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Teaching for Transformation


My teenage students cannot even tell me where Kabul is.  From the viewpoint of those in power we have taught ourselves and our children well.  Forty years ago, while interviewing one of the killers at My Lai, TV journalist Mike Wallace could ask with disbelief, “And babies?”  Today our President authorizes the murder of children without a trace of guilt or unrest from either the media or the vast majority of the populace.  He continues the wanton slaughter of pregnant women and children by drones–six times more attacks than under Bush, with a number of casualties that surpasses the civilians killed during the infamous My Lai Massacre.  Meanwhile Obama happily shoots selfies at a funeral, an apt metaphor for his presidency–and our society.

Afghanistan has suffered the longest war in our nation’s history (unless you count the centuries-long war against the Native American population).  The Afghan War, as it has transpired, has also received more scrutiny and had more crimes exposed than any other conflict in our history.  I’m not talking about the corporate media, useless as always, but rather the literally scores of documentaries and intrepid independent journalists who have uncovered evidence of non-stop war crimes on a par with My Lai.  There’s JSOC’s sinister program of apparently senseless mass murder (at Obama’s behest) in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.  There’s Bravo Company who killed Afghan boys for sport.  There’s the A-Team Special Forces murder of a dozen Afghan civilians, the drone murders of hundreds of Afghans in Pakistan (they might live in Pakistan but most of them are Pashtuns), and this is just recently.  Don’t forget the murder of 2000 prisoners of war under America’s watch in 2002 or the numerous attacks at weddings, killing hundreds.  It doesn’t matter that a magazine about rock music has to be the one to cover some of these atrocities.  It doesn’t matter that the military and the Obama administration do their best to cover up the stories.  The fact is they do get coverage.

If any one of the documentaries like Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars or reports like Matthieu Aikins’s A-Team stories had appeared in the context of the Vietnam War, they would’ve dealt serious blows to public support for that war, perhaps even ending it altogether.  Unlike forty years ago, however, we may have plenty of coverage of atrocities but we also have a pathetic dearth of outrage.

Remember Reagan’s trickle-down economics?  It worked.  Not in the way he suggested, where enriching corporate fat cats at the top would somehow line our own pockets.  Instead, what trickled down was not the wealth of the powerful but their sociopathic contempt for the lives of others.  We may not have the money of the 1% but we have their callous disregard for humanity, their relentless ignorance, and ruthless self-centeredness.  As a culture we have become complacent with the banality of our own evil.  We’re more upset about being forced into the lower class and less about forcing other people’s children into their graves.  While wealth may be very unevenly distributed here, life itself is unevenly distributed in places like Afghanistan.  The two are linked.  Outrage over one demands outrage over the other.  The problem is not a few economic policies or banks out of control or a reactionary political party.  The problem starts with who we have become.  The solution begins with teaching ourselves and our children to not simply identify problems that directly affect us but to solve the problems we make for the rest of the world by changing how we organize society.

The lack of public outrage over what happens in places like Afghanistan reflects a deep-seated failure of vision both moral and pedagogical.  I’m talking about the failure of those on the left to use schools to teach not just tolerance but transformation.  We look about in dismay at the autocratic turn society’s taken, and keep trying to change the banks, change the military, change the presidency, and change the laws.  We’ve forgotten that before all that can really happen you first have to change peoples’ minds–specifically the minds of young people.  The place where you do that is in school.  It’s there you can pose them the ethical question: Do you serve the forces that oppress us and others and destroy the earth itself or do you struggle against them?

Corporations have assumed the pedagogical positions we’ve abdicated.   Schools are a threat to their power and they know it.  Hence the obsession with deskilling teachers and privatizing schools.  Commandeering state boards of education, they and their bureaucratic stooges have worked us over for decades, feeding us a steady course of trickle-down disregard for the suffering of others and even ourselves.  One of the few things we’ve received from our corporate overseers is a technocratic reverence for data.  Instead of issues, we have facts.  You can’t disagree with them.  And each fact is equal to another fact.  Square roots and state capitols are equal to the bombing of Hiroshima and robber barons’ massacres of organized labor.  That’s how we teach children now–by programming them with raw, disjointed information and skills that can be manipulated and used in the service of whatever those in power need at that moment–that’s what we call twenty-first century learning.  We give them a room full of Legos to identify and classify, yet never the ability to put them together to build things–new and better things than what we’ve got now.

When they reach college, if perhaps they’ve picked up on some of the problems with the world they live in, they can depend on humanities scholars to rail against doing anything about it.  Poststructuralists admonish us against belief in “grand narratives,” and utopian universalisms which serve only to oppress the disenfranchised.  At the same time they equip us with no information to be used as ammunition against the grand narrative of global capitalism.  Marxism has all but been eradicated from college syllabi and with it (in spite of its own theoretical issues) students’ capacity to not only mount a critique against the system in which they’re enmeshed but also to enact a vision of a different and better world.  Instead they acquire an epistemological cynicism: all ideologies are suspect and therefore none deserve our trust.  But as Paolo Freire wrote, “Because education is politicity, it is never neutral.  When we try to be neutral, like Pilate, we support the dominant ideology.”  We have learned not to take stands, to view the world as one in which there are no real truths, no real authors, and thus no real responsibility.

With a modest amount of effort many students can compile a list of current injustices–from identity politics to gun control, from the environment to mass surveillance.  What often eludes them however is a comprehensive critique that shows what links them together.  The problem is not how to treat all the little injustices, one at a time, but how to mount a sustained attack against a system that is, by its very nature, a global injustice machine.  What happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan.  What happens in America does not stay in America.  Profit and peace do not seem to be compatible in a world dominated by transnational corporations.

The left has largely ignored the issue of schools.  If they’re mentioned at all, it’s usually to denounce them as centers of indoctrination and “loser factories,” where children are ranked, sorted, and either fitted for service in the corporate or military hierarchy or purged altogether into prisons.  Such a view vastly underestimates the conflicts at work in the school system.  Idealism can be found there as can be teachers who actively seek a more peaceful and just world dedicated to something more than ceaseless consumption and profit.  I am not a teacher because I want to live in a world where children die because of our apathy.   I am a teacher because I believe in the future that my students will bring into being–a better future for not just themselves but all people.  The change we wish to see begins with them, if we let it.

Mark Graham is a high school teacher in the Lehigh Valley. He’s books include: How Islam Created the Modern World and Afghanistan in the Cinema. He can be reached at his blog, Intense World.

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