Neoliberal Education Mangler Tactics

Michelle Rhee is a charismatic, top-notch conservative orator who knows how to destroy public education in America, with zest. Even though she was a failure when she first hopped on the public education destruction gravy train.

Joanna Bujes analyzes neoliberal education entrepreneur Michelle Rhee’s rhetorical strategy, and proposes a tactical pro-education strategy.

Rhee’s rhetorical strategy:

“I’m a maverick, fighting for children. Education is children v. teachers. To help children, we need to fight teachers. We do that with standardization/top-down micromanagement and privatization.”

Rhee is a high-earning forward on the fightin’ Right-wing Lady Mavericks team

Lois Weiner’s “A Witch Hunt Against Teachers” (2012) reveals the new divide-and-conquer public education destruction strategy: ‎

“Instead of teachers as a group being blamed for children’s lack of achievement, only the ‘bad teachers’ are going to be targeted. And who are the ‘bad teachers’ in this new campaign? Those who oppose what’s supposed to be ‘right for kids’: the use of standardized testing, charter schools, privatization — and the destruction of teachers’ unions.

Hollywood will once again enter the fray of school politics, with a new propaganda vehicle, Won’t Back Down, an action film, funded by the same right-wing think tank (Walden Media) that produced Waiting for Superman. This time Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal will carry the message that good teachers don’t need or want unions or any of those ‘selfish’ (so un-mother-like!) desires like pensions, good salaries, limited working hours.”

To counter Rhee, Bujes recommends this pro-public education talking point:

“A good education arises out of strong, healthy, respectful, supported relationships.

We need to support a great educational environment where teachers work and children learn together, so we can foster the relationships that make for education excellence.”

Finland’s superlative education reform has been built around supporting teachers and their working environment–students’ classrooms. 
Real education based in valuing teachers and treating them with respect, as a group: 
It’s not just for Nordic Middle Earth elven folk.

I see its strengths, but the weakness of Bujes’ counterhegemonic argument is that it’s incredibly vague–I think because it needs a firming step 2, like Rhee’s argument has. Me, I think we also need to reintroduce to the public the radical Dewey ideas about the importance of public education for a capable, critical, analytical, decision-making, self-organizing democratic citizenry–because our elites are making terrible autonomous decisions, repeatedly, from an overly narrow set of parameters. Occupy education.

In “We can do better than this,” Doug Henwood discusses the OECD’s recent comparative study of education success and failure.

“In the most successful systems, teachers are treated as high-level professionals; curricula emphasize creativity and complex skills; work organization is flat and collegial rather than hierarchical and authoritarian; accountability is to peers and stakeholders, not the authorities; and all students, not merely the best ones, are expected to learn at high levels. The U.S. scores poorly on many of these criteria, and many of our ‘reforms’ take us in a worse direction. 

… The (successful education reform of the Ontario) provincial government, says the OECD, ‘drew a sharp contrast between its capacity-building approach…and the more punitive versions of accountability used in the United States.’ Their approach was collegial and cooperative, not competitive. 

…In successful systems like Ontario and Finland, teachers have a great deal of professional autonomy. There may be a national curriculum, but teachers are expected to know their subject well and develop their skills at imparting knowledge. …And in most successful systems, standardized tests are rare” Henwood 2012.

Do you want to know how to actually improve education, as opposed to simply deunionizing workers so that elites wind up with more cash which to blow upon their shitty, unchecked, unproductive, counterproductive speculation cons as well as upon their beloved pastimes, political and economic mismanagement, running us into the ground, and collecting serfs? Here’s how: Finnish education reform. The upshot of real education improvement? You need political commitment, for 40 years; you need unions and teachers to help make education policy; with the exception of providing warm lunches to nourish children, you need to provide welfare, adequately, through other institutions, so that teachers can focus on teaching; and you need to support and promote the human and intellectual development of teachers as professionals.

Not constant top-down imposed testing, AKA infantilizing micromanagement. Not privatization. Not deunionization. Just the very opposite.

So you tell me: How feasible is real education improvement in the Anglosphere, insofar as real education improvement relies on improving the conditions and status of the working class labor involved? Yeah, I thought so. It’s heresy. That’s why we’re left with the code “education reform” for yet another mouldy old program to dismantle workingclass-serving state institutions and redistribute the social wealth ever upwards, to people who use it to wipe their ass.


Why is the current elite consensus on Education Reform a reactionary project?

The reactionary goal is austerity–to appropriate social wealth upward into a financial elite by, inter alia, invoking the decline of mass public education. The decline of mass public education is accomplished step-wise, by dismantling the fundamental social institutions that are required to maintain a mass public education system: “professional” (semi-autonomous, self-developmental, and organized) teachers.

Because of the structure of the market, and conservative, antidemocratic workplace law, teachers can only retain professional development so long as they have organizational independence–unions. The campaign is reactionary because it is orchestrated by elites to cannibalize and kill off working class institutions–unions, professional teaching, and mass public education. The US capitalist class is cohered around this primitive accumulation project.

An understory of middle class managers can make a living off this state-facilitated wealth and assets grab in a short-term framework. They can think of themselves as Men of Action. They can tell themselves they’re Doing It for the Children. They don’t ever have to face the big picture of what tune they’re tap dancing to…Or maybe, like Ravitch, they will when they retire with rare pensions.

[This brings forward the strategic question of middle-class neoliberal managerial rationality cost-benefit calculation: Middle class neoliberal managers make a comfortable living, but don’t accumulate much, given the ever-widening maw of inequality their work helps build. Their immediately-“successful” work creates the conditions whereby their own children will have fewer freedoms. There are big environmental parallels here.

I think that people in such a position could just as easily be pushed into the other, longer-term rationality path–If they don’t whore out, inequality will not balloon to cancel out their subordinate self-promotional economic strategy.

Except these social factors overdetermine Neoliberal Whore Rationality: 1) Social humans’ competitive positional incentives–which are exacerbated as inequality rises. This is how sociability is translated into alienation. 2) Social humans’ conservative deference to hierarchically-defined truth and value claims, especially in a milieu of elite political cohesion and homogeneity. 3) Access to and retention of jobs and incomes, where these are allocated on the basis of conformity to the elite austerity agenda. Capital’s got coercion locked down.]


Occupy: Radicalize for Education

Of course, Occupying education would mean that teachers cannot stay de-radicalized. I don’t know how they could be fence sitters at this point; but entrenched habits are hard to break, and Pew polls seem to indicate that young people have naturalized their own proletarianiation and dispossession.

Teachers have to recognize and proudly champion public education and decent working conditions–which must include unionization for most, as dependent upon a radical political-economic agenda. They have to reconsider what it is to be the good boys and girls–It’s not being non-disruptive (Though sometimes it might mean in a machiavellian way posing as non-disruptive retainers).

I know this is a socialization problem. It makes me think of my grandpa, one of the many teachers in my family. He moved his family to South St. Paul, Minnesota after WWII because that school district had the best compensation and working conditions and fostered the highest social status for teachers of any public school district in the U.S. at that time. Why? They had the most radical teachers’ union in the US. He admitted that. Yet all my grandpa could kvetch about, when I knew him nearing his retirement and afterward, was how unjust the capital gains tax was. “I’m being taxed twice!” he complained. That’s right, he enjoyed such low inequality, such access to the social wealth, such social status based in a successful working-class education system, fought for by other workers, that he imagined he was a capitalist. My grandpa, who was so sweet and kind to me, and whom I love and miss, was in that sense a parasite, a free rider but worse–who helped kill off the working conditions he himself enjoyed, along with the great public education system those conditions created. He never fought for those great working conditions he went to take advantage of. In fact he voted for, and contributed money to a political agenda to destroy those working conditions in his wake. He was a good boy. Here is the real tragedy of the commons–a tragedy, we’ve seen over and over again, that is overdetermined by capitalism’s incentive system.

It’s capitalism; it’s not supposed to be about wealth distribution–it’s about wealth accumulation. But that doesn’t justify such depths of autistic self-interest as to reify labor aristocracy and competitive intra-working class managerialism. If, against all market rationality, people sacrifice for better working conditions that improve your life chances and the life chances of your children, the very, very least that you can do is to use the resources they’ve built for you to continue the fight to replace market rationality with social and ecological rationality. (However, I also think it’s a bit late for this. After decades of conservative hegemony and the coordinated expropriation of working class institutions and resources, we’re entering an era when people will have to fight for distributive, etc., justice from nearly first base. I’m just saying, as always, that such a fight is particularly futile and aimless without a socialist backbone. We get beat down time and again by our own inability to recognize where power is accumulated, for what end, in an accumulation system.)

In the face of the current 1% despotism, a popularized Dewey education revival can be a rousing, emotional, altruism-activating collective project; and it has the virtue of taking on superficially-altruistic neoliberal entrepreneurs right at the discreetly-hidden heart of their agenda to pulp and expropriate independent working class organizations–such as unions and public education itself, a necessary-but-insufficient last-resort welfare safety net for millions of families in Anglo-American societies–and to throttle working class intellectual and political capacity…The better to primitive-accumulate, my dear.

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