Skip to main content

Audrey Watters

Initial Thoughts on Conspiracy Theories in Education

4 min read

Someone asked me the other day how I respond to charges that my work involves conspiracy theories about a “billionaire boys’ club” seeking the privatization of education. And it struck me that education reform and education technology have been caught up in aspersions accusations about “evidence” and accusations of “fake news” for some time now.

The phrase “billionaire boys’ club” is one historian Diane Ravitch uses in a chapter of her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System to describe the network of philanthropic organizations – namely, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation – and the policies that these wealthy education reformers have funded and promoted. The phrase “billionaire boys’ club” can be traced farther back still, to a 1980s Ponzi scheme operating among the wealthy students at the Harvard School for Boys. Ravitch never makes reference to this social investing organization in her book, so it’s not clear if she is intentionally invoking the criminal enterprise when describing the efforts of Gates et al. Any connection between ed-reform and that “BBC” would certainly be the makings of a grand conspiracy theory. She doesn’t go there, but Ravitch’s work has been often dismissed as conspiracy theory nonetheless.

What makes something a conspiracy theory? The designation is no longer reserved for hypotheses about secret government activities, alien technologies, or celebrity deaths. It’s become a label used to dismiss all sorts of criticism that one disagrees with.

Sociologist Bruno Latour has argued that there is an unsettling connection between conspiracy theory and criticism: "What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu?

In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes – society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism – while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below. What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique? Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.

This is an argument that Kurt Andersen seems to pick up on in his recent book Fantasyland: America has “lost its mind,” in part because of postmodernist theory and what according to Andersen is its penchant for “anything-goes relativism.”

Diane Ravitch is no postmodernist (no matter how you define the term). So perhaps it’s easier to see the charges that she peddles in conspiracy theories as simply part of that longer history of accusing women of “hysteria.” Perhaps that’s what’s meant when someone frames my work that way too.

But I think there’s more to it than that.