"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Corporatization’

The Universal Pre-K Diversion: Why Isn’t Closing 129 Chicago Public Schools National News?

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Oldspeak:“President Obama waxed poetic at his state of the union speech; tours the country crowing about providing universal pre-k education and increasing access to college education, and receives thunderous applause. One has to wonder why then, he has been silent about the decimation of public school systems nationwide? Even though most of the school closings and privatizations are occurring in socioeconomically disadvantaged minority-majority communities where he presumably did his much ballyhooed community organizing. Why no discussion of the increasing corporatization and militarization of public schools that has no measurable benefits for students?  Probably because he appointed as his education secretary Arne Duncan, a non-educator & former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who was instrumental in implementing the CPS’s “Renaisance 2010” school privatization scheme. Yes, Mr. Duncan oversaw the conversion of  over 100 public schools to charter schools during his tenure in Chicago. What about others in the political class, red and blue? Why the silence on this? Bruce A. Dixon has an interesting take.

Related Stories:

Educators Push Back Against Obama’s “Business Model” for School Reforms

“Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools?”: Daniel Denvir on Plan for School Closings, Privatization

A Look at Arne Duncan’s VIP List of Requests at Chicago Schools and the Effects of his Expansion of Charter Schools in Chicago

Zombie Politics, Democracy, And The Threat of Authoritarianism

By Bruce A. Dixon @ Black Agenda Report:

It’s an obvious question, with an easy answer. Our nation’s bipartisan political elite have decided to privatize public education. They know the only way they can execute this deeply unpopular policy is to do it on the down-low, with a minimum of coverage, and no mention of the p-word, especially of growing civic resistance to it.

If you don’t live in Chicago you might not know that the CEO and the dozens of other six figure a year mayoral cronies who run the Chicago Public Schools want to close 129 public schools this year, more than a third of the city’s total. It’s not national news for the same reason that closing 40 public schools in Philadelphia last year wasn’t national news, and massive school closings in the poorer neighborhoods of cities across the country is not news either.

It’s not news because school closings and school privatization, the end game of the bipartisan policies the Obama administration, Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce, a host of right wing foundations and deep pockets and hordes of politicians in both parties from the president down are pushing down the throats of communities across the country, are deeply unpopular. The American people, and especially the parents, teachers, grandparents, and other residents of poorer neighborhoods where closings and privatization are happening emphatically don’t want these things.

Even the word describing their policy, “privatization” is so vastly unpopular that they’ve taken it out of circulation altogether. The best way, our leaders imagine, to contain and curtail resistance to their deeply unpopular policies is to avoid naming them for what they are, to keep them on the down low, to not report on their implementation, and certainly to not cover any civic resistance to them.

Local elites in each city and school district concoct real or imaginary “crises” to which the solution is always firing more experienced teachers, hiring more temps in their place, instituting more high-stakes testing, closing more public schools and substituting more unaccountable (and often profitable) charter schools, frequently in the same buildings that once housed public schools. In Chicago the “crisis” is precipitated every year when the CPS (that’s Chicago Public Schools – Chicago’s never had an elected school board, they’re all mayoral appointees) honchos announce the schools are in a billion dollar hole. The Chicago Teachers Union of course, took a look over the same books and revealed that despite the host of top $100,000 a year officials whose jobs never seem to be cut, the system was nine figures in the black, not ten in the red. Naturally, local and national media didn’t report that either.

Chicago’s teachers have done what those in New York, Houston, Dallas, L.A. and others have not, and spent their union dues funding outreach and collaboration with parents across the city, so neighborhood hearings on the school closings are packed to overflowing with outraged parents, indignant local business people, angry teachers and concerned students. If CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News gave the school closings and privatization story a fraction of the coverage they gave deceptive and dishonest pro-privatization movies like Waiting For Superman and Won’t Back Down, the outrage against the move to privatize education would be unstoppable. The most coverage the wave of school closings have received lately was a misleading segment on Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekly TV show on whether school closings were “racist” or not, with no examination of the how or why they happen or the growing resistance to them.

Oceans of ink and hot air have been expended claiming that “social media” would somehow take up the slack created by the disappearance of local news gathering organizations, and how these things can somehow fuel and sustain a wave of public outrage that can topple unjust authority and make the will of the people felt. But when it comes to the war of our elite waged to privatize public education, we haven’t seen it yet.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. A longtime Chicagoan, he now lives in exile near Marietta GA, where he is a state committee member of the Georgia Green party and a partner in a tech firm. Contact him via this site’s contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.

Turning A Blind Eye To Catastrophic Truths In The Age Of Unreality

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2012 at 7:31 pm

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Oldspeak:Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures . . . they may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. George Gerbner  Fear. It is a powerful motivator. It is a powerful captor.  It drives us to greatness & calamity.  It captivates us with ubiquitous illusions of safety, stability & sanity. It plays an essential and ironically unseen part in our refusal to see truths like those imparted by Osho – ‎”Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.” We’ve been socially engineered to not see that which is. To not think, just react. To avoid all that is real. This engineering has one fatal flaw. It has not taken into account the unavoidability of reality and the natural world we are a part of.  It it only a matter of time before we are no longer able to turn blind eyes to catastrophic truths.” “”Ignorance Is Strength”

By Chris Hedges @ Truthdig:

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about—lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it. He uses the Oedipus story to make his point. He argued that Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and the “blind” Tiresias grasped the truth, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother as prophesized, but they colluded to ignore it. We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured. Steiner describes a psychological truth that is deeply frightening.

I saw this collective capacity for self-delusion among the urban elites in Sarajevo and later Pristina during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. These educated elites steadfastly refused to believe that war was possible although acts of violence by competing armed bands had already begun to tear at the social fabric. At night you could hear gunfire. But they were the last to “know.” And we are equally self-deluded. The physical evidence of national decay—the crumbling infrastructures, the abandoned factories and other workplaces, the rows of gutted warehouses, the closure of libraries, schools, fire stations and post offices—that we physically see, is, in fact, unseen. The rapid and terrifying deterioration of the ecosystem, evidenced in soaring temperatures, droughts, floods, crop destruction, freak storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, are met blankly with Steiner’s “blind eye.”

Oedipus, at the end of Sophocles’ play, cuts out his eyes and with his daughter Antigone as a guide wanders the countryside. Once king, he becomes a stranger in a strange country. He dies, in Antigone’s words, “in a foreign land, but one he yearned for.”

William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness. Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see. Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester says after he is blinded. “I stumbled when I saw.” When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts: “Out of my sight!” To which Kent replies:

See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision. It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity. “Love without imagination is eternal death.”

The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.”

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see.

“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare wrote, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower. And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek is more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction. Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.

To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.” But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality. It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil. The inability to think, Arendt wrote, “is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded.”

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in “The Brothers Karamazov,” to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Zombie Politics, Democracy, And The Threat of Authoritarianism

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

Oldspeak:”In the minds of the American public, the dominant media, and the accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is little understanding of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values, and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. As the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, there is a willful ignorance of how emerging registers of power and governance “dissolve politics into pathology.”[10] It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And yet the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Italy. In spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable—that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character.” – Henry A. Giroux

By Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

Introduction (Part I)

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. -Hannah Arendt [1]

The Rise of Zombie Politics

In the world of popular culture, zombies seem to be everywhere, as evidenced by the relentless slew of books, movies, video games, and comics. From the haunting Night of the Living Dead to the comic movie Zombieland, the figure of the zombie has captured and touched something unique in the contemporary imagination. But the dark and terrifying image of the zombie with missing body parts, oozing body fluids, and an appetite for fresh, living, human brains does more than feed the mass-marketing machines that prey on the spectacle of the violent, grotesque, and ethically comatose. There is more at work in this wave of fascination with the grotesquely walking hyper-dead than a Hollywood appropriation of the dark recesses and unrestrained urges of the human mind. The zombie phenomenon is now on display nightly on television alongside endless examples of destruction unfolding in real-time. Such a cultural fascination with proliferating images of the living hyper-dead and unrelenting human catastrophes that extend from a global economic meltdown to the earthquake in Haiti to the ecological disaster caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico signals a shift away from the hope that accompanies the living to a politics of cynicism and despair. The macabre double movement between “the dead that walk”[2] and those who are alive but are dying and suffering cannot be understood outside of the casino capitalism that now shapes every aspect of society in its own image. A casino capitalist zombie politics views competition as a form of social combat, celebrates war as an extension of politics, and legitimates a ruthless Social Darwinism in which particular individuals and groups are considered simply redundant, disposable—nothing more than human waste left to stew in their own misfortune—easy prey for the zombies who have a ravenous appetite for chaos and revel in apocalyptic visions filled with destruction, decay, abandoned houses, burned-out cars, gutted landscapes, and trashed gas stations.

The twenty-first-century zombies no longer emerge from the grave; they now inhabit the rich environs of Wall Street and roam the halls of the gilded monuments of greed such as Goldman Sachs. As an editorial in The New York Times points out, the new zombies of free-market fundamentalism turned “the financial system into a casino. Like gambling, the transactions mostly just shifted paper money around the globe. Unlike gambling, they packed an enormous capacity for collective and economic destruction—hobbling banks that made bad bets, freezing credit and economic activity. Society—not the bankers—bore the cost.”[3] In this way, the zombie— the immoral, sub-Nietzschean, id-driven “other” who is “hyper-dead” but still alive as an avatar of death and cruelty—provides an apt metaphor for a new kind of authoritarianism that has a grip on contemporary politics in the United States.[4] This is an authoritarianism in which mindless self-gratification becomes the sanctioned norm and public issues collapse into the realm of privatized anger and rage. The rule of the market offers the hyper-dead an opportunity to exercise unprecedented power in American society, reconstructing civic and political culture almost entirely in the service of a politics that fuels the friend/enemy divide, even as democracy becomes the scandal of casino capitalism—its ultimate humiliation.

Click below to listen to The Critical Lede’s audio interview with Dr. Henry Giroux.

Press play to listen to the interview:

But the new zombies are not only wandering around in the banks, investment houses, and death chambers of high finance, they have an ever-increasing presence in the highest reaches of government and in the forefront of mainstream media. The growing numbers of zombies in the mainstream media have huge financial backing from the corporate elite and represent the new face of the culture of cruelty and hatred in the second Gilded Age. Any mention of the social state, putting limits on casino capitalism, and regulating corporate zombies puts Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck,
Rush Limbaugh, and other talking heads into a state of high rage. They disparage any discourse that embraces social justice, social responsibility, and human rights. Appealing to “real” American values such as family, God, and Guns, they are in the forefront of a zombie politics that opposes any legislation or policy designed to lessen human suffering and promote economic and social progress. As Arun Gupta points out, they are insistent in their opposition to “civil rights, school desegregation, women’s rights, labor organizing, the minimum wage, Social Security, LGBT rights, welfare, immigrant rights, public education, reproductive rights, Medicare, [and] Medicaid.”[5] The walking hyper-dead even oppose providing the extension of unemployment benefits to millions of Americans who are out of work, food, and hope. They spectacularize hatred and trade in lies and misinformation. They make populist appeals to the people while legitimating the power of the rich. They appeal to common sense as a way of devaluing a culture of questioning and critical exchange. Unrelenting in their role as archetypes of the hyper-dead, they are misanthropes trading in fear, hatred, and hyper-nationalism.

The human suffering produced by the walking hyper-dead can also be seen in the nativist apoplexy resulting in the racist anti-immigration laws passed in Arizona, the attempts to ban ethnic studies in public schools, the rise of the punishing state, the social dumping of millions of people of color into prisons, and the attempts of Tea Party fanatics and politicians who want to “take back America” from President Barack Obama—described in the new lexicon of right-wing political illiteracy as both an alleged socialist and the new Hitler. Newt Gingrich joins Glenn Beck and other members of the elite squad of the hyper-dead in arguing that Obama is just another version of Joseph Stalin. For Gingrich and the rest of the zombie ideologues, any discourse that advocates for social protections, easing human suffering, or imagining a better future is dismissed by being compared to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. Dystopian discourse and End Times morbidity rule the collective consciousness of this group.

The “death panels” envisaged by Sarah Palin are not going to emerge from Obama’s health care reform plan but from the toolkits the zombie politicians and talking heads open up every time they are given the opportunity to speak. The death threats, vandalism, and crowds shouting homophobic slurs at openly gay U.S. House Representative Barney Frank already speak to a fixation with images of death, violence, and war that now grips the country. Sarah Palin’s infamous call to a gathering of her followers to “reload” in opposition to President Obama’s policies—soon followed in a nationally televised press conference with a request for the American people to embrace Arizona’s new xenophobic laws—makes her one of the most prominent of the political zombies. Not only has she made less-than-vague endorsements of violence in many of her public speeches, she has cheerfully embraced the new face of white supremacy in her recent unapologetic endorsement of racial profiling, stating in a widely reported speech that “It’s time for Americans across this great country to stand up and say, ‘We’re all Arizonians now.’”[6] The current descent into racism, ignorance, corruption, and mob idiocy makes clear the degree to which politics has become a sport for zombies rather than engaged and thoughtful citizens.[7]

The hyper-dead celebrate talk radio haters such as Rush Limbaugh, whose fanaticism appears to pass without criticism in the mainstream media. Limbaugh echoes the fanatics who whipped up racial hatred in Weimar Germany, the ideological zombies who dissolved the line between reason and distortion-laden propaganda. How else to explain his claim “that environmentalist terrorists might have caused the ecological disaster in the gulf”?[8] The ethically frozen zombies that dominate screen culture believe that only an appeal to self-interest motivates people—a convenient counterpart to a culture of cruelty that rebukes, if not disdains, any appeal to the virtues of a moral and just society. They smile at their audiences while collapsing the distinction between opinions and reasoned arguments. They report on Tea Party rallies while feeding the misplaced ideological frenzy that motivates such gatherings but then refuse to comment on rallies all over the country that do not trade in violence or spectacle. They report uncritically on Islam bashers, such as the radical right-wing radio host Michael Savage, as if his ultra-extremist racist views are a legitimate part of the American mainstream. In the age of zombie politics, there is too little public outrage or informed public anger over the pushing of millions of people out of their homes and jobs, the defunding of schools, and the rising tide of homeless families and destitute communities. Instead of organized, massive protests against casino capitalism, the American public is treated to an endless and arrogant display of wealth, greed, and power. Armies of zombies tune in to gossip-laden entertainment, game, and reality TV shows, transfixed by the empty lure of celebrity culture.

The roaming hordes of celebrity zombie intellectuals work hard to fuel a sense of misguided fear and indignation toward democratic politics, the social state, and immigrants—all of which is spewed out in bitter words and comes terribly close to inciting violence. Zombies love death-dealing institutions, which accounts for why they rarely criticize the bloated military budget and the rise of the punishing state and its expanding prison system. They smile with patriotic glee, anxious to further the demands of empire as automated drones kill innocent civilians—conveniently dismissed as collateral damage—and the torture state rolls inexorably along in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in other hidden and unknown sites. The slaughter that inevitably follows catastrophe is not new, but the current politics of death has reached new heights and threatens to transform a weak democracy into a full-fledged authoritarian state.

A Turn to the Dark Side of Politics

The American media, large segments of the public, and many educators widely believe that authoritarianism is alien to the political landscape of American society. Authoritarianism is generally associated with tyranny and governments that exercise power in violation of the rule of law. A commonly held perception of the American public is that authoritarianism is always elsewhere. It can be found in other allegedly “less developed/civilized countries,” such as contemporary China or Iran, or it belongs to a fixed moment in modern history, often associated with the rise of twentieth-century totalitarianism in its different forms in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Even as the United States became more disposed to modes of tyrannical power under the second Bush administration—demonstrated, for example, by the existence of secret CIA prisons, warrantless spying on Americans, and state-sanctioned kidnaping—mainstream liberals, intellectuals, journalists, and media pundits argued that any suggestion that the United States was becoming an authoritarian society was simply preposterous. For instance, the journalist James Traub repeated the dominant view that whatever problems the United States faced under the Bush administration had nothing to do with a growing authoritarianism or its more extreme form, totalitarianism.[9] On the contrary, according to this position, America was simply beholden to a temporary seizure of power by some extremists, who represented a form of political exceptionalism and an annoying growth on the body politic. In other words, as repugnant as many of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies might have been, they neither threatened nor compromised in any substantial way America’s claim to being a democratic society.

Against the notion that the Bush administration had pushed the United States close to the brink of authoritarianism, some pundits have argued that this dark moment in America’s history, while uncharacteristic of a substantive democracy, had to be understood as temporary perversion of American law and democratic ideals that would end when George W. Bush concluded his second term in the White House. In this view, the regime of George W. Bush and its demonstrated contempt for democracy was explained away as the outgrowth of a random act of politics— a corrupt election and the bad-faith act of a conservative court in 2000 or a poorly run election campaign in 2004 by an uncinematic and boring Democratic candidate. According to this narrative, the Bush-Cheney regime exhibited such extreme modes of governance in its embrace of an imperial presidency, its violation of domestic and international laws, and its disdain for human rights and democratic values that it was hard to view such antidemocratic policies as part of a pervasive shift toward a hidden order of authoritarian politics, which historically has existed at the margins of American society. It would be difficult to label such a government other than as shockingly and uniquely extremist, given a political legacy that included the rise of the security and torture state; the creation of legal illegalities in which civil liberties were trampled; the launching of an unjust war in Iraq legitimated through official lies; the passing of legislative policies that drained the federal surplus by giving away more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the rich; the enactment of a shameful policy of preemptive war; the endorsement of an inflated military budget at the expense of much-needed social programs; the selling off of as many government functions as possible to corporate interests; the resurrection of an imperial presidency; an incessant attack against unions; support for a muzzled and increasingly corporate-controlled media; the government production of fake news reports to gain consent for regressive policies; the use of an Orwellian vocabulary for disguising monstrous acts such as torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”); the furtherance of a racist campaign of legal harassment and incarceration of Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants; the advancement of a prison binge through a repressive policy of criminalization; the establishment of an unregulated and ultimately devastating form of casino capitalism; the arrogant celebration and support for the interests and values of big business at the expense of citizens and the common good; and the dismantling of social services and social safety nets as part of a larger campaign of ushering in the corporate state and the reign of finance capital?

Authoritarianism With a Friendly Face

In the minds of the American public, the dominant media, and the accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is little understanding of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values, and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. As the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, there is a willful ignorance of how emerging registers of power and governance “dissolve politics into pathology.”[10] It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And yet the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Italy. In
spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable—that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character. [11]

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent, and civil liberties. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic, which leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not a different form of authoritarianism. In this context, it is worth remembering what Huey Long said in response to the question of whether America could ever become fascist: “Yes, but we will call it anti-fascist.”[12] Long’s reply suggests that fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period but a complex and often shifting theoretical and political register for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed, from within. This notion of soft or friendly fascism was articulated in 1985 in Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism, in which he argued that if fascism came to the United States it would not embody the same characteristics associated with fascist forms in the historical past. There would be no Nuremberg rallies, doctrines of racial superiority, government-sanctioned book burnings, death camps, genocidal purges, or the abrogation of the U.S. Constitution. In short, fascism would not take the form of an ideological grid from the past simply downloaded onto another country under different historical conditions. Gross believed that fascism was an ongoing danger and had the ability to become relevant under new conditions, taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences, and political relations.[13] Similarly, in his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton argued that the texture of American fascism would not mimic traditional European forms but would be rooted in the language, symbols, and culture of everyday life. He writes: “No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.”[14] It is worth noting that Umberto Eco, in his discussion of “eternal fascism,” also argued that any updated version of fascism would not openly assume the mantle of historical fascism; rather, new forms of authoritarianism would appropriate some of its elements, making it virtually unrecognizable from its traditional forms. Like Gross and Paxton, Eco contended that fascism, if it comes to America, will have a different guise, although it will be no less destructive of democracy. He wrote:

Ur-Fascism [Eternal Fascism] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.[15]

The renowned political theorist Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Incorporated, updates these views and argues persuasively that the United States has produced its own unique form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism.”[16] Wolin claims that under traditional forms of totalitarianism, there are usually founding texts such as Mein Kampf, rule by a personal demagogue such as Adolf Hitler, political change enacted by a revolutionary movement such as the Bolsheviks, the constitution rewritten or discarded, the political state’s firm control over corporate interests, and an idealized and all-encompassing ideology used to create a unified and totalizing understanding of society. At the same time, the government uses all the power of its cultural and repressive state apparatuses to fashion followers in its own ideological image and collective identity.

In the United States, Wolin argues that an emerging authoritarianism appears to take on a very different form.[17] Instead of a charismatic leader, the government is now governed through the anonymous and largely remote hand of corporate power and finance capital. Political sovereignty is largely replaced by economic sovereignty as corporate power takes over the reins of governance. The dire consequence, as David Harvey points out, is that “raw money power wielded by the few undermines all semblances of democratic governance. The pharmaceutical companies, health insurance and hospital lobbies, for example, spent more than $133 million in the first three months of 2009 to make sure they got their way on health care reform in the United States.”[18] The more money influences politics the more corrupt the political culture becomes. Under such circumstances, holding office is largely dependent on having huge amounts of capital at one’s disposal, while laws and policies at all levels of government are mostly fashioned by lobbyists representing big business corporations and commanding financial institutions. Moreover, as the politics of health care reform indicate, such lobbying, as corrupt and unethical as it may be, is not carried out in the open and displayed by insurance and drug companies as a badge of honor—a kind of open testimonial to the disrespect for democratic governance and a celebration of their power. The subversion of democratic governance in the United States by corporate interests is captured succinctly by Chris Hedges in his observation that

Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation. They use their political action committees to solicit employees and shareholders for donations to fund pliable candidates. The financial sector, for example, spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influenc[e] peddling and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial meltdown and the subsequent looting of the U.S. Treasury. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $26 million last year and drug companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and Eli Lilly kicked in tens of millions more to buy off the two parties. These corporations have made sure our so-called health reform bill will force us to buy their predatory and defective products. The oil and gas industry, the coal industry, defense contractors and telecommunications companies have thwarted the drive for sustainable energy and orchestrated the steady erosion of civil liberties. Politicians do corporate bidding and stage hollow acts of political theater to keep the fiction of the democratic state alive.[19]

Rather than being forced to adhere to a particular state ideology, the general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over schools, higher education, and other cultural apparatuses. The deadening of public values, civic consciousness, and critical citizenship is also the result of the work of anti-public intellectuals representing right-wing ideological and financial interests,[20] dominant media that are largely center-right, and a market-driven public pedagogy that reduces the obligations of citizenship to the endless consumption and discarding of commodities. In addition, a pedagogy of social and political amnesia works through celebrity culture and its counterpart in corporate-driven news, television, radio, and entertainment to produce a culture of stupidity, censorship, and diversionary spectacles.

Depoliticizing Freedom and Agency

Agency is now defined by a neoliberal concept of freedom, a notion that is largely organized according to the narrow notions of individual self-interest and limited to the freedom from constraints. Central to this concept is the freedom to pursue one’s self-interests independently of larger social concerns. For individuals in a consumer society, this often means the freedom to shop, own guns, and define rights without regard to the consequences for others or the larger social order. When applied to economic institutions, this notion of freedom often translates into a call for removing government regulation over the market and economic institutions. This notion of a deregulated and privatized freedom is decoupled from the common good and any understanding of individual and social responsibility. It is an unlimited notion of freedom that both refuses to recognize the importance of social costs and social consequences and has no language for an ethic that calls us beyond ourselves, that engages our responsibility to others. Within this discourse of hyper-individualized freedom, individuals are not only “liberated from the constraints imposed by the dense network of social bonds,” but are also “stripped of the protection which had been matter-of-factly offered in the past by that dense network of social bonds.” [21]

Freedom exclusively tied to personal and political rights without also enabling access to economic resources becomes morally empty and politically dysfunctional. The much-heralded notion of choice associated with personal and political freedom is hardly assured when individuals lack the economic resources, knowledge, and social supports to make such choices and freedoms operative and meaningful. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, “The right to vote (and so, obliquely and at least in theory, the right to influence the composition of the ruler and the shape of the rules that bind the ruled) could be meaningfully exercised only by those ‘who possess sufficient economic and cultural resources’ to be ‘safe from the voluntary or involuntary servitude that cuts off any possible autonomy of choice (and/or its delegation) at the root….[Choice] stripped of economic resources and political power hardly assure[s] personal freedoms to the dispossessed, who have no claim on the resources without which personal freedom can neither be won nor in practice enjoyed.”[22] Paul Bigioni has argued that this flawed notion of freedom played a central role in the emerging fascist dictatorships of the early twentieth century. He writes:

It was the liberals of that era who clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom that is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such “freedom” was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early 20th century. The use of the state to protect such “freedom” was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.[23]

This stripped-down notion of market-based freedom that now dominates American society cancels out any viable notion of individual and social agency. This market-driven notion of freedom emphasizes choice as an economic function defined largely as the right to buy things while at the same time cancelling out any active understanding of freedom and choice as the right to make rational choices concerning the very structure of power and governance in a society. In embracing a passive attitude toward freedom in which power is viewed as a necessary evil, a conservative notion of freedom reduces politics to the empty ritual of voting and is incapable of understanding freedom as a form of collective, productive power that enables “a notion of political agency and freedom that affirms the equal opportunity of all to exercise political power in order to participate in shaping the most important decisions affecting their lives.”[24] This merging of the market-based understanding of freedom as the freedom to consume and the conservative-based view of freedom as a restriction from all constraints refuses to recognize that the conditions for substantive freedom do not lie in personal and political rights alone; on the contrary, real choices and freedom include the individual and collective ability to actively intervene in and shape both the nature of politics and the myriad forces bearing down on everyday life—a notion of freedom that can only be viable when social rights and economic resources are available to individuals. Of course, this notion of freedom and choice is often dismissed either as a vestige of socialism or simply drowned out in a culture that collapses all social considerations and notions of solidarity into the often cruel and swindle-based discourse of instant gratification and individual gain. Under such conditions, democracy is managed through the empty ritual of elections; citizens are largely rendered passive observers as a result of giving undue influence to corporate power in shaping all of the essential elements of political governance and decision making; and manufactured appeals to fear and personal safety legitimate both the suspension of civil liberties and the expanding powers of an imperial presidency and the policing functions of a militaristic state.

Busy schedule? Click here to keep up with Truthout with free email updates. [5]

I believe that the formative culture necessary to create modes of education, thought, dialogue, critique, and critical agency—the necessary conditions of any aspiring democracy—is largely destroyed through the pacification of intellectuals and the elimination of public spheres capable of creating such a culture. Elements of a depoliticizing and commodifying culture become clear in the shameless propaganda produced by the so-called “embedded” journalists, while a corporate-dominated popular culture largely operates through multiple technologies, screen cultures, and video games that trade endlessly in images of violence, spectacles of consumption, and stultifying modes of (il)literacy. Funded by right-wing ideological, corporate, and militaristic interests, an army of anti-public intellectuals groomed in right-wing think tanks and foundations, such as the American Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute, dominate the traditional media, police the universities for any vestige of critical thought and dissent, and endlessly spread their message of privatization, deregulation, and commercialization, exercising a powerful influence in the dismantling of all public spheres not dominated by private and commodifying interests. These “experts in legitimation,” to use Antonio Gramsci’s prescient phrase, peddle civic ignorance just as they renounce any vestige of public accountability for big business, giant media conglomerates, and financial mega corporations. How else to explain that nearly twenty percent of the American people believe incorrectly that Obama is a Muslim!

Under the new authoritarianism, the corporate state and the punishing state merge as economics drives politics, and repression is increasingly used to contain all those individuals and groups caught in an expanding web of destabilizing inequality and powerlessness that touches everything from the need for basic health care, food, and shelter to the promise of a decent education. As the social state is hollowed out under pressure from free-market advocates, right-wing politicians, and conservative ideologues, the United States has increasingly turned its back on any semblance of social justice, civic responsibility, and democracy itself. This might explain the influential journalist Thomas Friedman’s shameless endorsement of military adventurism in the New York Times article in which he argues that “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”[25] Freedom in this discourse is inextricably wedded to state and military violence and is a far cry from any semblance of a claim to democracy.

Zombie Politicas and the Culture of Cruelty

Another characteristic of an emerging authoritarianism in the United States is the correlation between the growing atomization of the individual and the rise of a culture of cruelty, a type of zombie politics in which the living dead engage in forms of rapacious behavior that destroy almost every facet of a substantive democratic polity. There is a mode of terror rooted in a neoliberal market-driven society that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory, and critical thought. Under a regime of privatized utopias, hyper-individualism, and ego-centered values, human beings slip into a kind of ethical somnolence, indifferent to the plight and suffering of others. Though writing in a different context, the late Frankfurt School theorist Leo Lowenthal captured this mode of terror in his comments on the deeply sedimented elements of authoritarianism rooted in modern civilization. He wrote:

In a system that reduces life to a chain of disconnected reactions to shock, personal communication tends to lose all meaning….The individual under terrorist conditions is never alone and always alone. He becomes numb and rigid not only in relation to his neighbor but also in relation to himself; fear robs him of the power of spontaneous emotional or mental reaction. Thinking becomes a stupid crime; it endangers his life. The inevitable consequence is that stupidity spreads as a contagious disease among the terrorized population. Human beings live in a state of stupor, in a moral coma.[26]

Implicit in Lowenthal’s commentary is the assumption that as democracy becomes a fiction, the moral mechanisms of language, meaning, and ethics collapse, and a cruel indifference takes over diverse modes of communication and exchange, often as a register of the current paucity of democratic values, identities, and social relations. Surely, this is obvious today as all vestiges of the social compact, social responsibility, and modes of solidarity give way to a form of Social Darwinism with its emphasis on ruthlessness, cruelty, war, violence, hyper modes of masculinity, and a disdain for those considered weak, dependent, alien, or economically unproductive. A poverty of civic ideals is matched not only by a poverty of critical agency but also by the disappearance among the public of the importance of moral and social responsibilities. As public life is commercialized and commodified, the pathology of individual entitlement and narcissism erodes those public spaces in which the conditions for conscience, decency, self-respect, and dignity take root. The delusion of endless growth coupled with an “obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization [and] uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, and disdain for the public sector” has produced a culture that seems “consumed by locusts” in “an age of pygmies.”[27]

This culture of cruelty is especially evident in the hardships and deprivations now visited upon many young people in the United States. We have 13.3 million homeless children; one child in five lives in poverty; too many are now under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and many more young adults are unemployed and lack any hope for the future.[28] Moreover, we are subjecting more and more children to psychiatric drugs as a way of controlling their alleged unruly behavior while providing huge profits for drug companies. As Evelyn Pringle points out, “in 2006 more money was spent on treating mental disorders in children aged 0 to 17 than for any other medical condition, with a total of $8.9 billion.”[29] Needless to say, the drugging of American children is less about treating genuine mental disorders than it is about punishing so-called unruly children, largely children of the poor, while creating “lifelong patients and repeat customers for Pharma!”[30] Stories abound about poor young people being raped, beaten, and dying in juvenile detention centers, needlessly trafficked into the criminal justice system as part of a profit-making scheme cooked up by corrupt judges and private correction facilities administrators, and being given powerful antipsychotic medicines in schools and other state facilities.[31] Unfortunately, this regression to sheer Economic Darwinism is not only evident in increasing violence against young people, cutthroat reality TV shows, hate radio, and the Internet, it is also on full display in the discourse of government officials and politicians and serves as a register of the prominence of both a kind of political infantilism and a culture of cruelty. For instance, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, recently stated in an interview in February 2010 that “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”[32] Duncan’s point, beyond the incredible inhumanity reflected in such a comment, was that it took a disaster that uprooted thousands of individuals and families and caused enormous amounts of suffering to enable the Obama administration to implement a massive educational system pushing charter schools based on market-driven principles that disdain public values, if not public schooling itself. This is the language of cruelty and zombie politicians, a language indifferent to the ways in which people who suffer great tragedies are expelled from their histories, narratives, and right to be human. Horrible tragedies caused in part by government indifference are now covered up in the discourse and ideals inspired by the logic of the market. This mean and merciless streak was also on display recently when Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, stated that giving people government assistance was comparable to “feeding stray animals.” The utterly derogatory and implicitly racist nature of his remark became obvious in the statement that followed: “You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”[33]

Lowenthal’s argument that in an authoritarian society “stupidity spreads as a contagious disease” is evident in a statement made by Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman, who recently argued that “Americans should purchase [health] insurance with their own tax-free money.”[34] That 43 million Americans are without health insurance because they cannot afford it seems lost on Bachmann, whose comments suggest that these uninsured individuals, families, unemployed workers, and children are not simply a disposable surplus but actually invisible and therefore unworthy of any acknowledgment.

The regressive politics and moral stupidity are also evident in the emergence of right-wing extremists now taking over the Republican Party. This new and aggressive political formation calls for decoupling market-driven financial institutions from any vestige of political and governmental constraint, celebrates emotion over reason, treats critical intelligence as a toxin possessed largely by elites, wraps its sophomoric misrepresentations in an air of beyond-interrogation “we’re just folks” insularity, and calls for the restoration of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America.[35] Such calls embody elements of a racial panic that are evident in all authoritarian movements and have increasingly become a defining feature of a Republican Party that has sided with far-right-wing thugs and goon squads intent on disrupting any vestige of the democratic process. This emerging authoritarian element in American political culture is embodied in the wildly popular media presence of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—right-wing extremists who share a contempt for reason and believe in organizing politics on the model of war, unconditional surrender, personal insults, hyper-masculine spectacles, and the complete destruction of one’s opponent.

The culture of cruelty, violence, and slander was on full display as the Obama administration successfully passed a weak version of health care reform in 2010. Stoked by a Republican Party that has either looked away or in some cases supported the coded language of racism and violence, it was no surprise that there was barely a peep out of Republican Party leaders when racial and homophobic slurs were hurled by Tea Party demonstrators at civil rights legend Jon Lewis and openly gay Barney Frank, both firm supporters of the Obama health policies. Even worse is the nod to trigger-happy right-wing advocates of violence that conservatives such as Sarah Palin have suggested in their response to the passage of the health care bill. For instance, Frank Rich argues that

this bill that inspired G.O.P. congressmen on the House floor to egg on disruptive protesters even as they were being evicted from the gallery by the Capitol Police last Sunday. It’s this bill that prompted a congressman to shout “baby killer” at Bart Stupak, a staunch anti- abortion Democrat. It’s this bill that drove a demonstrator to spit on Emanuel Cleaver, a black representative from Missouri. And it’s this “middle-of-the-road” bill, as Obama accurately calls it, that has incited an unglued firestorm of homicidal rhetoric, from “Kill the bill!” to Sarah Palin’s cry for her followers to “reload.” At least four of the House members hit with death threats or vandalism are among the 20 political targets Palin marks with rifle crosshairs on a map on her Facebook page.[36]

There is more at work here than the usual right-wing promotion of bigotry and ignorance; there is the use of violent rhetoric and imagery that mimics the discourse of terrorism reminiscent of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, dangerous right-wing militia groups, and other American-style fascists. As Chris Hedges insists, “The language of violence always presages violence”[37] and fuels an authoritarianism that feeds on such excesses and the moral coma that accompanies the inability of a society to both question itself and imagine an alternative democratic order. How else can one read the “homicidal rhetoric” that is growing in America as anything other than an obituary for dialogue, democratic values, and civic courage? What does it mean for a democracy when the general public either supports or is silent in the face of widely publicized events such as black and gay members of Congress being subjected to racist and homophobic taunts, a black congressman being spit on, and the throwing of bricks through the office windows of some legislators who supported the health care bill? What does it mean for a democracy when there is little collective outrage when Sarah Palin, a leading voice in the Republican Party, mimics the tactics of vigilantes by posting a map with crosshairs on the districts of Democrats and urges her supporters on with the shameful slogan “Don’t Retreat. Instead—RELOAD!” Under such circumstances, the brandishing of assault weapons at right-wing political rallies, the posters and signs comparing Obama to Hitler, and the ever-increasing chants to “Take Our Country Back” echoes what Frank Rich calls a “small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht.”[38] Violence and aggression are now openly tolerated and in some cases promoted. The chants, insults, violence, and mob hysteria all portend a dark period in American history—an historical conjuncture in the death knell for democracy is being written as the media turn such events into spectacles rather than treat them as morally and politically repugnant acts more akin to the legacy of fascism than the ideals of an aspiring democracy. All the while the public yawns or, more troubling, engages fantasies of reloading.

Unfortunately, the problems now facing the United States are legion and further the erosion of a civic and democratic culture. Some of the most glaring issues are massive unemployment; a rotting infrastructure; the erosion of vital public services; the dismantling of the social safety net; expanding levels of poverty, especially for children; and an imprisonment binge largely affecting poor minorities of color. But such a list barely scratches the surface. In addition, we have witnessed in the last thirty years the restructuring of public education as either a source of profit for corporations or an updated version of control modeled after prison culture coupled with an increasing culture of lying, cruelty, and corruption, all of which belie a democratic vision of America that now seems imaginable only as a nostalgic rendering of the founding ideals of democracy.

NOTES

1. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1968; New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 196.

2. I have taken this term from Stephen Jones,ed.,The Dead That Walk (Berkeley,CA: Ulysses Press, 2010).

3. Editorial, “Wall Street Casino [6],” The New York Times (April 28, 2010), p. A24.

4. Some of the ideas come from Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, eds., Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead (Chicago: Open Court, 2010).

5. Arun Gupta, “Party of No: How Republicans and the Right Have Tried to Thwart All Social Progress [7],” Truthout.org (May 21, 2010).

6. Jonathan J. Cooper, “We’re All Arizonians Now [8],” Huffington Post (May 15, 2010).

7. See the excellent commentary on this issue by Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10. See also Justine Sharrock, “The Oath Keepers: The Militant and Armed Side of the Tea Party Movement [9],” AlterNet (March 6, 2010); and Mark Potok, “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism [10],” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report 137 (Spring 2010).

8. Paul Krugman, “Going to Extreme,” The New York Times (May 16, 2010), p. A23.

9. James Traub, “The Way We Live Now: Weimar Whiners [11],” The New York Times Magazine ( June 1, 2003). For a commentary on such intellectuals, see Tony Judt, “Bush’s Useful Idiots [12],” The London Review of Books 28:18 (September 21, 2006).

10. Cited in Carol Becker, “The Art of Testimony,” Sculpture (March 1997), p. 28.

11. This case for an American version of authoritarianism was updated and made more visible in a number of interesting books and articles. See, for instance, Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); and Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

12. Cited in Paul Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now [13],” Toronto Star (November 27, 2005).

13. See Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1985).

14. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 202.

15. Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” New York Review of Books (November–December 1995), p. 15.

16. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated.

17. Along similar theoretical lines, see Stephen Lendman, “A Look Back and Ahead: Police State in America [14],” CounterPunch (December 17, 2007). For an excellent analysis that points to the creeping power of the nation- al security state on American universities, see David Price, “Silent Coup: How the CIA Is Welcoming Itself Back onto American University Campuses,” CounterPunch 17:3 (January 13–31, 2010), pp. 1–5.

18. David Harvey,“Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition [15],” Monthly Review (December15, 2009).

19. Chris Hedges, “Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction [16],” TruthDig (January 24, 2010).

20. See Janine R. Wedel, Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

21. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Polity Press, 2007), pp. 57–58.

22. Ibid., p. 64.

23. Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now.”

24. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Nature and Value of Equity,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 124–142.

25. ThomasL.Friedman,“A Manifesto for the Fast World [17],”The New York Times Magazine (March 28, 1999).

26. Leo Lowenthal, “Atomization of Man,” False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), pp. 182–183.

27. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), pp. 2–3.

28. I have taken up this issue in my Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave, 2009). For a series of brilliant commentaries on youth in America, see the work of Tolu Olorunda in The Black Commentator, Truthout, and other online journals.

29. Evelyn Pringle, “Why Are We Drugging Our Kids?,” Truthout (December 14, 2009), http://www.alternet.org/story/144538 [18].

30. Ibid.

31. See Nicholas Confessore, “New York Finds Extreme Crisis in Youth Prisons,” The New York Times (December 14, 2009), p. A1; Duff Wilson, “Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics,” The New York Times (December 12, 2009), p. A1; and Amy Goodman, “Jailing Kids for Cash [19],” Truthout (February 17, 2009).

32. Jake Tapper, “Political Punch: Power, Pop, and Probings from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent—Duncan: Katrina Was the ‘Best Thing’ for New Orleans School System [20],” ABC News.com ( January 29, 2010).

33. Nathaniel Cary, “GOP Hopeful: People on Public Assistance ‘Like Stray Animals [21],’” Truthout ( January 23, 2010).

34.Cited in Frank Rich, “The State of Union Is Comatose, ”The New York Times (January 31 ,2010).

35. See, for example, Patrick J. Buchanan, “Traditional Americans Are Losing Their Nation [22],” WorldNetDaily (January 24, 2010).

36. Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10.

37. Chris Hedges, “Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’? [23],” TruthDig (March 29, 2010).

38. Rich, “The State of the Union Is Comatose,” p. WK10.

Why The United States Is Destroying Its Education System

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Oldspeak: ” Imagine, going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job…The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.” –Unnamed New York City School Teacher

By Chris Hedges @ Truthdig:

A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers–those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential–and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts–those who march to the beat of their own drum–are weeded out.

“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”

Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work–and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system–whose primary concern is certainly not with education–are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.

“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”

“I cannot say for certain–not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing–but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.

“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class–an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”

“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors–poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition–are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals–themselves.

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.

Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love–love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you–but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside–including religious laws–are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur–the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

© 2011 Truthdig All rights reserved.

Public Teachers: America’s New “Welfare Queens”

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Oldspeak:” ‘Everything is a version of something else.’-Patrick Marber in “Closer”. ‘Much like the “welfare queen,” the “bad teacher” and the “public employee” are convenient scapegoats at which we direct our current economic rage… attacks on teachers and other public servants…. is not just trick of mass psychological transference, a means to distract us from the real culprits of this economic devastation – crooked bankers, sneaky lenders and complicit politicians.’-Adam Bessie.”

By Adam Bessie @ Truthout:

In 1976, on a failed campaign to the White House, Ronald Reagan coined one of his enduring linguistic legacies – the “welfare queen,” [4] a mythical, inner-city resident who wastes the public’s hard-earned money on “welfare Cadillacs” and other luxuries she can’t afford, and, thus, doesn’t deserve. When Reagan finally succeeded in becoming president four years later, he waged war on these “welfare queens,” redistributing money from the “least deserving” by cutting social services and public programs that helped the poor, and funneling it to the “most deserving,” by providing generous tax cuts for the extremely rich, who had actually “earned” their money.

Today, as a recent Gallup poll [5] found that Americans were most likely to dub Reagan “the greatest president ever” (just above the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln), Reagan’s battle against the “welfare queen” lives on – though she doesn’t drive a Cadillac, but, perhaps, a fire engine, and has a Cadillac health care plan, as Jonathan Cohn presciently pointed out in “Public Employees Are the New Welfare Queens” [6] last August in The New Republic. In the last few weeks, “public employee” has become a bad word, a symbol of greed and undeserved excess, one that is responsible for our crumbling budgets, and, by logic, our own struggling economy – just like the “welfare queens” of the 70’s.

And yet, many Americans will find a comparison of “public employees” to “welfare queens” hard to swallow, given our patriotic disposition toward firefighters and police officers – especially in the wake of 9/11, when they were elevated to the status of heroes worthy of bumper stickers honoring them across the country. Unlike Reagan’s image of the “welfare queen” ripping off the system, it’s hard to see people who rush into burning buildings or step into the line of fire as undeserving of their benefits.

The perfectly ambiguous term “public employee” was designed in the first place for just this reason: the label sounds more like a faceless, heartless bureaucrat than a public servant risking her or his life for the common good. The term strips away the humanity and the nobility of a public servant’s work, replacing it with an uninspiring, and certainly unrespectable, blandness. It’s far easier to take away a “public employee’s” pension than it is to take away your local firefighter’s, who might someday save your life.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems perfectly aware of this potential political trap. As he tries to dismantle collective bargaining [7] and, thus, cut benefits and pay for “public employees,” he is ensuring that firefighters, police and state troopers are all exempt from his attack. He could never sell benefit-busting against American heroes.

Teachers, however, are a much easier sell as the new “welfare queens,” which is why they (and other, less visible public servants) find themselves in the conservatives’ crosshairs. In the last year, public education has undergone a sustained, highly successful character assassination from billionaires and the corporate media [8], transforming educators from dedicated public servants to lazy, self-interested bureaucrats who care more about pensions than their students. “The Myth of the Bad Teacher” [9]has prevailed, popularized by “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” discussed at length on Oprah and repeated ad nauseam on the covers of popular magazines like Time, which proclaim that these “bad teachers” have caused a crisis in education [10]. Wading in this swamp of negative propaganda, teachers are easy prey. After all, “bad teachers” working in a “bad” school system clearly don’t deserve our hard-earned money when they aren’t earning it in the first place. Why not take away their Cadillac benefits?

Much like the “welfare queen,” the “bad teacher” and the “public employee” are convenient scapegoats at which we direct our current economic rage.

Walker’s attack on teachers and other public servants, however, is not just trick of mass psychological transference, a means to distract us from the real culprits of this economic devastation – crooked bankers, sneaky lenders and complicit politicians. Rather, Walker – whose hero is Reagan, according to a recent New York Times profile [11]  – is carrying out another of Reagan’s linguistic and ideological legacies, “starving the beast.” Walker is playing by the Gipper’s handbook, working hard to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector and attempting to cut pay and benefits for public servants, while at the same time cutting taxes for businesses. In fact, Walker’s tax cuts [12] for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.

The inspiring protests in Wisconsin [13] are not just about health care benefits, pensions or even unions. No, the Wisconsin uprising [14] is really about defending the public sector, and those that work for the public, against increasing privatization and corporatization [15] that serves to increase wage inequity and decrease benefits for the many for the profit of the few – which is Reagan’s real legacy [16].


Selling Out New York City’s Public Schools: Mayor Bloomberg, David Steiner And The Politics Of Corporate “Leadership”

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2010 at 11:56 am

Oldspeak:”The corporate take over of public education is in full swing, as evidenced by Boss Bloomberg’s appointment of the grossly unqualified Hearst Magazines C.E.O. Cathleen Black who has zero background in public service/education as chancellor of the the country’s largest school system. Her mandate is to implement the Wal-Mart model of education,” ‘in which students are viewed as a cheap supply of labor, valuable to the extent that they “help employees get more education and to build a better work force.” As is usual with corporatization, the poorest and most vulnerable people will suffer. Zero-tolerance disciplinary measures, increased surveillance and criminalization of  social behaviors will further augment the school-to-prison pipeline.”

From Herny A. Giroux @ Truthout:

Politicians, anti-public intellectuals and conservative-leaning media pundits no longer ask what kind of education is needed in a democratic society. Nor do they value the importance of educating teachers and students to think critically, engage in meaningful dialogue and function as producers of knowledge rather than as objects of its transmission. Curiously, given the disastrous state of the economy since its 2008 meltdown, the leadership driving the new reform movement in education are hedge fund managers, multimillionaires, Ivy League apparatchiks and corporate executives. For them, education is largely about “applying business strategies and discipline to public schools.”(1) Education has become the new frontier for the investment dollar and very likely the next big bubble to burst. But what do the proposed reforms mean for education now, on the ground, so to speak, in classrooms across the nation? Educational theory – the guiding philosophical principles that provide a vision of what it means to be a fully functional educated citizen, as well as the vision of the kind of society educated men and women should aspire to build – has been stripped of its critical and emancipatory possibilities, in this latest demand for educational accountability and innovation, just as pedagogy has been reduced to a managerial and disciplinary process largely driven by market values, a crude empiricism and the ideology of casino capitalism with its relentless prioritization of economic interests over human interests and a politically compliant and technologically savvy labor force over one that aspires to independent thought and ethical stewardship in its efforts to meet the needs of a democratic polity.

What is emerging out of this anti-public model of education is the Wal-Mart approach to schooling, in which students are viewed as a cheap supply of labor, valuable to the extent that they “help employees get more education and to build a better work force.”(2)Evidence of how this business model, with its all-too-obvious flight from social and moral responsibility works is evident in the recent decision by David Steiner, the recently appointed commissioner of the New York State Department of Education, to name the utterly unqualified Cathleen P. Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, as the chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

The appointment of a person who has little involvement in public service and no meaningful experience as an educator to head the largest public school system in the country has prompted a great deal of public outrage and generated a significant amount of coverage in the dominant media. At one level, the protest has centered on the imperial rule of Mayor Bloomberg who, true to his corporate values, once again exhibits his disdain for any notion of governance that solicits public dialogue, values and community involvement. Not only has Bloomberg appointed a majority of his supporters to the Board of Education, but when they disagree with his policies, he simply fires them. To his critics, Bloomberg is elitist, autocratic and largely dismissive to those who challenge him. Surely, this characterization of the New York City mayor has been reinforced by the highly secretive way in which Black was chosen to assume such a vital role in educational leadership. The imperial nature, to say nothing of the thoughtlessness, of his selection of Black was echoed by her comment that “the offer came out of left field.”(3) Though, of course, in accepting the position, she reproduced the distorted assumption that “all the school system needs is a smart and talented manager.”(4) Even the director of education policy studies at the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute – no friend of public education – was puzzled over the official rationale for Black’s appointment and stated that it was naive for Bloomberg to believe that the only requirement necessary for Black to become the head of the New York City school system was that she was a CEO and “that all C.E.O.’s have the skills to lead this large organization.”(5)

As public outrage grew over Bloomberg’s appointment, a number of groups, including the editorial board of The New York Times, argued that one possible compromise would be to appoint a professional educator as a chief academic officer to act as Black’s chief adviser. The only person with the power to insist that Black be provided with a surrogate tutor was Steiner – at which point, the media coverage of the story shifted to Steiner. Steiner has the power, under a 73-year old state law, to prevent Black from taking the position by denying her request for a school district leader certificate, particularly in light of the fact that Black has no advanced degrees or educational credentials whatsoever. He also had the power to give her a waiver under certain specified conditions, one of which was to work with a professional educator as second in command. Only by providing a waiver to Black would it be possible for her to assume the position as chancellor of the school system, a position for which, again, she is singularly unqualified given her lack of educational preparation and experience.

Of course, Steiner, true to his own corporate-driven ideology, eventually granted Black the waiver to assume the job, but with the qualification that she work with a chief academic officer by her side. In agreeing to provide the waiver, Steiner wrote, “Despite her lack of direct experience in education, I find that Black’s exceptional record of successfully leading complex organizations and achievement of excellence in her endeavors warrant certification.”(6) Steiner is stretching the logic of deliberation and good judgment here to the point of disbelief. How does running a successful business qualify someone to run the largest school system in America? And if she is qualified by virtue of that experience, why, as a precondition for assuming the job, is she being assigned a deputy chancellor who, as an experienced educator, is serving as her private tutor – a condition which makes clear how unqualified she is for the position in the first place? Needless to say, once Steiner made his decision, Mayor Bloomberg made clear how irrelevant such an ill-conceived and conciliatory gesture was by pointing out, “There will be one person in charge. Make no mistake about that.”(7)

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This kind of mindless authoritarianism by Bloomberg feeds into a type of lethal ignorance regarding what constitutes educational leadership, and is part and parcel of free-market ideology that assumes that all social, economic, educational and political problems can be solved through the template of a business culture increasingly characterized by top-to-down modes of governance, unchecked financial recklessness, a contempt for democratic modes of deliberation, a hatred of unions’ and teachers’ rights, a disdain for all things public and a flight for social and moral responsibility. But the real issue here is not about the appointment of Black to a position for which she is embarrassingly unqualified, but about corporate power and a business culture, along with its pocketed elites, who both detest public education and who pose a serious threat to the educational conditions necessary for critical thought, engaged citizenship and democratic life itself.

Steiner’s pusillanimity is a case in point. When it became clear that he had the power to derail Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Black, The New York Times ran a front-page story on Steiner, portraying him as a sensitive, thoughtful Oxford graduate who was having trouble sleeping over the decision. Or so it was reported in The New York Times, “He has been having trouble sleeping, gazing at a print of Rembrandt’s ‘Philosopher in Mediation’ in his apartment and taking solace in Schubert Opus 100.”(8) Not only was Steiner portrayed as a well-educated, classics enthusiast who dared, at least momentarily, to stand bravely in the way of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to appoint Black as the new school chancellor, but also as a sensitive intellectual who, by virtue of his education and Ivy League pedigree, would surely make the right choice. The hidden order of politics here is that the well-educated elite, even when they have been bought off by the rich and powerful, will end up making responsible decisions. This is a familiar story and legitimates the millionaire/billionaire-driven culture of philanthropy that is now waging a war against public and higher education.

The barbarians in this narrative are not the business elites, but the hordes of alleged philistines who make up the teachers unions and confront every day the growing challenges of engaging students in the classroom. In this widely fabricated and revolting scenario, this merging of the business elite with the alleged best and the brightest, while they may have given us a string of wars extending from Vietnam to Afghanistan along with scandals extending from Enron to the current financial meltdown, are, as a bloc, much too educated and civilized to be viewed as corrupt, greedy, politically challenged or subservient to the naked interests of powerful corporations. Not only does this script rival the banalities of celebrity culture, but it says little that is truthful about the reality of the alleged superior educational views, politics and morality of the elite. In this view, the presumed power of the cultivated imagination of the rich and powerful prevents them from being narrow, craven, inhumane or eagerly subservient to established power. Little is said about the shortcomings of the education that the elite actually receive, nor is there any acknowledgment that Nazi leaders along with Pol Pot and others who reviled democracy also appreciated “great” books and works of art, but that did not stop them from engaging in horrendous crimes against humanity. The truth of one’s politics lies elsewhere; it speaks in and through relations of power, compassion, empathy and public values; it is also rooted in the decisions one makes and the consequences they have regarding the important issues of equity, social justice, equality and the public good.

In the end, Steiner’s soaring imagination and literary tastes simply become a convenient alibi for refusing to engage his politics and the slavish role he now plays as a courier for corporate power and neoliberal ideology. The result, in part, has been a mainstream, media-driven narrative that depoliticizes the most important issues at hand in the Bloomberg appointment, and the role that is played at the highest levels of state power by an intellectual elite who provide support for such malfeasance. The Bloomberg decision raises larger issues about the crisis of public education, the war being waged against youth of color, the rise of the punishing state and its influence upon education and the growing disinvestment in education as a public good. The New York Times story about Steiner takes a crucial issue about educational leadership and reduces it to an utterly privatized account of Steiner’s life. While the article obsequiously gushes to its readers that Steiner is a “walking Bartlett’s, known for weaving Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Dante into his conversation and e-mails,”(9) this is all beside the point. It hasn’t translated into effective new leadership in New York City schools. Nor does Steiner’s alleged intellectual gravitas impact in any way the literacy rates of New York City school kids. Rather, it serves as a shameful cover for divesting them of the resources necessary for meaningful and critical education. The real news is that Steiner is just as much a neoliberal, free-market enthusiast, who has a long record of prioritizing the teaching of methods over theory, substituting training for critical education, advocating for charter schools and supporting the punishing bromide of reducing teacher and student evaluations to the draconian demands of high-stakes testing and empirically based performance measures. Rather than being treated to a celebrity-style commentary about the refinement of Steiner’s musical or literary tastes, the public deserves more. For example, how does Steiner address the meaning and purpose of education so as to do justice to the hundreds of thousands of parents, administrators, teachers and students who believe that education is a central and formative element in teaching young people how to think critically and engage the world, not merely as workers, but as informed and critical citizens? What are his views on addressing the economic inequities faced by so many school children in New York? Or, for that matter, the increasing disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of poor students of color, and the increasing presence of the police in schools, and the list goes on and on.

Not only does Steiner’s actual history of policy making suggest that the outcome of his decision about Black was never in dispute, but it also reveals how conservative politicians such as Bloomberg are putting into positions of power neoliberal apparatchiks, who willingly promote the business culture and social relations so vital to the assault on public schools, teacher unions, teachers and students that marks the rise of the new neoliberal hedge fund, millionaire school reformers. Despite the Times’ willful myopia, Steiner’s conservative credentials are on full display in a number of articles he has published in highly right-wing journals. His disdain for critical pedagogical practice and support for corporate-based notions of schooling was highly visible during his tenure as dean of Hunter College. While at Hunter, he promoted charter schools, reinforced the anti-intellectual nature of teacher education by developing programs that emphasized practice over theory, criticized any attempt to deepen the connection between research and teaching, defined pedagogy as primarily the mastery of methods and abstracted any vestige of critical theory from classroom teaching by emphasizing clinical training – all the while going on record expressing a disdain for any attempt to view teachers as critical intellectuals whose classroom performance could be enhanced through a familiarity with scholarship and critical theory in general.(10) Whatever the high cultural gloss given to Steiner, his decisions and actions at various levels of the New York educational system would reveal just another neoliberal, free-market ideologue whose view of education strips away any vestige of critical imagination, undermines an environment of collaboration and undercuts teacher autonomy from classroom teaching. Steiner’s educational philosophy in the end reduces the purpose and meaning of education to the dictates of a business culture more interested in training than in educating. It is also a philosophy that supports the increased use of disciplinary measures in the schools that increasingly transform schools into laboratories for modes of surveillance that pose a threat both to civil liberties and to democracy itself. In fact, it can be argued that the use of cameras to monitor classrooms poses a troubling threat to poor black students because this type of monitoring tends to produce crime by criminalizing social behavior, removing those populations considered disposable, thus producing more bodies for the school to prison pipeline. For example, Steiner’s trademark support for videotaping classroom teachers as pedagogical practice firmly supports Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that monitoring devices be placed in classrooms as a way of evaluating teacher performance.(11) Little is said about how these technologies, elevated to pedagogical essentials, desensitize children to being under constant surveillance in the workplace and various other public spheres. In this case, the pedagogy of business culture often bears an eerie, if not chilling, alignment with diverse modes of policing.(12)

Schooling in this view is all about preparing people for jobs and setting up policies that remove critical thinking as a serious condition for independent action and engaged citizenship. What haunts people like Steiner, Arthur Levine, Gates, Jack Welch, and the rest of this neoliberal crew is that teachers might actually be educated as critical intellectuals – thoroughly versed in theory and subject matter and not simply methods – and, in doing so, may engage in the dangerous practice of teaching students how to think, hold power and authority accountable, take risks and willingly embrace their role as producers and not merely transmitters of critical information. Steiner’s decision to cave in to Bloomberg’s authoritarian view of education is just another example of a how corporate power and values in education are now working to create what Martha C. Nussbaum calls “generations of useful machines.”(13)

Footnotes:

1. Stephanie Strom, “For School Company, Issues of Money and Control,” New York Times, (April 23, 2010), p. A1.

2. Stephanie Clifford and Stephanie Rosenbloom, “Wal-Mart to Offer Its Workers a College Program,” The New York Times, (June 3, 2010), p. B4.

3. Elissa Gootman, “Frustrations With Mayor Are Backdrop to Nominee Uproar,” New York Times (November 25, 2010). P. A28.

4. Editorial, “The Mayor and the Chancellor,” New York Times, (November 24, 2010), p. A30.

5. Elissa Gootman, “Frustrations With Mayor Are Backdrop to Nominee Uproar,” New York Times (November 25, 2010). P. A28.

6. See Steiner’s 12=page defense for granting the waiver online here.

7. Cited in Javier C. Hernandez, “State Grants Waiver for Schools Chancellor,” New York Times (November 29, 2010).

Within a few days, it became obvious why Black had been chosen by Bloomberg. In an interview reported in The New York Times, she asked her critics to simply give her a chance. And, yet, she made quite clear that she would pursue the same punishing neoliberal policies instituted by her predecessor, Chancellor Joe Klein. According to Black, she “planned to continue Mr. Klein’s efforts to increase the robustness of teacher evaluations, reconsider the policy of life time tenure and seek to change the law that requires layoffs to be determined by seniority.” In other words, she will use the same slash-and-burn policies made famous by neoliberal educational leaders such as Michele Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, DC, schools. Simply put, she will eliminate tenure for teachers, disregard seniority and the job protections it offers, continue high-stakes testing modes of pedagogy, tie teacher evaluations to stripped-down empirical evaluations, close schools that are underserved and promote the opening of charter schools.

8. David W. Chen and Javier C. Hernandez, “A Classics Buff Agonizes Over Challenge to Mayor,” New York Times (November 24, 2010), p. A27.

9. David W. Chen and Javier C. Hernandez, “A Classics Buff Agonizes Over Challenge to Mayor,” New York Times (November 24, 2010), p. A27.

10. For a puff piece that spells out and celebrates Steiner’s neoliberal position on education and some of the policies he has implemented in accordance with it, see Kevin Carey, “‘Teacher U’: A New Modal in Employer-Led Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, (December 13, 2010). Online here.

11. Sam Dillon, “Teachers Ratings Get New Look, Pushed by a Rich Watcher,” New York Times (December 4, 2010), p. A1.

12. I want to thank my colleague David Price for bringing Gates’ article to my attention and for his comments on the issue, some of which I have used.

13. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 2.


Lessons To Be Learned From Paulo Freire As Education Is Being Taken Over By The Mega Rich

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2010 at 11:35 am

Oldspeak:”The banking system of education is no longer viable. The “Race To The Top” change being pushed is a variation on the same misguided system. Corporate and monied interests have taken control of the “education reform” debate, championing privatization, profit-driven charter schools, placing people with business backgrounds and no background or experience in education into positions of power to push forward education policy that emphasizes memorization, conformity and high stakes testing. Universities have been converted in to corporate funded factory farms, churning out widgets that fit well into their profit generating machines. ‘They are increasingly defined through the corporate demand to provide the skills, knowledge and credentials in building a workforce that will enable the United States to compete against blockbuster growth in China and other southeast Asian markets, while maintaining its role as the major global economic and military power.’ ”

From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

At a time when memory is being erased and the political relevance of education is dismissed in the language of measurement and quantification, it is all the more important to remember the legacy and work of Paulo Freire. Freire is one of the most important educators of the 20th century and is considered one of the most important theorists of “critical pedagogy” – the educational movement guided by both passion and principle to help students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power and learn to read both the word and the world as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy. His groundbreaking book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” has sold more than a million copies and is deservedly being commemorated this year – the 40th anniversary of its appearance in English translation – after having exerted its influence over generations of teachers and intellectuals in the Americas and abroad.

Since the 1980s, there have been too few intellectuals on the North American educational scene who have matched Freire’s theoretical rigor, civic courage and sense of moral responsibility. And his example is more important now than ever before: with institutions of public and higher education increasingly under siege by a host of neoliberal and conservative forces, it is imperative for educators to acknowledge Freire’s understanding of the empowering and democratic potential of education. Critical pedagogy currently offers the very best, perhaps the only, chance for young people to develop and assert a sense of their rights and responsibilities to participate in governing, and not simply being governed by prevailing ideological and material forces.

When we survey the current state of education in the United States, we see that most universities are now dominated by instrumentalist and conservative ideologies, hooked on methods, slavishly wedded to accountability measures and run by administrators who often lack a broader vision of education as a force for strengthening civic imagination and expanding democratic public life. One consequence is that a concern with excellence has been removed from matters of equity, while higher education – once conceptualized as a fundamental public good – has been reduced to a private good, now available almost exclusively to those with the financial means. Universities are increasingly defined through the corporate demand to provide the skills, knowledge and credentials in building a workforce that will enable the United States to compete against blockbuster growth in China and other southeast Asian markets, while maintaining its role as the major global economic and military power. There is little interest in understanding the pedagogical foundation of higher education as a deeply civic and political project that provides the conditions for individual autonomy and takes liberation and the practice of freedom as a collective goal.

Public education fares even worse. Dominated by pedagogies that are utterly instrumental, geared toward memorization, conformity and high-stakes test taking, public schools have become intellectual dead zones and punishment centers as far removed from teaching civic values and expanding the imaginations of students as one can imagine. The profound disdain for public education is evident not only in Obama’s test-driven, privatized and charter school reform movement, but also in the hostile takeover of public education now taking place among the ultra-rich and hedge fund zombies, who get massive tax breaks from gaining control of charter schools. The public in education has now become the enemy of educational reform. How else can one explain the shameful appointment by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of Cathleen Black, the president of Hearst Magazine, as the next chancellor of the New York City public school system? Not only does she not have any experience in education and is totally unqualified for the job, but her background mimics the worst of elite arrogance and unaccountable power. Surely, one has to take note of the background of someone who should be a model for young people when such a background includes, as reported in The New York Times: “riding horses at a country club where blacks and Jews were not allowed …. lending a $47,000 bracelet to a Manhattan museum … and [refusing] interviews since her appointment.”(1) With friends like Rupert Murduch, it should come as no surprise that she once worked as a chief lobbyist for the newspaper industry in the 1990s “fighting a ban on tobacco advertising,”(2) which is often targeted toward the young. It seems that, when it comes to the elite of business culture, ignorance about education now ranks as a virtue. Then, of course, there is the sticky question of whether such a candidate qualifies as a model of civic integrity and courage for the many teachers and children under her leadership. Public values and public education surely take a nose dive in this appointment, but this is also symptomatic of what is happening to public education throughout the country.

Against the regime of “banking education,” stripped of all critical elements of teaching and learning, Freire believed that education, in the broadest sense, was eminently political because it offered students the conditions for self-reflection, a self-managed life and critical agency. For Freire, pedagogy was central to a formative culture that makes both critical consciousness and social action possible. Pedagogy in this sense connected learning to social change; it was a project and provocation that challenged students to critically engage with the world so they could act on it. As the sociologist Stanley Aronowitz has noted, Freire’s pedagogy helped learners “become aware of the forces that have hitherto ruled their lives and especially shaped their consciousness.”(3) What Freire made clear is that pedagogy at its best is not about training in techniques and methods, nor does it involve coercion or political indoctrination. Indeed, far from a mere method or an a priori technique to be imposed on all students, education is a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills and social relations that enable students to explore for themselves the possibilities of what it means to be engaged citizens, while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy. According to Freire, critical pedagogy afforded students the opportunity to read, write and learn from a position of agency – to engage in a culture of questioning that demands far more than competency in rote learning and the application of acquired skills. For Freire, pedagogy had to be meaningful in order to be critical and transformative. This meant that personal experience became a valuable resource that gave students the opportunity to relate their own narratives, social relations and histories to what was being taught. It also signified a resource to help students locate themselves in the concrete conditions of their daily lives, while furthering their understanding of the limits often imposed by such conditions. Under such circumstances, experience became a starting point, an object of inquiry that could be affirmed, critically interrogated and used as resource to engage broader modes of knowledge and understanding. Rather than taking the place of theory, experience worked in tandem with theory in order to dispel the notion that experience provided some form of unambiguous truth or political guarantee. Experience was crucial, but it had to take a detour through theory, self-reflection and critique to become a meaningful pedagogical resource.

Critical pedagogy, for Freire, meant imagining literacy as not simply the mastering of specific skills, but also as a mode of intervention, a way of learning about and reading the word as a basis for intervening in the world. Critical thinking was not reducible to an object lesson in test taking. It was not about the task of memorizing so-called facts, decontextualized and unrelated to present conditions. To the contrary, it was about offering a way of thinking beyond the seeming naturalness or inevitability of the current state of things, challenging assumptions validated by “common sense,” soaring beyond the immediate confines of one’s experiences, entering into a dialogue with history and imagining a future that would not merely reproduce the present.

By way of illustration, Freirean pedagogy might stage the dynamic interplay of audio, visual and print texts as part of a broader examination of history itself as a site of struggle, one that might offer some insights into students’ own experiences and lives in the contemporary moment. For example, a history class might involve reading and watching films about school desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s as part of a broader pedagogical engagement with the civil rights movement and the massive protests that developed over educational access and student rights to literacy. It would also open up opportunities to talk about why these struggles are still part of the experience of many North American youth today, particularly poor black and brown youth who are denied equality of opportunity by virtue of market-based rather than legal segregation. Students could be asked to write short papers that speculate on the meaning and the power of literacy and why it was so central to the civil rights movement. These may be read by the entire class, with each student elaborating his or her position and offering commentary as a way of entering into a critical discussion of the history of racial exclusion, reflecting on how its ideologies and formations still haunt American society in spite of the triumphal dawn of an allegedly post-racial Obama era. In this pedagogical context, students learn how to expand their own sense of agency, while recognizing that to be voiceless is to be powerless. Central to such a pedagogy is shifting the emphasis from teachers to students, and making visible the relationships among knowledge, authority and power. Giving students the opportunity to be problem posers and engage in a culture of questioning in the classroom foregrounds the crucial issue of who has control over the conditions of learning, and how specific modes of knowledge, identities and authority are constructed within particular sets of classroom relations. Under such circumstances, knowledge is not simply received by students, but actively transformed, open to be challenged and related to the self as an essential step toward agency, self-representation and learning how to govern rather than simply be governed. At the same time, students also learn how to engage others in critical dialogue and be held accountable for their views.

Thus, critical pedagogy insists that one of the fundamental tasks of educators is to make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which critique and possibility – in conjunction with the values of reason, freedom and equality – function to alter the grounds upon which life is lived. Though it rejects a notion of literacy as the transmission of facts or skills tied to the latest market trends, critical pedagogy is hardly a prescription for political indoctrination as the advocates of standardization and testing often insist. It offers students new ways to think and act creatively and independently, while making clear that the educator’s task, as Aronowitz points out, “is to encourage human agency, not mold it in the manner of Pygmalion.”(4) What critical pedagogy does insist upon is that education cannot be neutral. It is always directive in its attempt to enable students to understand the larger world and their role in it. Moreover, it is inevitably a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge, values, desires and identities are produced within particular sets of class and social relations. For Freire, pedagogy always presupposes some notion of a more equal and just future; and as such, it should always function in part as a provocation that takes students beyond the world they know in order to expand the range of human possibilities and democratic values. Central to critical pedagogy is the recognition that the way we educate our youth is related to the future that we hope for and that such a future should offer students a life that leads to the deepening of freedom and social justice. Even within the privileged precincts of higher education, Freire said that educators should nourish those pedagogical practices that promote “a concern with keeping the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unraveling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”(5) The notion of the unfinished human being resonated with Zygmunt Bauman notion that society never reached the limits of justice, thus, rejecting any notion of the end of history, ideology or how we imagine the future. This language of critique and educated hope was his legacy, one that is increasingly absent from many liberal and conservative discourses about current educational problems and appropriate avenues of reform.

When I began teaching, Freire became an essential influence in helping me to understand the broad contours of my ethical responsibilities as a teacher. Later, his work would help me come to terms with the complexities of my relationship to universities as powerful and privileged institutions that seemed far removed from the daily life of the working-class communities in which I had grown up. I first met Paulo in the early 1980s, just after my tenure as a professor at Boston University had been opposed by its President John Silber. Paulo was giving a talk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and he came to my house in Boston for dinner. Given Paulo’s reputation as a powerful intellectual, I recall initially being astounded by his profound humility. I remember being greeted with such warmth and sincerity that I felt completely at ease with him. We talked for a long time that night about his exile, how I had been attacked by a right-wing university administration, what it meant to be a working-class intellectual and the risks one had to take to make a difference. I was in a very bad place after being denied tenure and had no idea what the future would hold. On that night, a friendship was forged that would last until Paulo’s death. I am convinced that had it not been for Paulo and Donaldo Macedo – a linguist, translator and a friend of Paulo’s and mine – I might not have stayed in the field of education. Their passion for education and their profound humanity convinced me that teaching was not a job like any other, but a crucial site of struggle, and that, ultimately, whatever risks had to be taken were well worth it.

I have encountered many intellectuals throughout my career in academe, but Paulo was exceptionally generous, eager to help younger intellectuals publish their work, willing to write letters of support and always giving as much as possible of himself in the service of others. The early 1980s were exciting years in education studies in the United States, and Paulo was really at the center of it. Paulo and I together started a Critical Education and Culture series with Bergin & Garvey Publishers, which brought out the work of more than 60 young authors, many of whom went on to have a significant influence in the university. Jim Bergin became Paulo’s patron as his American publisher; Donaldo became his translator and co-author; Ira Shor also played a important role in spreading Paulo’s work and wrote a number of brilliant books integrating both theory and practice as part of Paulo’s notion of critical pedagogy. Together, we worked tirelessly to circulate Paulo’s work, always with the hope of inviting him back to America so we could meet, talk, drink good wine and deepen a commitment to critical education that had all marked us in different ways.

Paulo, occupying the often difficult space between existing politics and the as yet possible, spent his life guided by the beliefs that the radical elements of democracy were worth struggling for, that critical education was a basic element of progressive social change and that how we think about politics was inseparable from how we come to understand the world, power and the moral life we aspire to lead. In many ways, Paulo embodied the important but often problematic relationship between the personal and the political. His own life was a testimony not only to his belief in democratic principles, but also to the notion that one’s life had to come as close as possible to modeling the social relations and experiences that spoke to a more humane and democratic future. At the same time, Paulo never moralized about politics; he never evoked shame or collapsed the political into the personal when talking about social issues. Private problems were always to be understood in relation to larger public issues. For example, Paulo never reduced an understanding of homelessness, poverty and unemployment to the failing of individual character, laziness, indifference or a lack of personal responsibility, but instead viewed such issues as complex systemic problems generated by economic and political structures that produced massive amounts of inequality, suffering and despair – and social problems far beyond the reach of limited individual capacities to cause or redress. His belief in a substantive democracy, as well as his deep and abiding faith in the ability of people to resist the weight of oppressive institutions and ideologies, was forged in a spirit of struggle tempered by both the grim realities of his own imprisonment and exile and the belief that education and hope are the conditions of social action and political change. Acutely aware that many contemporary versions of hope occupied their own corner in Disneyland, Paulo was passionate about recovering and rearticulating hope through, in his words, an “understanding of history as opportunity and not determinism.”(6) Hope was an act of moral imagination that enabled educators and others to think otherwise in order to act otherwise.

Paulo offered no recipes for those in need of instant theoretical and political fixes. I was often amazed at how patient he always was in dealing with people who wanted him to provide menu-like answers to the problems they raised about education, people who did not realize that their demands undermined his own insistence that critical pedagogy is defined by its context and must be approached as a project of individual and social transformation – that it could never be reduced to a mere method. Contexts indeed mattered to Paulo. He was concerned how contexts mapped in distinctive ways the relationships among knowledge, language, everyday life and the machineries of power. Any pedagogy that calls itself Freirean must acknowledge this key principle that our current knowledge is contingent on particular historical contexts and political forces. For example, each classroom will be affected by the different experiences students bring to the class, the resources made available for classroom use, the relations of governance bearing down on teacher-student relations, the authority exercised by administrations regarding the boundaries of teacher autonomy and the theoretical and political discourses used by teachers to read and frame their responses to the diverse historical, economic and cultural forces informing classroom dialogue. Any understanding of the project and practices that inform critical pedagogy has to begin with recognizing the forces at work in such contexts, and which must be confronted by educators and schools everyday. Pedagogy, in this instance, looked for answers to what it meant to connect learning to fulfilling the capacities for self and social determination not outside, but within the institutions and social relations in which desires, agency and identities were shaped and struggled over. The role that education played in connecting truth to reason, learning to social justice and knowledge to modes of self and social understanding were complex and demanded a refusal on the part of teachers, students and parents to divorce education from both politics and matters of social responsibility. Responsibility was not a retreat from politics, but a serious embrace of what it meant to both think and act politics as part of a democratic project in which pedagogy becomes a primary consideration for enabling the formative culture and agents that make democratization possible.

Paulo also acknowledged the importance of understanding these particular and local contexts in relation to larger global and transnational forces. Making the pedagogical more political meant moving beyond the celebration of tribal mentalities and developing a praxis that foregrounded “power, history, memory, relational analysis, justice (not just representation) and ethics as the issues central to transnational democratic struggles.”(7) Culture and politics mutually informed each other in ways that spoke to histories, whose presences and absences had to be narrated as part of a larger struggle over democratic values, relations and modes of agency. Freire recognized that it was through the complex production of experience within multilayered registers of power and culture that people recognized, narrated and transformed their place in the world. Paulo challenged the separation of cultural experiences from politics, pedagogy and power itself, but he did not make the mistake of many of his contemporaries by conflating cultural experience with a limited notion of identity politics. While he had a profound faith in the ability of ordinary people to shape history and their own destinies, he refused to romanticize individuals and cultures that experienced oppressive social conditions. Of course, he recognized that power privileged certain forms of cultural capital – certain modes of speaking, living, being and acting in the world – but he did not believe that subordinate or oppressed cultures were free of the contaminating effects of oppressive ideological and institutional relations of power. Consequently, culture – as a crucial educational force influencing larger social structures as well as in the most intimate spheres of identity formation – could be viewed as nothing less than an ongoing site of struggle and power in contemporary society.

For critical educators, experience is a fundamental element of teaching and learning, but its distinctive configuration among different groups does not guarantee a particular notion of the truth; as I stated earlier, experience must itself become an object for analysis. How students experience the world and speak to that experience is always a function of unconscious and conscious commitments, of politics, of access to multiple languages and literacies – thus, experience always has to take a detour through theory as an object of self-reflection, critique and possibility. As a result, not only do history and experience become contested sites of struggle, but the theory and language that give daily life meaning and action a political direction must also be constantly subject to critical reflection. Paulo repeatedly challenged as false any attempt to reproduce the binary of theory versus politics. He expressed a deep respect for the work of theory and its contributions, but he never reified it. When he talked about Freud, Fromm or Marx, one could feel his intense passion for ideas. Yet, he never treated theory as an end in itself; it was always a resource whose value lay in understanding, critically engaging and transforming the world as part of a larger project of freedom and justice.

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Vigilant in bearing witness to the individual and collective suffering of others, Paulo shunned the role of the isolated intellectual as an existential hero who struggles alone. He believed that intellectuals must respond to the call for making the pedagogical more political with a continuing effort to build those coalitions, affiliations and social movements capable of mobilizing real power and promoting substantive social change. Politics was more than a gesture of translation, representation and dialogue: to be effective, it had to be about creating the conditions for people to become critical agents alive to the responsibilities of democratic public life. Paulo understood keenly that democracy was threatened by a powerful military-industrial complex, the rise of extremists groups and the increased power of the warfare state. He also recognized the pedagogical force of a corporate and militarized culture that eroded the moral and civic capacities of citizens to think beyond the common sense of official power and the hate mongering of a right-wing media apparatus. Paulo strongly believed that democracy could not last without the formative culture that made it possible. Educational sites both within schools and the broader culture represented some of the most important venues through which to affirm public values, support a critical citizenry and resist those who would deny the empowering functions of teaching and learning. At a time when institutions of public and higher education have become associated with market competition, conformity, disempowerment and uncompromising modes of punishment, making known the significant contributions and legacy of Paulo work is now more important than ever before.


Business Culture And The Death Of Public Education: The Triumph Of Management Over Leadership

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Oldspeak: “Management divorced from leadership privatizes hope, deskills teachers, treats students as consumers and exhibits an utter disdain for any mode of knowledge that cannot be reduced to empirical forms of measurement. It is more concerned with training than educating, and it increasingly relies on punishment models of governance when dealing with teachers and unions while simultaneously using harsh disciplinary measures against those students viewed as disposable because they are poor, black, or viewed as flawed learners.”

From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

The recent news that Mayor Bloomberg has anointed Cathleen P. Black, the chairwomen of Hearst Magazines, as the new chancellor of the New York City school system is another high profile example of how much business elites in the United States despise public education and its traditional role as a guardian of civic values, democratic politics and public culture. It appears that Black’s only suitability for the job is that she has “extraordinary qualifications as a manager,” has “marketing prowess” and has participated “in a mentor day with Michelle Obama at a Detroit public school and, several years ago, [served] as ‘principal for a day’ in a school in the south Bronx.”(1) This appointment could provide fodder for a skit for “Saturday Night Live” if it were not both true and tragic. Of course, there is a larger script here that points to the increasing power of corporate leaders and a business elite to eviscerate from public schooling any vestige of public values, democratic modes of governance, teacher autonomy, critical thinking and a vision of schooling as a space in which to teach students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Within this stripped-down view of schooling, enlightened self-interest, efficiency and market-driven values rule. In this view, management is divorced from any viable sense of leadership and the connection between schooling and the public good is replaced with a business model of schooling that disregards both the social and any vision not defined by the crudest forms of power, instrumental rationality and mathematical utility.

It is important to note that the business culture at work here not only reduces all social bonds to market relations, it also gives us shocking levels of inequality, impoverishment and a market morality that issued in the second Gilded Age with its ode to rapacious greed, moral impoverishment and an utter indifference to the massive hardships and suffering it produced globally with the economic recession of 2008. Management divorced from leadership privatizes hope, deskills teachers, treats students as consumers and exhibits an utter disdain for any mode of knowledge that cannot be reduced to empirical forms of measurement. It is more concerned with training than educating, and it increasingly relies on punishment models of governance when dealing with teachers and unions while simultaneously using harsh disciplinary measures against those students viewed as disposable because they are poor, black, or viewed as flawed learners. The mode of authority at work in this type of management is not simply punitive and overly dictatorial; it is also a caricature of a viable notion of leadership and social vision. It does not lead, but tramples, bullies and uses fear as its modus operandi. This is a mode of authority and management that believes that money is the only incentive for working hard, making knowledge meaningful and understanding the dynamics of learning. The egoism and cult of efficiency and materialism that informs this view of schooling and the world has no way of recognizing anti-democratic tendencies in the culture, has no language for recognizing how private troubles are related to social problems, ignores ethical issues, and lacks the slightest insight into what it means to educate young people as critical citizens.

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Business management of the market fundamentalist stripe now trumps any trace of a democratic social vision, while corporate and private interests take the place of public values and notions of the collective good. Unfortunately, the real story here is not about outsiders from the business world with little classroom or educational experience being appointed to positions of leadership in public schools systems. On the contrary, it represents the rise of a market-driven culture and apparatus of power that fills the void in a society in which informed memory is under siege and neoliberal pedagogy permeates every aspect of the cultural apparatus. Bloomberg’s actions once again suggest the power of a business culture and corporate class that despises debate, hates the formative culture that makes democracy possible and is willing to strip public education of all of those values and practices that suggest that it might serve as a democratic public sphere for generations of young people. Under this market-driven notion of schooling, management has been embraced as a Petri dish for stripping education of even minimal ethical principles and poses a growing threat to public life and the promise of democracy. Mayor Bloomberg’s notion of management does not identify agencies of change, hope and social responsibility because these are attributes that inform democratic modes of leadership. There is no call to liberate the imagination in his view of management, just the often strident, if not illiterate, attempt to measure knowledge, bestow learning with the most stripped-down capacities and sever teachers and education from any notion of self- and social empowerment and social change. Market-driven notions of management do not mobilize the individual imagination and social visions. On the contrary, they do everything possible to make them irrelevant to the discourse of leadership. Bloomberg’s appointment of an entirely unqualified, former Hearst executive is symptomatic of the crisis of leadership we face currently in the United States, when democratic visions and public values fall into disrepute. In this instance, Bloomberg and the market-driven billionaires who support his view of education are now asking the American people to be proud of what we, in fact, should be ashamed of – the rise of a market-driven business culture that hates democracy and the forms of education that make it possible.


Government Impotence and Corporate Rule

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

Oldspeak: “Just as we saw in Wall Street’s devastating economic disaster and in Massey Energy’s murderous explosion inside its Upper Big Branch coal mine, the nastiness in the gulf is baring an ugly truth that We the People must finally face: We are living under de facto corporate rule that has rendered our government impotent.” The corporatocracy is slowly and surely choking the life out of civilization and democracy as we know it. Short-term profit trumps common sense, safety, and long-term sustainability.

From Jim Hightower @ Truthout:

Many news reports about the Gulf oil catastrophe refer to it as a “spill.” Wrong. A spill is a minor “oops” — one accidentally spills milks, for example, and from childhood, we’re taught the old aphorism: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” What’s in the Gulf isn’t milk and it wasn’t spilt. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well was the inevitable result of deliberate decisions made by avaricious corporate executives, laissez faire politicians and obsequious regulators.

As the ruinous gulf oil blowout spreads onto land, over wildlife, across the ocean floor and into people’s lives, it raises a fundamental question for all of us Americans: Who the hell’s in charge here? What we’re witnessing is not merely a human and environmental horror, but also an appalling deterioration in our nation’s governance. Just as we saw in Wall Street’s devastating economic disaster and in Massey Energy’s murderous explosion inside its Upper Big Branch coal mine, the nastiness in the gulf is baring an ugly truth that We the People must finally face: We are living under de facto corporate rule that has rendered our government impotent.

Thirty years of laissez-faire, ideological nonsense (pushed upon us with a vengeance in the past decade) has transformed government into a subsidiary of corporate power. Wall Street, Massey, BP and its partners — all were allowed to become their own “regulators” and officially encouraged to put their short-term profit interests over the public interest.

Let’s not forget that on April 2, barely two weeks before Deepwater Horizon blew and 11 people perished on the spot, the public’s No. 1 official, Barack Obama, trumpeted his support for more deepwater oil drilling, blithely regurgitating Big Oil’s big lie: “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” He and his advisors had not bothered to check the truth of that — they simply took the industry’s word. That’s not governing, it’s aiding and abetting profiteers, and it’s a pathetic performance.

But that was only the start of Washington’s oily confession that it has surrendered control to corporate arrogance and avarice. With an unprecedented volume of crude gushing from the well and the magnitude of the disaster multiplying geometrically by the day, who was in charge of coping with that? Not the White House, not the interior secretary, not the EPA. As we saw when Wall Street’s greed exploded our economy, the polluting scoundrels were left in charge!

While BP’s dapper CEO issued patently ridiculous statements (such as, “Everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.”), our government blindly went along with BP’s false assertion that only some 5,000 barrels a day were pouring from the well, when independent experts were shouting at the White House that the correct volume was up to 19 times that much.

Finally, almost a month after the blowout, Obama ordered a moratorium on drilling new offshore wells and on granting environmental waivers to the oil giants. Bravo, Mr. President! But … his moratorium was simply ignored. Days after his order, oil companies were handed at least seven more drilling permits and five waivers.

Last week, with 63 percent of the public disapproving of his meek deference to BP, the president of the United States of America was reduced to convening a press conference to insist that he was “engaged” and, behind the scenes, was “monitoring” BP’s efforts.

Wow, monitoring! Excuse me, but who’s the president here? Obama should personally take charge —cancel all of his social and political events, convene an emergency response team of the best scientific minds in the world, announce a clear plan of clean-up actions, install all relevant Cabinet officials in a Gulf Coast command center to direct the actions, make daily reports on progress to the public, fire a mess of failed regulators and go to Congress with sweeping legislation to replace America’s oil dependency with a crash program of conservation and renewable energy sources.

Oh, he should also wring a few corporate necks. Instead of monitoring these criminals, prosecute them — and put the public back in charge of our government.

Dumbing Down Teachers: Attacking Colleges of Education in the Name of Reform (Part I)

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Oldspeak: “When educational reform neglects matters of politics, critical thinking, creativity and the power of the imagination, it loses its hold on preparing young people for a democratic future and condemns them to a world where the only values that matter are individual acquisition, unchecked materialism, economic growth and a winner-take-all mentality.”

From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

This article is the first of a three-part series taken from a forthcoming book, Education and the Crisis of Public Values to be published by Peter Lang Publishing Group.

As the Obama administration’s educational reform movement increasingly adopts the interests and values of a “free-market” culture, many students graduate public schooling and higher education with an impoverished political imagination, unable to recognize injustice and unfairness. They often find themselves invested in a notion of unattached individualism that severs them from any sense of moral and social responsibility to others or to a larger notion of the common good. At the same time, those students who jeopardize the achievement of the quantifiable measures and instrumental values now used to define school success are often subjected to harsh disciplinary procedures, pushed out of schools, subjected to medical interventions or, even worse, pushed into the criminal justice system.[1] Most of these students are poor whites and minorities of color and, increasingly, students with special needs.

To be sure, the empirical emphasis of conservative school policy has been in place for decades. In keeping with this trend, the Obama administration’s educational policy under the leadership of Arne Duncan lacks a democratic vision and sense of moral direction. Consequently, it reproduces rather than diminishes many of these problems. In addition, these policies bear the trace of the ideological remnants of a second Gilded Age that repudiated civic education and schooling as a public good. Rather than arguing for educational reforms and a value shift away from the ethically deadening demands of an egocentric, consumerist society that can only respond to the lure of goods, profits and “rational investments,” Obama and Duncan are pushing the same pernicious set of values that redefine citizens as stockholders, customers and clients. Similarly, they have pushed for modes of teaching and learning that promote a formative culture that in effect produces and legitimates a culture of illiteracy and moral indifference that too closely correlates with what journalist Matt Taibbi rightly calls a “world of greed without limits.”[2] Instead of promoting or extending “education’s democratizing influence on the nation”[3] as part of one needed response to the corruption that led to the global recession, Duncan has fervently placed American society under the sway of an educational reform movement that is at odds with a vision of schooling dedicated to the cultivation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of actively participating and governing in a democratic society. In fact, Duncan’s understanding of school reform is contrary to forms of knowledge and pedagogy that enable rather than subvert the potential of a socially just and sustainable society.

Almost all of Duncan’s polices are indebted to the codes of a market-driven business culture, legitimated through discourses of measurement, efficiency and utility. This is a discourse that values hedge fund managers over teachers, privatization over the public good, management over leadership and training over education. Duncan’s fervent support of neoliberal values are well-known and are evident in his support for high-stakes testing, charter schools, school-business alliances, merit pay, linking teacher pay to higher test scores, offering students monetary rewards for higher grades, CEO-type management, abolishing tenure, defining the purpose of schooling as largely job training, the weakening of teacher unions and blaming teachers exclusively for the failure of public schooling.[4]

His support of the firing of the entire faculty of a Central Falls High School in Rhode Island is indicative of his disdain for public school teachers and teacher unions. Although teachers and administrators have to accept responsibility for the academic performance of their students, there are often many other factors that have to be taken into consideration such as a parent’s involvement, the socio-economic status of the students, the existence of support services for students and the challenges that emerge when students do not speak English as a first language. Many of the Central Falls students did not speak English well, came from families that were poor, worked after school and had few support services and specialists at their disposal.[5] Obama and Duncan ignored all of these factors because they have little sense of the larger socio-economic forces that bear down on schools, putting many students at a decided disadvantage when compared to their well-resourced, middle-class counterparts.

Duncan has expanded the reach of his educational reform policies and is now attempting to rewrite curricular mandates. Emphasizing the practical and experiential, he seeks to gut the critical nature of theory, pedagogy and knowledge taught in colleges of education. This is an important issue to more than just teachers who are denied a voice in curricular development; it also affects whole generations of youth. Such a bold initiative reveals in very clear terms the political project that drives his reforms and what he fears about both public schooling and the teachers who labor in classrooms every day.

Within the last year, Duncan has delivered a number of speeches in which he has both attacked colleges of education and called for alternative routes to teacher certification.[6] According to Duncan, the great sin these colleges have committed in the past few decades is that they have focused too much on theory and not enough on clinical practice; and by theory he means critical pedagogy, or those theories that enable prospective teachers to situate school knowledges, practices and modes of governance within wider critical, historical, social, cultural, economic and political contexts. Duncan wants such colleges to focus on practical methods in order to prepare teachers for an outcome-based education system, which is code for pedagogical methods that are as anti-intellectual as they are politically conservative. This is a pedagogy useful for creating armies of number crunchers, reduced to supervising the administration of standardized tests, but not much more. Reducing pedagogy to the teaching of methods and data-driven performance indicators that allegedly measures scholastic ability and improve student achievement is nothing short of scandalous. Rather than provide the best means for confronting “difficult truths about the inequality of America’s political economy,” such a pedagogy produces the swindle of “blaming inequalities on individuals and groups with low test scores.”[7] This is a pedagogy that sabotages any attempt at self-reflection and quality education, all the while providing an excuse for producing moral comas and a flight from responsibility.

By espousing empirically based standards as a fix for educational problems, advocates of these measures do more than oversimplify complex issues, they also remove the classroom from larger social, political and economic forces and offer up anti-intellectual and ethically debased technical and punitive solutions to school and classroom problems. In addition, Duncan’s insistence on banishing theory from teacher education programs in favor of promoting narrowly defined skills and practices foreshadows the preparation of teachers as a subaltern class who believe that the purpose of education is only to train students to compete successfully in a global economy. This model of teaching being celebrated here is one in which teachers are constructed as clerks and technicians who have no need for a public vision in which to imagine the democratic role and social responsibility that schools, teachers or pedagogy might assume for the world and future they offer to young people. Drew Gilpin Faust, the current president of Harvard University, is right in insisting, “But even as we as a nation have embraced education as critical to economic growth and opportunity, we should remember that [public schools], colleges and universities are about a great deal more than measurable utility. Unlike perhaps any other institutions in the world, they embrace the long view and nurture the kind of critical perspectives that look far beyond the present.”[8]

Duncan argues that most of the nation’s 1,450 colleges of education and programs are doing an inadequate job, as reflected in the fact that nearly 30 percent of students drop out or fail to graduate on time. His defense of alternative routes to education comes from what he calls the looming shortage of teachers that will take place in the near future as an older generation of teachers retire. The first argument strikes me as a non sequitur. Surely, there are multiple factors that cause students to drop out. Some of them are mundane – a change of career path – and some are more tragic – a lack of funds to continue. But many are rooted in the overwhelming recognition of the larger social forces that undermine the mission of education from the massive inequalities in school funding, racism, dire rates of poverty, spiraling youth unemployment, dismantling of important social services and the escalating governing through crime complex that increasingly criminalizes of all aspects of youth behavior.[9] Moreover, any discourse that situates teaching within a critical understanding of these forces is precisely what Duncan wants to remove from the curriculum. In his defense for reforming teacher education programs, he offers the following:

In my seven years as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and in my current job as I’ve traveled the country, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with great young teachers…. In particular they say two things about their training in ed school. First, most of them say they did not get the hands-on practical teacher training about managing the classroom that they needed, especially for high-needs students. And second, they say there were not taught how to use data to differentiate and improve instruction and boost student learning.[10]

Duncan then goes on to praise Louisiana as a model for building longitudinal data systems that track the impact of new teachers on student achievement. For Duncan, Louisiana represents a beacon for how schools should be redefined, largely as sites of management and data collection, and advances the notion that teachers should be trained to operate proficiently in such sites. Ironically, or perhaps tragically, what Duncan leaves out of his praise for the Louisiana school system is the fact that it has one of the highest rates of student suspensions and expulsions in the nation. As the report, Pushed Out, indicated:

Louisiana’s expulsion rate is five times the national rate, nearly 16,000 middle and high school students drop out each year and public schools in the state dole out over 300,000 out-of-school suspensions a year. Within the state-run Recovery School District direct operated schools, the expulsion rate is ten times the national rate and 1 in every 4 students was suspended in a single year, twice the statewide rate and over four times the national rate. State law, as currently written, contributes to the problem, allowing principals to suspend students for a wide range of minor misbehavior, including “willful disobedience,” disrespecting school staff and using “unchaste or profane language.” Moreover, the overuse of harsh discipline disproportionately affects some Louisiana school children over others. African American students make up 44% of the statewide public school population, but 68% of suspensions and 72.5% of expulsions. And in school districts with a larger percentage of African American and low-income students, there are higher rates of suspension and expulsion. These districts tend to have fewer resources for positive interventions.[11]

Duncan’s collusion with the growing corporatization and militarizing of public schools, along with the increased use of harsh disciplinary modes of punishment, surveillance, control and containment, especially in schools inhabited largely by poor minorities of color, reveals his unwillingness to address the degree to which many schools are dominated by a politics of fear, containment and authoritarianism, even as he advances reform as a civil rights issue.[12] Schools are not merely places where potential workers learn the marketable skills and abilities necessary to secure a decent job, they are also, as Martha C. Nussbaum pointed out, key institutions of the public good and are “crucial to both the health of democracy and to the creation of a decent world culture and a robust type of global citizenship.”[13] Curriculum in this instance is not simply knowledge to be consumed or valued for its measurable utility, it should be rooted in the best that has been produced by human beings and designed to both stir the imagination and empower young people with a sense of integrity, justice and hope for the future. As the former president of Brown University, Vartan Gregorian, insisted, “[W]cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge…. And knowledge does not mean only technical knowledge. But also you need to have knowledge of our society, knowledge of the world…. we should know about the rest of the world.”[14]

When educational reform neglects matters of politics, critical thinking, creativity and the power of the imagination, it loses its hold on preparing young people for a democratic future and condemns them to a world where the only values that matter are individual acquisition, unchecked materialism, economic growth and a winner-take-all mentality. The diverse range of political, economic, racial and social forces that influence all aspects of schooling need to be critically engaged and rearticulated in the interest of justice, human development, freedom and equal opportunity. These are not merely political issues, they are also pedagogical concerns and the former cannot be separated from the latter, just as equity cannot be separated from matters of excellence. Defining schools exclusively in terms of mathematical coordinates and statistical formulas suggests that Duncan has no language for addressing schools as sites or teachers as engaged intellectuals that mediate, accommodate, reproduce and sometimes challenge the diverse and often anti-democratic forces that bear down on them.

If schools are increasingly being governed through a culture modeled after prisons as I have suggested in “Youth in a Suspect Society,” how does one understand the growth of this model of schooling and what might it tell us about the transformation of the state and the expansion of the criminal justice system into more and more aspects of everyday life, extending from the classroom to the welfare system? What does it mean to ignore the increasing corporatization, privatization and militarization of schools at a time when all aspects of public life are under siege by corporate and market-driven forces? How can schools fulfill their democratic mission when they are shaped by a social order characterized by massive inequalities in wealth and power? The methodology madness paradigm considers these dangerous questions, just as it believes that the theories and pedagogical practices that make such questions possible off limits to colleges and programs of education. Surely, under such circumstances, we have joined Alice in falling into the rabbit hole.

These are not questions Duncan seems remotely interested in addressing, primarily because his obsession with instrumental values holds both public schools and public values in contempt. Surely, prospective teachers should have some idea, some sort of theoretical model, if not also diverse vocabularies and varied paradigms in order to understand the social forces that currently impact students, schools, the policy environment surrounding schools and teaching itself, which often take place in contexts that vastly differ according to a range of social and economic determinants. Duncan’s attack on theory and critical thinking is not only rooted in the most perverse form of anti-intellectualism; it is also in lockstep with a conservative and corporate educational reform movement driven by an ideological agenda largely shaped by a number of anti-public conservative foundations, politicians, legislators and intellectuals who argue for deregulation and exhibit a strange obsession with crunching numbers. Ironically, this argument comes at a time when deregulation and ethical dishonesty are largely seen as some of the reasons behind the massive economic meltdown.

One of the most prominent of these anti-public intellectuals is David M. Steiner, the commissioner of New York State Department of Education, whose work is often praised by Duncan. Steiner is a firm exponent of charter schools,[15] alternative routes to teacher certification and data-driven approaches to teaching. He has argued repeatedly against theoretical course work and is a strong advocate of “more on-the-job training.” But Steiner is not simply a retrograde positivist touting the virtues of instrumental rationality, he is also a die-hard conservative ideologue who is intent on eliminating the conditions that might result in prospective teachers being exposed to critical, if not progressive, theory and literature about schooling, pedagogy and broader social issues. In fact, Steiner appears to be repelled by any notion of theory that might reveal the ideological, pedagogical and political limitations of stir-and-serve recipes for teaching. He has made a number of public comments that suggest he is horrified by the notion that practice, indirectly or directly, might be informed by theory and engaged as a serious issue by existing and prospective teachers. In this case, his fear of theory may stem from its ability to raise critical questions about the forms of authority, specific ideologies, values and interests that structure pedagogical practices. This might explain his emphasis on teaching prospective teachers a range of banal techniques such as “when to make eye contact, when to call on a student by name, when to wait for a fuller answer.”[16]

Pedagogy in this view is utterly depoliticized, while the ideological nature of the production of knowledge, identities, desires and social relations within the classroom gets conveniently buried beneath an appeal to techniques and methods. What also gets conveniently buried is the productive character of pedagogy as a moral and political practice. What Steiner misses in his dystopian and regressive support for methods removed from theoretical, historical, ethical and political considerations is that the issue of pitting theory against practice is a false one since theoretical questions always guide any form of classroom practice. What is lost here is that the issue is not whether schools of education produce too much theory, but as Stuart Hall pointed out, we simply “can’t do without it.” Theory is crucial because it enables us “to change the scale of magnification…. to break into the confusing fabric that ‘the real’ apparently presents and find another way in. So it’s like a microscope and until you look at the evidence through the microscope, you can’t see the hidden relations.”[17]

Practices, techniques and methodologies do not speak for themselves and they are meaningless unless they are subject to critical interrogation and examined both through specific theoretical frameworks and the theoretical values they attempt to legitimate, particularly when used to support dominant modes of authority, teaching and learning. The presupposition that practice is not bound to submit to norms or is unmediated by theoretical paradigms is as anti-intellectual as it is depoliticizing. The real issue is whether teachers are aware of and reflective about the theoretical frameworks and norms that inform their work. At the very least, being attentive to matters of theory enables them to better understand the ethical values, ideologies and political visions that inform different forms of practice.

Surely, Steiner is too smart to accept the preposterous notion that theory is more of a pathology and a threat than an invaluable resource. It is hard to imagine him faulting the role that theory might play in enabling teachers to be thoughtful about the social, cultural, psychological and political forces that shape classroom knowledge and produce hidden structures of meaning beneath officially sanctioned narratives. It is also hard to accept his belief that it is impossible for theory to provide teachers with possibilities for not only differentiating among diverse forms of classroom practice, but also for producing new forms of practice. Theory is the condition that enables teachers and students to be self-reflexive, develop better forms of knowledge and classroom skills and gain an understanding of the contexts in which they teach and learn, which have already been constructed through struggles over theories that make a claim to legitimating what kind of knowledge and practice count in a classroom. Theory creates the possibilities for being reflective about meaning and its effects; and it’s a powerful tool for understanding how to interrogate those pedagogical spaces in which identities, values and social relations are in play within diverse situations of power.

Steiner’s rejection of theory as a rather useless abstraction is really an attack on the productive nature of pedagogy itself and with equipping teachers with the skills they need to be critical, autonomous agents in the classroom. It is precisely this rejection of theory that prevents teachers from addressing the right-wing policies now being enacted in Texas and Arizona, which are as morally repugnant as they are intellectually comatose.[18] At the same time, this anti-theory retreat into the world of methods and instrumental rationality is more than a retreat from the world in all of its political and social complexity – it is likewise a move away from any understanding of the public school as a bastion of democratic learning and civic pedagogy, just as it is a retreat from any measure of moral and social responsibility. This is a dangerous and difficult stance to take at a time when the country is besieged by massive corruption, a lack of political vision and a moral void that promote bigotry, massive exploitation and a dangerous national chauvinism.

What needs to be emphasized against this instrumental view of teacher education is that there is much more at work here than a disagreement over the relationship between theory and practice. There is also an ideologically driven disavowal of critical pedagogy, the civic meaning of schooling and the role that teachers might play in connecting learning to matters of politics, power and democracy. In fact, Steiner’s position became crystal clear to me when I attended the Nexus Conference in Amsterdam in 2007. Steiner was on a panel and he raised a number of issues about schooling that were deeply conservative, if not reactionary. When I asked him about the role of schooling as a public good, as an institution that should be defined in more capacious terms than a paradigm that focuses on simply collecting data, he answered by saying, “Social justice promotes hatred. Hatred for the established order.”

I was both surprised and distressed by this response, as were a number of other people in the conference. Steiner’s response revealed a buried order of conservative politics that lies beneath his rhetoric about practice while, at the same time, offering insight about what it is about Steiner’s policies as a model for educational reform throughout the country that attracts Arne Duncan’s spirited support. I can only assume that the object of Steiner’s critique of social justice programs is critical thought itself, which is labeled by its detractors as a form of negativism, while those who deploy critiques of the status quo are stereotyped as cynical, resentful and un-American. While it would be unfair to compare Steiner with Tom Horne, the xenophobic Arizona superintendent of public schools, he has used the same argument against thoughtful critique, labeling it as a downer and unworthy of having a place in the public schools, particularly when it takes the form of ethnic studies programs.[19] Not only is such an argument at odds with an open democratic society, it is fundamentally part of a authoritarian model of pedagogy that ultimately seeks to erase any notion of history considered at odds with official narratives.

Duncan and Steiner reify pedagogy by stripping it of its political and ethical referents and transforming it into a grab bag of practical methods and techniques. Neither of them can theorize the productive character of pedagogy as a political and moral discourse. Hence, both are silent about the institutional conditions that bear down on the ability of teachers to link conception with execution and what it means to develop a better understanding of pedagogy as a struggle over the shaping of particular identities. Nor can they raise questions about education as a form of political intervention that offers the conditions for teachers to create potentially empowering or disempowering spaces for students, critically interrogate the role of teacher authority or engage the limits of established academic subjects in sustaining critical dialogues about educational aims and practices. These questions barely scratch the surface of issues that are often excluded when education is linked solely to the teaching of content and pedagogy is instrumentalized to the point of irrelevance.

Pedagogy is never innocent. But if it is to be understood and made problematic as a moral and political practice, educators must not only critically question and register their own subjective involvement in how and what they teach, they must also resist calls to transform pedagogy into the mere application of standardized practical methods and techniques. Otherwise, teachers become indifferent to the ethical and political dimensions of their own authority and practice. There is no escaping the detour through theory that every pedagogical practice must take, just as it is impossible to suggest that schools are somehow neutral institutions that can ignore the ways in which social, ethical and political norms bear down on almost every aspect of schooling and classroom teaching. In fact, one can reasonably argue that most of what is learned in schools takes place through a hidden curriculum in which particular forms of knowledge, culture, values and desires are taught, but never talked about or made public. One only has to mention as a case in point the ways in which schools increasingly function as part of a circuit of power that produces the school-to-prison pipeline. One would be hard pressed to find any educator who claims that his or her school participates in such a vicious process and, yet, the hard realities of such practices bear down on poor minority children everyday as part of the hidden curriculum of schooling.[20]

Missing from Duncan and Steiner’s celebration of data driven teaching is any concern about the complex and often contradictory role that schools play in either extending or closing down the possibilities for students to participate within a wider democratic culture. Nor is there any interest in exploring how power works through particular texts, social practices and institutional structures to produce differences organized around complex forms of subordination and empowerment. Given these omissions, it is not surprising that little is said about how the dominant culture of schooling legitimates as well as excludes, under vastly different conditions of learning, those students who are marginalized by class and race. Nor is much said about what ideological and institutional conditions are necessary to provide teachers with the opportunities they need to function as critical public intellectuals rather than as robotic data retrievers. Duncan and Steiner seem mute on the issue of what it means to turn their empirically-based views of classroom practice into an exploration of the limits of such practice and empirically-based knowledge itself.

Of course, practice on its own tells us nothing, because it is always subject to various theoretical, historical and social categories through which it is framed and experienced. Educational practice gets its meaning not simply by being emulated, but by how it is reflected upon, critically mediated and thoughtfully engaged, just like any other body of knowledge. I think that Duncan and Steiner’s hostility to theory and critical pedagogy is less about their presence in various educational programs and schools of education than it is about the potential of certain types of theory and pedagogical practices to raise questions at odds with their right-wing support for the corporate elite’s version of school reform. How else to explain Steiner’s ludicrous statements reported in The New York Times that “colleges of education still devote too much class time to abstract notions about [what he calls] ‘the role of school in democracy’ and ‘the view by some that schools exist to perpetuate a social hierarchy'”?[21]

Steiner’s disdain for having future teachers analyze the role of schools and pedagogy itself through larger political, social and economic categories is palpable. Steiner’s fear of teachers and students viewing public and higher education as crucial forces for creating critical citizens and viable spheres for learning about and defending democratic values, identities and social relations says a great deal about his own politics and disdain for public values. Of course, Steiner became the golden boy for the neoconservative movement after publishing an article in 2005 in which he analyzed the syllabi in foundations courses from 16 elite schools of education and concluded that, since there was a disproportionate number of progressive authors being read in those courses, these education programs must be dominated by left-leaning ideologies.[22]Needless to say, this type of ideologically-based research begins with a premise and then looks for the evidence to support it. Not only is there a long history of left professors being wrongfully denied tenure in such schools, myself included, but the departments that often dominate these schools such as the departments of educational administration, leadership, policy and psychology are often the most powerful and conservative within colleges and schools of education. As is well known, schools of education are among the most conservative and deeply anti-intellectual colleges on campuses; they are, in many cases, already concerned with teaching methods, and for this they are certainly deserving of criticism. Unfortunately, Steiner ignores the current situation, and in the name of reform, simply amplifies these problems.

Moreover, course syllabi tell us nothing about how books are interpreted by either professors or students. Steiner’s own claims to being impartial are as bogus as is his research. Missing from Steiner’s views on education are crucial questions regarding what matters beyond learning methods, taking tests, using data and celebrating technocratic modes of rationality. What kind of education do we need for young people to become informed citizens capable of learning how to govern rather than simply be governed? What kind of education do we need to create a generation of young people willing to engage, defend and struggle for the ideals and social relations that offer the promise of social justice and substantive democracy?

Given the crucial importance of public school teachers in providing students with the knowledge and imagination they will need to further the ideals, social relations and institutions crucial to an aspiring democracy, the Obama-Duncan view of educational reform must be steadfastly rejected. Many teachers, students, workers, and many others feel an acute sense of betrayal and moral indignation as the social state is dismantled, the moral compact dissolved, politicians scramble to protect the privileged, wealthy and mega corporations are provided with massive bailouts, while the burden for the current economic recession is placed on the working and middle classes. The formative educational culture necessary for creating both critical citizens and a robust democracy is under major attack in the United States. And this is most evident in the assault that Duncan is waging against public schools, teachers and colleges of education. The Obama administration’s educational policy 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 strict emphasis on individual competition, private goods and unbridled self-interest now finds its counterpart in the disparagement of any pedagogy that encourages criticism, critical dialogue and thoughtful exchange. The latter are core elements of any viable classroom pedagogy and any call to either eliminate such practices from schools or to subordinate them to a sterile form of instrumental rationality serves the interests of a closed and authoritarian social order rather than an open and democratic society.[23]

The pedagogical conditions necessary to reclaim a formative 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.