If “democracy” is understood to mean a process of inclusion, equalizing diverse peoples such that power and resources are distributed fairly, then democratic movements have a potentially positive role to play in furthering revolution, liberation, justice and peace. By any definition, though, the experiment known as democracy in the USA today is in dire trouble. Nowhere is that trouble more strikingly evident than in the national campaign to do away with public schools. After little more than 150 years of federally-mandated and coordinated schooling-for-all, the US commitment to publicly supported teachers and students is quickly coming to an abrupt end. The global corporate penchant for the privatization, commoditization, and enclosure of practically everything is having particularly chilling effects in policies that Henry Giroux suggests “seek nothing less than the total destruction of the democratic potential of American education.”
In order to fully grasp the current moment, it is useful to review the history of the US school system. With roots in the British class system, most schools in early American history were privately run and exclusively for the wealthy — supported by tuitions with the assistance of charitable and religious institutions. As the US expanded (in both territory and population), reform movements pressed for a widening of state, and occasionally federal, support for a shift from the few “pauper” schools which did exist to a more open and unifying model, where immigrant youth from Europe could be molded into “good citizens” and social discontent could be managed and contained. It was not until 1918 that all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school. The radical upheavals of the 1920s and 30s had its counterpart in the pedagogical community; the “progressive” education movement forced a shift in schooling towards intellectual discipline.
The Great Depression and World War Two also created a positive climate for the advocates of education for social and economic advancement, with the federal government providing aid to local school districts. An aspect of this assistance was certainly due to a need to “hold back” portions of the population for whom there still were no jobs, and — in post-war society — the core of national support centered around “competing” with the Soviet Union in science and the arts. The pressures of the massive organizing for significant social change throughout the late 1950s, 1960s, and much of the 1970s forced another dramatic shift towards educational equity and equal access across racial, ethnic, gender, and other lines. It is not insignificant that, whatever the motivations, the percentage of children who completed secondary education between the years 1900 and 1996 rose from six to eight-five percent.
Despite the apparent successes of mass schooling for the majority of its recipients, the objectives of the financiers, and a bipartisan collection of politicians, were not being met by the increase in equity or opportunity. Thus, the Cabinet-level Department of Education (DOE) which was created in 1980 and has a greatly expanded mandate from the one it started out with thirty years ago, now also has roughly half of the staff it had at that time to carry out these tasks! Under the Clinton administration, plans became solidified to “remold” the nation’s education system to suit the needs of an economic system which could just as easily utilize “labor market boards” as institutions of learning and empowerment. It is not, then, a far stretch to the politics and policies of 2010, when right-wing pundits call for a complete dissolution of the federal DOE, while businessmen pump funds into local and state education systems to all but insure that they become privately-controlled corporate training centers.
This global phenomenon, known internationally to be part of the neo-liberal agenda whereby most workers do not need much formal education, sees highly-educated, life-long “professional” teachers as a central problem for smooth-running, globalized economies. By raising student expectations and civic involvement, and demanding higher wages and better working conditions, they cost much more than they are worth. Throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, The World Bank and other free market institutions have already implemented wide-scale privatization campaigns, with its necessary attack on unionism, disenfranchisement of parents and communities, and de-intellectualizing schools. Even in recently independent countries with liberation movement histories and ostensibly progressive governments, like Namibia in southern Africa, educational policy has become “driven and propelled by the insatiable demand for profit.”
Conditions in so-called developing countries, such as the still-colonized Puerto Rico, cause harsh battles between the elites and the have-nots; a one-day teacher’s strike at the start of the 2010 school year over austerity measures (following an immense student strike throughout Puerto Rico’s college population which marked most of the Spring 2010 semester) shut down close to ninety percent of the island’s public schools, with parents keeping their children home in record numbers. Yet in Finland, heralded by some of the new corporate-driven educational “specialists” for its consistently high ranking test scores, there is also a long and consistent history of strong unions, fewer standardized tests, and four times the level of social service spending on children than exists in the US.
It Has Happened Here: Education, the Military, and Prisons
The same political analysis which views school primarily as a space for marketplace training has also been crucial to the movement for zero tolerance discipline and high stakes testing. Imposing punitive, militarized solutions to crisis created by chaotic, community-based social ills (poverty, unemployment, the housing shortage, and traumatic home lives caused by all of the above), 21st Century middle and high schools have become, for many, an early introduction to the realities of prejudicial policing and the “positive” alternatives that a life in the US Armed Forces can offer. Beyond the obvious links between war spending in the midst of a failing economy which calls for teacher layoffs and cuts in services, there is the more pernicious problem of a national trend towards promotion of a curriculum based on military mythology.
Military recruitment in US secondary schools was on the rise throughout the 1980s and 90s, but the No Child Left Behind Act gave the military unprecedented access to young people in and out of school. Certain groups, like the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE) and San Diego’s Project YANO, have worked hard to reverse this trend. But, more often than not, with an over-burdened peace movement which makes only occasional links to unions and parent groups, these initiatives largely remain camouflaged. The basic tenets of No Child Left Behind — a national curriculum, high stakes testing, and the militarization of schools in poor and working class communities — have only been invigorated by President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
Making the links between militarized education and war profiteering, however, are just two fingers of a tightly woven hand-in-glove experience. Horace Campbell, in a recent challenge to peace and justice activists following the memorials of former prisoner of conscience Bill Sutherland and former political prisoner Marilyn Buck, calls on us to understand that the US has undergone a new wave of militarization which includes the use of prisons. With intensified domestic psychological warfare and robotization, Campbell argues that institutionalization is pushing today’s youth towards trauma and craziness, when “the sanity of mind of our children is required for a peaceful world.” In addition, the fact that prisons have been the breeding grounds and holding centers for some of the most important progressive thinkers of the past American century may only be a small part of a growing new realpolitik.
For those of the lower classes who cannot conform to the new rules of a cookie cutter curriculum and who do not opt for the military “alternative” to factory-based education or burger-flipping underemployment, there is one ever-increasing opportunity which will still provide subsidized housing and gainful work: going to prison! The statistics about young men of African descent (jailed, for example, at a rate far above what was practiced in South Africa during apartheid days and the radical resistance to that racist regime), are just the tip of the prison iceberg. Never mind that mainstream, liberal civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and others have called the contemporary crisis for education of children of color a “state of emergency” in a system that one Boston Globe reporter termed “apartheid in our schools.” There has been relatively less attention paid, in these desperate fiscal times, to the 660 percent growth rate of the prison industry in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.
In this same period of time, the richest one percent of the US billionaires became the very happy (though still unsatisfied) recipients of almost one-fourth of the total income generated in the entire country. All policies — from education to prisons, from the military to housing, health care, and social security — have been molded to maintain this unprecedented inequity. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, one of the most widely respected and research-based associations of progressive educators, has documented how the standardized testing craze has helped fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.
The fact that some states have even planned future budget allocations for the building of new prisons, based upon the number of failing math and English language test scores amongst third graders, is just one grotesque example of this trend. Michelle Alexander, calling the current process of imprisonment in America “the new Jim Crow,” reminds us that the connections between race, class, education, militarization, and repression are alive and well and deepening. We have already arrived at a USA where Orwellian double-speak is the norm, and repressive, militarized structures pervade every facet of the lives of all but an elite few.
The Capitalist Manifesto
It should therefore have been of little surprise when, in October 2010, a collection of sixteen superintendents from some of the largest school districts in the country came together to write a “Manifesto” titled How to Fix Our Schools. Coming out in conjunction with the quasi-documentary Waiting for Superman (much of the footage was staged), this manifesto, also unsurprisingly, laid the failure of US education mainly at the doorstep of tired and incompetent teachers, who apparently make up much of the educational workforce. Their evil benefactors and backers, the local and national teacher unions, are the main target of the campaign to “fix” problems which actual social science research suggests are entrenched throughout the whole of our socio-economic system. Economic Policy Institute associate Richard Rothstein reminds us that decades of studies have corroborated that all in-school factors (of which the quality of teachers is just one component) make up just one-third of the reasons why some students succeed while others fail. The other two-thirds of the causes of the achievement gap, it has been shown over and over again, have little or nothing to do with anything that goes on inside schools.
It should be of little solace that a good number of the sixteen superintendents associated with the Manifesto have, in a few short months, been “made redundant” in regards to their own jobs. Michelle Rhee of Washington DC famously lost her position when the Mayor who backed her was unceremoniously voted out of office by an angry citizenry who saw their schools disrupted in a thinly veiled attempt to further disenfranchise the African American population while catering to a minority of white gentrifiers. Some have said that, in places like DC and New Orleans, the process has meant nothing short of ethnic cleansing. Superintendent Ron Huberman of Chicago has resigned his position, and Philadelphia’s Arlene Ackerman claimed to have been falsely listed as a signer, now noting that getting rid of teachers’ unions or rights, including tenure, would not end school failure — especially at a time when schools are being looked at to solve “many of the ills [of] the larger society.” And when the news of New York’s Chancellor Joel Klein’s mid-semester resignation shocked the news media, the apparently-more-shocking news came out that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would dare to select a flunky who had no experience in education, barely even having ever set foot in a public school building.
The point is that the funders of this Capitalist Manifesto, like the promoters of standardized tests, the scapegoaters of teachers, the developers of charter schools unencumbered by parental control or input, are still very much in place. Like billionaire Bloomberg himself (whose civics lesson to the people of New York was to buy himself a third term of office despite popular outcry against it and two referenda that showed widespread electoral support for term limits), these funders — from Bill Gates to the more reactionary Eli Broad or Jeb Bush — have never had a problem with making daring moves which they can well afford to back up. They can shield themselves from bad press, since they are well-connected to the publishing industry and have the money to buy their own press if something they don’t like gets written up. They can distance themselves from politicians when policies go sour, for they have nothing to lose but their claims. But they will still have the attention and the allegiance of the President and his Secretary of Education.
When former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggests that “a perfect storm” of economic and social factors are gutting democracy and creating a “plutocratic” capitalism, one might wonder what it will take for the bottom 120 million Americans, who make less money than the top one-tenth of one percent of the richest amongst us, to rise up and do something. When the Fall 2010 cover of the National Education Association’s news magazine reports that a New Jersey Teacher of the Year was just one of the victims of layoffs which affected no less than eighty percent of the nation’s school districts, one wonders how far folks will be pushed before militant trade union tactics return. When respected former New York City Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina, who served for years under recently-replaced Klein, notes that the policies of the new manifesto reformers feel like they’re aimed not at the goal of strengthening learning, but to “eliminate public schools,” one again wonders what that final straw will be, riding on the back of a very shaky camel.
A History Teacher’s Peacemakers Quiz
Now for a short test. No pens or paper are required, only the use of your mind. Think back just a little over a decade ago, say to the point just before January 1, 2000, when so many were so certain that all our computers would just stop. How many of us, at that point in time, would have predicted with confidence that a military attack would level the World Trade Center, while a plane apparently flew into the side of the Pentagon? How many of us, at that same moment, would have thought ahead to the time when torture would be seen as an officially accepted strategy of the US military abroad, while substantial protections under the Constitution would be systemically and openly done away with? How many would have spoken out in a clear and definitive manner, about the fact that, within one decade, the US would surely have a President of African descent, with a father actually hailing from Africa?
Now, let us look at the next ten years. Eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung suggests that the US empire will come to an end at this time. This shrewd Scandinavian observer, who predicted within months the date of the fall of the Soviet Union (also ten years before the fact), says that US empire days are surely numbered, but the empire may be replaced by a US republic that will blossom, or turn to fascism. How much can we, as a movement, truly imagine — assuming that our imaginations have been limited by our over-work, our stresses, our emergencies, and the growing repression we face? How much can we plan for, given that ten years ago some of the major historical markers of this first decade seemed unthinkable to most of us.
At the 2010 US Social Forum People’s Movement Assembly focusing upon education, a panel of Bill Ayers, Grace Lee Boggs, and others opened the discussion. Theologian and Dr. King advisor Vincent Harding, in presenting on the educational requirements of a multiracial, democratic society, noted that — for those who look to a future of peace — “We are citizens of a society which does not exist yet.” Will the conditions that have always made for revolution everywhere ripen to such a degree that the US itself is finally faced with fast-paced radical change? South African poet Dennis Brutus, whose passing we also mark this year, used to say that after apartheid had ended, he couldn’t find one single white South African who admitted to supporting the racist regime! “Revolution,” he suggested, “always seems impossible for a long, long time . . . until things speed up all at once, and then it seems inevitable.” Are we ready to play a role in the revolution to come? Or must we plan to pack our bags?
For those of us working for a broadening of democracy through transformative education for all, it seems like an uphill battle. We would do well to remember that public schooling is not worth fighting for if it is a minor reform aiding the maintenance of an unjust status quo. But if the classrooms we create are centers for critical change, for empowerment and liberation, for peace with justice, then the fight we’ll be part of is for nothing less than a livable future. The targeting of students, parents, and teachers’ lives in Wisconsin was truly a test case. If we are to pass the test, we must study well — and make the national movement against public education (and equality, democracy, and fairness) be the beginning of a new American radicalism.
MATT MEYER is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.