Since the early 1970s, the rich, corporate power brokers and right-wing cultural warriors realized that education was central to creating a viable populist movement that served their interests. Over the last 40 years, the financial elites and their wealthy accomplices have not only mobilized an educational anti-reform movement in the name of “reform” to dismantle public education and turn it over to hedge-fund managers and billionaires; they have also taken a lesson from the muckrakers, critical public intellectuals, left-wing journals, progressive newspapers and educational institutions of the mid-20th century and developed their own cultural apparatuses, talk shows, anti-public intellectuals, think tanks and grassroots organizations. As the left slid into organizing around mostly single-issue movements since the 1980s, the right moved in a different direction, mobilizing a range of educational forces and wider cultural apparatuses as a way of addressing broader ideas that appealed to a wider public and issues that resonated with their everyday lives. Tax reform, the role of government, the crisis of education, family values and the economy, to name a few issues, were wrenched out of their progressive legacy and inserted into a context defined by the values of the free market, an unbridled notion of freedom and individualism and a growing hatred for the social contract.
At the heart of this movement was a culture of cruelty and vulgarity that used education to produce a new form of political illiteracy in which there was no difference between opinions and arguments, reason and emotion and evidence and false statements. In this culture of illiteracy, science became a liability, thinking became an act of stupidity, anti-intellectualism became a virtue, social protections were described as a pathology and the social contract was dismissed as socialism. While social critic Michael Kazin does not mention the notions of education or public pedagogy in a recent New York Times article, he is right in stressing the centrality of education to the current right-wing-Christian-extremists takeover of almost every aspect of political and economic life in America – extending from the Supreme Court to the federal government to the dominant media-cultural educational apparatus. He writes: “Like the left in the early 20th century, conservatives built an impressive set of institutions to develop and disseminate their ideas. Their think tanks, legal societies, lobbyists, talk radio and best selling manifestos have trained, educated and financed two generations of writers and organizers. Conservative Christian colleges both Protestant and Catholic, provide students with a more coherent worldview than do the more prestigious schools led by liberals. More recently, conservatives marshaled media outlets like Fox News and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to their cause.”(1)
Education has become the political weapon of choice for conservatives, and they have had astounding success in using the mainstream and new media to drown out the voices of more progressive critics. The evidence is everywhere. For instance, The New York Times is currently advertising its Watch Education Take Center Stage initiative and the keynote address is being given by the politically and morally discredited champion of neoliberal education, Lawrence Summers. Given his failed presidency at Harvard, his utterly shameful role in contributing to the financial crisis of 2008 and the failure of Obama’s economic policies and his crude instrumental view of education, why would The New York Times select him as an educational leader and beacon of hope for any kind of educational vision designed to address future generations? Other speakers include the likes of Chester Finn, whose views on public education are as politically reactionary as they are theoretically bogus. Another example can be found in the ongoing Education Nation series sponsored on a number of platforms by NBC. It’s endorsement of market-driven anti-public education policies are evident in its parading of the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and their utterly anti-public, charter school, privatized and technocratic vision of education. Also included are the usual list of charter school, corporate funded anti-union, public school cheerleaders for defunding and privatizing American education. Of course, missing from these dog-and-pony shows are progressive public school reformers such as David Berliner, Stanley Aronowitz, Jonathan Kozol, Marian Wright Edelman, Donaldo Macedo, and others who have been fighting for real educational reform for the last few decades. Nor is there any mention of the many local struggling social movements fighting for public education and the ever-dissolving protections of social contract inherited from the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society programs. Education at all levels is firmly in the hands of the rich, reactionary and the powerful. Is it any wonder given how invisible progressive forces are in this country that young people are not in the streets as they were in the sixties, refusing the future being offered to them by Wall Street and the moralizing Christian fundamentalists?
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Of course, this is not merely a debate about education; it is really about the emergence of an anti-reform movement that wants to create armies of low-skilled workers and consumers for the privatized, deregulated and commodified world of the 21st century where a survival of the fittest ethic has been elevated to the status of commonsense. This is a world in which the culture of cruelty is now so commonplace that audiences clap when right-wing politicians insist that people who are terminally ill should die rather than receive government support; it is a world in which the legacies and injustice of slavery and the Jim Crow era now shape a criminal justice system in which capital punishment is largely used to kill black men while, at the same time, used by crass politicians to provoke political support and cheers from audiences who could have once sat in the seats of Roman coliseums watching people eaten by wild animals; the culture of cruelty is now matched by the culture of vulgarity – reality TV shows mimic the worst values of American life; celebrity culture is now so crude that it is worse than illiterate, and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian become role models for legitimating a lethal combination of vulgarity and stupidity. The combination of vulgarity and illiteracy permeates American culture, particularly its political class. What is one to make of the current crop of Republic presidential candidates who claim, without irony, that climate change is not the result of human behavior; evolution is bad science; and in the case of the queen of idiocy, Michele Bachmann, ignore the most obvious scientific evidence about the HPV vaccine in order to make false claims about the value of this particular drug in saving the lives of young girls. In all of these examples, education becomes another way of making the larger public and young people either stupid or mindless consumers – even worse, both.
The American public needs access to a new political and educational vocabulary in order to fashion democratically vibrant educational institutions; social movements; community educational centers; bookstores; and a lively, independent press. Young people, educators, activists, artists, parents, and others need alternative media such as Truthout, AlterNet and CounterPunch as popular civic outlets to make education central to building the formative culture that would create new generations of real public intellectuals, youth activists, social movements and a vibrant range of public spheres. I have taken up this issue in my newest book, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values.” The book points to how educators and others can meet the current attack on education, young people and democracy itself. It offers a new vocabulary for better understanding the crisis of education as a crisis of democracy and public life, and provides a number of suggestions for what new beginnings are necessary, all of which is outlined in more detail throughout the book. Below is an excerpt from the preface that forecasts both the swindle of education offered by conservatives, the billionaires and corporate power brokers and why it needs to be resisted with as much urgency and collective power as possible.
With all due respect to Charles Dickens, it appears to be the worst of times for public and higher education in America; public schools are increasingly viewed as a business and are prized above all for “customer satisfaction,” and efficiency while largely judged through the narrow lens of empirical accountability measures. When not functioning as a business or a potentially lucrative for-profit investment, public schools are reduced to containment centers, holding institutions designed to largely punish young people marginalized by race and class. No longer merely tracked into low-achieving classes, poor white, brown and black youth are now tracked out of school into what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools have now become stress centers for the privileged and zones of abandonment for the poor. Public school teachers are now viewed as the new “welfare-queens,” while academics are defined less as critical intellectuals and engaged scholars than as a new class or professional entrepreneurs. Under strict policies imposed in a number of states by right-wing politicians wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of austerity, higher education at all levels is being radically defunded while simultaneously being transformed into a credentializing factory restructured according to the values, social relations and governing practices of large corporations. In both public and higher education, ignorance is not merely fostered, but embraced through the course content whose value is almost exclusively defined through a metaphysics in which anything that can’t be quantified is defined as useless. Corporate pedagogy has no use for critical thinking, autonomous subjects, the stretching of the imagination, or developing a sense of civic responsibility among students. Teachers who think and act reflectively, ask uncomfortable questions, challenge the scripts of official power and promote a search for the truth while encouraging pedagogy as the practice of freedom are now viewed as suspect, if not un-American.
At the same time, amid all of the despair and foolishness on the part of right-wing politicians and conservative and corporate interests, it is not entirely clear that a spring of hope is beyond reach. As I wrote this preface, workers and young people were marching and demonstrating all over the globe against the dictates, values and policies of a market-driven economy that has corrupted politics, pushed democracy to its vanishing point and undermined public values. Unions, public school teachers, higher education, and all of those public spheres necessary to keep civic values alive are being challenged in a way that both baffles and shocks anyone who believes in the ideals and promises of a substantive democracy. In the United States, union-busting politicians such as Govs. Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey) not only want to gut social services and sell them off to the highest bidder, they are also symptomatic of a political fringe movement that wants to destroy the critical culture, dedicated public servants and institutions that give any sense of vitality, substance and hope to public and higher education in the United States.
As the meaning of democracy is betrayed by its transformation into a market society, corporate power and money appear unchecked in their ability to privatize, deregulate and destroy all vestiges of public life. America’s military wars abroad are now matched by the war at home; that is, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have found their counterpart in the war against the poor, immigrants, young people, unions, public-sector workers, the welfare state and schoolteachers. The call for shared sacrifices on the part of conservatives and Tea Party extremists becomes code for destroying the social state, preserving and increasing the power of mega-rich corporations and securing the wealth of the top one percent of the population with massive tax breaks while placing the burden of the current global economic meltdown on the shoulders of working people and the poor. Deficit reductions and austerity policies that allegedly address the global economic meltdown caused by the financial hawks running Wall Street now do the real work of stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights, dismantling programs long associated with social services and relegating young people to mind-deadening schools and a debt-ridden future. David Harvey’s notion of “accumulation through dispossession” has become a basic policy of casino capitalism. How else to interpret the right-wing call to tax the poor to subsidize tax breaks for billionaires and mega corporations? Despair, disposability and unnecessary human suffering now engulf large swaths of the American people, often pushing them into situations that are not merely tragic, but life threatening. A survival-of-the-fittest ethic has replaced any reasonable notion of solidarity, social responsibility and compassion for the other. Ideology does not seem to matter any longer as right-wing Republicans have less interest in argument and persuasion than in bullying their alleged enemies with the use of heavy-handed legislation and, when necessary, dire threats, as when Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker threatened to mobilize the National Guard to prevent teachers’ unions from protesting their possible loss of bargaining rights and a host of anti-worker proposals.
Obama has joined the Republican Party, leaving us with a Republican Party lite and a Republican Party of extremists. We have become a culture of forgetting, obliterating both the legacy of authoritarianism that characterized the Bush-Cheney years, while supporting a new group of Republican politicians who resemble Bush and Cheney on steroids. We are more than a nation in decline; we are a nation moving toward the bittersweet simplisms, policies and values of a new form of authoritarianism. With any viable leadership lacking at the national level, both young people and workers are watching the movements for democracy that are taking place all over the globe, but especially in the volatile Arab nations and in Western European countries such as France, England and Germany. Struggles abroad give Americans a glimpse of what happens when individual solutions to collective problems lose their legitimacy as a central tenet of neoliberal ideology. Massive demonstrations, pitched street battles, nonviolent gatherings, the impressive use of the new media as an alternative political and educational tool and an outburst of long-repressed anger eager for collective action are engulfing many countries across the globe. In smaller numbers, such protests are also taking place in a number of cities around the United States. Many Americans are, once again, invoking democracy, rejecting its association with the empty formality of voting and its disingenuous use to legitimate and justify political systems that produce massive wealth and income inequality. Democracy’s promises are laying bare the sordid realities that now speak in its name. Its energy is becoming infectious, and one can only hope that those who believe that education is the foundation of critical agency, politics and democracy itself will be drawn to the task of fighting America’s move in the last 30 years to a politically and economically authoritarian system.
At issue here is the need for a new vocabulary, vision and politics that will unleash new democratic movements, institutions and a formative culture capable of imagining a life and society free of the dictates of endless military wars, boundless material waste, extreme inequality, disposable populations and unfounded human suffering. Central to “Education and the Crisis of Public Values” is the belief that no change will come unless education both within and outside of formal schooling is viewed as central to any viable notion of politics. If real reform is going to happen, it has to put in place a viable, critical, formative culture that supports notions of engaged citizenship, civic courage, public values, dissent, democratic modes of governing and a genuine belief in freedom, equality and justice. Ideas matter as do the human beings and institutions that make them count and that includes those intellectuals both in and out of schools who bear the responsibility of providing the conditions for Americans of all ages to be able to think critically so they can act imaginatively – so they can embrace a vision of the good life as a just life, one that extends the values, practices and vision of democracy to everyone.