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May 15, 2006

the "silent disease" of technocracy: an illustration

Last week, Harry Boyte wrote on this blog: "Technocracy, spreading through society like a silent disease, presents itself as an objective set of truths, practices, and procedures. But it turns people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes problems from civic life. It privatizes the world and creates a pervasive sense of scarcity. It profoundly erodes a culture of equal respect."

These are strong words, but I'd like to support and elucidate his position with an example. Today, powerful institutions and constituencies are concerned about high school dropouts. They address the dropout problem by trying to isolate discrete underlying causes. Consultants tell them that "reading proficiency in third grade [as measured by test scores] is the single strongest predictor of high-school dropout rate." When the Business Roundtable and others notice this correlation, they increase the already intense pressure to improve third-grade reading scores. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to make "adequate yearly progress" toward uniform success on reading exams. At the third grade, reading tests emphasize phonics and decoding skills. Therefore, teachers--encouraged by consultants and companies that sell tools for diagnosis and instruction--spend a great deal of instructional time teaching decoding skills, often using meaningless text for practice.

This is a perfect example of viewing students as bundles of problems, isolating discrete causes, and applying interventions developed by experts. However, pure phonics instruction probably does not work, even for the advertised purpose of raising reading scores at third grade. Learning to read also requires motivation, cultural knowledge, and comprehension skills. Even if current strategies did produce higher reading scores at age eight, they probably would not mitigate the high-school dropout problem. Although literacy at third grade and completion of high-school are correlated right now, that does not mean that the former causes the latter. Recent evidence finds that many high school students who drop out can manage the academic curriculum but are profoundly bored or alienated in school.

In a technocratic age, people are prone to identify pathologies and provide expert-driven remediation. However, in dealing with the high school dropout problem, we have a clear alternative. Proponents of "positive youth development" hold that adolescents are not incomplete adults who are prone to various pathologies (such as illiteracy and dropping out). Instead, by virtue of their energy, enthusiasm, and fresh outlook, adolescents have special contributions to make: aesthetic, spiritual, athletic, intellectual, and civic. By giving them opportunities to contribute, we actually reduce their odds of getting into trouble more than we would through prevention, surveillance, and discipline.

The research on positive youth development is not yet as strong as we might like. However, assume (on the basis of numerous impressive examples) that it would work better than the technocratic approach described above. Positive youth development would need experts: researchers, consultants, and others who would share accumulated knowledge. But it couldn't be dominated by specialists. That's because providing youth with positive opportunities requires local knowledge and voluntary support from across a community, including from youth themselves. No "off-the-shelf" package for community-engagement could possibly be sufficient.

Posted by peterlevine at May 15, 2006 07:25 AM


Hey Peter,

Although I should probably read Harry Boyte's post before commenting, I wanted to make the point that it doesn't seem that technocracy is always unhelpful towards solving community problems. Rather, it seems to me that the nature of the problem (or service) is key to determining how useful technocratic policy could be.

Your example of the high-school drop out problem seems to me to be an example of a "transaction-intensive, discretionary service" (Pritchett and Woolcock 2004). Pritchett and Woolcock breakdown services into subservices and array them on the transaction-intensive and level of discretion axes. They argue that by their very nature some services are more amenable to certain solutions: technocratic, idiosyncratic, or bureacratic.

I'm not sure I agree with their schema but they highlight what seems to me an important variable in problem solving. Their paper can be found here: http://courses.washington.edu/idcppol/PritchettWoolcock_Solutions.pdf


Posted by: Joseph Sinatra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 16, 2006 07:34 AM

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