Review of "Enron" at Chicago's Timeline Theatre

from the play’s program

Last night I went with friends to the Chicago premier of a play called “Enron” at the Timeline Theatre on Wellington. Apparently, it swept London, and I can see why. Its compelling two and a half hours are fresh from yesterday’s (and today’s) newspapers, and it really helps you understand just who Ken Lay, Andy Fastow, and, centrally, Jeffrey Skilling, were (at least in the mind of playwright Lucy Prebble).

These men, intelligent, ambitious Americans–the best and brightest stars of the US education system–just took their talents too far–beyond morality and practicality. Much of their predation, it should be noted, was entirely legal. And the loopholes allowing for unethical corporate dealings remain to this day.  What Skilling, Fastow, and Lay created required huge theoretical brainpower and innovation. But when enacted, their energy trading and “mark to market” accounting practices cascaded into others, and then… disaster for Enron (which cruelly suckered its own employees’ retirement funds into its pyramid scheme) and tsunamis to the economy that we have been feeling right through 2008’s collapse
The play also explains the psychology of the market bubbles–how when you’re in one, it is your mere belief and that of others that sustain the wishful-thinking bubble’s existence, and of course you have every reason in the world to continue believing, powerful incentives to deny facts that might threaten your bubble. It occurs to me that people deeply embedded in and profitting from the current mode of educational policy-making–with its reliance on high-stakes tests as valid measures of educational progress–are in a similar bubble of belief and inflated value. The finest education money can buy is no defense against self-delusion. This would explain denial of less-profitable but more proven approaches to public schooling by the US Dept. of Ed.

When its bubble finally burst in late 2001, Enron’s collapse ruined many thousands of innocent Americans’ wealth. Its deliberate, profit-making “rolling blackouts” in January 2001 California (when Enron’s all-boy trading team played the largest state in the union’s power grid like video-gamers, which the play memorably depicts), people died.  One of the take-aways from the play is, “If only a responsible, tax-payer funded oversight agency would have checked Enron’s books, all would have been well.”

As regards education, would it not behoove our Secretary of Education to address the high-stakes test bubble now, to puncture it in a controlled way, and move us deliberately toward us toward a firmer, less dangerous footing–before more innocent Americans are injured?

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