Editor’s note: This article is modified from the foreword by Peter McLaren to a book by Wayne Ross, Rethinking Social Studies, Information Age Publishers, Charlotte, North Carolina, in press.
Constituting some of our most critical and politically active groups of scholars, social studies educators occupy a long-standing place and have played an increasingly revolutionary role within the critical tradition in education and are held — rightly so — in high esteem among critical educators. Which makes it surprising that the field of social studies education is not sufficiently recognized in the main for its contribution to educational transformation. This is, no doubt, due to the fact that the field of social studies has provoked considerable controversy in its redefinition of education as a field of conflicting and competing understandings of the role and purpose of schooling in a global capitalist society. It is, in the words of Wayne Ross, the most “dangerous” of all school subjects. On the one hand it is, as Ross declares, “the engine room of illusion factories whose primary aim is the reproduction of the existing social order” and on the other hand, social studies is a field that is theoretically equipped to undress the pretentions of the ruling capitalist order — it’s fundamental pain, destitution and injustice.
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The edifice of our democratic traditions is shaky, shifting and uncertain, on the brink of collapse. Strangely, we mistake this very tremulous condition itself for democracy because we have created at best “a shallow, spectator version of democracy.” Our political pretentions — that we live in a country of free individuals where justice prevails under the rule of law — are, as Ross notes, the lies we tell our students (i.e., democracy, voting, democratic citizenship). Such pretentions are not merely assertions written in invisible ink or blandishments circulated through the corporate and social media, but are undergirded by relations and structures of power fully insinuated into the world ecology of human capital, in other words, into the logic of neoliberal economics administered by means of a market metric macrophysics of power and set of governing tactics that submits everything in its path to a process of monetization and that simultaneously transforms everything and everyone within our social universe to a commodity form. Even non-wealth generating spheres such as learning, dating or exercising are submitted to the market technocracy while all of social and cultural life becomes shaped by what it will be worth in the future; that is, as Wendy Brown notes, by its “speculatively determined value” as we are remade into human capital pawns on the giant chessboard of self-investment where the rankings of our own personal “brand” will determine our survival. But many are asking if survival is worth it in a world of checkmate or be checkmated.
The nightmarish evening of Sturm und Drang, November 11, 2016, marked the time that the fount of President-elect Donald Trump’s controlled demolition of democracy — embodied in his racist dog-whistle pitch to “Make America Great Again” — entered the political unconscious of the United States as the official slogan of a new era defined by nativism, authoritarianism, racism, white supremacy, homophobia and misogyny. Trump’s campaign appears to echo that of Texas Sen. Andrew Steele Jarret, the fictional presidential candidate in the book, Parable of the Talents, published in 1998 by the great African-American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler. Butler described Jarett as a demagogue, rabble-rouser and hypocrite who rose to power with the help of a fanatical group of followers known as the Crusaders, with whom Jarett tried to impose his religion, Christian America, on the entire nation. In order to incite his followers, Jarett used charismatic sloganeering characteristic of Trump, which ominously included what has become Trump’s trademark phrase, “make America great again.” While it is unlikely that Trump’s followers will go as far as burning heretics at the stake, as in Butler’s novel, there are other, much more selective ways of exacting punishment today that exceed a president-elect tweet. We will have to wait as see what they are.
Trump’s new brigades of millennial bigots who are too young to remember the civil rights era, Nixon and the Vietnam War have taughtthe left a hard lesson: that it must discover ways to forge a common alliance across racial, ethnic and gender divides that can build mobilizations strong enough to rebuke and challenge the false flags and chaos that is coming down the beltway pike, a chaos that could eventually end in a crash of the currency system through the central bank and a global economic collapse unlike that which the world has ever seen. Trump’s inability to be anything more than the hypocrites that he claims to hate is clearly evident to the discerning social studies educator. The president-elect, who wants the country to be run like his own private country club, is surrounded by hacks and quislings as eager to carry his gilded jock strap as his golf bags. With advisers appointed to the Trump transition team, such as Kris Kobach — friend of white nationalist groups and the architect of the most racist law in modern American history, SB 1070, that passed in Arizona in 2010, giving police the right to stop you, detain you and demand proof of citizenship if you have brown skin and an accent — things don’t look good for Latino/as. Expect Bracero-type programs to follow for those agri-capitalists who depend upon undocumented labor in the picking fields. Shortly after Trump was elected, several fliers created by hate groups were found on the campus of Texas State University. One of them read: “Now that our man Trump is elected and Republicans own both the Senate and the House — time to organize tar & feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.” Speaking of diversity, the diversity and pluriformity of all living creatures will stagnate as biological species will continue to disappear more rapidly than ever under Trump’s climate-denial presidency. Perhaps a similar fate for the human species under such a vacuous demagogue as Donald Trump is inevitable. But until then, there will be plenty of golf courses from which the rich can choose, as the planet sinks into oblivion.
Trump is undoubtedly a canny demagogue whose touted popularity among his support base appears to remain as steadfast as his bombast and macho exhibitionism. Clearly, the alt-right cadre on his team will not cotton to critiques of their supreme leader who has at present selected for his cabinet or for posts with cabinet rank 17 individuals (with several positions still unfilled) whose combined personal wealth of over $9.5 billion reflects the conjunctural alignment of class forces in society today. This collection of wealth is, according to Dan Kopf, “greater than that of the 43 million least wealthy American households combined — over one third of the 126 million households total in the US.” Cognizant of criticisms of Trump within the Republican rank-and-file, politicians erstwhile skeptical of Trump and worried about their pro-Trump electoral base have more recently been coddling the Orange Leviathan. According to the racialized standards of the bourgeois neoliberal metropole, it should surprise no critic that the majority of Trump’s cabinet is white males.
It is inconceivable that Trump understands the extent to which the right-wing neoliberalism that fuels his comprehension of the world is exacerbating inequality, sharpening racial divisions through the most repugnant efforts at scapegoating, reprivatizing public rights won over the past half century, destroying public education through a corporatizing of the entire system in a race to the ‘”bottom line,” eclipsing social democracy, increasing the ever-expanding migrations of people, augmenting regional armed conflict, destabilizing national security and raising the specter of fascism that could lead the United States into a world war. All of these intensifying shifts are being commandeered by a high tech public relations industry of which Trump’s friends and associates have become major players.
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s pick for education secretary, is a Michigan-based philanthropist who, along with her husband Richard DeVos, supports the privatization of public schooling and is noted for her attacks on the LGBTQ community, including undermining their hard-won anti-discrimination protections in the state of Michigan.
Proselytizing for private schooling is a growth industry, and Betsy DeVos has been at the forefront. But the increasing antipathy expressed by their bloviating flag-bearers towards public schooling reveals a motivated amnesia surrounding the history of the relationship of public education to the expansion of democracy throughout United States. The health of the public education system has been foundational to the generative process of being and becoming fully human, and this is true not just in the United States, but in most democratic countries.
There exists no law of history that stipulated a Trump victory, but there are laws of tendency that exist that strongly suggest that unemployed, broken and desperate people — in Trump’s campaign, mostly white people — will attempt to bring down what it perceives as the elite political class for destroying their lives. One of the many problems with this strategy is that the white working class has looked to a billionaire real estate tycoon to save them. Their failure to recognize that the problem is not only with the political class or the ruling elite guiding the direction of the transnational capitalist class, but with the social relations of exploitation of capitalism itself will unjustly inflict the poor with a prolonged and lingering tragedy for the foreseeable future.
A more granular look at the results of this election reveals that it was not just the working-class who supported Trump, since the mean income for the Trump base was actually higher than the mean income for Clinton and Sanders supporters. In addition, many of Trump’s supporters were well-educated, including 23 percent of non-white college graduates who supported Trump, and 45 percent of women with college degrees who also supported Trump. For the well-heeled whites who wanted to “make America great again,” on June 25, 2015, the United States Census Bureau released a report on the demographics of American children under the age of five. It reported that for the first time in US history, the minority of this group is white. This report appeared only one week after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
The specter of an all-minority future no doubt struck fear into the hearts of the white population and fuel-injected this fear into the combustion chamber of their politics. For them, their fear was not mainly the corporate takeover of their lives, but the erosion of the “American Dream,” the dream of a society where white people would de facto be assured of the economic security to which they feel entitled because of their race and providential history, which critics have long recognized as the history of settler colonizers responsible for the most heinous acts of genocide against non-white populations throughout Las Americas. After all, these were the “first beneficiaries” of the middle class, those who most assiduously seek a scapegoat for their flagging hope for their families.
Before the invention of the white race in Virginia’s plantation colonies, as a means for the ruling class to maintain a buffer social control stratum during and after the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77), after which time the term “white” first appeared in a 1691 Virginia law, white people in the US were identified by the European countries from which they immigrated. But it is important to underscore that not only white people supported Trump. People of color, as well as whites, also supported Trump, they also wanted a change in the system that they felt was corrupted by professional politicians, even if change meant throwing a serial liar, self-proclaimed sexual predator and human Molotov cocktail into the system. But the blame cannot rest solely with the Republicans or the Trump campaign exploding like a girandola with the most vile, racist and misogynistic invectives imaginable.
Like a chorus of Greek actors sporting their smiling prosopons, the Democratic Party power brokers in Washington hold significant responsibility for the outcome of the election. After all, they made it impossible for a Bernie Sanders victory and thus for the battle for the presidency to be fought by the working-class freed from the delusion that it could bring back the era of “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver” or “My Three Sons” through a series strategic policy maneuvers and trade deals. It also prevented, at least in the short run, an unequivocal endorsement of a path towards socialism, which is the only path available in order for freedom to flourish, the only path able to give definitive and lasting validity to democracy. If we do not fight for a system that creates the conditions of possibility for dignity, equality and justice for the poor and excluded of this world, then education will be accused by history of complicity and will be judged as irrelevant.
It is time for teachers to rethink the nature and purpose of teaching in Trumpland, especially at this particular historical juncture, when it is imperative that we rebuild our ranks as critical educators and take our fight to new levels of struggle. There is now a pressing urgency to revisit critical pedagogy — a pedagogy to bring about social and economic justice — the spur of which over the last several decades has been domesticated by liberal education. We are still very good as critics of neoliberal education — condemning the corporate capitalist takeover of education and the privatization of public education in the form of charter schools, a situation that treats students as “consumer clients,” condemns them to financial debt for decades and offers them few guarantees in the job market after they graduate. We are very adept now at criticizing high stakes standardized tests that rank and punish students as well as teachers, and schools that reduce students to an aggregate of metrics that masks their potential as human beings. We have shed a strong light on the racialized politics of educational inequality, unjust school funding formulae and the school-to-prison pipeline that is created in part by the criminalization of Black and Brown students.
As educators and future educators, we need to release our pathological claims to fractious, toxic and artificial boundaries that separate us based on what we perceive as the worthiness of humanity. We need to do more than break our codependency with capital and our “inner advocate,” the god of money. We need to work together to create an alternative social universe, a socialist society, freed from the bondage of capital. This means tying our struggle for an alternative to capitalism to educational reform efforts that prioritize racial and gender justice.
Reform and revolution need not work against each other. Reform and revolution are not to be viewed as conflictually disjunctive, but rather dialectical. Using insurrectionary pedagogies, we can fight within the system against neoliberal and corporate education reforms — i.e., against a regimented curriculum, bureaucratic outcomes-based accountability systems, and corporatized educational aims — as part of both a global and local reform movement. This challenge could not come at a more precipitous moment in world history, where fascism worldwide is on the rise. While Trump might be committed to building the infrastructure of the United States, critical educators must likewise be committed to changing the infrastructure of education — but with a very different vision than Trump — and in doing so, provide the conditions for a new pedagogy of liberation, one that is able to chart a new path towards freedom, a path marked by hope, compassion and self and social transformation.
If public schools fail in this task, we can only consider it a failure by design. By that I mean that public schools will continue to decay and in crucial ways be subjected to socio-spatial reorganization, intensified social engineering and ideological control. They will be turned into internment camps for 21st-century youth, where panoptical surveillance of a warehoused student body will prevail along with a militarization of the classroom — including metal detectors and armed security guards as well as armed teachers — a tightly scripted curriculum, resegregated populations within the schools themselves, and an intensification of the school-to-prison pipeline (see the many brilliant works of Henry Giroux on these themes).
The US political arena under neoliberalism has aroused much anger and calls for vengeance — “Lock her up!” “Build the wall!” Vengeance is simply one of the many unsparing blood sports of trauma, whether it be personal, cultural, institutional, regional or national, just as cruelty serves as a bodyguard for hidden anguish, anomie and alienation. When acts of revenge subside, the perpetrators may be given opportunities to unseal the causes of their hate and to bring to light the emotional pain — that for many has become unbearable because it has been hiding in plain sight — and which, when recognized as dialectically entombed within the capitalist system offers opportunities for healing and transformation through changing the social and economic relations by which we produce our daily existence. These possibilities become apparent but in no way guarantee a larger social transformation unless they give birth to collective struggle.
Resisting the neoliberal “masters of mankind” (to cite a phrase often used by Noam Chomsky) on the part of social studies educators can lead not only to perturbances of capitalist systems of exploitation, but to new horizons of imagination where we can contemplate socialist alternatives to a capitalism that has grown more predatory and barbaric than at any time in history.
We need to remember that even amidst the current neoliberal assault on public schooling, a frail potential for becoming human can, in situations of critical self-reflexivity, lead to a strong and principled moral being — strong and principled enough to become part of mass ecosocialist movements of the future needed to reclaim the planet for all of humanity.
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