In Truthout for September 27, 2011
A must read. Below is an excerpt:
Since the early 1970s, the rich, corporate power brokers and right-wing cultural warriors realized that education was central to creating a viable populist movement that served their interests. Over the last 40 years, the financial elites and their wealthy accomplices have not only mobilized an educational anti-reform movement in the name of “reform” to dismantle public education and turn it over to hedge-fund managers and billionaires; they have also taken a lesson from the muckrakers, critical public intellectuals, left-wing journals, progressive newspapers and educational institutions of the mid-20th century and developed their own cultural apparatuses, talk shows, anti-public intellectuals, think tanks and grassroots organizations. As the left slid into organizing around mostly single-issue movements since the 1980s, the right moved in a different direction, mobilizing a range of educational forces and wider cultural apparatus as a way of addressing broader ideas that appealed to a wider public and issues that resonated with their everyday lives. Tax reform, the role of government, the crisis of education, family values and the economy, to name a few issues, were wrenched out of their progressive legacy and inserted into a context defined by the values of the free market, an unbridled notion of freedom and individualism and a growing hatred for the social contract.
At the heart of this movement was a culture of cruelty and vulgarity that used education to produce a new form of political illiteracy in which there was no difference between opinions and arguments, reason and emotion and evidence and false statements. In this culture of illiteracy, science became a liability, thinking became an act of stupidity, anti-intellectualism became a virtue, social protections were described as a pathology and the social contract was dismissed as socialism. While social critic Michael Kazin does not mention the notions of education or public pedagogy in a recent New York Times article, he is right in stressing the centrality of education to the current right-wing-Christian-extremists takeover of almost every aspect of political and economic life in America – extending from the Supreme Court to the federal government to the dominant media-cultural educational apparatus. He writes: “Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause.”(1)
Education has become the political weapon of choice for conservatives, and they have had astounding success in using the mainstream and new media to drown out the voices of more progressive critics. The evidence is everywhere. For instance, The New York Times is currently advertising its Watch Education Take Center Stage initiative and the keynote address is being given by the politically and morally discredited champion of neoliberal education, Lawrence Summers. Given his failed presidency at Harvard, his utterly shameful role in contributing to the financial crisis of 2008 and the failure of Obama’s economic policies and his crude instrumental view of education, why would The New York Times select him as an educational leader and beacon of hope for any kind of educational vision designed to address future generations? Other speakers include the likes of Chester Finn, whose views on public education are as politically reactionary as they are theoretically bogus. Another example can be found in the ongoing Education Nation series sponsored on a number of platforms by NBC. It’s endorsement of market-driven anti-public education policies are evident in its parading of the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and their utterly anti-public, charter school, privatized and technocratic vision of education. Also included are the usual list of charter school, corporate funded anti-union, public school cheerleaders for defunding and privatizing American education. Of course, missing from these dog-and-pony shows are progressive public school reformers such as David Berliner, Stanley Aronowitz, Jonathan Kozol, Marian Wright Edelman, Donaldo Macedo, and others who have been fighting for real educational reform for the last few decades. Nor is there any mention of the many local struggling social movements fighting for public education and the ever-dissolving protections of social contract inherited from the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society programs. Education at all levels is firmly in the hands of the rich, reactionary and the powerful. Is it any wonder given how invisible progressive forces are in this country that young people are not in the streets as they were in the sixties, refusing the future being offered to them by Wall Street and the moralizing Christian fundamentalists?
Of course, this is not merely a debate about education; it is really about the emergence of an anti-reform movement that wants to create armies of low-skilled workers and consumers for the privatized, deregulated and commodified world of the 21st century where a survival of the fittest ethic has been elevated to the status of commonsense. This is a world in which the culture of cruelty is now so commonplace that audiences clap when right-wing politicians insist that people who are terminally ill should die rather than receive government support; it is a world in which the legacies and injustice of slavery and the Jim Crow era now shape a criminal justice system in which capital punishment is largely used to kill black men while, at the same time, used by crass politicians to provoke political support and cheers from audiences who could have once sat in the seats of Roman coliseums watching people eaten by wild animals; the culture of cruelty is now matched by the culture of vulgarity – reality TV shows mimic the worst values of American life; celebrity culture is now so crude that it is worse than illiterate, and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian become role models for legitimating a lethal combination of vulgarity and stupidity. The combination of vulgarity and illiteracy permeates American culture, particularly its political class. What is one to make of the current crop of Republic presidential candidates who claim, without irony, that climate change is not the result of human behavior; evolution is bad science; and in the case of the queen of idiocy, Michele Bachmann, ignore the most obvious scientific evidence about the HPV vaccine in order to make false claims about the value of this particular drug in saving the lives of young girls. In all of these examples, education becomes another way of making the larger public and young people either stupid or mindless consumers – even worse, both.
The American public needs access to a new political and educational vocabulary in order to fashion democratically vibrant educational institutions; social movements; community educational centers; bookstores; and a lively, independent press. Young people, educators, activists, artists, parents, and others need alternative media such as Truthout, AlterNet and CounterPunch as popular civic outlets to make education central to building the formative culture that would create new generations of real public intellectuals, youth activists, social movements and a vibrant range of public spheres. I have taken up this issue in my newest book, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values.” The book points to how educators and others can meet the current attack on education, young people and democracy itself. It offers a new vocabulary for better understanding the crisis of education as a crisis of democracy and public life, and provides a number of suggestions for what new beginnings are necessary, all of which is outlined in more detail throughout the book. Below is an excerpt from the preface that forecasts both the swindle of education offered by conservatives, the billionaires and corporate power brokers and why it needs to be resisted with as much urgency and collective power as possible.
With all due respect to Charles Dickens, it appears to be the worst of times for public and higher education in America; public schools are increasingly viewed as a business and are prized above all for “customer satisfaction,” and efficiency while largely judged through the narrow lens of empirical accountability measures. When not functioning as a business or a potentially lucrative for-profit investment, public schools are reduced to containment centers, holding institutions designed to largely punish young people marginalized by race and class. No longer merely tracked into low-achieving classes, poor white, brown and black youth are now tracked out of school into what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools have now become stress centers for the privileged and zones of abandonment for the poor…
To read this Op-Ed in full, go to: