In Defense of Refusal: Teacher Rebellion Rejects Corporate Assault on Public Education

“The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period.” —Herbert Marcuse

The wave of school walkouts and teacher strikes spreading across the nation signals the escalating popular rejection of neoliberal disinvestment and austerity politics that plague public institutions in the United States. In doing so, the emerging education rebellion also indicates the reinvigoration of collective oppositional struggle in an institution that conservatives and free-market fundamentalists have long sought to depoliticize. Unique to this groundswell of educational resistance is the inclination toward refusal as its key mode of political struggle. This trend marks the coalescence of anti-corporate visions of education as teachers across the nation unite in opposition to austerity and educational insecurity. How progressives interpret and respond to this insurgency is crucial to the future of struggles for educational justice.

Struggles for educational justice tend to converge with broader historical struggles for social justice.

Protests and collective action in education are not new. Teachers have a long history of engaging in labor organizing and public acts of resistance. In recent years, several widely publicized strikes — such as the one in Chicago in 2012, in which more than 25,000 Chicago Teachers Union members went on strike — have captured the imagination of progressives and stoked the ire of conservatives. These varied responses are indicative of deeper understandings of the ethical and social purposes of education. At the same time, they tend to mirror general polarizing trends in politics, culture and economy. In this way, struggles for educational justice tend to converge with broader historical struggles for social justice.

The walkouts and strikes reveal the educational consequences of a broader ongoing process of social restructuring, what Lynn Parramore describes as “a contest between two countervailing forces: one bent on reengineering America for the benefit of the wealthy, the other struggling to preserve dignity and security for ordinary people.” Caught in the middle of this struggle, public education has, for decades, served as a site of experimentation for corporate school reform, which has waged an all-out assault on public education through privatization, austerity policies and high-stakes accountability, pro-charter school reforms, standardized testing, alternative licensure programs, scripted curricula and intolerably inequitable treatment of students that ranges from callous neglect to malign violation of those long educationally underserved and socially marginalized.

Corporate school reformers and their legislative acolytes will move swiftly to blunt the movement’s transformative force.

Although generations of teachers, activists and scholars alike have gone to great lengths to organize and support struggles for educational equality, conservative backlash often neutralizes and recuperates the transformative energy of these struggles through propaganda, scapegoating and demagoguery. Struggling for fair pay, respect and recognition, and adequate conditions for teachers have long been foundational planks in the platform of progressive educational politics. However, both the oppositional sentiment and political tactics of refusal embedded in the evolving rebellion indicate an important opportunity to evade capture by reactionary conservatism and capitalist recuperation. This does not mean ignoring or abandoning the tactics employed in the current phase of these movements. But it does mean confronting the threatening truth that corporate school reformers and their legislative acolytes will move swiftly to blunt the movement’s transformative force. We must remain cautious of the lure of Pyrrhic victories.

Indeed, on the right, the first responders to the scene of the rebellion came equipped with well-worn tools to discredit and undermine the struggle. What conservative reactionaries miss in their criticism of teacher strikes is that efforts to ensure robust and equitable investment in public education, the livability of teachers’ wages and quality of physical conditions of schools are not threats to student learning. Rather, they are preconditions to meaningful education. To deny this is to be complicit in the reproduction of educational inequality. Conservative pundits and policy makers who cast striking teachers as petulant malcontents who threaten the educational well-being of students seek to obscure this fact. These reactionaries adhere to an educational vision in which teachers must unconditionally love what they do and are prohibited from thinking of themselves as political and cultural workers. Teaching, from this perspective, is neither an intellectual enterprise nor is it viewed as exploitable labor. This is no accident. It is deliberate, and indeed, it is an indispensable component of the conservative program to moralize, deprofessionalize and depoliticize teaching. Against this movement, progressives must insist on a critical language with which to describe the social, ethical and political purpose of education.

Radical activism has always been met with undemocratic efforts to suppress the transformative potential of educational struggles.

Unfortunately, the institution of public education in the neoliberal era has been assaulted by market governance, demeaning policies and repressive pedagogies. The sources and effects of each are ideological as much as they are administrative or legislative. As Alexander Means put it recently in his excellent book Learning to Save the Future, neoliberalism “has reoriented not only the structure of education systems to reflect market rationalities and corporate imperatives in a time when governments have abandoned prior forms of social investment, but also the broader narratives that shape how societies and individuals have come to conceive the purpose and value of education.” Within this decades-long movement, radical activism has always been met with undemocratic efforts to suppress the transformative potential of educational struggles.

This is why the specific sentiments and strategies that have characterized the “education spring” to date are so important. Through organized educational refusal, the rebellion has gravitated toward a form of struggle that resists recuperation. Indeed, in recent years, refusal has become an increasingly key mode of educational protest in diverse struggles across the nation. What is promising, too, about this development is that refusals can take many forms. In the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, for example, community elders and education activists went on a 34-day hunger strike in the fall of 2015 to protest the closing of their local school, Dyett High, as well as the systematic dismantling of public schools serving communities of color across the city. In Washington State and across the nation, parents and students have refused to capitulate to the demeaning ritual of standardized testing. The “sick-out” tactic, by which teachers and public employees legally forbidden from striking call in sick to shut down institutions, has been employed in Detroit in the spring of 2016 and more recently in Kentucky, when teachers forced schools to close their doors in 20 counties across the state. To some degree, elements of refusal are present in nearly all of the recent teacher protest movements.

When teachers refuse to appear when and where they are expected, the institution cannot function and is forced to reckon with their demands.

In the 1960s, the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse described the need for a “Great Refusal,” which he claimed was necessary to rupture the smooth functioning of advanced capitalist societies. Whereas more orthodox Marxist thinkers had tended to emphasize the traditional working class, Marcuse thought that revolutionary potential was increasingly concentrated in even more marginalized social locations, where those who were, by comparison, less integrated into the capitalist (and white supremacist, patriarchal) social structure. These groups, he argued in One-Dimensional Man, constituted “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders…. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus, their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not.” Key to this argument was the increasing awareness of capitalism’s structural tendency to deflect criticism and re-incorporate oppositional energy into the system.

The heightened precariousness of teachers and, indeed, the basic insecurity of public education as a social institution suggests that Marcuse’s theories may hold contemporary relevance for students and teachers trapped in disinvested and dilapidated school systems. Moreover, it indicates the need for a more subversive politics of educational struggle. This urgent imperative attains even more pressing import when considering the ascendancy of neoliberal ideology, which has all but dispensed with collective solidarity, promoting individualism and resilience in its place as the human capital mechanisms that will facilitate meritocratic alleviation of social problems. In this duplicitous context, progressive change must not rely on compromise or institutional concessions, but rather, must stem from radical movements that emerge from inside and outside those institutions. “You’ve got to disrupt,” Robin D.G. Kelley explains, “and make sure that things don’t work in order to make the demand for change.” Pairing ideological rejection with institutional subversion, refusal politics expose the dependency of the educational establishment on the willingness of teachers to fulfill their roles, to be invested in the system’s continued functioning. When teachers refuse to appear when and where they are expected, the institution cannot function and is forced to reckon with their demands.

This movement is about the kids. But it is also about political and cultural change, equality, justice and the future of society itself.

Refusal politics challenge the dominance of reformist politics, which are often insufficiently critical, aiming to ameliorate inequalities within the established social framework, rather than transforming the structures that produce social problems. According to Christian Garland, “refusal and resistance should not be mistaken as simply passive withdrawal or retreat but the active form of a radically different mode-of-being and mode-of-doing.” Similarly, as David Graeber puts it, collective refusals can provide a basis for “active political projects which often operate by the explicit rejection of other ones.” Refusal politics are active, in this sense, because they call into question the current social order, which negates human potential and collective solidarity. For many of us, a terrible portion of our lives is spent contributing to the reproduction of capitalism. The vast majority are bound up in the “deadening social relations of a world that is not their own and that they did not choose.” Integrating refusal into progressive politics threatens to disrupt the smooth functioning of this unjust social order, while at the same time asserting the possibility of new social relationships, new institutional practices even a new social order.

Conservative reactions to the emerging educational rebellion resort to the facile rhetorical question, “What about the kids?” Yet, what they seem all too well equipped to ignore is that this movement is about the kids. But it is also about more than the kids. It is about political and cultural change, equality, justice and the future of society itself. Struggles for educational justice link the political economy of schooling to critical labor issues and cultural work ethics. To condemn teachers for engaging in collective struggle is to commit to an anti-philosophy of education that is depoliticized and economized, to reduce learning to a repetitive act of organized submission, to deny education’s humanizing role in social transformation. In an open letter supporting the Detroit sick-out teachers, Imani Harris, a student at Renaissance High, wrote:

Everyone’s so worried about how I’m losing my education from four sickout days. No one’s taking into account the fact that I went almost a full semester without a real English teacher. Let’s count up those days and see just how much education I missed from those MONTHS, while the powers that be took their sweet time finding a teacher that was actually willing to step foot into [a Detroit Public School] due to the instability and lack of value [placed on teachers] by this state run district.

Let’s say I went roughly three-and-a-half months without a teacher. That means that I had about 13 weeks with no teacher. Each school week has five days, so I went 65 days without a teacher. I missed 65 hours of 10th grade English! While we sit around worried about four measly days of sickouts, I think we should worry about the fact that I’m not the only student in this school system going through this. I am just ONE student. All students are dealing with this issue, and we are losing our education …

Under conditions of austerity and insecurity, neoliberal schooling offers students little more than profound miseducation. At the core of the progressive defense of the education rebellion must be a critical contention: Our educational system has, for too long, served to reproduce social relations of alienation, inequality, stratification and violence. Centering the politics of refusal in progressive educational struggles may not be sufficient to overthrow the rule of corporate school reformers. However, collective political refusal may, to borrow from Kathi Weeks, “make time and open spaces within which to construct alternatives.” In the space made by the teacher rebellions’ refusal of austerity, disinvestment and the corporate siege of public schooling, we may encounter rich democratic soil in which to plant the seeds of educational liberation.

We must refuse corporate school reform and precarious neoliberal governance. We must defend the right of teachers to become cultural workers and political agents of transformation. We must insist on an education otherwise.