As The LEGO Movie told us, through the story arc of its villain, Lord Business, the biggest threat to freedom posed by technology is not that machines will make us into slaves. It’s that our best and brightest will think of us, and themselves, as no more than machines—and use their power to rule accordingly.
That is why you don’t have to be a Tea Partier to recoil in disgust at the all-out PR campaign Big Business is launching to shove as many Americans as possible into the machinery of Common Core.
There are a host of complaints about Common Core, the state standards initiative for consistent education guidelines. Some people worry about Washington bureaucrats telling Americans what they have to learn. Some worry about public schools telling educators what they have to teach. Some argue that all standards do is transform education into an exercise in successfully gaming test after test. Some even fear that teachers can’t be expected to achieve that success at the drop of a hat.
We need to bluntly confess that all these concerns and more boil down to a single bad idea—one that’s revealed by Big Business’s insanely obdurate and fanatical devotion to the ideals of Common Core.
The Common Core standards owe their existence to the appeal of a simple master concept: Everyone should be an employee.
Once, our lords of business believed that everyone should maximize their profits. That hoary ideal has gone out the window, as corporate America fell in love with its vision of itself as more than an economic engine—a way of life.
Corporatism, the cozy, rigged relationship between big business and big government, isn’t primarily driven by a quest for goodies and status, although those make for pleasant enough perks. It’s animated by a deeper longing to transcend mere moneymaking and find meaning in loving mastery.
Quite like Lego’s Lord Business, today’s corporate interests view the ideal world as one in which employment is perfected. Full employment is just a means to the end of perfect employment—a dreamland in which, as the theme song goes, “everything is cool when you’re part of a team,” and the team includes everyone.
Rather than maximizing profits through competition—the essence of free market commerce—our Lord Businesses want to maximize mastery through cooperation. Rather than a greedy elite hell bent on fleecing the rest of us, the corporate elite will pretty much stop at nothing to make us all into happy, healthy sheep.
Take a moment, if you must, to try to argue around it. This is the logic of the adamant, obsessive Big Business support for Common Core.
In its substance and its structure alike, Common Core does not educate students to be their own bosses, their own ideas festivals, or their own masters.
Instead, it teaches them that the purpose of human effort is to define their place on the universal yardstick, and that the universal yardstick is the legitimate, authoritative tool for determining their place on the universal team.
Don’t mistake this as a fundamentally egalitarian goal. Anyone who spends any length of time in corporate America—and, increasingly, corporate planet Earth—knows that the endless mantra of the Big Business way of life is equal employee-hood.
Just as the fable of democracy teaches us that our politics makes us absolutely equal in our identity as citizens, the fable of corporatism teaches us that our economics makes us absolutely equal in our identity as employees.
There is, of course, a twisted truth to the myth. No matter what your title or your salary, every employee has a boss, and every employee can get the axe. No matter how much comfort, command, or social responsibility you seem to possess, neither the fruits of your labors or the risk you take to pursue them are actually your own.
In the abstract, these harsh truths steer the soul perilously close to selfishness or, worse, Objectivism. But Ayn Rand, in typically European fashion, had to concoct an exaggerated and ultimately infertile theory of individualism—to compensate, in her case, for the practical American education in real-life freedom that she missed as a child born and raised in imperial, then communist, Russia.
Americans’ real-life tradition of individual freedom, by contrast, has issued out of our rich and genuinely human understanding of the quality of life that working for oneself opens to experience.
“As I would not be a slave,” said Lincoln, “so I would not be a master.” A milder but nonetheless crucial corollary of this brilliantly American pattern of thought holds that we experience freedom most humanely when we are neither a boss nor an employee.
When you work for yourself, you must enter deeply into the practice of being a well-functioning human. In addition to maturely disciplining and focusing yourself, you must nourish and forgive your own merely human body, mind, and soul.
Everywhere around you and inside you are possibilities you must always keep open, yet never let overwhelm you.
You quickly discover—if you can hack it—that egotism, fear, anger, vanity, arrogance, and, notably, self-centeredness must all be channeled to cycle swiftly through and out of your experience of life.
You discover, in short, more than a small slice of what dedicated artists, creators, and spiritualists discover. And the standardized exam you are incessantly given to demonstrate these skills is the test known as being human.
Employees can experience rewarding human lives, too, of course—just as soldiers can. But however noble, the corporate sense that mastery, love, and cooperation come together in employment relationships will always remain a lie. Neither bosses nor employees can ever experience the extraordinary collaborative possibilities that arise when people come together who know themselves, in their work, to be free in real life.
True, our lords of business come close to that experience. The most powerful perk of corporate leadership is the ability to take time off from being a boss to commune with fellow corporate overlords. In the world’s retreats and festivals of the ultra-elite, our lords of business may slip the bonds of bosshood and interact as something more like mere men and women, and extraordinary ones at that.
Yet this is an experience which is constitutive of being human, and the cult of perfect employment pushed along by Common Core tends strongly to foreclose that experience for most of us—at the earliest possible moment in our lives, when we are children, where we are unable to know better or object or choose otherwise.
When it comes to Common Core, Big Business must be taught what Lord Business learns at the climax of The LEGO Movie: true love and true mastery are not to be found in a quest for perfect employment fueled by the distorted dream of locking all humans in place as parts of a grand machine.
“You don’t have to be the bad guy,” the hero tells him, at the moment when all seems lost. “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you still can change everything.”
In the movie, Lord Business chooses to believe him. Your move, business lords.