“Venture philanthropists have transformed the educational terrain, significantly tilting it in a neoliberal direction, often using their expressed desire to help hard-hit communities to support their interests in changing the face of public education” (Spence, 2016, p. 96).
There exist many powerful organizations and leaders who, while they claim to want education change, will avoid any effort which actually disrupts the existing power structure. No plea to legislation, petition, or review panels on testing or equity will do much of anything except expend another decade of energy while the push to privatize rolls forward. We do not have that kind of time. Decades of neoliberal polciies like ESEA since 1965 (NCLB, RtTT, now ESSA) pay lip service to change, equity and quality, while doing the precise opposite behind closed curtains and beyond the eye of public scrutiny. Legislation of ESSA is directly manipulated by corporate interests and it’s going to serve the free market ideology before it serves the common good.
My task here is not to claim to have created some new idea…but to draw together shared ideas of three brilliant radical authors (and a specific book from each). Together they create a triumvirate case for the necessity of systemic and wholesale collective ideological shifts in thinking and behavior in order to fight for ourselves, our schools and our planet.
Chris Hedges (2015): Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Naomi Klein (2015): This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate
Lester K. Spence (2016): Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics
I hope to distill their ideas in juxtaposition with one another, making a case for the necessity of their suggestions. You might read each of their books for yourself, but here I summarize key points, arguing that these three great authors are all saying similsr things though separate from one another, and that what they have to say warrants our attention.
What they (and I) argue for is a complete transformation of the existing system if we are to truly develop sustainable equitable and democratic public schools. They, like I, believe that anything short of that is merely rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. This is because we are up against something deeply insidious; global, systemic and nearly invisible in its reach and influence: a global neoliberal paradigm which pervades every institution, as well as our social behaviors and understanding of what is “ethical.” The mechanism of control for a neoliberal paradigm is centered on the control of ideas — making public education the Ground Zero of the neoliberal agenda.
What sets their solutions (to racism, capitalism and climate change) apart and what they share in common is that each has the notion that in order to have real sustainable alternatives, the existing systems of power cannot be negotiated with anymore; we must have an entire systemic/paradigmatic shift that is economic, political, cultural and social. Hedges reminds us that we “live in a system that is incapable of reforming itself” (p. 87). We therefore must reject its continued legitimacy in favor of largescale seismic change.
Rather than continuing with strategies like “Tell you state representative you oppose XYZ” or, “Sign this petition to ask your state representative to do XYZ,” the ONLY thing we should be telling our state representative is to “GET THE F)$& OUT OF OUR WAY before we run them over” (merely as a common courtesy really) because THEIR days in power are numbered.
This is a people’s movement, not a “mother may I” movement.
There exist many powerful organizations and leaders who, while they claim to want education change, will avoid any effort which actually disrupts the existing power structure. No plea to legislation, petition, or review panels on testing or equity will do much of anything except expend another decade of energy while the push to privatize rolls forward. We do not have that kind of time. Decades of neoliberal policies like ESEA since 1965 (NCLB, RtTT, now ESSA) pay lip service to change, equity and quality, while doing the precise opposite behind closed curtains and beyond the eye of public scrutiny. Legislation of ESSA is directly manipulated by corporate interests and it’s going to serve the free market ideology before it serves the common good.
Currently we rely on others with power and money to change things. We appeal to our legislators. We advocate for piecemeal adjustments to existing laws (ESSA) and tell ourselves compromise is necessary, that change is slow, and that we can’t expect too much. It’s time to discredit these power dynamics. We don’t have time to be polite. Let’s stop bringing a dust broom to do battle with zombies. The neoliberal paradigm influences not only how we do business but how we perceive ourselves and the world, and “replaces the democratic with the free-market, assuming that individuals making market-oriented rational decisions generates better decisions (and individuals) than individuals engaged in politics-voting, debating, protesting, collectively acting in the public” (Spence, 2016, p. 114).
Why do we pay credence to Relay Graduate School “trainers” who come into our schools and tell us how to teach? Why do we follow Pearson scripted lesson plans even when they suck? Why do we administer meaningless tests that bring children to tears? Somewhere along the lines we forgot about our OWN power. Reclaim it.
Klein says it best: “The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate …. What is a democracy if it doesn’t encompass the capacity to decide, collectively, to protect something that no one can live without?” (p. 361). But how might we begin? With the help of these three radical notable scholars, I will attempt to outline a way out of our MC Escher-like dilemma.
Here are some “take aways” I found consistent across each book
Reject a Seat at the Table: Nothing renders a radical movement less radical than by giving it a seat at the table of existing power. It is clear to many of us that organizations (even who may support a radical grass-roots democratic ideal), find themselves subsumed by the system of powerful elite and therefore are often at best rendered toothless. Hedges referring to environmental issues says “The Big Green environmental groups that worked within the legal parameters were largely ineffectual and often complicit in the destruction of ecosystems they claimed to protect.” Klein states this same thing. This is true of educational systems as well. Whether we are referring to the NEA or the NAACP, power can be attractive and can be a seductive way to silence real dissent when a seat at the table is promised. Hedges, citing Camus, writes, “every revolutionary (who achieves power) ends up becoming either an oppressor or a heretic” (p. 93).
As with environmental policy, education laws such as ESSA, “are not designed to protect (students). The laws are designed to, at best, regulate (educations) continued exploitation” (Klein) at the hands of the edu-tech and data mining industries. The national leadership of large education institutions, like the Big Greens have, “entered partnerships with fossil fuel companies (never mind The Nature Conservancy, with its’ own Texas oil and gas operation” and this eerily reflects AFT and NEA partnerships with efforts funded by Eli Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations (or Weingarten’s buddy buddy relationship with Hillary Clinton). National union leadership (like the Big Greens) can bought off and influenced by large donations to look and sound as if they are doing something to help address the problems but in fact do very little to disrupt the power structure driving those very problems.
Connect the Dots: IT’S ALL CONNECTED: The corporate interests that are driving privatization and global control of health services, access to food and water, and management of other public institutions (i.e. prisons) are the SAME corporations, using the same playbook, to dismantle public education. And this issue is GLOBAL. The existing structure is, as Klein illustrates (p. 48), hierarchical (top down) whether by government or by corporations (since the latter owns the former), and highly “individualistic” (think, CBE as the new model for individualized learning at one’s own pace and interests, aka computer-based learning). The same ideological interests in big coal and oil support the ALEC agenda to eliminate public education. Think-tanks and corporate sponsored researchers work diligently to influence public education policy with questionable data.
Labor rights and ecological issues are deeply tied with education issues. We need to reach beyond our silos and work together across issues. Also realize that WE are connected to each other. Many of us might still enjoy good quality public schools. But we should care nonetheless. Klein sites Thomas Paine who wrote, “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.” We must start caring about Others because the pillaging usually reserved only for the marginalized and poor (closing schools in NOLA for example) is coming home to roost in increasingly privileged communities and schools. This affects ALL of us.
Make strategic distinctions: The difference between the neoliberal “progressives” and the radical left is not in identifying the concerns (hunger, poverty, opportunity, equity)….one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism is how it hijacked the narrative about concern for humanity. So we cannot fight neoliberalism on that front. Socially leaning corporations can easily state that they “are fighting the causes of hunger” or “seeking solutions to create a more just peaceful and verdant world” (to quote an ad from NPR).
Where the radical can distinguish itself from neoliberal progressive rhetoric is in identifying the causes and solutions to these concerns. We need to publicly highlight these arenas as well to generate public awareness. Whenever we say “We are for equity” or “we are for ending poverty” the neoliberal philanthropic billionaires can simply point out “We are too! And we have the money to make it happen.” Our strategy must focus on PROCESS of change (who are the decisions makers) and what will change look like once it’s happened? Neoliberal efforts force all thinking and behavior in public institutions towards market ideals.
A radical people’s movement dismantles market values in public spaces in favor of humanistic and shared values rather than competitive human capital. Such change (unlike that framed by neoliberal philanthropists) rests on an idea of public good or public space as “the idea that there is a community interest that benefits all of its individual members and with ‘the commons’ or the idea that shared community resources which cannot and should not be hoarded or made private” (Spence, p. 7).
Change the language: Try using the word “neoliberalism” in line at the grocery store and see how far that gets you. Even medical professionals try to use non-medical terms like Lou Gehrig’s Disease instead of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when speaking to non-medical people. So can we call neoliberalism something else? The influence of Occupy was effective in coining the term “the 99%” or “the 1%”. Most people now understand what is meant by those terms. The effects of neoliberalism are certainly real enough. People feel it every day. They see it. But we need a way to articulate it so as to develop an education/awareness framework that people can grab on to. Even “privatizers” is too erudite. But if we refer to the neoliberal agenda as “corporate greed” or how reform puts CEO interests before those of children or communities…those are ideas most people can wrap their heads around.
One of the most powerful tools of the neoliberal arsenal is their ability to hijack language. For example, a favorite term du jour is personalized learning which in reality is little more than a strategy of maximizing Human Capital. Spence illustrates, “These neoliberal ideas radically change what it means to be human, as the perfect human being now becomes an entrepreneur of his own capital, responsible for his personal development. These ideas also radically change what it means to be free-freedom is redefined as the ability to participate in the market unfettered” (p. 113). Wolin (2008) echoes this statement saying:
“The achievement represents the removal of the barriers that make Superpower’s empire possible: the conquest of space and the compression of time …the tyranny of efficiency and the subversion of democracy’s requirement that time be defined by the requirements for deliberation, discussion, reconciliation of opposing viewpoints, all of which suddenly seen ‘time consuming’” (p. 233).
Personalized learning is sold on the idea that siting is a room learning with others in a waste of time and a waste of money. Personalized learning pits learner against learner, seeing who can garner greater personal human capital through badges or certificate earned in the quickest amount of time. If we though grades and test scores were malignant motives which turned children into little more than letters or numbers, wait until they are earning badges.
Neoliberalism hinges on a distorted narrative of “personal freedom” really embodied by little more than consumer choice. Hedges points out that “the vast distance between perceived reality and the official version of reality is characteristic of totalitarian systems” (p. 55). Gone is a narrative (and reality) of shared public responsibility or freedom of thought or behavior outside the bounds of what can quantified as a form of capital gain or loss. Technology is spun as a necessary fundamental component of 21st century learning despite the lack of ANY evidence to suggest it actually promotes greater or richer or deeper learning for children. The push for technology to wholly replace public schools as we know them exemplifies the power of global corporations (free market on steroids) to “continuously innovate and expand” (Wolin, p. 138) .
In contrast to this, Hedges suggests that resistance “is first about learning to speak differently and abandoning the vocabulary of the ‘rational’ technocrats who rule” (p. 70).
Short and Long range: How do you get people to operate against their own short-term interests in favor of their long-term interests? This is a struggle against human nature. We struggle with the idea of pain now for benefit later (which we may never see) such as saving money for retirement or eating for long-range health benefits (instead of that plate of fries). But this was what Montgomery bus boycotters did in the 1960’s. The majority of boycotters were those most affected by the boycott—those who relied on the buses to get to work and thus were risking loss of employment (more so than those boycotters who owned cars or had alternatives). Similarly, in the testing refusal movement, students of color in lower-income urban communities may face greater consequences from refusing the tests than do their white suburban peers, but it is equally true that they suffer more greatly at the hands of reform if and when they DON’T refuse. We must frame what we do as civil disobedience and nothing less. We must examine long-range change versus short-range consequences.
Focus on the Local Common Spaces: We need to move forward “bird by bird” as Anne Lamott  would say. Change must be local if it is meet the criteria of the other items listed above in any genuine or viable sense. “Sustainable organizing is more likely to occur in response to a local issue” (Spence, p. 143); one that affects people directly. When we talk about making long-range goals, the next question should be: who is defining those goals? Spence also writes that, “It requires a politics attuned to the type of long-term institution building that builds the capacity of individuals to govern and devise alternatives themselves.” (p. 146). This speaks back to the idea of long-range versus short-range visions. If our efforts are dedicated to communities, then action and solutions must be generated on a local level as well. What is needed in Baltimore will not be the same as what is needed in Detroit when it comes down to specific action plans.
Corporate and state ownership have ceased to be viable options that benefit the average human being (the 99%). We must re imagine ways to provide public services as a common good. As Klein says, “All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge (I add, education challenge) will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect” (p. 460).
Hope is Possible. Are we Ready for It?
“The only route left to us, as Artistotle knew, is either submission or revolt” (Hedges, p. 66).
We cannot rely on the powers, institutions, and organizations that brought us this neoliberal jumping off point to pull us back from the cliff of extinction. We must look toward more radical notions of local, collective and rhizomatic democratic practices that allow us to look toward each other, rather than at power brokers, for solutions that serve us. We must create new alternative systems of economic and social justice that move beyond the reach of the existing system. We must think subversive and radically about how to protect education as a public good that provides for the needs of all our children. Don’t think for one minute that legislative or institutional adjustments within the existing framework will do this. Think of how “less testing” in ESSA was a Trojan Horse for Competency Based Education.
How do you know if an education reformer is lying? His or her lips are moving.
I’ll conclude with the authors own conclusions to their books (with my own insertions in italics):
Klein: Because these moments… (of crisis which create opportunities to seize change)… when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. This means we must make more of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world (…and public education) that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and the time too short (…and our children and democracy matter too much), to settle for anything less.
Spence: “We already have the seeds for a new institutional framework that re-roots the economy in politics and in the public interest. To show that we are not alone, and that a number of people recognize another way of life is possible. There aren’t as many of us as we’d like, but there are far more of us than we think” (p. 147).
Hedges: “The fight for life goes somewhere—the Buddhists call it karma—and in these acts we make possible a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us” (p. 226).
 Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy Inc: Managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ; Princeton Press.
 “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'” (Lamott, A.  Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life)