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U.S. public education has always suffered a crisis of culture because it mirrors dominant class values and beliefs. It’s an institution with the purpose of socializing citizens into the drudgery of the capitalist workweek (compartmentalized school subjects) and the, albeit now diminishing or entirely absent, enjoyment of vacation time (recess). In the U.S., alternative schools for the wealthier (Waldorf and Montessori), and homeschooling/ un-schooling groups, offer utopian visions of active learning integrated with daily living and true valuation of individual curiosities and learning styles. But the majority of American children attend public schools, where they learn, from an early age, how to follow orders and separate work and pleasure. (“Why are you daydreaming? Finish your assignment!”) Obedient, flag-saluting labor is the school system’s universal motivation. If you don’t get to work on something in here, you have no future out there. (“Cooperate with the status quo or die.”)
There’s an unavoidable underlying threat built into the American education system, and that threat has shifted for the worse in recent years while we have all sat back and helplessly watched. Something we may have been able to psychically endure (and secretly kind of enjoy) as a dominant feature of childhood—annoying school– has morphed into something that is now making children literally sick. We speak plainly. If this wave of corporate education reform continues, anyone whose hands are in this business will have more than chalk on them.
The latest education crisis will have you nostalgic for the older (albeit authoritarian) school days right quick; nostalgia already looms large in the public education movement’s rhetoric about renewing recess along with art and music classes. People already feel defeated. Last week’s suspension of five Newark, New Jersey principals for publicly speaking out against local school closures is highly emblematic of this repressive climate of corporate “education technification.” They have come for the children, so don’t get in their way. That means you too, principals. School administrator displacement is the new normal.
Most public school teachers feel this sickening corporate technification at work. Outlandish expectations, unfair evaluations, and a lack of workplace support causes stress and psychological trauma that is transferred to children—our emotional weathervanes. There’s low morale all around. Call it the politics of defeat, or learned helplessness. But, as most social crises go these days, it takes a decade or so for enough people to realize the magnitude of the thing. For the 99 percent, political consciousness grows slowly.
When G.W. Bush became president and started tinkering with the public schools, many already knew it was going to result in a ruling class-victorious two tiered system that catered to the lottery winners of family bank accounts/city and neighborhood locations/ skin color fortune. All (astonishingly) using public funds! Why else would you grade an entire school but to declare a Social Darwinist style attack on it? Corporate sponsored curricula (Los Angeles’ public schools have iPads loaded with Pearson educational software that’s aligned with Common Core State Standards), technological fetishism (yes, we see the child-friendly laptops), over-testing, and the general technification of teaching and learning sound like abstract practices to those not teaching through this transition. Trust vocal and pissed off teachers’ union members, frantic parents, and the students themselves: it really feels wrong now—unconscionable. (And Common Core State Standards is the icing on the corporatist education cake.)
Technification is the only word Teacher Michelle can use to describe the feeling she had when her well-schooled (she has an Humanities doctorate), rule-bending (her students sometimes listened to dub step and free wrote) yet rigorous (she gave difficult vocabulary assignments using real dictionaries with accompanying worksheets/quizzes), special education high school English (award winning) teaching style was first challenged by her principal. He sent in an outsider to observe her. The outsider inquired about her teaching “rubrics”—and the battle between Michelle’s unique teaching expertise honed over decades and her administrators’ inexperienced and insecure championing of entrepreneurial education paradigms began. Michelle left teaching (momentarily, until sensible people regain control?) to fight them, full time. Do you know how many others exist like her?
We can draw a parallel between public education’s entrepreneurs and the rhetoric of monopoly finance capitalism: where there are new markets there is always new language. Words try to hide which social classes win and lose. What “evidence” is to education, “derivatives” (investments that derive from invested capital) are to finance. And there’s an entire subterranean world of real profit awaiting the class invested in this new corporate/ language game. Government intervention—copyrights, patents and subsidies—propel this rule of the one over the 99 percent. But it’s all too real, as the owner of a foreclosed home or the parent of an over-tested anxiety ridden child knows well. People are getting sick (and rich) over this.
One sickening practice is “creaming.” New, publicly funded, charter schools appear in areas enduring school closures and admit the best students through an application process. They take the cream of the crop; they are creaming off the top. This is what the Newark principals are speaking out against, too. School closure/ reassignment takes our diverse array of children’s personality quirks– budding, yet awkwardly expressed, talents, pre/adolescent “sturm und drang,” geeky seriousness, airheady carelessness, childish dreaminess, all of the qualities that render childhood so fun to be in and around–and forces them into a convoluted race to the top. We had trouble justifying standard school practices before this wave of reform, and it was already difficult to keep school relevant to young people (hence the high drop-out rates) during these War on Drugs, school to prison pipeline paving decades. Now, the ones refusing to go, refusing to participate in this adult charade of concern for anything but pornographic profiteering will be the smart ones. Also, the time is quickly approaching for society to consider teachers as less the predatory school reformers’ sympathetic and heroic victims and more the agents of standardized corporate repression/ corporeal possession of our youth.
How to interpret the brave actions of our suspended Newark principals? A swan song for a public education system already defeated? Or a confident battle cry reminding us it’s not over until the testing ends? We need new language for new times, as linguistic change reflects changing social relations. The term “class war” is too optimistic to describe the defeat inherent in the corporate capture of our public education system (optimistic because “war” implies a notable and unpredictable element of struggle between two competing groups.) This feels more like “class bludgeoning.” It’s an accelerating attack on public services and labor unions, especially public school teachers. And it’s sickening.
Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. is an independent scholar conducting education research in the Florida panhandle—of all places. She can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email email@example.com