Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Authoritarianism on the march

Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education, Part IX

The attempt by plutocrats to take over American primary and secondary education isn't taking place in a vacuum. The past 30 years have seen the infiltration of corporatism and plutocracy into nearly every aspect of life. Education, “The big enchilada” of privatization, as the uber-captialists told Harper's Jonathan Kozol, is one of the final sectors to feel their sting. In such an historical narrative, the hidden payload of increased authoritarianism carried by education deform bears a special danger to democracy. According to political scientist Walter Dean Burnham American politics and social thought is dominated by an "hegemony of market theology."

Even Democrats are prone to exploiting and practicing authoritarianism, as Paul Rosenberg recently wrote at DirtyHippies.org, though President Obama is viewed as a liberal, he has governed in an authoritarian manner, either hoodwinking liberals or pulling them in with an appeal to their own authoritarian tendencies:
“The big picture take-away here is that authoritarianism has gained such a pervasive foothold among the American ruling class that it is no longer even possible for a substantively non-authoritarian political position, actor, organization or movement to be recognized as such. Non- (or even anti-) authoritarian spoofs, set-pieces and fantasies by authoritarian actors of one stripe or another have completely taken over the roles of their authentically anti-authoritarian counterparts, and this is every bit as true of Obama as it is of the Tea Party, however much they may differ from one another in any number of other ways.”
The loss of a populace able to think critically, who have been held in existential fear by social dominators and the learned helplessness inculcated by authoritarian parenting and teaching methods, makes the nation less able to return to a path of rational discourse and behavior.

Now the people most able to lead us out of fear-driven thinking are under pressure like never before. Experienced public primary and secondary

teachers are under a ferocious attack from both political parties and the establishment, and are resigning in droves. Teachers are under an unwarranted and libelous attack from the practitioners of education discourse. President Obama himself recently applauded the laying off of all the teachers at Central Falls High School, Rhode Island, for not meeting NCLB rules. It just so happens that Central Falls is also the poorest city in Rhode Island.

The unanimity of the anti-teacher sentiment is breathtaking. Even the leader of the nation's largest teacher union, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, made it clear she would do nothing about the mass teacher firings. The president has said he wants to close 5,000 “low performing” schools across the country; In early March Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that fully 82 percent of the nation's primary and secondary schools could be technically defined as failing under No Child Left Behind next year, subject to their destruction.

Scapegoating teachers serves four purposes for the authoritarian plutocrats. First, it outrageously blames school teachers for the ills of society, primarily poverty, diverting attention away from their own culpability in the nation's unequal distribution of wealth, and the effects of that disparity. Second, it reduces organized labor's political power by reducing the ranks of teachers' unions, whose members overwhelmingly belong to the Democratic Party. Third it replaces professional, unionized teachers with partially trained, inexperienced youngsters which hampers the critical thinking skills of students. Finally, it diverts enormous amounts of public money spent on education into the plutocrats' hands.

As state after state closes neighborhood public schools and lays off teachers, billionaires like Bill Gates start yet another group, funded with tens of millions of dollars, to covertly advocate for policies which unfairly scapegoat teachers. A few months ago the Gates, Walton and Bradley foundations created a new organization called Mediabullpen.org, to catalog and rate media coverage of education reform, from their own perspective, of course.

Every new charter school adds to authoritarianism, even if it is a progressively administered school staffed by liberal secular humanists who teach acceptance and tolerance for all. The ghettoization of caring parents and high achieving students into their own charter schools deprives the left-behind schools and students of their positive influence. School choice causes a segregation of students along myriad lines. Likewise the funneling of poor and minority students into authoritarian schools like those run by KIPP both deprives those students of a well rounded education and habituates them to authoritarian modes of behavior. Children who should be getting extra attention instead are getting discipline. The schools and teachers in high poverty areas should be supported not demonized. The answer to low test scores in low income families should not be to close down their neighborhood schools, further fracturing their communities.

Bought and paid for education deformers claim their goal is a “great school” for everyone, but the tenets of their free-market ideology require competition and, more importantly, failure. How many children and schools should be sacrificed in order to fatten plutocrats' wallets? In order to pretend that the process of educating children is like any other industrial process? If “No Child Left Behind” meant what it said talk of free markets would not be part of education discourse.

In the end the destruction of community, evisceration of public schools, de-professionalization of teachers, narrowing of curriculum, perversion of education discourse, and authoritarian pedagogy have the potential to devastate democracy itself. According to scholar Henry Giroux education represents a clear path out of our civilizational downward spiral:
“...education, while being one of the many sites that disseminates the discourses of imperialism, nationalism, militarism, and violence, has the potential—and indeed, it is the solution—to identify, challenge, and destroy these unethical ideologies that threaten human freedom, peace, and democracy in America and around the world.”
With the collapse of almost all traditional authority in America, including the news media, citizens more than ever require critical thinking skills to help them cut through all the noise and static. Therein lies the most invidious aspect of the current education reform movement because, in the final analysis, it is not just individual schools and students that are placed at risk by the authoritarian impulse and faddish classroom experiments, it is our democracy itself.

Note: This is the final installment of this series on education reform and authoritarianism. Below are links to the first eight installments. Thanks for reading, and I welcome your feedback.


Part I:  Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education
Part II: The danger to education and democracy posed by authoritarianism
Part II:  School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market fundamentalism
Part IV: Education deformers' achieve political success through a culture of lying, repetition, and compliance, not logic, reason and evidence
Part V: Deformed schools: Reduced diversity, authoritarian education styles, narrowed curriculum, and harming of critical thinking skills
Part VI: Collapse of authority breeds authoritarianism
Part VII: Replacing democracy with authoritarianism
Part VIII: The authoritarian journalism of education reform

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