, and then read about efforts to roll back child labor laws around the country and not wonder if there’s a connection.

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