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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

(Page 2)

It is not the vagueness of what this type of research is trying to achieve that is the most ludicrous and ethically offensive part of this study: It is the notion that reflective feedback can be reduced to measuring emotional impulses rather than produced through engaged dialogue and communication between actual teachers and students. How can bracelets measure why students are acting out if they are hungry, bored, fearful, sick or lack sleep because their parents might be homeless? How do such studies address larger structural issues such as the 50 million people in the United States who go hungry every night, one-third of whom are children?  And how do they manage to ignore their own connection to the rise of the surveillance state and the ongoing destruction of the civil rights of children and others? Research of this kind cannot speak to the rise of a Jim Crow society in which the mass incarceration of poor minorities is having a horrible effect on children. As Michelle Alexander points out, these are children “who have a parent or loved one, a relative, who has either spent time behind bars or who has acquired a criminal record and thus is part of the under-caste - the group of people who can be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives.” And the effect of such daily struggle is deadly. She writes:

. . . For these children, their life chances are greatly diminished. They are more likely to be raised in severe poverty; their parents are unlikely to be able to find work or housing and are often ineligible even for food stamps. For children, the era of mass incarceration has meant a tremendous amount of family separation, broken homes, poverty, and a far, far greater level of hopelessness as they see so many of their loved ones cycling in and out of prison. Children who have incarcerated parents are far more likely themselves to be incarcerated.

In contrast to the socially and ethically numb forms of educational research endorsed by so-called reformers, a recent study has linked high-stakes testing to lower graduation rates and higher incarceration rates, indicating that such testing plays a significant role in expanding “the machinery of the school-to-prison pipeline,” especially for low-income students and students of color.  Most critics of the billionaires’ club ignore these issues. But a number of critics, such as New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, have raised significant questions about this type of research. Ravitch argues that Gates should “devote more time to improving the substance of what is being taught . . . and give up on all this measurement mania.” Such critiques are important, but they could go further. Such reform efforts are about more than collapsing teaching and learning into an instrumental reductionism that approximates training rather than education. As Ken Saltman points out, the new un-reformers are political counter-revolutionaries and not simply misguided educators.

Noam Chomsky gets it right in arguing that we are now in a general period of regression that extends far beyond impacting education alone. This period of regression is marked by massive inequalities in wealth, income and power that are fueling a poverty and ecological crisis and undermining every basic public sphere central to both democracy and the culture and structures necessary for people to lead a life of dignity and political participation. The burden of cruelty, repression and corruption has broken the back of democracy, however weak, in the United States. America is no longer a democracy, nor is it simply a plutocracy. It has become an authoritarian state steeped in violence and run by the commanding financial, cultural and political agents of corporate power.


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Corporate sovereignty has replaced political sovereignty, and the state has become largely an adjunct of banking institutions and financial service industries. Addicted to “the political demobilization of the citizenry,” the corporate elite is waging a political backlash against all institutions that serve democracy and foster a culture of questioning, dialogue and dissent. The apostles of neoliberalism are concerned primarily with turning public schools over to casino capitalism in order to transform them into places where all but the privileged children of the 1% can be disciplined and cleansed of any critical impulses. Instead of learning to become independent thinkers, they acquire the debilitating habits of what might be called a moral and political deficit disorder that renders them passive and obedient in the face of a society based on massive inequalities in power, wealth and income. The current powerful corporate-based un-reform movement is wedded to developing modes of governance, ideologies and pedagogies dedicated to constraining and stunting any possibility for developing among students those critical, creative, and collaborative forms of thought and action necessary for participating in a substantive democracy.

At the core of the new reforms is a commitment to a pedagogy of stupidity and repression that is geared toward memorization, conformity, passivity, and high stakes testing. Rather than create autonomous, critical, and civically engaged students, the un-reformers kill the imagination while depoliticizing all vestiges of teaching and learning. The only language they know is the discourse of profit and the disciplinary language of command. John Taylor Gatto points to some elements of this pedagogy of repression in his claim that schools teach confusion by ignoring historical and relational contexts. Every topic is taught in isolation and communicated by way of sterile pieces of information that have no shared meanings or context.

A pedagogy of repression defines students largely by their shortcomings rather than by their strengths, and in doing so convinces them that the only people who know anything are the experts - increasingly drawn from the ranks of the elite and current business leaders who embody the new models of leadership under the current regime of neoliberalism. Great historical leaders who exhibited heightened social consciousness such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Dewey, Paulo Freire and Mahatma Ghandi are relegated to the dustbin of history. Students are taught only to care about themselves and to view any consideration for others as a liability, if not a pathology. Ethical concerns under these circumstances are represented as hindrances to be overcome. Narcissism along with an unchecked notion of individualism is the new normal.

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