Oldspeak: “Education remains one of the most important spheres left for creating critical and engaged citizens capable of challenging a material and symbolic order that blindly legitimates a culture of corruption, greed and inequality. Under casino capitalism, we not only have a growing divide between the rich and the poor, a divide in which the rich pretty much have a monopoly on political, economic and social opportunities, but also the enormous power of a cultural apparatus that functions as a nonstop mode of education that endlessly carpet-bombs young and old with market-based values that undermine democratic values, notions of shared responsibility and a respect for the public good.”
From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:
This article is the second in a three-part series taken from a forthcoming book, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values” to be published by Peter Lang Publishing Group.
“Hope is conceived whenever the imagination and moral sense meet.” -Zygmunt Bauman
The Rising Tide of Global Protest Against Casino Capitalism
In the United States and Europe, thousands of demonstrators have organized to protest government cutbacks and austerity measures being enacted upon the most vulnerable members of society. In the United States, students have poured out into the streets of cities on both coasts. In Berkeley, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Montclair, New Jersey, they are protesting massive cuts in educational funding for both public and higher education and the laying off of thousands of teachers. The cuts are serious. According to the National Education Association, there are as many as “26,000 teachers in jeopardy of layoffs in California, 20,000 in Illinois, 13,000 in New York, 8,000 in Michigan and 6,000 in New Jersey.” The mainstream media coverage of these projected job losses and even the more critical analyses of these events generally reduce soaring job layoff among public schoolteachers to an unhappy consequence of the economic recession. The logic behind this assumption is not without validity, but the issue is often presented as uncomplicated and straightforward. States with dwindling tax revenues are forced to eliminate basic public services and school budgets have become a major casualty of such cuts. Operating in tandem with this simplistic justification is the view that teachers and teacher unions who oppose such layoffs and further cuts are selfish and indifferent to the needs of students.
This type of bad faith attack has teachers, unions, staff and students around the country demanding that states and the federal government immediately provide emergency funding in order to prevent the elimination of hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs and school personnel. But the reaction against funding cuts is not voiced exclusively by those parties directly invested in schools. It is also a position being advocated by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who wants to save over 300,000 teacher jobs by getting Congress to appropriate $23 billion in emergency aid. While the call to restore funding is only a temporary solution to the problem of school layoffs, if not school reform itself, it should not be discounted. Even a temporary reprieve is crucial for the many teachers who will lose their jobs and join the ballooning ranks of the unemployed. Yet, what is absent from such analysis is any understanding of how these massive teacher layoffs are related to the larger crisis of neoliberalism and casino capitalism and its ongoing assault on public goods, the social contract and any remaining social protections offered by the social state. While the circumstances in Greece are somewhat different and far more severe than in the United States, there are similar market-driven forces underlying the economic meltdown in both countries. Fortunately, the current financial crisis in Greece and the widespread public response to it offers a different and more critical insight into how to respond to what Frank Rich has rightly called an “international economic meltdown” caused by “the financial sector’s runaway casino culture.”
In Greece, similar draconian measures are being called for, but the protests emerging in the streets of Athens and other cities operate out of a much more sophisticated level of political literacy. In this instance, the Greek protesters view cuts in public services and education along with the dismantling of the welfare state as part of the harsh disciplinary policies of an international and social order dominated by neoliberal institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.[3a] These very same policies glorify deregulated markets, privatization, the gutting of the social state and a society largely organized for the accumulation of capital, and function to serve the interests of an elite cadre of the rich and powerful. This growing tide of opposition in Greece to the neoliberal policies of the IMF, the European Union (EU) and the corporate state rejects the power and market-driven values of financial institutions that privilege the needs of corporations over human rights while unraveling the protections of the social state and disregarding environmental safeguards. The Greek protesters largely refuse the comforting illusion that neoliberal attacks on the social state begin and end with the current recession and can be corrected by slashing social protections through what Chronis Polychroniou calls “the implantation of a structural adjustment program that contains harsh austerity measures which will hurt workers, pensioners and the poor and dismantle an already scant welfare system.” Nor do these protesters accept the argument that the voices and actions of those who suffer hardships that extend from being unemployed to having one’s pension wiped out can only be framed through a pathologizing and privatizing gaze that reduces such protests to individual irresponsibility, laziness, or another degrading character flaw. Hence, it is not surprising that the marchers have yelled “thieves, thieves,” and “burn the parliament down, it is a bordello.”
In my view, the reaction of protesters in the United States juxtaposed with the resistance movement in Greece suggests a difference between the two cultures that is not merely incidental, and speaks to an ever widening chasm of political culture and literacy that separates these two societies. Greece reflects a social order in which a vibrant political culture and respect for critical education enable its citizens to think carefully and thoughtfully about both the history of the crisis and the socio-political forces that are causing it. The protests are not simply directed against harsh austerity measures, but also “against a ruling system as the economic and financial crisis has finally brought to the surface all the perversions and deformities of a political culture that thrives on graft and corruption … and the plundering of the public wealth for the benefit of the domestic economic elite.” By contrast, in the United States a good part of the mainstream media and its anti-public intellectuals largely examine the financial crisis through very limited modes of analyses, suggesting not merely a devolution of political insight and critical understanding, but also the refusal to acknowledge the stultifying effects of the decades-long influence of a market-driven cultural apparatus that depoliticizes citizens and robs individuals of opportunities to think critically and to act on their capacities for thoughtful engagement and collective action. In the US, the mainstream media is controlled largely by a few major corporations and lacks the political sophistication one finds in the media in Europe and other parts of the world. In the US, politics spawns a culture of entertainment which trivializes the news and substitutes the spectacle over substance; in the case of “Fox News,” certain forms of political illiteracy actually drive what could loosely be called social commentary and reporting. In the US, the only public spheres left where critical analysis and discussion take place are in the alternative media extending from blogs to various online news journals.
Clearly, this massive hijacking of wealth and power by a militarized, market fundamentalism points to more than an economic or political problem: it heralds a crisis of education that is part of a broader crisis of democracy itself. Hence, it is all the more devastating that the United States chooses to deal with its financial crisis by further weakening public and higher education. Education remains one of the most important spheres left for creating critical and engaged citizens capable of challenging a material and symbolic order that blindly legitimates a culture of corruption, greed and inequality. Under casino capitalism, we not only have a growing divide between the rich and the poor, a divide in which the rich pretty much have a monopoly on political, economic and social opportunities, but also the enormous power of a cultural apparatus that functions as a nonstop mode of education that endlessly carpet-bombs young and old with market-based values that undermine democratic values, notions of shared responsibility and a respect for the public good.
This pervasive mode of corporate pedagogy with its erasure of the historical, ethical and social makes it difficult for the larger public to recognize that the current crisis facing public schoolteachers in the United States stems from a variety of interrelated socio-economic-political forces. Some of these forces include a full-fledged attack on the welfare state, the determination of neoliberal advocates to disinvest in public education, the replacement of critical pedagogical practices with bloodless instrumental modes of training and an ongoing attempt to destroy teacher unions. But they also include a concerted ideological and political effort by corporate-backed lobbyists, politicians and conservatives to weaken the power of existing and prospective teachers who challenge the mix of economic Darwinism and right-wing conservatism now aimed at dismantling any vestige of critical education in the name of educational reform.
An exemplary illustration of how a militarized form of market fundamentalism works can be seen in the spate of laws passed in Arizona, Florida, and other states undermining both any vestige of critical teaching, while reducing the protections and benefits of educators. In Florida, former, Gov. Jeb Bush, signed into law a bill stating, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” That factual history, the law states, shall be viewed as “knowable, teachable and testable.” – as if interpretation were a burden in teaching students how to situate, understand and critically engage “facts.” Florida’s inane law finds its counterpart in another, more ruthless, law banning ethnic studies in Tucson public schools. It gets worse. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he will freeze the salaries of public schoolteachers for the next two years. The move to bailing out the rich to punishing educators is no longer simply a passing thought. Not only are teachers and students under attack in this case, but also being undermined are those institutions and modes of critical education that might provide the basis for both symbolic and material resistance to such racist policies. Before analyzing the current assault on public schooling and teachers, one that promotes a dangerous form of political illiteracy and culture of depoliticization, I want to turn first to the protests in Greece. The Greek protest against the toxic neoliberal policies of casino capitalism is important because it provides a different theoretical understanding of both politics and the formative culture that shapes it. In doing so, it offers an example of a more informative application of the tools of critical education and literacy to the assault on education and the social state than the protests taking place against teacher layoffs in the United States.
Greek Protests Against Casino Capitalism and the Politics of Neoliberalism
Responding to a global financial recession and debt crisis caused by what Gerard Dumenil calls the madness of neoliberalism organized through its vast and powerful network of corrupt banks and financial institutions, thousands of people took to the streets in Greece to protest austerity measures imposed by the EU and the IMF in order to put into place a $140-billion rescue package. Rather than punish ruling politicians and corporate elites who are the vanguard of militarized neoliberalism and reform the institutions responsible for the financial meltdown and soaring debt crisis, the Greek government is supporting market-driven policies that will inflict massive amounts of suffering on ordinary Greeks, who, like many of their counterparts in the United States, have already lost their homes, savings, jobs, and other social protections. Further subjected to the disciplinary mechanisms of the market, the people of Greece are being asked to submit to increased cuts in the public sector, including reductions in their salaries, pensions and other vital social services. Under the terms of the cruel diktats of the IMF and EU, the neoliberal mode of economic Darwinism exercises its authority by imposing collective punishment on an entire society for the misdeeds of a relative few corporate, financial and political elites. But there is more being revealed here than the fundamental immorality of neoliberalism; there is also what Loic Wacquant calls “a transnational project aiming to remake the nexus of market, state and citizenship from above.”As Costas Douzinas pointed out, at the heart of this project is an attempt to launch “the final assault on the European welfare state, suiting the neoliberal ideology of privatization, deregulation and transfer of capital and power from the public to the private.” In part, this can be seen in the current demands for reform that “will decimate the public sector, undermine the national health service, privatize the remaining utilities and extend salary cuts to the private sector, destroying hard won employment rights. No public debate, parliamentary vote or referendum has authorised this wholesale destruction of the post-dictatorship social contract.” One demand that should raise eyebrows in the United States is the IMF attempt to push the Greek government to implement budget cuts for education and to proceed further by privatizing higher education.
Refusing to give up their pensions, social protections and other benefits of the social state, teachers, young people, the elderly, labor activists, and a host of other groups are rising up en masse in Greece to resist this neoliberal assault. As a function of shared understanding of how they as a people and democratic society are being undermined, they have organized collectively and refused to bear the brunt of punitive policies enacted by big banks, mega corporations, and other financial industries that gobble up corporate profits as a result of the workings of a “bloated financial sector [that largely] steer[s] savings away from productive investments into speculative financial investments – corporate mergers and takeovers and one risky asset bubble after another.” What the example of the Greek protests suggests for Americans is the need to rethink not only the nature of the global neoliberal project driving teacher layoffs and the draconian cutbacks in school funding and other social services, but also how the current call for educational reform in the United States defines the crisis in a language and through a set of values that mimic the very discourse at the heart of the economic and ideological forces that caused the financial meltdown in the first place. The people of Greece are refusing handouts that reflect the priorities of the rich over everyone else. They are also rejecting the assumption that the market is the ultimate arbiter of social life and, for that reason, should not be held responsible for the damaged lives and human suffering it produces. Clearly, the struggle being waged in Greece is not about reforming a militarized version of casino capitalism, but about putting into place a new political and economic system that will instead embrace the social state and prioritize the basic needs of the general population over the financial needs of the ruling elites and transnational corporations.
In what follows, I want to focus specifically on how the current crisis regarding teacher layoffs in the United States is being analyzed and addressed through weak liberal and neoliberal reformist discourses and how the hidden order of these discourses is the ultimate failure of public schooling in America and the reduction of teachers to a new subaltern class in the emerging for-profit education business. The economic crisis has created a kind of disaster politics in which all public goods are now up for sale, especially public education. If human beings are the most important collateral damage of the financial crisis, liberal and conservative reformers realize that some of the most fragile and crucial institutions they can infiltrate under the guise of a call for reform are the public schools. First, I will examine the limits of the liberal discourse on education, exemplified in the work of Robert Reich. I will then turn to the shortcomings of the Obama-Duncan market-driven reforms.
The Limits of Bailout Discourse and Liberal Reform in Education
The political limits of the reactions in the dominant media regarding recent announcements predicting massive teacher layoffs can be illustrated in two responses: the first is provided by Reich, the former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration; Reich exemplifies the soft approach to educational reform, while the second and most serious comes from the current Secretary of Education, Duncan, along with an army of rich corporate leaders and anti-public intellectuals and neoliberal foundations. The first response illustrates a moderate liberal understanding of what passes as educational reform under the Obama administration. The second response represents the voice of official power embracing financial and ruling interests as a solution to the challenge of educational reform in a post-Bush era. This latter case is a more threatening example of reform, not merely because it is promoted by the government, but because it makes an outward appeal to liberal principles that are in actuality deeply indebted to right-wing values and policies that increasingly aim to undermine public schools and the education of prospective teachers, while reclaiming market-driven values, practices and policies responsible for the recent financial crisis. Both Reich’s liberal views and Duncan’s neoliberal position on education share an infatuation with market-driven modes of education and pedagogy. Neither seems aware of the fact that, while a number of other institutions are now challenging the market-driven values that have shaped American society for the last 30 years, education seems to be one of the few spheres left that is seemingly willing to enshrine such values and, with no irony intended, does so in the name of reform. Both arguments are disingenuous and while they may contain some genuine elements of reform, they ultimately undermine the notions that public schools are one of our most important democratic public spheres, that teachers are a crucial public resource who should be treated with dignity and a measure of autonomy and that students deserve an education that enables them to become fully responsible and critically engaged citizens rather than one that views them as customers, low-skilled workers or criminals.
Reich’s argument focuses on the hardships that public schools and teachers face because of the deficits in state and local budgets brought on by the economic recession of 2008. He recognizes that one result of laying off thousands of teachers is that classrooms that once contained 20 to 25 students will soon be crammed with 40 to 45 students. But more is at stake than overcrowded classrooms; many vital education programs will be cut, including music, sports, art and even traditional subjects such as history. He believes that something is wrong with a government that can provide $700 billion to bail out Wall Street banks and investment houses, but does next to nothing to bail out schools. He insists that if the American people recognized that young people represent another form of wealth, which he unfortunately calls human capital, it will urge legislators to “shift incentives away from financial capital toward human capital,” which he believes can be done through a combination of taxes on financial transactions and interest-free loans. Unfortunately, Reich has little insight into how public schools are being positioned as one of the most crucial battlefields in the war over resources under the current regime of casino capitalism. For instance, the eight trillion dollars that the federal government handed over to the collapsed financial sector points to more than a reckless bailout for the rich or a set of misplaced priorities, it also represents a systemic attempt by a militarized neoliberal economic and social order to drain money from the public sector and put it into the hands of rich individuals and powerful corporations and into the coffers of the permanent war complex. Consequently, there is little mention in this analysis of the priority given to military spending over educational investments. Appropriations of public funds for Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 amount to a total war cost of $1.05 trillion dollars. Military spending in the United States is not only unparalleled across the globe, it is also politically, ethically and economically outrageous. In terms of priorities, we get a glimpse of how this money could be used when translated in practical terms. The cost of one B-2 Stealth Bomber is $1,000,000,000, the amount of which could supply 53,504,548 children with school books for a whole year. While this type of egregious defense spending is great news for the military-industrial complex, such runaway spending drains money from social programs that could be used to completely wipe out the cuts now experienced in education and other vital social services. Herein lies an element of the financial crisis that indicts both neoliberalism and the economic and military priorities that it supports. This element of the crisis is simply off the table in the mainstream media and among liberal and conservative politicians. Liberals inveigh against bailouts, but speak in hushed whispers about the need for massive social investments in areas designed to develop public services, goods and transportation. Liberals have been so eager to please corporate interests in the last 20 years that they can’t even imagine a notion of educational reform connected to a jobs creation program aimed at rebuilding the aging infrastructures of schools. A public works project of this sort could result in the employment of thousands of workers just as a “shift toward investment – especially toward education, alternative energy and ecological restoration” could provide thousands of jobs to teachers and others and improve the quality of lives for millions.
Reich fails to make clear, as Anne Frémaux pointed out, “that the market by itself does not constitute a social project. It is … the site where the inequalities that will persist throughout social existence are born: it is, in its essence, the very site itself of the alienation that is opposed to the emancipative project of the school.” What liberal critics such as Reich seem to miss is also captured in Les Leopold’s suggestion: “Perhaps the protesters should turn their eyes towards the twenty-five top hedge fund honchos who took in $25 billion in 2009. Their ‘earnings’ alone could fund 658,000 entry level teachers.”Or take note of the fact that David Tepper, the head of Appaloosa hedge fund made “$4 billion (not million) in 2009. Mr. Tepper’s personal income for 2009 would have covered the salaries of 62 percent of public schoolteachers – who reach 855,600 students. (Mean salary $57,645).” He further points out that New Jersey Gov. Charles Christie, the political head of the state where Tepper resides, will go out of his way to break the teachers’ union and fire teachers, but, at the same time, refuses to reinstate “the millionaires’ tax – even though the state’s fiscal crisis is a direct consequence of what millionaires and billionaires did on Wall Street.” Leopold is doing more than simply renouncing the government bailout of the mega banks and financial institutions; he is also identifying the systemic order of political and economic forces attempting to destroy public education by turning it into just another business that will provide handsome profits to stockholders. According to Leopold:
[i]t’s ironic that the battlefield in this war over resources is public education. Because the public remains entirely uneducated about the connection between those billionaires and school budget cuts. We are clueless about what the Wall Street billionaires do to earn their riches and whether it’s of any value. We might be able to understand “weapons of mass destruction,” but financial weapons of mass destruction are way beyond us.
Public schools are under attack not because they are failing or are inefficient, but because they are public, an unwanted reminder of a public sphere and set of institutions whose purpose is to serve the common good and promote democratic ends, values and social relations. The forces poised to destroy public schools are ideologically motivated to destroy all vestiges of the common good, just as they are enraptured economically by the possibility of reaping big profits through an ongoing campaign aimed at promoting vouchers, privatization and charters, all of which are intended to slowly and successfully convince the public to disinvest in public schooling and transform it into a private rather than public good.
Reich has nothing to say about the deregulators, venture capitalists, army of privateers, and others who believe that the market provides the only meaningful language of human interaction. He and many other liberals are conveniently silent about the right-wing attacks on public schools being waged in a variety of states through legislation designed to abolish tenure and faculty seniority, eliminate teachers’ unions and transform schools into adjuncts of the corporation, or, in some cases, turn them into military training camps. They decry the lack of public school funding, but are silent about states such as Arizona abolishing tenure along with seniority protections so they can get rid of both teachers who are critical of regressive policies and those teachers who are considered too expensive to keep, especially when young and inexperienced teachers can be hired at entry-level salaries. This kind of economic cleansing is also matched by a type of ethnic cleansing made evident by the fact that in Phoenix, Arizona, the state senators approved legislation that would eliminate ethnic studies programs in the Tucson Unified School District on the grounds that they “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”Moreover, the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona not only attempts to remove immigrants from the streets, but has been extended to the classroom. The Arizona Department of Education has instructed schools to either terminate or remove from the classroom teachers who do not meet English fluency standards “on things such as comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing.” What is tragic about this stipulation is that many of these teachers are bilingual, but speak English with an accent. The new “show me your papers” requirement in Arizona is now being matched with a “let’s hear you speak” rule in order to determine if you are a “real” American.
Punishing teachers for having the wrong accent is more than an outburst of what Frank Rich calls “nativist apoplexy,” it is also a form of racist anti-intellectualism that disregards the pedagogical value of having bilingual teachers working in classrooms with students whose history, culture and language are familiar to them. At the same time, the law defines ethnic studies as a threat to students because it focuses on histories that are often left out of the curriculum or, even worse, subjected to racist stereotyping. This is an argument against what might be called dangerous memories – those memories of struggle that are deemed un-American because they criticize official, often cleansed, narratives about history or what some have called consensus history, which is free of conflict, struggle, resistance and reads like a script written for the Walt Disney company. There is nothing useful about this ethically scandalous, state-sanctioned legislation given that it succumbs to promoting a type of political illiteracy that views difference rather than bigotry as a great threat to learning and to democracy.
Liberal critics such as Reich exhibit little understanding of the broader threat to public schooling posed by venture capitalists, for-profit school advocates, greedy corporations and the wide range of privatizing forces that extend from the school voucher crowd to the accountability supporters who want to link teaching to material rewards based on test outcomes. This may be one reason why he fails to see the contradiction between wanting to save the jobs of public schoolteachers while simultaneously using a market-based description of teachers as a form of capital, with its accompanying implication that schools produce goods – two categories often used by anti-public school intellectuals. Education is about more than harnessing capital, positioning the United States favorably as a global competitor and improving our standard of living. It is at heart the laboratory where public values, justice and democracy come together to provide the foundation for critical agents and engaged citizens. In the end, Reich’s model of school reform mimics the logic of the market and gives precedence to economic values over democratic ideals.
Customer satisfaction, marketing, capital accumulation, efficiency, unbridled competition and business-type management are the key concepts that drive this model of public schooling and redefine the role of teaching. It is an economistic model that has no interest in questions of ethics, ends and justice; it offers, instead, a pedagogy in which an emphasis on practice supplements the hard work of learning how to think, standardization replaces creativity and the deskilling of teachers replaces an emphasis on creating the economic, social and pedagogical conditions for teachers to combine thinking and implementation, autonomy and creativity, in the service of the public good. Liberals like Reich just don’t get it. Their political discourse is just too narrow and unreflectively endorses the right-wing belief that deregulation and redistribution are tantamount to wholesale educational reform.
Obama-Duncan Educational Reform and the Politics of Neoliberalism
One of the most startling absences that dominates the Obama administration’s emphasis on educational reform is how little it thinks about or advocates the notion that students should be educated for democratic citizenship, engage in debates about public values and ethics and learn the knowledge and skills necessary for economic opportunity. Instead, the public purpose and democratic goals of schools are downplayed, if not undermined, by an emphasis on policies, values and social practices that mimic the market-driven values of the existing mode of casino capitalism. For example, Duncan’s “Race to the Top” agenda emphasizes expanding efficiency at the expense of equity, prioritizes testing over critical pedagogical practices, endorses commercial values rather than public values, accentuates competition as a form of social combat over cooperation and shared responsibilities and endorses individual rights over support for the collective good – all of which are values that come out of the neoliberal play book in which the public is a term of opprobrium and self-interest coded as parental choice is the only recognizable motive for engaging in educational reform.
It is not surprising that Race to the Top is cloaked as a contest based on the old standard free-market notion of competition, but instead of a contest that simply mimics market values, there is also at work an ideological agenda tied to dismantling teacher unions, removing protections for teachers and positioning future teachers at the mercy of administrators who believe that educational reform is mostly about creating data systems to measure how people teach and learn effectively. This educational movement could have been put together by Bernie Madoff, and speaks clearly to how casino capitalism has produced an anti-reform movement more appropriately understood as a form of casino education.
Duncan’s educational policies share an unholy alliance with the very norms and practices that are responsible for the current economic crisis and include an uncritical admiration for the deregulation of economic life, the collapse of public concerns into privatized issues, the development of policies that privilege the rich while criminalizing the poor, the substitution of the punishing state for the social state and an appeal to common sense and practice as a way to discredit theory, if not thinking itself. This is the same logic that supports the view that corporations are people and provides the ideological and political foundation for the ruthless market fundamentalism that has taken over the country since the 1970s. It is also a view that devalues both students and pedagogy by viewing young people as simply data and pedagogy as a delivery system.
But Duncan’s educational project goes further in that it discredits and undermines those forms of teaching and learning that are vital to public service, just as it creates modes of agency almost entirely harnessed to an economic and material self-interest that reflects an open disdain for the public sector at the same time as a barely concealed contempt for democracy. Duncan’s educational reform agenda has more in common with the conservative backlash that developed against the gains made by social movements fighting for reform in higher education in the 1960s than it does with any vestige of a progressive movement. Campus activists fought against the corporatization of the university and its market and military oriented values and studies. The struggle over education was defined largely as a fight for academic freedom, faculty autonomy, the creation of ethnic and women’s studies departments, civil rights and free speech. Education was defined as a practice of freedom and empowerment, rather than a celebration of instrumental rationality and corporate values. We now find ourselves in a society in which the Hobbesian war of all against all has become second nature and easily accommodates institutions, values and policies in which the obligations of the state to protect all of its members against the pitfalls of misfortune, the pain of indignity and the horror of poverty have given way to viewing such protections with disdain, leaving only a “culture of charity, humiliation and stigma” to redress the needs of those now regarded as disposable, human waste products of a consumerism obsessed, market-driven society.
In Obama and Duncan’s America, the pathologies of racism and the corrosive effects of inequality in wealth, income and power – the consequences of which include everything from missed educational opportunities to the mass incarceration of poor minorities – do not appear to exist. The Gordon Gekko ethos of ruthless competition motivated by its ugly belief that greed is good has resurfaced in officially sanctioned educational discourse and can be seen in policies that emphasize market-driven notions of competition and choice, pitting teachers against each other through the use of monetary rewards for teachers and students who meet alleged objective performance-based goals. It is also evident in modes of teacher education that emphasize practical skills over forms of education that would actually enable teachers to think about what they teach, how they teach and how the context in which they teach might be theorized as part of a broader effort to deepen and enhance the vital civic purposes of schooling. Lost here is any notion of educational reform dedicated to providing all children with a quality education while simultaneously keeping alive the most important ideals, values, formative culture and social relations necessary for an aspiring democracy. Duncan’s “Race to the Top” and his love affair with charter schools is supported by Ivy League snobs who harbor nostalgic, if not provincial, dreams about their private school experiences, white billionaires and rich foundations yearning for a new subaltern class of literate workers and a host of self-interested anti-public intellectuals who hope to gain huge financial rewards in the for-profit education business. What these groups all have in common is a disdain for any notion of public education in which teachers actually have power and public schools are seen as part of a project in which young people are educated to become vital participants in the political, economic and cultural spheres of society.
Most disturbing about the educational policies being pushed by Obama and Duncan is the degree to which they are organized around a formative culture in which there is no language for validating the discourse of public purpose over self-interest, embracing critical thinking over a culture of conformity and viewing pedagogy as a productive force that creates particular modes of knowledge, agency, values and social relations rather than merely as a refined practice for emphasizing the measurement and quantification of classroom practice. There is no talk of domination and conflict among these anti-public reformers. In fact, the discourse that trumps all political and ethical considerations is choice, the ultimate market-driven value. The emphasis on the practical and data-driven performance pushed by Duncan and his neoliberal friends not only represents the triumph of abstract empiricism over substance, but also the reduction of educational reform to the prison house of methodology. Duncan’s emphasis on the practical and the empirical, in the end, simply frees reformers from the burdens associated with theorizing matters of power, politics and ethics. Of course, such issues go to the heart of how to understand pedagogy as a moral and political practice rather than merely as a technique or a method. Moreover, public and higher education are a crucial reminder of the importance and necessity of institutions and public sites governed by public values rather than limited commercial values. They share an affinity with the social state in which matters of governance are not reduced to individual and corporate interests but are defined as part of the common good. As such, schools are the front line in providing students with the knowledge and skills that enable them to question authority, connect the specific to larger social forces, translate private issues into public considerations and create a formative culture in which knowledge and reason oppose forms of schooling and a public pedagogy whose ultimate purpose is to create a cheerful robot. Educational reform matters, but it cannot be viewed as an isolated issue and must be linked to the broader crisis of power, economics, culture and democracy. As such, education connects the crisis of literacy, politics and democracy so as to provide a glimpse of the larger context in which education must be understood and struggled over. In the United States, the politics of education is addressed largely by anti-reformers as a private good so as to undermine its role as a public good. In Greece, education is understood as central to the fight for not merely individual and political rights, but social rights – for a notion of the public, solidarity and common good in which individual freedom cannot be detached from the obligations of social and ethical responsibility.
In both Greece and the United States, teachers, students, workers, and many others feel an acute sense of betrayal and moral indignation as the social state is dismantled and politicians scramble to protect the privileged, wealthy and mega corporations with bailouts, while placing the burden for the current economic recession on the working and middle classes. While the sense of betrayal and indignation over the deep financial cuts in education are affecting both countries, the response on the part of Greek students and labor activists is informed by a much broader understanding of the workings of neoliberal politics and the far-reaching influence of casino capitalism. The culture of political literacy is alive and well in Greece, but is declining and is under major assault in the United States. And this is most evident in the campaign that Duncan is waging against public schools, teachers and colleges of education. The Obama administration’s educational policy increasingly appears to favor an education system and a broader cultural apparatus that are utterly commodified, instrumentalized and dominated by private rather than public considerations. Curiously, despite some skepticism regarding market-driven values being expressed by those involved in the financial sector in the United States, debates over education seem to be one of the few places left where neoliberal values are asserting themselves in an entirely unreflective way. The pedagogical conditions necessary to reclaim a culture of political literacy suggest that we take matters of education seriously if we are going to survive as a democracy. At the very least, it is time for Americans to take note of the fundamental importance of retaining educational theories and pedagogical practices that produce the knowledge, values and formative culture necessary for young people to believe that democracy is worth fighting for.