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“A Question of Silence”: Why We Don’t Read Or Write About Education
"The lack of imagination evident in these narratives reflects the lack of real-world alternatives. In the real-world fantasylands of schooling (e.g., Finland, Cuba, Massachusetts) education looks more or less the same as it does everywhere else. In short, the system is missing—or ignores—its real antithesis, its own real death. Without that counter-argument, educational writing loses focus. Educationalists present schooling as being in a constant state of crisis. Ignoring for a second the obvious fact that without a crisis most educationalists would be out of a job—i.e., closing our eyes to their vested interest in the problem’s persistence—what does this crisis consist of? Apparently, the failure of schools to do what they are supposed to do. But what are they supposed to do? What is their purpose? And why should we stand behind their purpose? This is the line of inquiry that—can you believe it—is ignored.

Of all the civic institutions that reproduce social relations, said Louis Althusser, “one… certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.” That statement was made in 1970, by which time school buses zigzagged the cities every working morning and afternoon, school bells rang across city and countryside, the words “dropout” and “failure” had become synonymous, education schools were in full swing, and school reform had gained its permanent nook on the prayer-wheel of electoral campaigns. In other words: what silence?

Althusser, of course, was referring to the absence of schooling as a topic in critical discourse. In this regard he was, and continues to be, accurate. The few paragraphs that he appended to the above-quoted statement may well be the only coherent critique of schooling in the upper echelons of critical theory. Critical theory, which has written volumes on Hollywood, television, the arts, madhouses, social science, the state, the novel, speech, space, and every other bulwark of control or resistance, has consistently avoided a direct gaze at schooling (see footnote). ((Here follows a cursory tally of what critical theorists (using the term very loosely to include some old favorite cultural critics) have written on education. I won’t be sad if readers find fault with it:

Horkheimer is silent. Barthes and Brecht, the same. Adorno has one essay and one lecture. Marcuse delivered a few perfunctory lectures on the role of university students in politics—but he makes it clear that you can’t build on them (university politics as well as the lectures, sadly). Derrida has some tantalizing pronouncements, particularly in Glas (“What is education? The death of the parents…”), but they are scattered and more relevant to the family setting than the school. Something similar, unfortunately, could be said of Bachelard—why was he not nostalgic about his education? Baudrillard, Lefebvre, and Foucault all seem interested in the question, if we judge by their interviews and lectures—and wouldn’t it be lovely to hear from them—but they never go into any depth. Even Althusser’s essay, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, which contains the above quote, quickly shies away from the topic: instead, he concentrates on the Church. In short, professional critical philosophy might have produced a more interesting study of Kung Fu Panda (see Žižek, who is also silent) than of the whole business of education. The one exception would be Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which I will discuss.)) Even Foucault, champion of enclosures, keeps out of the schoolhouse. ((Part III of Discipline and Punish includes a discussion, but his analysis there is mixed with all the other institutions that exercise punishment. The only direct references are in two lecture-discussions with students, both from 1971.)) The silence is particularly striking if we see radical philosophy itself as an educational endeavor, an enterprise concerned with ways of seeing and doing.

It’s not that there are no critical conversations within education—there are, and I will discuss them soon. But I think the silence of radical philosophers is emblematic of some special problems in the relationship between education and society."



"Progressive educators, who as a rule crave resources and ideas from outside their field, nonetheless did not seem bothered by the new seclusion. They even welcomed it. Today, every schoolteacher, admin, or researcher learns as part of her training to show open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field (“but has she taught?”). In American education schools, it’s possible to get a doctorate without having been assigned a single book from outside your field. Education is such an intensely social process (think of any classroom vignette, all the forces at play) that this intellectual swamp could only survive by a sheer will to isolation. Educationalists need this privacy partly because it allows them to ignore the core contradictions of their practice. The most important of these contradictions is that they have to uphold public schooling as a social good, and at the same time face up to the fact that schooling is one of the most oppressive institutions humanity has constructed. It has to be built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.

This dilemma bedevils the majority of writing by the most active educationalists. The redoubtable Deborah Meier is a good example—good, because she really is. Meier is the godmother of the small school movement in the United States. She has dedicated her life to making schools more humane and works with more energy than entire schools of education put together. Her philosophical base is one of Dewey’s pragmatism and American-style anarchism. She is also in a unique position to understand the contradictions of schooling, because she has built alternative schools and then watched them lose their momentum and revert to traditional models. What’s more, Meier can write. But when she writes, her books take titles like Keeping School and In Schools We Trust. In which schools, exactly? Not the same ones through which most of us suffered, I assume; rather, the progressive, semi-democratic ones on the fringes of the public system. The problem, apparently, is not schooling itself. It’s just that, inexplicably, the vast majority of schools fail to get it right. The “reformed school” is a sort of sublime object: something that does not quite exist, but whose potential existence justifies the continuation of what is actually there.

We are all familiar with this type of “we oppose the war but support the troops” liberal double-talk, a pernicious language game that divests all ground agents of responsibility—as if there could be a war without soldiers (though we seem to be moving that way) or bad classrooms without teachers. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to place the blame squarely on the teachers’ shoulders—considering the poor education they themselves receive in the first place—but we must also expose this kind of double-talk for what it really is: an easy out. And it is an easy out that abandons the oppressed: in this case, those students who actively resist teachers, those last few who have not been browbeaten or co-opted into submission. ((When Michelle Rhee, the (former) chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C., began shutting down schools, liberals tore their shirts and pulled their hair and finally ousted her. Very few people mentioned that those schools—a veritable prison system—should have been shut down. The problem was not the closures—the problem was that Rhee, like other Republican spawns of her generation, is a loudmouth opportunist who offered no plan beyond her PR campaign. What’s striking is that Rhee was using the exact same language of “crisis” and “reform” as progressives, and nothing in the language itself made her sound ridiculous. Since then, progressives have eased up a little on the crisis talk.))

Because the phenomenon of student resistance to education so blatantly flies in the face of the prevailing liberal mythology of schooling, it is a topic that continues to attract some genuine theorization. ((For a review of literature and some original thoughts, see Henry Giroux’s Resistance and Theory in Education (1983). For a more readable discussion of the same, see Herbert Kohl’s I Won’t Learn From You (1991).)) It’s also a topic that is closely tied to another intractable bugaboo of the discussion: the staggering dropout rate, in the US at least, among working class and immigrant students, and particularly among blacks and Latinos. Education is the civil rights issue of our time—Obama and Arne Duncan’s favorite slogan—was originally a rallying cry among black educationalists. ((The latter, in case you don’t know, is Obama’s Secretary of Education. A (very thin) volume could be written on the absolute lack of political and intellectual gumption that he epitomizes. To the Bush-era, bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (a severe and ineffective set of testing requirements), Duncan added the Race to the Top initiative, thus bringing much unintentional clarity to the discourse: education reform is a race in which no one’s left behind.)) But if we understand a “civil rights struggle” to be, fundamentally, the story of the disenfranchised and the marginalized classes’ resistance to structural oppression, then this seemingly simple phrase is haunted by a kind of dramatic irony—since a great deal of research shows that what many black and working class students actively resist is schooling itself. Further studies showed that even those underserved students who succeed in schools persevere by dividing their identities; by cordoning off their critical impulses; by maintaining their disaffection even while they keep it well out of the teacher’s sight."



"A fundamental problem is that education demands a scientific foothold … [more]
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december 2013 by robertogreco

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