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Education and the Crisis of Public Values

Wall Street Goes to School

by TOLU OLORUNDA

If real reform is going to happen, it has to put in place a viable, critical, formative culture that supports notions of social and engaged citizenship, civic courage, public values, dissent, democratic modes of governing and a genuine belief in freedom, equality, and justice.

—Henry Giroux, Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), p. xi.

While I believe that public education should equip students with skills to enter the workplace, it should also educate them to contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of work, and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and respect for all people who constitute the global public sphere.

—Ibid., p. 9.

Public education in this society has hardly ever attracted the enthusiasm of the powerful—any medium through which the disempowered can gain ground on the privileged has always had the tag of “Communism” or “Anti-Americanism” hung around its neck. And for this reason, the public school system has been the piñata of Right-wing politicians and their bosses, whacked to death and drained of all resources that give it life and sustenance. So starved of precious funding are many schools that music, health, and even history classes have been shaved off, narrowing the scope to Math, English, and Science courses, to better prepare a generation for leadership in a hostile and competitive world—or so the apologists bay.

Public education has always had the eyes of society’s owners trained on it, and in our age those of the ruling class see it as but a bygone nuisance, one mere hour away from total oblivion. Education, for this slim minority, should always keep one element esteemed above all else: value. The narrative goes: students cannot simply be educated to be educated; they have to be to take over companies, build pyramid schemes, crunch numbers, sell mortgages, grab land, win lawsuits, and run government. Public education, then, always represented a great threat to the fantasies of those who want back the culture Roosevelt chased off.

To see this dream come true, the anti-public culture warriors went to work, stripping off what they could by the piece, guffing lies into the living rooms of millions, setting presidential agenda when they could; and before long, it became commonsense to see underpaid, overworked, unsupported teachers who endure 9-10 hour shifts as the great wall standing between an abandoned generation and a renewed gilded age.

Looking back, the plan seems executed without flaw: to render the very concept of a society obsolete, to demolish critical sites that create and sustain the values of such society; to reframe the function of schools, to collapse media ownership into the hands of a few, to run a profit-making pipeline from low-income public schools into juvenile halls and thereafter prisons—assigning a function and role to students who might better spend their time trying to make society a model of justice and parity. In the grand finale, public school teachers were dragged out into the town square for public stoning. Having deskilled these teachers for decades, switching their roles to technicians and test machines, the demonization began, which helped later on in absolving them off all power to challenge oppressive workplace practices like militarization and privatization.

The Texas Board of Education’s decision last year to delete all history of working-class organizing and resistance would prove merely the latest round in a long battle to do away with any education that doesn’t assign students consumer identities—giving to teachers that of salesclerks.

Acclaimed education theorist Henry Giroux traces this history in his latest text, Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education, a slim, fiery volume drenched as much in hope as in despair for what has become of a culture which tells kids CEOs know more about education than do certified educators. “Despite the trust we impart to them in educating our children,” he writes, “we ignore and devalue the firewall they provide between a culture saturated in violence and idiocy and the radical imaginative possibilities of an educated mind and critical agent capable of transforming the economic, political, and racial injustices that surround us and bear down so heavily on public schools.”

Teachers, devalued and demonized, are increasingly being written out completely. Giroux notes: “As many as one million students are now finding themselves in classrooms where the only adult is a computer technician.” And the loudest champions of this new wave wouldn’t be our insane friends on the Right but the philanthropic minds of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Sam Walton, and many other wealthy executives—captains of the education ship in the Obama era. They have the ears of the illiterate education secretary, Arne Duncan, whose mind is forever sold on a corporate education system, controlled by Wall Street financiers and Education Management Organizations (EMOs), run by market rules, and inevitably pumped up with so much greed and avarice into a bubble so vast it bursts—and millions of struggling citizens lose everything while the rich beam off scot-free:

Underneath this discourse lie the same old and discredited neoliberal policies that cheerfully serve corporate interests: privatization; union busting; competition as the only mode of motivation; an obsession with measurement; a relentless attack on teacher autonomy; the weakening of tenure; educational goals stripped of public values; teacher quality defined in purely instrumental terms; an emphasis on authoritarian modes of management; and a mindless obsession with notions of pedagogy that celebrate memorization and teaching to the test.

The private has been at war with the public for as long as slaves were resisting the demands of the market, but never before has public society fallen under such compelling attacks as to inspire the sense of desperation sweeping through public schools: entire staffs cleaned out by the hundreds, districts hijacked by corporations and the military, schools shut down by omnipotent emergency financial managers, students taught curriculum written by McDonald’s, British Petroleum, and Walt Disney. This sequence has a simple motivation, Giroux insists: “Public schools are under attack not because they are failing or are inefficient, but because they are public.”

The new culture cannot be complete without striking to death this one last giant, which still hangs upon a tight rope the hopes of millions of parents, unable to afford private education or homeschooling. This, then, puts upon education a great responsibility, to prove to the naysayers that it can “function” with “efficiency” in our complex world, that it can crank out students with good GPAs who’ll sit in cubicles for the next 50 years after graduating college. But this notion fails the test, as Giroux notes: “The repeated emphasis on education manufacturing a product, as if it were designed simply to produce durable goods, does nothing more than justify its treatment as a machine to be repaired rather than a complex social institution made up of living, breathing human beings.”

It is the shameless construction of uneducated clods who couldn’t tell John Dewey apart from the decimal system: the fantastical aspiration of Wall Street racket runners and half-wit entertainers who swear charter schools are merely public entities shielded from the bureaucratic red tapes clogging up all access to meaningful reforms. And any hour these days they are found plastered on cable news screens, reciting jingle-like platitudes only gratifying to like-minded simpletons, frothing at low standardized test scores, high teacher salaries, tenure, unions, and the short hours kids spend in school these days. What they want, of course, is a generation trained to the “Gordon Gekko ethos of ruthless competition.”

They want kids to see education as a business, as primarily the means to a financial end, which would explain why “when young people were surveyed in 2009, 73 percent responded that their top goal was being financially wealthy as opposed to only 37 percent who supported that position in 1971.” They want kids thinking—but uncritically. They want kids seeing the world through the ideas and values that crashed the global economy two years back. They want kids enmeshed in a casino capitalism doctrine that creates the sort of culture where Ponzi schemes and redlining and subprime bundles keep the engine running.

In New York, as in many cities countrywide, the billionaire mayor can put his trust only in CEOs to run the education system. Success in the hard-nose private sector is now paralleled with experience required to deal with matters of segregation, curriculum, pedagogy, dropouts, special needs, and school meals. This signals a turn in the screw, calling to question a crisis of values, a reshaping of principles, beliefs, and traditions. “In this instance,” Giroux writes, “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.”

Reading Education and the Crisis of Public Values, Giroux often comes across inhabiting multiple bodies: in one sense, a latter-day prophet announcing doom to a half-empty lecture room; in another, a veteran intellectual supplying ammo to a younger generation woefully unprepared for the most important public education fight in the nation’s history; a matador striding alone, trying to hold onto what remains of a flailing, collapsing tradition; a public advocate resting one final count of persuasion upon a society slipping into the abyss of neoliberalism, from which no return might be possible. “Surely, under such circumstances, we have joined Alice in falling into the rabbit hole.”

But this teacher of hope wouldn’t want to depart without a sense of what true education brings: not a model or method or structure frozen and microwaved for use like packaged patties, but a “political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills, and social relations that enable students to explore for themselves the possibility of what it means to be engaged citizens while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy.”

Students, if they at all care for their futures, would have to forge alone at times, returning to history for inspiration, refusing to be swept away by this whirlwind of neoliberalism racing through everything yet to be privatized. Students would have to be vigilant against facile alternatives to the paradigms and traditions handed down through generations, fought brutally, and often bloodily, for by men and women who simply dreamed of a world free from the fangs of corporate dominance. Students would need to be at the forefront of this movement, like the children of Chile, refusing to sell out their futures and those of generations to come. “They must also learn to confront directly the threat from fundamentalisms of all varieties that seek to turn democracy into a mall, a sectarian church, or an adjunct of the emerging punishing state.”

With this document, we can truly hope for the best.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic currently living in Michigan. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.