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When Schools Become Dead Zones of Imagination

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Posted on Aug 17, 2013
dcJohn (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

If the right-wing billionaires and apostles of corporate power have their way, public schools will become “dead zones of the imagination,” reduced to anti-public spaces that wage an assault on critical thinking, civic literacy and historical memory. Since the 1980s, schools have increasingly become testing hubs that de-skill teachers and disempower students. They have also been refigured as punishment centers where low-income and poor minority youth are harshly disciplined under zero tolerance policies in ways that often result in their being arrested and charged with crimes that, on the surface, are as trivial as the punishment is harsh. Under casino capitalism’s push to privatize education, public schools have been closed in cities such as, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York to make way for charter schools. Teacher unions have been attacked, public employees denigrated and teachers reduced to technicians working under deplorable and mind-numbing conditions.

Corporate school reform is not simply obsessed with measurements that degrade any viable understanding of the connection between schooling and educating critically engaged citizens. The reform movement is also determined to underfund and disinvest resources for public schooling so that public education can be completely divorced from any democratic notion of governance, teaching and learning. In the eyes of billionaire un-reformers and titans of finance such as Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, the Walton family and Michael Bloomberg, public schools should be transformed, when not privatized, into adjuncts of shopping centers and prisons.

Like the dead space of the American mall, the school systems promoted by the un-reformers offer the empty ideological seduction of consumerism as the ultimate form of citizenship and learning. And, adopting the harsh warehousing mentality of prison wardens, the un-reformers endorse and create schools for poor students that punish rather than educate in order to channel disposable populations into the criminal justice system where they can fuel the profits of private prison corporations. The militarization of public schools that Secretary Arnie Duncan so admired and supported while he was the CEO of the Chicago School System was not only a ploy to instill authoritarian discipline practices against students disparagingly labeled as unruly, if not disposable. It was also an attempt to design schools that would break the capacity of students to think critically and render them willing and potential recruits to serve in senseless and deadly wars waged by the American empire. And, if such recruitment efforts failed, then students were quickly put on the conveyor belt of the school-to-prison pipeline.  For many poor minority youth in the public schools, prison becomes part of their destiny, just as public schools reinforce their status as second-class citizens. As Michelle Alexander points out, “Instead of schools being a pipeline to opportunity, [they] are feeding our prisons.”

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Market-driven educational reforms, with their obsession with standardization, high-stakes testing, and punitive policies, also mimic a culture of cruelty that neoliberal policies produce in the wider society. They exhibit contempt for teachers and distrust of parents, repress creative teaching, destroy challenging and imaginative programs of study and treat students as mere inputs on an assembly line. Trust, imagination, creativity, and a respect for critical teaching and learning are thrown to the wind in the pursuit of profits and the proliferation of rigid, death-dealing accountability schemes. As John Tierney points out in his critique of corporate education reforms in The Atlantic, such approaches are not only oppressive - they are destined to fail. He writes:

Policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? ‘The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.’ In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; ‘reforms’ that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded.

The situation is further worsened in that not only are public schools being defunded and public school teachers attacked as the new welfare queens, but social and economic policies are being enacted by Republicans and other right-wingers to ensure low-income and poor minority students fail in public schools. For instance, many Tea Party-elected governors in states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maine, along with right-wing politicians in Congress, are enacting cruel and savage policies (such as the defunding of the food stamp program) that directly impact on the health and well-being of poor students in schools. Such policies shrink, if not destroy, the educational opportunities of poor youth by denying them the basic provisions they need to learn and then utilizing the consequent negative educational outcomes as one more illegitimate rationale for turning public schools over to private interests.

When billionaire club members, such as Bill Gates and right-wing donors such as Art Pope, are not directly implementing policies that defund schools, they are funding research projects that turn students into test subjects for a world that even George Orwell would have found hard to imagine. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a $500,000 grant to Clemson University to do a pilot study in which students would wear galvanic skin bracelets with wireless sensors that would track their physiological responses to various stimuli in the schools. A spokesperson for the foundation argues in defense of this creepy obsession with measuring students’ emotional responses by claiming that the biometric devices are a help to teachers who can measure “‘real-time’ (reflective feedback), kind of like a pedometer.”


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