Two recent pieces came out that insightfully show that the current push of corporatist education reform is actually a symptom of something much more ominous, the destruction of all that is held for the common good, all that is “public.” Both the recent Commonweal review of Diane Ravitch’s important new book, Reign of Error, and the Bill Moyers’ interview with Henry Giroux connect many important dots.
First of all, Reform of the Reform, the review of Ravitch’s book, serves as a primer of the neoliberal movement in and of itself. Jackson Lears starts by grounding his piece in a history of the damage done by “creative destruction.” Lears tells the story of the phrase as it runs from Harvard economist Joseph Schrumpeter, through Schrumpeter’s current and well-known disciple of innovative disruption, Clayton Christensen. Lears writes:
“Policymakers and business gurus have endowed the word ‘disruption’ with almost fetishlike power in recent years. And Christensen himself has pioneered the application of ‘disruption theory’ to social institutions outside the market: government agencies, public-health organizations, schools. The Americanization and expansion of Schumpeter’s concept—the transformation of creative destruction in the economic sphere to creative disruption everywhere—is another symptom of our most serious social malady: the hollowing out of the public sphere, the reduction of nonmarket institutions to market-driven ‘profit centers,’ the monetization of everything.”
Lears shows us that this “disruption” is actually market fundamentalism run amuck, and he continues in the next sentence to begin to show, through Ravitch, how this fundamentalist approach is used as a sledge-hammer against all that is “public,” including, and especially, schools.
“Nowhere is this sickness more apparent than in the world of education, where ‘reformers’ like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein have promoted privatization in the guise of the pursuit of excellence. The consequences have been disruption that is anything but creative.”
The narrative is that market fundamentalism is value free, that the invisible hand of the market is what guides decisions, and this invisible hand transcends human values, it is a mysterious, all-knowing force that knows better than we do. Lears and Ravitch show that, in fact, the market simply ignores the values of democracy in its conflation of capitalism with democracy. And in doing so, it values capitalism over democracy. All of the public institutions required for the maintenance of democracy are disrupted by these market forces, and therefore democracy itself is disrupted.
Henry Giroux calls this casino capitalism because this type of capitalism chooses winners and losers merely by the luck of the draw as determined by birth. Giroux says, “This casino capitalism as we talk about it, right, one of the things that it does that hasn’t been done before, it doesn’t just believe it can control the economy. It believes that it can govern all of social life. That’s different.
That means it has to have its tentacles into every aspect of everyday life. Everything from the way schools are run to the way prisons are outsourced to the way the financial services are run to the way in which people have access to health care, it’s an all-encompassing, it seems to me, political, cultural, educational apparatus.”
The inertia of the corporatist movement focuses on public education as symptom of the common good, that which is intentionally designed as a safe haven from the market. The common good is a place of protection, where all are served, not just the rich. Where voice is determined by participation, not the size of a bank account. As such, the common good is an affront to the neoliberal movement. And, by focusing on public education, (and all connected to it- i.e., unionization, the rights of women, health care, etc.) the debate around schooling allows for the continued ignoring of the fundamental aspects of a society that cares for all of its members. Lears writes, “What’s left out of these debates is as important as what’s left in. Complaining about failing schools is a way of avoiding the structural issues of systemic poverty, inequality, and racial segregation. Celebrating better schools as a panacea is a way of not mentioning unmentionable policies that might challenge existing power arrangements. Never have these ideological exclusions been clearer than in our contemporary neoliberal moment.” (Emphasis added)
All of this is to say that as people who care deeply about our schools, and the children who are served by them, we must continue to see that we must not work only for the continuation of public education, but in support of all of that makes up the common good. We must address divisions of class, work to alleviate the conditions of poverty, we must argue against drone warfare. We must support the connections of community and work against any attempt to, as Giroux says, “..individualize the social…which means that all problems, if they exist, rest on the shoulders of the individual.”
We are all in this together.