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Education Wars -- The Next Generation

Some in the education field were cheered during the State of the Union speech by President Obama's call for people to go into teaching. Stirring call to service or patronizing pat on the head?
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Some in the education field were cheered during the State of the Union speech by President Obama's call for people to go into the profession of teaching. He said, "If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you." Stirring call to service or patronizing pat on the head? You decide. The fact remains, however, that fully 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first three years. We attract young, idealistic teachers and spit them out with shocking efficiency.

But the real heart of the matter, the center of the education discussion, was found elsewhere -- in Obama's explanation for why we have to step up educational achievement. And this explanation deserves some attention. If our lawmakers have not been too stunted by the terrible U.S. schools, perhaps they could apply some critical thinking to this aspect of the speech.

Note that he did not advocate improving education to assist students in leading more satisfying, thoughtful, and meaningful lives; he did not suggest that a good education would help young people enter the democratic discourse of society; he did not even proffer the democratic right of students to decide what to study. No, in the new-speak of education policy heavies, he argued that education was to be wielded as a weapon of the nation, a matter of educational warfare to meet and defeat the dangerous "other" -- now defined as China and India -- with smaller players such as South Korea and Singapore as significant dangers as well.

There are so many things wrong with this argument that it's difficult to decide where to start. But, first, let's look at this matter of defining China and India as our economic enemies. Leaving aside the twisted economic analysis it is built on (after all, most of the manufacturing going on in these countries is enriching US companies), let's examine this matter of the creation of the other. Apparently modern nations need a convenient other, someone to hate and fight with, in order to assure the unity and loyalty of the population. Remember the "five minutes of hate" that George Orwell describes in 1984? Everyone stands together for five minutes every day and curses the dreaded enemy, Bernstein, thus consolidating their loyalty to the regime. The Cold War after World War II provided the powers that be with the ultimate bad guy, the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union, they had a problem. Who would be the other? You will note that this was a problem for Washington but also for Hollywood. Who would be the enemy? At first the movies hit on the "drug kingpin," the bigger and meaner the better. But this did not gain much traction. Then came the terrorists. Perfect. Everyone was afraid of them.

But the smart ones, the deep thinkers in Washington knew this was an adequate short-term other but did not really correspond to the major rival they faced. Much more important than a handful of Al Qaeda operatives, no matter how much terrible damage they might do, was the rising economies of China and India. After all, if they reach a certain level of economic take-off, these people may stop going to the sweatshops to make stuff for us. And then where would we be?

This is what President Obama was aiming for when he spoke of the "Sputnik Moment." Here he refers to a great fear that swept our military establishment when the Soviets launched the first satellite in 1957. They were afraid our science and math education was inadequate. Soviet schools were so much better! Admiral Hyman Rickover traveled around the country giving speeches about our "soft" education system; making fun of the "life adjustment" curriculum that was student centered and based on developing ethical and democratic citizens. We needed a muscular, war-like education system, one that was single lens, directed, and patriotic. Incredibly, the government gave the greatest infusion of funds to our schools through the military, the National Defense Education Act, and they set about "reforming" science and math education. We would no longer be educating all citizens for basic appreciation of scientific systems. We would create a math-heavy curriculum, hoping to produce the next great scientists to build new bombs, missiles, and space programs.

So now we are being coaxed, speech by speech and campaign by campaign, to turn our sites on this new great rivalry. It is not a rivalry that we actually feel in the populace. But it is a rivalry that the boss has defined and eventually we will get pulled into it. It's not clear that the Sputnik moment clarion call has taken hold but expect the drumbeat to continue. Indeed, expect a Gulf of Tonkin moment with China in the next five years, something to really amp up the war standing. But we teachers never signed up for this war. Students did not realize they were privates in it. And perhaps we should refuse it. Yes, we must make our schools better -- but this should be for the students, for the communities. So that they can imagine a way out of the narrow lives they have been structured into; so that they can take the steps to transform our society to work for all.

I will note that when I mentioned this thought once before in these pages, a number of comments warned that, well, we may not want to brace for this competition, this war, but the Chinese are certainly intent on it and we disarm at our peril. I have no doubt that there are leaders in China who see this competition in the same terms as the White House does and they are pushing education as a matter of competition. But the madness of mutual armament, whether with weapons or textbooks, does not make it right. In the buildup to World War I, both sides kept escalating the war preparations. Anyone who suggested this was madness was shouted down. Don't you see? They are arming? But saner minds recognized that their job was to oppose the war-fever in their countries and trust the populace in the other countries to do the same. If the US is launching a war of educational competition with India and China, then I am a conscientious objector.

Secondly, let's take a look at the way we know we are "losing" to other countries. It is, as a primary matter, math test scores. Let me note, in passing, that no one, no one, in the administration, at the policy desks, writing the speeches, or in the congress, could answer even a third of these test questions. So let's just get that out of the way. Moreover, it is just a matter of faith that doing well on hard math tests means something about the economic prospects of your country or relative power of the country. Difficult math tests are interesting gatekeepers to various institutions that give you certification and job prospects. But the math itself is not necessarily something that translates into better inventions, ideas, or development. Think about it.

And this brings me to the third point. All education, even (or especially) at the university level, is now supposed to be bent to the service of Wall Street. The search Washington is on. Their only idea for how to solve the economic malaise is to find the next economic bubble. President Obama wants someone to invent something, anything, that will power a resurgence. Genetic engineering? New gadgets? No matter, there must be something to rev up a short term boost in the economy. And education is supposed to be all about marketization, about making something that makes money. Everything is instrumental, with the purpose of raising cash. Philosophy, ethnic studies, community studies and other departments are being closed while business and science departments are getting new plush quarters. The University of California chancellor Robert Berdahl calls this the emergence of "an industrial-university research partnership." We are all slated to be the serfs on that manor. And K-12 is set to serve as a feeder to the machine.

Finally, let's consider what would happen if we really bit, if we bought the "Sputnik moment" mantra and turned our country math-test crazy. Take a look at South Korea. President Obama took note that teachers there are called "nation builders." Again, he valorizes the framing of teachers as serving a nationalistic project, not the interests of the people. NPR did a recent story on the education fever that has swept South Korea. Students study all day and then go to cram schools at nights and on weekends and holidays. Families often spend twenty to thirty per cent of their income on these cram schools. Youth are obsessed with getting in the right school, the next step on the ladder, to get out of poverty. Already they are stuck with a glut of technically trained young people with no jobs to absorb them. And failure is a shame for the family and the student. Indeed, South Korea has the highest rate of student suicide in the world. Is this really where we want to be heading?

Teachers, students and community members need not buy this narrative of the Sputnik moment, of the economic war with emerging economies, or of the mania for standardized tests. We must not expect those in power to devise education policy that is our interest or in the interest of a healthy, democratic society. In hundreds of ways, in thousands of communities, we are inscribing our own stories, making our own way, following our own insights from the daily experience of schools. That's how we begin to take back our schools.

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