I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the so-called education reform movement lately. Many of the movement’s highest-profile success stories have been (or should have been) discredited by recent cheating scandals. Although the cheating in Atlanta seems to have been the most systematic—the “Atlanta miracle” was built on the same house of cards as the “Texas miracle”—even movement darling Michelle Rhee hasn’t escaped the brouhaha unscathed. At least one of the D.C. schools Rhee touted as exemplary gained blue-ribbon accolades thanks to impossibly lofty wrong-to-right erasure rates. Unsurprisingly, high-stakes testing, where student scores are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations—upon which rewards and punishments are issued—have led to a culture of cheating and corruption. We should expect much more of the same, since this is the model touted by Obama and his Secretary of Education, former Chicago Public Schools CEO (yes, CEO) Arne Duncan, in the form of the “Race to the Top” policy that allocates big money to those states most aggressive in implementing measures celebrated by educational reformers.
There’s much work to be done by educational historians on the so-called educational reform movement. Although movement activists herald their ideas as fresh and bold, they don’t offer much new (aside from the enthusiasm with which they embrace market solutions to intransigent problems). For instance, like progressive educators since John Dewey, current educational reformers almost always sell their wares as instruments of justice. And yet, like the progressive education movement of the early twentieth century, current trendy reform mechanisms always end up serving the ends of order: whereas the progressive education movement’s most longstanding success story was its pedagogical program for “Americanization,” current reform success is calculated by how well students score on standardized tests and by college-entrance rates. In short, educational progress as measured by how well students stack up against conventional standards will always and inevitably reinforce the status quo.
Educational thinkers have long debated the role of education in society from one side or the other of the thin line between justice and order. In a compelling review of John Marsh’s Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, Malcolm Harris of The New Inquiry expresses the pessimistic, but frankly realistic view that schools are nothing more than engines of social reproduction. He pithily writes:
The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.”
Such dour analysis has deep roots in Marxism. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “Culture is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.” We might as well substitute “culture” with “education.” Thinking about education as merely reproducing the capitalist order has been common amongst neo-Marxists since conditioned by Louis Althusser’s famous 1969 essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” (Much of my analysis of Althusser and his acolytes is drawn from the conclusion of my book, Education and the Cold War.) For Althusser, a state apparatus such as a public school system hailed, or, in Althusserian language, “interpellated” subjects to their predetermined tasks. Subjects in the educational apparatus were “always-already” called into being. There was no hope that people could rise above the ideological structure of a school. Justice was, at best, a façade, covering over the actual work being done by the schools: reproducing the dominant ideology and, as such, the status quo social order.
The leading neo-Marxist theorists of educational reproduction in the United States after the 1960s were Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Their book Schooling in Capitalist America was the most important empirical contribution to the genre. The Bowles and Gintis critique was rooted in their disillusionment with liberal reform in the United States, specifically with the failed assurance of social mobility—the promised by-product of public education. One of the basic thematic premises of Bowles and Gintis was that “the meritocratic orientation of the educational system promotes not its egalitarian function, but rather its integrative role.”
And yet, there have been a host of thinkers with leftist and Marxist orientations who have emphasized the liberating possibilities of education. Paulo Freire, author of the acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has been canonized by colleges of education, is the most important signpost of such thinking. According to Freire, the great humanistic task of the oppressed was to liberate both themselves and their oppressors from dehumanization. But, paradoxically, humanization affirms itself in the face of dehumanization—this is the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Henry Giroux, the most widely read North American of the Freire school of thought, took this one step further: he argued that educators should join the oppressed in the vanguard of liberation. Education could be a force for revolution.
Such thinking continues. From a political position similar to Malcolm Harris, yet with diametrically different premises about the possibilities of education, Julia Pointer Putnam argues in her recent Monthly Review essay—“Another Education is Happening”—that education can be put to work for a more just society if it deemphasizes individualistic, meritocratic achievement and instead accentuates the goals of community-building (reprising some of the arguments made by the community-control activists of the late 1960s). In building on the work of legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, Pointer Putnam advocates:
a type of learning known as Place-Based Education (or Community-Based Education), where the local community and environment serve as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. This approach diminishes the boundaries that have been built up between schools and the community. Place-Based Education emphasizes the ability of young people to learn by addressing the real-life problems around them.
If such pedagogical thinking sounds familiar, that’s because it is, at least, to those who have read John Dewey or any number of those schooled in Deweyan pedagogy. In fact, Pointer Putnam is explicit about grounding her theory of education in Deweyan thought. She even quotes Dewey to that effect: “The teaching-learning environments that would bring greatest growth are places where children and adults grow together, where the schools are not separate from the community.”
Dewey believed that education was the key to remolding society along more just lines. (Much of this section on Dewey is taken from Chapter 1 of my book Education and the Cold War.) Dewey’s theory of education was socially democratic. He believed education could and should remold society to be cooperative and just, even if at the expense of efficiency and order. In this regard, although he influenced progressive educators from both the order and justice sides of the movement, Dewey was firmly on the side of justice. Dewey’s theory of education was also one of agency rooted in the belief that, since human history was contingent, human subjectivity could irrevocably alter the course of the future. He conceptualized education as a motive force in overcoming the tyrannical impositions of the past. In short, Dewey was antipathetic to education as conformity. For Dewey, the relationship between individual agency and the surrounding environment was one of mutual adjustment, not a matter of one-sided accommodation of the individual to a static environment. “The environment must be plastic to the ends of the agent,” argued Dewey, because the “transformation of existing circumstances is moral duty rather than mere reproduction of them.”
In this, many have since criticized Dewey as too typically progressive or liberal in his naïve faith in reform—especially in his faith in the ameliorative potential of education. (Most of this form of criticism has come from Marxists, or from populists like Christopher Lasch. Of course, Dewey took it from all sides. The great counter-progressive historian Richard Hofstadter contended Dewey’s progressive educational theories were anti-intellectual for emphasizing practical concerns—in fact, Hofstadter dedicated a whole chapter to this critique in his celebrated Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And no one American thinker has ever had more abuse heaped upon him by conservatives than Dewey—Democracy and Education ranks fifth on a recent Human Events list of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries,” not as harmful as The Communist Manifesto, but more so than Das Kapital!) But despite his relatively optimistic theory of education, Dewey was always sensitive to the misappropriation of his ideas. He was against education for social order. In fact, he reserved some of his most venomous intellectual barbs for those progressive educators who sacrificed justice at the altar of order and efficiency.
In 1914 Dewey wrote an article in the very first issue of The New Republic that was brutal in its assessment of fellow progressive educator David Snedden’s version of vocational education, which Dewey described as a practice that fashioned schools as “preliminary factories supported at public expense.” In Dewey’s eyes, vocational education had become a method for subsidizing capital at the expense of labor. Dewey’s article sparked an instructive exchange with Snedden, who was taken aback by Dewey’s attack, explaining that he had grown accustomed to such haranguing by educational “reactionaries,” but did not expect it from a fellow progressive. Snedden argued that his vocational education system would benefit everybody—management and workers alike. Everyone would reap the benefits of increased levels of production that would result from an educational system that trained students to succeed in their predetermined vocational niches. In response to Snedden’s reply, Dewey explained that their divergence was “not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social. The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.” For Dewey, vocational education had become “an instrument in accomplishing the feudal dogma of social predestination.”
And yet, despite Dewey’s explicit hesitations, nearly a century later, the history of American education suggests that order almost always wins out over justice, no matter authorial intentions—and no matter that Deweyans persist in sprouting up across the educational landscape. We might need to come to terms with the fact that education—or more precisely, schooling—is meant to serve the ends of the status quo, i.e., brutal inequality. And thus, if the educational reformers have been successful at anything, it’s in ensuring a more efficient machine for reproducing the status quo.