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The Neoliberal Attack on Education

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Posted on Oct 17, 2012
lilyrhoads (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This article first appeared at Truthout.

Public education is under assault by a host of religious, economic, ideological and political fundamentalists. The most serious attack is being waged by advocates of neoliberalism, whose reform efforts focus narrowly on high-stakes testing, traditional texts and memorization drills. At the heart of this approach is an aggressive attempt to disinvest in public schools, replace them with charter schools, and remove state and federal governments completely from public education in order to allow education to be organized and administered by market-driven forces.[1] Schools would “become simply another corporate asset bundled in credit default swaps,” valuable for their rate of exchange and trade value on the open market.[2] It would be an understatement to suggest that there is something very wrong with American public education. For a start, this counter-revolution is giving rise to punitive evaluation schemes, harsh disciplinary measures, and the ongoing deskilling of many teachers that together are reducing many excellent educators to the debased status of technicians and security personnel. Additionally, as more and more wealth is distributed to the richest Americans and corporations, states are drained of resources and are shifting the burden of such deficits on to public schools and other vital public services. With 40 percent of wealth going to the top 1 percent, public services are drying up from lack of revenue and more and more young people find themselves locked out of the dream of getting a decent education or a job while being robbed of any hope for the future.

As the nation’s schools and infrastructure suffer from a lack of resources, right-wing politicians are enacting policies that lower the taxes of the rich and mega corporations. For the elite, taxes constitute a form of class warfare waged by the state against the rich, who view the collection of taxes as a form of state coercion. What is ironic in this argument is the startling fact that not only are the rich not taxed fairly, but they also receive over $92 billion in corporate subsidies. But there is more at stake here than untaxed wealth and revenue, there is also the fact that wealth corrupts and buys power. And this poisonous mix of wealth, politics and power translates into an array of anti-democratic practices that creates an unhealthy society in every major index, ranging from infant mortality rates, to a dysfunctional political system.[3]

What is hidden in this empty outrage by the wealthy is that the real enemy here is any form of government that believes it needs to raise revenue in order to build infrastructures, provide basic services for those who need them, and develop investments such as a transportation system and schools that are not tied to the logic of the market. One consequence of this vile form of class warfare is a battle over crucial resources, a battle that has dire political and educational consequences especially for the poor and middle classes, if not democracy itself.

Money no longer simply controls elections; it also controls policies that shape public education. One indicator of such corruption is that hedge fund managers now sit on school boards across the country doing everything in their power to eliminate public schools and punish unionized teachers who do not support charter schools. In New Jersey, hundreds of teachers have been sacked because of alleged budget deficits. Not only is Governor Christie using the deficit argument to fire teachers, he also uses it to break unions and balance the budget on the backs of students and teachers. How else to explain Christie’s refusal to oppose reinstituting the “millionaires taxes,” or his cravenly support for lowering taxes for the top 25 hedge fund officers, who in 2009 raked in $25 billion, enough to fund 658,000 entry-level teachers.[4]


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In this conservative right-wing reform culture, the role of public education, if we are to believe the Heritage Foundation and the likes of Bill Gates-type billionaires, is to produce students who laud conformity, believe job training is more important than education, and view public values as irrelevant. Students in this view are no longer educated for democratic citizenship. On the contrary, they are now being trained to fulfill the need for human capital.[5] What is lost in this approach to schooling is what Noam Chomsky calls “creating creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.”[6] At the same time, public schools are under assault not because they are failing (though some are) but because they are one of the few public spheres left where people can learn the knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to think critically and hold power and authority accountable. Not only are the lines between the corporate world and public education blurring, but public schooling is being reduced to what Peter Seybold calls a “corporate service station,” in which the democratic ideals at the heart of public education are now up for sale.[7] At the heart of this crisis of education are larger questions about the formative culture necessary for a democracy to survive, the nature of civic education and teaching in dark times, the role of educators as civic intellectuals and what it means to understand the purpose and meaning of education as a site of individual and collective empowerment.

This current right-wing emphasis on low-level skills removes the American public from examining the broader economic, political, and cultural forces that bear down on the school. Matters concerning the influence on schools of corporations, text book publishers, commercial industries and the national security state are rendered invisible, as if schools and the practices they promote exist in a bubble. At work here is a pedagogy that displaces, infantilizes and depoliticizes both students and large segments of the American public. Under the current regime of neoliberalism, schools have been transformed into a private right rather than a public good. Students are now being educated to become consumers rather than thoughtful, critical citizens. Increasingly as public schools are put in the hands of for-profit corporations, hedge fund elites, and other market driven sources, their value is derived for their ability to turn a profit and produce compliant students eager to join the workforce.[8]

What is truly shocking about the current dismantling and disinvestment in public schooling is that those who advocate such changes are called the new educational reformers. They are not reformers at all. In fact, they are reactionaries and financial mercenaries who are turning teaching into the practice of conformity and creating curricula driven by an anti-intellectual obsession with student test scores, while simultaneously turning students into compliant subjects, increasingly unable to think critically about themselves and their relationship to the larger world. This poisonous virus of repression, conformity and instrumentalism is turning public education into a repressive site of containment, a site devoid of poetry, critical learning and soaring acts of curiosity and imagination. As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, what is driving the current school reform movement is a profoundly anti-intellectual project that promotes “more testing, more privately managed schools, more deregulation, more firing of teachers [and] more school closings.”[9] There are no powerful and profound intellectual dramas in this view of schooling, just the muted rush to make schools another source of profit for finance capital with its growing legion of bankers, billionaires and hedge fund scoundrels.

Public schooling is increasingly harnessed to the needs of corporations and the warfare state. One consequence is that many public schools, especially those occupied by poor minority youth, have become the new factories for dumbing down the curricula and turning teachers into what amounts to machine parts. At the same time, such schools have become increasingly militarized and provide a direct route for many youth into the prison-industrial complex or what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.[10] What is buried under the educational rhetoric of hedge-fund and casino capitalism reform is the ideal of offering public schools students a civic education that provides the capacities, knowledge and skills that enable students to speak, write and act from a position of agency and empowerment.

Privatization, commodification, militarization and deregulation are the new guiding categories through which schools, teachers, pedagogy and students are defined. The current assault on public education is not new but it is more vile and more powerful than in the past. Crucial to any viable reform movement is the need to understand the historical context in which public education has been transformed into an adjunct of corporate power as well as the ways in which the current right-wing reform operates within a broader play of power, ideology and other social forces that bear down in anti-democratic ways on the purpose of schooling and the practice of teaching itself. Making power invisible is important, but only a first step in understanding how it works and how it might be challenged. But recognizing such a challenge is not the same thing as overcoming it. Part of this task necessitates that educators anchor their own work in classrooms, however diverse, in projects that engage the promise of an unrealized democracy against its existing, often repressive forms. And this is only a first step.

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