Share on Google Plus Share on Twitter Share on Facebook 4 Share on LinkedIn Share on PInterest Share on Fark! Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon Tell A Friend (4 Shares)  
Printer Friendly Page Save As Favorite View Favorites View Article Stats   4 comments

Exclusive to OpEdNews:
OpEdNews Op Eds

Calculating the Corporate States of America: Revisiting Vonnegut's Player Piano

By (about the author)     Permalink       (Page 1 of 2 pages)
Related Topic(s): ; ; ; ; ; ; ; , Add Tags Add to My Group(s)

Well Said 3   Valuable 3   Must Read 2  
View Ratings | Rate It

opednews.com Headlined to H4 1/3/11

Become a Fan
  (9 fans)

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that has occurred in the last two years despite the economic downturn associated with those corporations and the election of Barak Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist.

More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates and ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Recently, Bessie has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests and destined to hold teachers accountable for their students' test scores (despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of achievement)--hologram teachers. And Krashen believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers' misinformation tour.

While Bessie's and Krashen's comments may sound like alarmist stances--possibly even the stuff of fiction--I believe we all should have been seeing this coming for decades.

The science fiction genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood's brilliant The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the sci-fi label for his work--but Vonnegut's genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE. A review of the novel in 1963 describes Vonnegut's vision of our brave new world:

"The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut's oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society."

Yes, in Vonnegut's dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue (although we should note that women's roles were even more constrained than men's, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S.). Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult in this society that is simply a slightly exaggerated of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut's Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become.

Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking for not only corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut's vision?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut's world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerates?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush's presidency. With corporate American saved, and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasing the corporate model that has been crippling the system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan's presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk.

If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is more grim--like George Orwell's 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successful corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life--and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers--being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

"'No, no. You've got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you're artistic. That's one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.'"

In the novel, Paul's quest and the momentary rise of some rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

Next Page  1  |  2

 

An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
 

Share on Google Plus Submit to Twitter Add this Page to Facebook! Share on LinkedIn Pin It! Add this Page to Fark! Submit to Reddit Submit to Stumble Upon

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.

Writers Guidelines

Contact Author Contact Editor View Authors' Articles

Most Popular Articles by this Author:     (View All Most Popular Articles by this Author)

Ironic Lessons in Education Reform from Bill Gates

Reconsidering Education "Miracles"

Defending the Status Quo?--False Dichotomies and the Education Reform Debate

"A Question of Power": Of Accountability and Teaching by Numbers

A Tale of Two Films

Finnish Envy

Comments

The time limit for entering new comments on this article has expired.

This limit can be removed. Our paid membership program is designed to give you many benefits, such as removing this time limit. To learn more, please click here.

Comments: Expand   Shrink   Hide  
3 people are discussing this page, with 4 comments
To view all comments:
Expand Comments
(Or you can set your preferences to show all comments, always)

Even though Arne Duncan has no respect for the Ma... by skrashen on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 2:17:05 PM
As usual, you knock it out of the park, Paul.... by Adam Bessie on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 8:21:21 PM
As usual, you knock it out of the park, Paul.... by Adam Bessie on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 8:21:22 PM
Well, I was a bit disappointed by this article. I... by Sister Begonia on Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011 at 10:20:50 AM