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Education Reform in the Father-Knows-Best World of Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett

“The government has ceased to function…the corporations are the government.” Theodore Dreiser

If one applies cognitive and political linguist George Lakoff’s “Strict Father” model to Governor Mitch Daniels and Indiana superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, it’s obvious they see themselves as the be-all and end-all authorities on how teachers and students should be whipped into shape. Since their worldview is anti-women, anti-children, and pathologically corporate, all sane people must shout out against it.

As strict father types*, Daniels and Bennett assume that men must put female teachers (which make up 70% of Indiana teachers), like women in general, in their place. According to strict fathers, women teach because they can’t do; men do real work (like gamble in the stock market, lead the Chamber of Commerce, or kickbox each other to death), while their wives are left to babysit the kids with their McGraw-Hill textbooks. If men do enter the teaching profession, the strict father deems it best they come from the corporate world and become superintendents and principals who shove slave labor onto female teachers.

If the strict fathers get women to jump on their boys’ bandwagon (as some like Tina Bennett, Gwendolyn Adell, Claire Fiddian-Green, and Jo Blacketor have sadly done in Indiana), it convinces them that all women are capable of coming around to their way of seeing the world, which is not and should not ever be the case.

Students, according to the strict-father mindset, must sweat the “tough love” discipline Bennett ran on in his campaign for superintendent. No wonder then that the only support Bennett and Daniels have given to educators is immunity from lawsuits for enforcing this “tough love” punishment. In this James Dobson-spare-not-the-rod world, kids—incapable of being inspired to learn— must have facts, dates, and statistics beaten into them.

Of course, all this is sheer nonsense and more than a little dangerous.

As an opponent of standardized tests, linguist and political scholar Noam Chomsky once noted that “about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested.” In Indiana—and America in general—this is the Sisyphus challenge. Those who pass laws for merit-pay teacher evaulations are in bed with a corporate elite which bends over backwards to distract from learning to love learning, be it through their tween marketing gimmicks or championing standardized testing to bore all creativity out of both teachers and students.

Arguably, these mandated tests aren’t meant to measure knowledge anyway, for strict father types like Daniels and Bennett don’t care much about knowledge, unless it serves their own purposes. In this case, it does perfectly. By forcing teachers to teach by the test and worry about getting fired over what is out of their control, Daniels and Bennett hope to break teachers’ wills to the point that they change careers. Then the corporate oligarchy can replace them with minimum-waged and half qualified instructors, week-trained Teach for America fake superstars, and eventually virtual teachers in another state.

Although a disaster for teachers and students, standardized tests aid Daniels, Bennett, and other strict fathers in a less obvious way. Importantly, these politicians count on an uninformed public to vote them and future strict fathers into office, and there’s no better way to assure this than by administering these tests which seal off all critical thinking and questioning of authority. In fact, nothing is more frightening to the power elite than a living, breathing, and thinking body politic.

Even as neuroscientists and psychologists see empathy as fundamental to our evolutionary future, strict fathers like Daniels and Bennett proclaim public schools as the last frontier for hedge fund managers and other oligarchs to violate and conquer. They are giddy to give the final blow to any sense of kinship we still hold with our fellow humans. By churning out future Social Darwinists in kindergartens which teach playdough economics, these psychopaths wish to destroy what is left of Indiana, American, and the planet. This is dangerously about more than just education. It’s about whether we have a country and planet left when the plutocratic weapons stop falling.

If we don’t start seriously agitating the Big Daddies of the world and force them to grow up, we are all soon doomed to a fascist corporate state.


* Like many strict father types, Tony Bennett named his son after himself, and Mitch Daniels was named after his own father.

Insightfully, a while back, Biz Voices’ Tom Schuman relayed an interesting anecdote recalled by Tony Bennett. Schuman wrote:

“He [Bennett] tells the joke of how his Uncle Gene remarked that Elisabeth (Bennett’s sister, currently working in the field of educator preparation at the University of Central Florida) had never made a (grade as low as a) “B” in her life. Bennett’s father chimed in on the other end of the scale, ‘Neither has Tony’” (29).

Although I do not personally know Tony Bennett, it is safe to say that pain may lurch behind his humorous story. In the above account, Tony Bennett’s unsatisfactory school grades might not be as noteworthy as the father-son relationship the joke hints at. Of course, one incident is by no means a psychological case study, but given that the superintendent hates unions and promotes the take-no-hostage privatization of American education, one wonders if this is because he felt shafted by his father, an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member. Did his real or perceived failure with his union member father lead him to search out psychopathic father models, as many men in our deranged society are encouraged to do?

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Doug Martin

Doug Martin

Doug Martin is a Walt Whitman scholar, poet, fiction writer, editor, musician (the Delicious Militia), and teacher.