Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
** Ella Baker
David Brooks, the moderate “human face” of the plutocrats and the dangerous fang faction, used his New York Times column to trumpet the need for “a national greatness agenda” and managed to evoke a grotesquely mangled and romanticized image of the Black Freedom Movement of 50 years ago in an attempt to rally people to a left/right social movement of all the politically disaffected built around the goal of broad revitalization: “Like the civil rights movement, this movement will ask Americans to live up to their best selves.” And our “best selves” is easily summed up: “Love of country.” Yes simple patriotism will, in Brooks’ cosmology, allow Americans to see that sacrificing Social Security benefits “at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan,” or giving up pensions as an investment in “America’s future greatness,” represent the sensible unifying path forward.
Most Americans (and the whole world besides) think that the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been and continue to be catastrophic. The vast majority of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (not the “insurgents” or the Taliban or the “jihadists”) have overwhelmingly opposed the US military presence in their respective lands practically from the start. Any ethical person would tell the government to end its senseless wars for a start, bring those Marines and soldiers home now, and spend those squandered billions on education, health, and the common good.
But Brooks sees the hand writing on the wall: US power is in deep crisis, and the American empire is coming to an end; his solution is to mobilize a nationalistic movement and shred any expectation of a common commitment to human welfare: line-up, re-load, and march. Or as he puts it, his social movement will have one simple and unapologetic goal: “preserving American pre-eminence.” He asserts that “American ‘supremacy’ is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.” To Brooks the US Century must continue and the echoes of Rome and London and Berlin and Tokyo—pick your century, pick your conqueror—are unmistakable. The world will be a far, far better place if everyone will accept the obvious fact that the US makes a great ruler and that it should simply be allowed to run the whole show forever.
People around the world can’t possibly agree with Brooks’ assessment, and most never will no matter what the cost. Most people think the US (less than 5% of the world’s population, but capable of acting as if it’s some sort of entitled aristocracy or super-majority) has some noble traditions and hopeful rhetoric but it is also a misguided and menacing cowboy, the largest mercenary force ever created, benighted and armed and dangerous, and more than a little out-of-control much of the time.
The problem here, as always, is whether ordinary people can be counted on to support the long war, pay the price, avert their eyes, become participants or accomplices in conquest and occupation and war without end. Brooks and his patrons in power and privilege are worrying about the pesky and unpredictable home front (US!!!) and he’s calling on us to close our eyes to injustice everywhere and build nothing less than a patriotic/nationalist popular movement to resist “national humiliation, diminished power in the world, drastic cuts and spreading pain.” “American Exceptionalism” inflamed, American supremacy triumphant, America uber alles and of course war after endless war—this is the deadly response from the big thinker of the “reasonable” right.
This is precisely where a focus on education—on reason and evidence and argument—becomes essential. This historic moment, this epoch, could surely be increasingly violent and horrifying or it could be a time of new hope, beauty, and unforeseen possibilities. This is in part up to us: it depends on how we think and how we act. In education, this moment challenges us to reconsider every assumption and to reexamine first and fundamental principles.
An essential step is to re-imagine the project of schooling, teaching and learning, curriculum and instruction, in radically new ways. Education at the end of empire is inevitably where our identity and our destiny will be developed and worked out. Education is one of the key pillars of the superstructure of capitalist society, the arena of politics and ideology, where humans become conscious of class conflict and fight it out. Education is a site of class sorting, the development of ideological hegemony, and the debate over what it means to be human, where we are on the clock of the universe, and what kind of future we mean to create.
Education at the end of empire is education in crisis and contestation. The outlines of the agenda of the powerful are increasingly apparent: privatization, drastically lowered expectations for students and families, the demonization of teachers, zero-tolerance as a cat’s paw for surveillance and control, sort-and-punish curricula, a culture of obedience and conformity, a narrowing definition of learning as job-training and education as a product to be bought and sold in the market, the school-to-prison pipeline. On the other side there is a growing fight-back based on the principle that all human beings are of incalculable value and that life in a just and free society must be geared toward and powered by a profoundly radical idea: the fullest development of all human beings regardless of race or ethnicity, origin or background, gender identity, ability or disability is the necessary condition for the full development of each person; and, conversely, the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. On this side are those who recognize that access to education, the development of skills and critical capacity, make citizens and residents not just “college ready” or work-prepared, but also ready to become leaders of struggles for a humane future.
This points to the importance of opposing the hidden curriculum of obedience and conformity in favor of foregrounding and teaching initiative, questioning, doubt, skepticism, courage, imagination, and creativity. These are central and not peripheral to an education based on principles of equality, justice, and basic human rights. These are the qualities educators must struggle to model and nourish, encourage and defend in our communities and our classrooms.
In a free society students are able to think for themselves and develop minds of their own, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, and to build capacities for exploration and invention. They are encouraged then to ask the most fundamental and essential questions that are, like the young themselves, always in-motion, dynamic, and never twice the same: Who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices and my chances? What did I learn that the teacher didn’t know? What’s my story, and how is it like or unlike the stories of others? What is my responsibility to those others?
Teachers and students who long for schooling as something transcendent and powerful find ourselves locked in institutions that glorify sorting students into winners and losers, reduce learning to a mindless and irrelevant routine of drill and skill and teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested (and often false) bits of information. This is unlovely in practice and it is unworthy of our deepest dreams.
The dominant neo-liberal metaphor of the rich and powerful posits schools as businesses, teachers as workers, students as products and commodities, and it leads rather simply to thinking that school closings and privatizing the public space are natural events, relentless standardized test-and-punish regimes sensible, zero tolerance a reasonable proxy for justice. This is what the true-believers call “reform.”
The hijacking of school reform by the neo-liberal corporate planners, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, US government strategists and the education elites intensifies an attack on teachers, unions, teacher education, schools, and the kids themselves. The aim is to recreate the privileges of the powerful while forging a generation of technicians and passive followers and disciplining the lower classes to accept their place in the matrix. The gravitational pull of this narrative is so great that even radical reformers find themselves re-voicing the deceptive goals and the phony frames. If we are to take a thorough and honest look at the educational landscape before us, we cannot accept the standards and benchmarks established by the elite, from the acceptance of capitalist development, meaningless and wasteful work, and ecological depredations as the only way forward, to the normalizing of white, middle class discourse as the gold standard of excellence, anointed with titles like Standard English or Academic English.
Schools for obedience and conformity are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies for control and normalization, the elaborate schemes for managing the crowd, the knotted system of rules and discipline, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks, the laborious programs of sorting the crowd into winners and losers through testing and punishing, grading, assessing, and judging, all of it adding up to a familiar trap, an intricately constructed hierarchy, everyone in a designated place and a place for everyone. In the schools as they are, knowing and accepting one’s pigeonhole on the towering and barren cliff becomes the only lesson one really needs.
Educators who are today oriented toward justice and liberation and enlightenment as living forces and powerful aspirations focus their efforts not on the production of things, but on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens and residents who can participate actively in public life, people who can open their eyes and awaken themselves and others as they think and act ethically in a complex and ever-changing world. This kind of teaching encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name and constantly interrogate the world, the wisdom to identify the obstacles to their full humanity and to the humanity of others, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education, then, is changed from rote boredom and endlessly alienating routines into something that is transformative, always opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider world.
Teaching in this political moment is both a challenge and a gift, for this moment embodies what educators, beginning with early childhood teachers, have always called “a teachable moment.” Teachable moments are times of disequilibrium and dislocation, times when lesson plans are thrown into doubt and newness can enter, times when the predictable and the common-place are recognized as inadequate and fresh and startling winds can blow, for teachers no less than for students. The teachable moment aligns neatly with a certain kind of pedagogy, one that doesn’t know the answers and is compelled to improvise with the unfinished, the contingent, and the surprising/unforeseen.
In the schools we need, education is constructed as a fundamental human right geared toward the fullest development of the human personality, and the reconstruction of society around basic principles of joy and justice, equality and recognition, peace and love.
Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.