Schooling for Inequality: Education as the New Religion
A recent article by Henry Giroux, “The War against Teachers as Public Intellectuals in Dark Times” lays out the case for a concerted, planned, coordinated attack on educators by right-wing corporate forces. This is no conspiracy theory — just a plain conspiracy (or, as Chomsky puts it, “a confluence of interests”) to destroy public education and privatize the schools — the last public asset they haven’t figured out how to profit from — and ensure schools remain institutions that justify inequality in power and wealth through credentialing that is utterly dependent on socio-economic background. The resulting bogus “meritocracy” serves to both pacify and disempower those who could create the most trouble (e.g. workers, minorities, young people); after all, everyone has an equal opportunity, right? And those who are successful have just worked harder, studied harder, had more determination or entrepreneurial spirit, intelligence. Never, never more privilege. Never, never more luck and connections. Never, never inherited wealth. Another benefit: with the schools under corporate control, pesky ideas like socialism, fairness, labor history, slavery, racial inequality, our common humanity, climate change, global inequity, obscene corporate profits, imperialism and colonial history, the destruction of indigenous peoples, media/propaganda literacy, critical thinking, causes of poverty, and so on can be finally and permanently expunged from the curriculum. And the teachers, stripped of any protection or union support, too terrified and disillusioned to fight back. That’s the right’s educational vision.
While Giroux focuses on the concept of teachers as “public intellectuals” — a fascinating idea where public intellect is both valued and cultivated, such as in Finland, but debatable in a society where intellectuals of any sort are suspect and teachers themselves neither see themselves as intellectuals nor cultivate that role through research, reading, debate or accepting responsibility for contributing to the community’s intellectual development and global awareness. How else can you explain the fact that 40–45% of Americans still do not accept evolution? Indeed, many teachers themselves are stuck in the swamp of myth, unable or unwilling to climb out and lead the public charge against ignorance and the black magic of retrogressive religion and the confusion of beliefs and facts.
So while this is a tantalizing concept, I am more interested in the other side of this conspiracy, the determination to deepen and more overtly use schools as the means to justify social and economic inequality.
In the old days, religion served this role, most blatantly, in the European context anyway (for the most spectacular example that rips away any sort of subtlety, have a look at Hinduism and the formalized caste system), in the form of Calvinist “pre-destination,” the idea that we are born “destined” by God for heaven and salvation or depravity and hell. So, given that, it is no wonder that God’s plan for each and every one of us plays out not just after death but during our pathetically short life here on earth. And how would God’s plan unfold on a personal level? Well, obviously through the acquisition (or inheritance) of wealth and power. In the Bible the translators left in references to those who are leaders being “chosen by God” and that we are never to question their ascension — even (or especially) when elected, for they are really the “elect” of God. Now how can you argue with that logic? This is a kind of more material cousin of Buddhist reincarnation — God knows why, but you have accumulated some sort of merit in His eyes and this is demonstrated in the material world through divinely ordained position, wealth and influence. And if you were one of the Select, why in the world, given that your social position is divinely favored and conferred, would you feel in any way guilty? You would feel, on the contrary, chosen, selected by the Deity himself as an elite, a cut above those whose own poverty and destitution testifies to being scorned by that same infallible, omniscient God. It’s all part of God’s plan, which, as we all know, can be inscrutable, strange and downright unChristian — at least on the surface. But who are we to argue with His sorting of humans and their innate goodness, character and overall merit?
So that worked pretty well for several hundred years — and still serves an important purpose, as witnessed in Africa when we were criticizing a right-wing, corrupt politician in Ghana and our driver angrily quoted the biblical admonition to never question leaders as they are appointed by God, and again at a Buddhist retreat when I was informed on no uncertain terms that wealth disparity was a result of the accumulation — or lack of it — of merit in past lives, and that this was Buddha’s way of explaining poverty and inequity. Even in the West the Jewish sense of being the Chosen and fundamentalist’s belief in God’s hand in all occurrences, natural or social, makes a strong implicit argument for acceptance of things — including social and wealth inequality — as they are since if God wanted them otherwise, he would simply adjust the fine tuning knob.
But as the ties of religion weaken in the face of rationality and science, at least in less benighted pockets of the world, these myths begin to lose their faith-based allure. Alarming notions of social and economic inequality being manmade rather than divinely ordained emerge from sociological and psychological research. Maybe the fact that more than 50% of wealth in North America is inherited rather than earned accounts for social stratification rather than hard work and being smiled upon by the deity of your choice. Maybe the invisible hand of the marketplace has more to do with the grotesque maldistribution of wealth and power than the invisible hand of God.
For the rich and privileged, this is decidedly unsettling. As long as the poor don’t recognize that the game is rigged, that the elite rule and prosper not because of their merit and the grace of God but because of economic and social factors that are designed to create socio-economic winners and losers, then there may be grumbling from below but, as long as they are bought off with computer games stuff, there is little chance of real insurrection. So if religion can no longer be relied on to serve this function, what can we do?
That’s where education comes in.
Across North America, recent years have seen the rise of the “high stakes” standardized testing, purportedly designed to objectively determine those students who succeed because of hard work, grit and determination and properly reward them. (And, incidentally, blame and penalize the teachers of those students who are failing.) The problem is the well-documented — and truly staggering — correlation between performance on standardized tests and the socio-economic background of students. It is so overwhelming as to be somewhat demoralizing. As a teacher, students enter your classroom with deeply entrenched attitudes and skill levels, much of which (especially in the earlier grades) schools did little create and, alas, have a limited ability to impact. (Though dated, for a compelling analysis of this phenomenon, have a look at James Traub’s “What no Schools Can Do,” New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2000, available on the web.)
So the role of schools takes the place of religion in the past: it functions to legitimize and confirm what we already know: kids coming from high-income homes with lots of books, where they are read to on a regular basis, where oral conversation is rich and ongoing, where television is rarely on, where magazines and newspapers are subscribed to, and where exposure to travel and cultural activities are routine, consistently and shockingly outperform their peers that do not come from such environments. Another predictable result is that the Canadian right-wing “think tank” Fraser Institute (and other such agencies with similar agendas) rank school performances provincially and then crow about the superiority of élite private schools and cluck disapprovingly at the woeful underperformance of rural, central urban and aboriginal systems. Those standardized test results, they contend, reveal “Each school’s overall rating and answers the question, ‘In general, how is the school doing academically?’”
But why bother? By simply looking at the socio-economic make-up of the schools in our province we can largely answer this question without the need for “objective” testing results. There are, to be sure, many examples of individual teachers, students, classes and even schools that defy the odds. But most of these get made into movies.
The real challenge is not to tell us what we already know, but to instead help us learn something we don’t know. Like how to address these crippling inequities instead of legitimizing them through our school system and credentialing apparatus.