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Horatio Alger Jr., the “rags-to-riches” storywriter in the mid 1800s, was well known for writing books with a common theme: a young boy with good morals who “picked himself up by his bootstraps” was able to make a name for himself. These stories provided hope to the disjointed masses whose lives were in an identity crisis as the United States industrialized and people crammed into overcrowded, underregulated urban centers. In his first popular book Ragged Dick, Alger wrote about a boy who lives as a disillusioned shoe-shiner in New York City. Many upper class gentlemen are impressed by Dick’s moral character (as he refuses to steal, despite being poor) and lend him $5 to make a name for himself. When Dick deposits the money at the bank, Alger writes:
Our hero took his bank-book, and gazed on the entry “Five Dollars” with a new sense of importance. He had been accustomed to joke about Erie shares, but now, for the first time, he felt himself a capitalist; on a small scale, to be sure, but still it was no small thing for Dick to have five dollars which he could call his own. He firmly determined that he would lay by every cent he could spare from his earnings towards the fund he hoped to accumulate...
When Dick went home at night he locked up his bank-book in one of the drawers of the bureau. It was wonderful how much more independent he felt whenever he reflected upon the contents of that drawer, and with what an important air of joint ownership he regarded the bank building in which his small savings were deposited.
These stories became increasingly popular as companies gained more power within the United States and workers labored over 60 hours a week. Young boys loved these stories because it offered them hope for the future.
Not as known about Horatio Alger Jr. was his dark upbringing that influenced the themes of his work. Growing up relatively well-off in the middle class, Alger didn’t have a similar story to the fictional characters he wrote about. His early life was briefly spent as a minister until he was ousted for committing pederasty – committing sexual acts with young boys. Alger’s popular works all featured young, gentle, good-mannered, and poor boys who were given opportunities by capitalists to make a name for themselves. Already creepy given Alger’s backstory, the narrator would often point out their good looks and moral decency as the reason they stood out to future employers. Every book after the success of Ragged Dick essentially followed the same aforementioned formula. The patriarchal and eerie selection of hard-working, “good” poor people was ingrained into early corporate culture.
Equally important to the impact of these stories was that Alger wasn’t that popular when he was alive. He was a moderately successful author but his audience didn’t seem to care much about the “moral” part of these stories. Instead, they wanted to dream of a path toward monetary success. Alger didn’t write his stories as simple “rags to riches” narratives, but after his death mass media conglomerates ran cheap reprints that edited out the long winded sections on morals and respectability. These new stories focused solely on amassing a lot of money, and they sold hundreds of millions of copies.
Stories like these have remained incredibly popular across the last century. In 2012, many news outlets ran a story of a young man secretly living at AOL's headquarters to make his business a success.
Eric Simons, a 19-year-old college dropout, had recently ended a multi-month internship at AOL to incubate his business. Afterwards when the money and training ran out, many of his friends returned to college. But Eric noticed that AOL had not disabled their security badges. So he secretly squatted at the corporation, staying alive on cereal and ramen and working all hours of the day to raise money for his start-up.
Despite being an intriguing story of subterfuge, there’s an underlying belief that it’s worth destroying oneself for the sake of profit. Even after the young entrepreneur was caught, the CEO of AOL said,
Tenacity and commitment are key attributes of a great entrepreneur. Eric has these in spades as demonstrated by his willingness to do whatever it takes to get his company off the ground.
News articles not only celebrated the young man’s dedication and “tirelessness”, but how after receiving funding to rent a place of his own that he quickly subletted the space to earn even more capital.
A worrying attachment between business, success-at-any-cost, and schooling has always existed and continues to press on. As Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tweeted over the last several days:
Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.
Every student should have a pathway to a brighter future. Every student should have access to an education that builds their confidence & every student should have a pathway to a successful career.
Teaching isn’t a job you hold. It’s an extension of your life’s purpose.
Our work to transform our schools is crucial to creating a strong economic foundation for our country. It’s time to break down the silos between K-12 systems and college, career, and industry preparation programs. This is how we transform education in this country.
An overwhelming number of schools are investing in career readiness and STEM. And after graduating, students are funneled into the dual economy: separating workers into high paying finance, technology, and electronics careers; or being everyone else. Those in the former are predominately white and male, have wealth, benefits, and often a generous work-life balance compared to their low-wage peers.
"Achievement at any cost" – centered on entering this high echelon that roughly 1/5th of Americans enjoy, drives much of a test-centric schooling system that necessitates greed and corporatism: whoever grows up and holds the most wealth, wins. A modern American mythology paints tech-entrepreneurs as gods with special traits that have allowed them to live lives greater than everyone else. As a result, many working-class people who work long, grueling hours for massively wealthy corporations nearly worship rich CEOs. “Hustle culture” has enthralled hopeful readers to burn themselves out toward “success” – spanning books, documentaries, and social media feeds in the same way as Horatio Alger stories.
Rich people share their success stories through affirmations and “life hacks.” A popular social media template shows entrepreneurs’ weekly calendar. These are meant to demonstrate a strong “work ethic” with extreme motivation, but really most days include substantial breaks and relatively mundane tasks. If a lower class worker, such as a teacher, marked everything they did on a calendar it would be much more packed even into the late evening. Similarly, entrepreneurship self-help books promise to make readers “successful” – or more cynically – not starve in the global marketplace. Author and CTE Conference keynote speaker Brooks Harper writes in the summary of 7 Skills to Make Mill$, “...[it] is NOT about students becoming rich, but rather building the wealth of skill sets necessary to be successful in school, career and life!”
Taking a darker turn, these perpetual messages to push oneself to succeed are patriarchal patronizing. These are messages by rich, often white men, who control much of the wealth. They promise to offer the proper ethics to succeed in life, and they’re praised for their benevolence in sharing how they “got ahead.” Just like the “selection” of poor boys by the rich capitalist class of Alger’s stories, the underclass are given tools to compete toward their potential ascension.
When we focus on STEM without the humanities and don't call for care and belonging, we create a space for exploitation and limit possibilities. Preparing students solely for the jobs of today means to accept that systemic problems of capitalism are just the way things are: The massive wealth inequalities are normal; Discrimination against ignored communities doesn't exist and instead everyone just needs to “work harder.”; That jobs which pay the most are the most important. It isn’t about purpose-driven fulfillment or social justice but about earning as much money as possible for a multinational corporation (and enjoying personal success through wealth).
This means that the simple act of slowing down and not participating in the rat race is a radical act. To resist an overwhelming call for workforce development and teach issues of social justice is to disrupt the neoliberal order. The elites and their sycophants on the right portray teachers as intentionally limiting a young person’s career possibilities in the name of a “woke agenda.” On the left, teachers are pressured to solve issues of equity by finding ways to raise problematic test scores. At every turn, educators have to resist behaviorist methods: from SLANT to cold-calling which are rooted in business-minded managerial notions of “input, output” learning. Of course drilling content in inhumane ways leads to higher test scores, and perhaps even well-paying careers, but critical thinking and a general love of learning (and life) are lost along the way.
Many students aren’t going to be interested in whatever the latest workforce craze is. Not everyone wants to be a programmer or obtain a specific CTE-licensure. Many students love the arts or even simply just hanging out with their friends. A student who steps out of line in a workforce-centric classroom is sent through a Social Darwinist sorting mechanism. It becomes easy for a teacher to just accept that students who are disengaged from CTE-driven curriculums “won’t achieve as much” and place them on a remedial track. Rather than adapt curriculum or pursue a child’s interests, they are left at the sidelines. Then, many students “on track” begin to believe that those other students “deserve to not be successful.” It's a numbers game. As long as most students have the right answer on the test review Kahoot, it's time to move on. No one questions the system itself – and those that want to aren’t given the opportunity or time to speak up for themselves and fight back.
If one believes in a meritocracy and that everyone has the same shot, then rugged individualism is the obvious path forward. Setbacks, exploitation, and self-neglect are simply pinpoints in a quest toward future success. Similar messages are transposed to teachers as they bear low wages and unsustainable working conditions, with edu-celebrity motivational speakers simply calling for more effort, no solidarity:
Similar to rich tech-bros, motivational education speakers are almost always male, patriarchal figures speaking to a female-dominated profession on what they should be doing. Offering obvious and banal platitudes of “working harder for students” mirrors the “work hard for success” methodology of self-help books, which pushes one to succeed as an individual but rarely questions systemic problems that demand collective action.
Framing education as exclusively workforce development restructures classrooms to embark on a “success at any cost” mission. Career technical education (CTE), although useful as a tool within a broader public education system, cannot replace a humane, purpose-driven space that promotes democracy and thriving communities. Only prioritizing CTE to prepare for the jobs of today means to accept the exploitative nature in our world of work: transforming teachers to bosses and students to employees. Providing power to students to shape their own curriculums, learning, and futures are not commonplace in CTE classrooms because that’s not how job sites operate. Dehumanizing conditions and policies are readily incorporated into classroom syllabi as that’s how “the real (corporate) world works.” The focus is on credentialing, getting ahead, and future success through a profitable career. It’s a commitment to a corporate death culture.
We must be skeptical of schools as training facilities. They are much more than that, and are central to preserving democracy. Young people must become critical thinkers that are able to build a better world, which will involve challenging corporations that continually exploit humans, animals, and the environment for profit. If all young people believe that profit is the purpose, then our world will teeter toward collapse. This means we must intentionally develop lessons, curriculum, and student-driven initiatives that critically question the world around us and give us the tools to stand up for ourselves.
As child developmental psychologist Susan Engel writes in The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness Not Money Would Transform Our Schools,
A close look inside the classroom door suggests that in the past 150 years we have come to think, perhaps without realizing it, that the purpose of education is to make money. Though going to school hugely increases a child’s chance of earning a decent wage in adulthood, that fact need not, and should not, define our thinking about what and how children should learn. Decent wages may be a very desirable outcome of attending school. But that doesn’t mean that money should be the goal of education or the measure of its success. Of course, the skeptic might ask what harm there is in designating money as the purpose of school. As it turns out, plenty.