Remaking a public education

Chris Carlsson on the education system.

Submitted by Steven. on December 26, 2010

Public schooling has become the current line of defense against dismantling
the public sphere. Defending public school as we know it requires re-legitimizing
the notion of a public good to be provided or at least guaranteed by the
state. The past decade of Reaganism enshrined privatization, which shrank
the entitlements and rights associated with the public sphere. Besides
schools, what else does the public have anymore except some poorly tended
parks, a few cash-starved museums and libraries, and rapidly deteriorating
roads, rails and bridges? Were public schools eliminated, the state's
functionson behalf of the public would be reduced to taxation
and repression, and subsidizing business.

No one can defend public education without serious qualification, but
such a defense must include an unqualified endorsement of the public.
For all its flaws and mystifications, what is democracy if not a public
process of politics and decision-making? A social institution that is
self-consciously public and subject to political/popular control, however
compromised, is important to a radical agenda that hopes to extend democratic
social control over the whole of public life.

But instead of pouring our efforts into defending the few public institutions
that still exist, we have to re-create and re-animate a public life that
goes considerably beyond existing institutions. Our goal is not simply
to reclaim public education, but to establish a new way of life in which
public control over social matters (including economic ones)
is understood as a political process subject to democratic norms (norms
which are themselves determined by social processes). To do this we need
to educate people to self-confidently participate. Public education's
role looms large, not because specific curricula lead to specific results,
but because school is where we most intensively interact with and learn
about others outside of the family, neighborhood or work. Public schools,
at their best, bring together people of widely different cultural, ethnic,
and linguistic backgrounds and socialize them to participate in cooperative
activities, develop respect for others, and so on. The public schools
could be the best arena for us to learn what public life is
about, and how we can participate in it.

It is easy to criticize schools as institutions of social control that
create unthinking zombies that will become the pliable workers and consumers
of the future. But most of us who might make such a glib critique are
living examples of the porous nature of schooling's social control agenda.
For instance, almost everything of value that I learned in school resulted
from social interactions and experiences that took place in spite of the
twisted logic of the school system. Learning, for better or worse, goes
on everwhere, not just at school. Television has at least as much influence
as schooling in shaping our ideas about the world and ourselves and our
sense of what's possible. Even if a zealous right-wing Christianity took
over the public schools and instituted its narrow, authoritarian curriculum,
there is no guarantee that it would reliably produce the kind of obedient,
God-fearing, hard-working citizens they dream about. Similarly, a more
left-leaning school curriculum may not predictably produce critical, self-motivated,
responsible citizens ready to assert themselves as part of a wider public


Curriculum is not the most important educational issue. Rather, it is
the people we meet, the relationships we establish, and whether or not
we are encouraged to think for ourselves and to believe our own experiences,
that finally have the greatest influence on what kind of people we are
when we emerge from our education. Education's role in shaping our imagination
is one compelling reason for school integration. Rising racial tension
encourages even neo-liberals to see school desegregation as an ameliorative
policy.Racial integration in public schools is a necessary foundation
for a racially integrated public life. In spite of spasms of ethnic cleansing
and chronic world-wide racism, a vibrant, ever-evolving, cross-pollinating
multiculturalism is spreading across the globe. Some of the best things
about living in San Francisco, New York, or other big cities, are the
astounding possibilities for cross-cultural experience, unfortunately
most often limited to our role as consumers. You can breakfast Chinese
Dim Sum, tour a Modern Art Exhibit, lunch Italian, check out Latino murals
in the afternoon, shop New Age White Professional Thrift Store, dine Thai
or Indian, and dance the night away at a rap club, salsa disco, white
kid rock club, whatever, and top it off at an Irish bar or a Salvadoran
Taqueria. But it is considerably more rare to hang out at your white friend's
house, then head over to Bayview to your black friend's house, and then
to Chinatown and see your friends there, then everyone heads over to the
Mission, and so on.

Luckily there are plenty of pockets of genuine cross-cultural interest
and respect in big cities, which are (hopefully) sources of cultural dynamism
and new thinking. Developing a respect and appreciation for other cultures
may even help stem the erosion of cultural diversity caused by the market
pressure to Americanize. (While environmentalists have been decrying
shrinking biodiversity, an equally serious problem for human society is
shrinking cultural diversity, with a majority of known languages falling
into disuse, and astonishing reservoirs of knowledge disappearing as the
inexorable march of progress squashes remaining pockets of indigenous
culture worldwide.) Accommodating different cultures in public schools
counters the push to embrace monocultural white-bread values, even if
in adapting to a multi-ethnic society each individual subculture begins
to change too. Moreover, multicultural education accurately reflects the
real new world order, which will no longer have the U.S. and European
culture as its imperial standard. In adapting to a multi-polar, multi-ethnic
world, it's crucial to have the educational opportunities and intensity
of social experience available in a city like San Francisco.

In 1993, though, segregated and unequal public education is the norm
throughout the United States. The attempt to address a deeply racist,
predominantly segregated society by integrating public schools (ignoring
housing, wealth, etc.) has led to more open-mindedness and less overt
racism. But that apparent achievement by progressive forces has
proven to be a very limited--even empty--victory. School desegregation
has been isolated and outflanked by white flight, privatization and anti-tax
revolts (like the 1978 California Proposition 13). Compare almost any
white suburban school to its non-white urban counterpart and the results
are clear. Overall education spending has gone up, but the gap between
rich and poor is wider than ever. Many poor districts are spending less
now than they were a decade ago. Rich school districts, which tax their
local property at rates far below poverty stricken areas, spend as much
as five to eight times as much as nearby poor districts. The result is
sharp, self-perpetuating racial and class divisions.


Racial integration remains an important goal for public schools. But
it is patently absurd to expect integrated public schools alone to overcome
this society's deeply entrenched institutional and personal racism. School
integration falls even farther short of the mark when the goal is equality
What is theequal education integrated schools are supposed to
deliver? Shall we measure equality of opportunity or equality of results?
How do you measure equality of opportunity? In dollars per pupil? By holding
everyone accountable to some national standards for spending, facilities,
and classroom size? By evaluating teachers and determining teacher/student
ratios? Certainly equal education mandates national standards regarding
equalized resource allocation.

But even if resource distribution were equalized, how could we know that
it led to equality? Can test results help us assess equal education? One
of my earliest lessons in critical thinking came in the 10th grade when
we engaged in a lengthy analysis of the stupidity of grades and tests
as meaningful measurements of anything. Grades are obviously highly subjective,
and after a brief analysis even the most objective test turns
out to be laden with racial and class biases that taint any results it
may provide.

Does equal education mean giving specific subcultural communities control
over curriculum and assessment? Or does equality imply instead that subcultures
should be subsumed within the larger community, and everyone evaluated
on some objective national norms? If so, what constitutes the dominant
cultural norm, and what makes us so sure it is sufficiently fixed that
we can evaluate whether or not people have been adequately trained to
meet it?

Is there some new way of understanding and appreciating the role of education,
independent of measurable results? If we can recreate an animated public
life, the entry and participation of students and young adults may be
a better gauge of good education than any test results.

"Equality," whether with respect to educational opportunity or outcome,
or even citizenship, is one of the ambiguous concepts that permanently
undergird our equally vague notions of democracy. Democracy remains
an all-purpose, utterly malleable expression that encompasses radical
egalitarianism, middle-class desires for an honest meritocracy, and the
reality of a violent, oligarchical class- and race-divided society in
which we are allowed an occasional vote for pre-selected candidates, representing
minor differences in emphasis rather than a true political alternative.
The concept of democracy is elastic enough to accommodate even the brutal
liquidation of minorities in foreign lands under the auspices of U.S.
intelligence agencies promoting "majority rule." Whatever definition of
"equality" or "democracy" one might choose to embrace, there will surely
be several dozen others embraced just as passionately.

If there are no objective standards for evaluating educational success
or failure, what are the subjective standards and whose interests do they
represent? When you hear someone addressing the failure of education,
what is their vision of educational success and what social values does
that vision embody? How do such educational goals affect the creation
of a democracy? How does a democratic society shape its public sphere
without being coercive? In other words, what are the limits of individual
freedom in a real democracy?


From its Jeffersonian roots in the one-room schoolhouse of mid-19th century
rural America to its expansion into assimilation factories during the
great waves of immigration at the turn of the last century, public schooling
has always been an arena of conflicting desires and social interests.
The US ruling class greatly feared generalized literacy for many generations,
and the fight for public education was a popular, democratizing opposition
to those interests. But even in its most progressive forms, education's
structure kept it well within the limits of capitalist society.

In fact, for most of this century, mandatory public schooling primarily
served to create useful workers at public expense to be exploited in the
marketplace for private gain. Of course, the educators assumed they were
serving society at large and generally gave little thought to how they
were directly filling the needs of business. Now, as the economy has become
increasingly automated, the need for workers in general has diminished
while the demand for (fewer) new workers with different skills has grown.

An equally important purpose of education is pacification. Keep the kids
unwaged and safely within institutions as long as possible. Adapt them
to passive, isolated lives of alienated consumption at best, and if they
are sufficiently connected or hard-working, give them a repetitive, essentially
meaningless job. For the tiniest select minority, upscale private schools
lead to expensive private universities and a slot in the policy- and profit-making

In the new world market, the proletarianizing and pacifying model of
school and work no longer holds much promise. In the old economic model,
whether workers thought or what they thought about was irrelevant so long
as they did their jobs and didn't cause too much trouble. Most of them
failed at school in any case. With the drastic cheapening of
manual and manufacturing labor in the expanding world market, the rhetoric
of reform stresses that new, supposedly more intelligent workers are needed
to compete successfully.

Congealed as computerized data as well as human capital, thinking itself
is now a necessary prerequisite for accumulation as well as something
to be accumulated. Economic competitiveness, we are told, now
depends on the expansion of "knowledge work" and the creation of more
flexible "knowledge workers." Therefore, educational reform must facilitate
colonizing the mind in new ways. Education reformers seek a new style
of schooling that will turn more human thinking into work, which in turn
will lead to further capital accumulation (the real measurement of health
in our society). For this project to succeed, students must, at a higher
level and more comprehensively than before, accept their role as trainees
in search of scarce niches on the projects of transnational capital.

The extension of capitalist discipline from the muscle to the brain has
been underway for decades in the restructuring of work and leisure and
the amazing expansion of merchandising and mass media (this is sometimes
referred to theoretically as the change from the formal to the
domination of capital). To ensure its control of our imaginations,
modern capitalism requires more than the threat of unemployment or even
homelessness. We must be sold on active and enthusiastic participation.
Everyone must work for a healthy economy! We must do a good job! The problem
for capitalist education planners is producing enthusiastic workers with
extremely narrow competence.

President Clinton promises great reforms in education to ensure U.S.
competitiveness in the world market. Robert Reich, his labor secretary,
wrote recently: "There is no simple way to enlarge upon the number of
Americans eligible for the high-wage jobs of the future. More money for
education and training is necessary, but is hardly sufficient. The money...must
be focused on building two key capacities in the workforce: First, the
ability to engage in lifelong learning, and second, the opportunity to
engage in it on the job. The most important intellectual (and economic)
asset which a new entrant into the workforce can possess is the knowledge
of how to learn."S.F. Chronicle Dec. 1992]

Clinton, a man firmly within the mainstream of the ruling class in his
allegiance to the marketplace as the source of human improvement, sold
educational reform as Governor of Arkansas by pitching it as the basis
for economic renewal. "...the plain evidence in every state in this country
is that you must have a higher threshold of people with college degrees
if you want low unemployment" not because most of the new jobs in the
economy will require college degrees; most of 'em won't. But because most
of them will be created by entrepreneurs who have that kind of education."
American Educator
, Fall 1992

But what about the majority who will be forced into the bottom tier of
our 2-tiered society, left to fight for those jobs that don't require
college degrees
? Clearly work has been restructured to the point
where most jobs do not need much prior training. As long as you know
how to learn,
you can become an efficient worker in a matter of minutes,
or at most, days. Schooling as it is now prepares one adequately for long
hours of repetitive, uncreative labor. Will the reformers extend academic
tracking even further to try to prevent the bottom-tier from becoming
too critical and aware? If not, how can the system survive if most of
the people who are condemned to such part-time and precarious temporary
work are able to think critically about their situation? The ideological
hegemony of the capitalist way of life may erode rapidly if educational
reforms actually produce more thoughtful citizens.

A more realistic forecast is that schools won't change that much. New
books, curriculum, and tests will be announced with much to-do, while
the underlying reality of education won't budge. Fortunately, learning
is more about experiences than curriculum. Whatever reforms are implemented,
the real education will come from the relationships formed in and around
each classroom. The increase in parent-participation in public schools
gives us all an opportunity to bring the experiences we think are important
into our kids' education. The focus and scope of learning is always being
contested, and we can intimately affect them if we want to.


I have a daughter in the 3rd grade who attends an alternative public
school. The school retains some of the spirit of its founding in the early
'70s, with faculty and parents who are strongly committed not only to
parent participation, but to alternative pedagogy, integrated cultures,
ages, and grades, and conflict resolution as well. Rather than serving
under a principal, the school's faculty elects a "head teacher," a job
that rotates. It's very racially balanced, with no group over 30%. This
year the school has been a pilot test site for an alternative approach
to curriculum in which kids select special interdisciplinary projects
(beginning oceanography, farmers' market calendar, multicultural cookbook,
kids' guide to Bay Area Transit, pre-Colombian ocean kayaks, etc.) that
they work on intensively for 3-6 weeks. By any standard, this school is
a gem.

Having listed its rosy attributes, I have to say that it is still a public
school. The building is cramped and awful, surrounded by a big asphalt
yard. Parents chip in up to $300 to pay a Phys Ed instructor's salary,
for which there is no public funding. The library is a large closet, and
the nearby city library only allows classes to visit once a year! My child
is often bored. I don't think she is very challenged by a lot of what
she does all day, but I don't really blame the school or the teacher because
I think both are good.

The frustration comes when you begin to imagine how different schooling
could be if it were more integrated into the web of daily life. Children
are curious and infrequently satisfied by the knowledge gained through
school. But if you let them help do a real job that needs doing, the experience
is much more meaningful, and teaches the child to believe in her own experiences
rather than representations of other people's experiences. Practical knowledge
of mechanics, gardening, computers, transportation, and so on, are all
more thoroughly and interestingly absorbed from being out in the world,
not from sitting around listening to lectures, watching videos, or even
reading books (although they have their place). But life is not organized
to accommodate groups of children participating usefully. And we know
that it is not education's goal to produce active, inquisitive, resourceful
people. Even alternative schools foster socially-approved attitudes and

It's a cop-out to blame everything on the institutions that constrain
our lives. Because the really great things that happened to me in the
educational environment were nearly always social, I recognize my responsibility
to enter the educational swamp. Unless I opt for homeschooling, I will
continue sharing my daughter's development with public schools. The least
I can do, which is unfortunately usually all that I do, is to go on camping
and field trips and get involved with the kids and other adults. I bring
a different perspective to the school environment, and I love meeting
people from other walks of life, which always leads to interesting exchanges.Of
course, most parents have to work all day and don't have time to make
up for the inadequacies of public schooling by spending hours at the school,
or volunteering for extracurricular activities. Hinging improved schooling
on such participation endorses the generalized speed-up and intensification
of labor that is already exhausting most working people. While admirable,
the incredible number of hours parents spend raising money through thankless
garage and bake sales, raffles, and carnivals, passes a public cost ontotheir
backs and extends their work week. Yet somehow, we who are committed to
radical change must find the extra energy, time and effort to participate
in arenas such as public school, even if in the short term it just feels
like more (unrewarded) work.

My daughter's entire school takes a camping trip to nearby San Bruno
Mountain every October. I've participated three times now. When I showed
up at San Bruno Mountain this year, two boys with whom I'd shared a cabin
nearly a year and a half earlier came running up to me, excitedly yelling
my name. I suddenly realized how much the time I'd spent playing and talking
with them meant to them. During that earlier trip, I had felt rather overwhelmed.
I did my best to treat the boys well and show them respect, but at the
time I was struck by how fundamentally impossible the public school teacher's
job is. How can one adult give 30-odd kids the enormous emotional and
intellectual energy and discipline they need? A lot of kids don't get
much of this at home, and when they get to school, they need a lot.

Although the problems children face are not going to be solved by any
one relationship, you cannot underestimate the importance of honest friendship.
This society is a very cold place, and many kids never experience other
people's trust and confidence, or get to discuss things with someone interested
in their opinion. Even a brief encounter with someone who helps you understand
why things are as crazy as they are can make a huge difference in surviving
this absurd society.

Helping to dispell children's confusion has everything to do with the
shape and content of any future social movements. A child's way of thinking
and relating to others is inculcated early. A culture enriched by difficult
questions and dialogue could help spawn a 21st-century generation of revolutionaries
worthy of the name. We all have a lot to contribute in making that culture
a living reality. But this means reinhabiting public life, creating and
participating in public events, and challenging the fatigue and passivity
that keeps so many of us home watching TV instead of out among our friends,
neighbors, and strangers. Can we rise to the occasion?

--Chris Carlsson