Daily Dose: Is education really just about getting a job?

August 25, 2017

Words have meaning. When they are put together to create phrases and metaphors, they can evoke ideas and emotions that are powerful and affect us, for the most part, unconsciously. In the political/public discourse world we live in, there is a powerful moral metaphor which evokes the conservative economic system - "job creation". One of the recently announced Democratic candidates for governor is making this conservative metaphor the centerpiece of his campaign. His position as the state's top education leader makes the situation a very bad one for progressives who care about public education.


It's a phrase I've written about and discussed at length. In short, it is understood and accepted by virtually everyone - even people who disagree with conservative economic policies. Which makes it even more powerful, since it is used all the time. There is no such literal thing as "job creation." Instead, it is a metaphor developed by conservative think tanks and first coined successfully by Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz. In his 2011 book, Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary, Luntz advised private sector business moguls about how to frame their role in the economy:


“You don’t create jobs by making life difficult for job creators.”


With that phrase, Luntz and company successfully gave birth to a powerful metaphor which continues to successfully reinforce the conservative, free market values of economics. More importantly, they have succeeded in making the idea one which is moral - untouchable by fact and reason. Briefly, here's what "job creation" means in conservative moral terms (authoritarian frame):


1. Only the private sector has moral authority to create jobs.

2. Government impedes job creation by imposing regulations and taxes on the private sector job creators - therefore, government is immoral.

3. There are plenty of good jobs for those who work hard and disciplined. People who do not have jobs or are underemployed just don't work hard enough and need to be more disciplined in order to achieve greater success. Their pain from being un- or underemployed is their just punishment for being undisciplined.

4. All of the above make the free market a moral function.


Part of this same conservative/authoritarian worldview (frame) directly connects education and job creation. The purpose of a child's education, in the conservative frame, is simple - to get the best job possible. Period. If you don't get a good job after completing your education, it's your own fault. So is the debt you are in if you can't afford to re-pay it. You didn't work hard enough, have enough discipline to pick the right major, or fell under the influence of the "liberal elite" (again, not enough self-discipline). Your failure is your punishment. And government ought not get in the way of you learning your lesson. 


This is critical in the context of Tony Evers' campaign for governor. When I first saw his introductory campaign video, I wanted to scream into a sheet cake (thanks, Tina Fey):



The first fifty seconds of the three minute video are a group of quotes and clips about - you guessed it - job creation. In a very real cognitive sense, even when you are presenting "negative" facts about job creation, you are still evoking and activating the entire authoritarian worldview of economics (as outlined above). Just by discussing economics in the context of the "job creation" metaphor!


The rest of Evers' statements are what most Dem political consultants would view as talking about his "progressive values" - but in the context of education being about "job creation", they are not. In fact, if you didn't know this was Tony Evers, it could be something Scott Walker has said:


1. We need "real change" in Wisconsin (Walker said this)

2. Education creates great opportunities (AKA, "jobs")

3. We grow the economy by building up the middle class and investing in our schools (Walker also said this)

4. He talks about "doing more with less" (this is a conservative mantra - think Grover Norquist, see item #10 at the link).


As a Democratic candidate for governor, Evers is hardly evoking progressive values by using conservative ideas and language in the context of education. In fact, he might as well come right out and say, "I believe that the purpose of education is so our kids will have good jobs, and we need to prioritize job creation to build the middle class." And boom - the conservative/authoritarian worldview of "free market" economics is activated. 


Who does that help? It helps Scott Walker and conservative Republicans. In the absence of an authentic, progressive moral message, Walker and the Republicans win. Because progressive ideas and values about why education is important whither and weaken. 


On Monday, why the progressive values about education are so important, and how to evoke them.

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