The Real Education Reform Choice: Democracy or a Doctrine of Repression

Is the damage current education policy and politics has wrought upon our understanding of the purpose of schools reversible

This is the fifth post (read part one, part two, part three, and part four) in a series on the purpose of education.

The forced closure of dozens of neighborhood schools in Chicago, the financial strangulation of Philadelphia's school system, the shock to New York children of mysteriously and ambiguously "failing" test scores... these are only the most recent, visible, and conspicuous craters on the willfully and criminally shell-shocked landscape of American schools. Behind these scenes—in the conference rooms of politicians, policy advisors, and education providers—the energies of an orgiastic mob of market-based reformers have turned to bailing out a yacht that’s sinking in a torrent of resistance: superintendents and principals are raising their voices in protest; teachers and students are refusing to comply; and parents are putting their bodies—not just figuratively, but literally as well—in front of the bulldozers of neoliberal education reform.

The lingering damage of prevailing education reforms will be difficult to heal, precisely to the extent that they have effectively altered the public's understanding of the purpose of schools, and the roles of their constituents. The damage current education policy and politics has wrought upon our understanding of the purpose of schools is clear: they "are being redefined," as Anthony Cody writes, "as places that serve not the development of humanity, but the training of the workforce—and as centers for corporate profit. The spectre of global competitiveness is used to frighten us into behaving as though our survival depends on making ourselves useful and profitable to global commerce."

The role of teachers has been redefined as well. As Henry Giroux puts it, "they have been reduced to the keepers of methods, implementers of an audit culture, and removed from assuming autonomy in their classrooms." The most damaging impact of neoliberal education reforms, however, has been the redefinition of what it means to be a "student" and to "learn." Giroux adds:

At the core of the new reforms is a commitment to a pedagogy of stupidity and repression that is geared toward memorization, conformity, passivity, and high stakes testing... A pedagogy of repression defines students largely by their shortcomings rather than by their strengths, and in doing so convinces them that the only people who know anything are the experts—increasingly drawn from the ranks of the elite and current business leaders who embody the new models of leadership under the current regime of neoliberalism...


Under a pedagogy of repression, students are conditioned to unlearn any respect for democracy, justice, and what it might mean to connect learning to social change. They are told that they have no rights and that rights are limited only to those who have power. This is a pedagogy that kills the spirit, promotes conformity, and is more suited to an authoritarian society than a democracy.


As I have explored throughout this series, "pedagogy, policy, and politics have been isolated and protected as separate discourses—both in the hyper-local conversations of our learning communities and in the national discourse on education—and… this separation has caused damage to our schools, to their stakeholders, and to our children from which we now must decide to recover."

I have suggested, resting on the insights and inspiration of those far more capable than I, that our facilitation of more authentic learning, and our design of more authentic policy, will emerge from the restoration at every level—from our classrooms, to our capitals—of an understanding of the purpose of education in, and for, our democracy. As Giroux puts it plainly, "it is precisely the failure to connect learning to its democratic functions and goals that provides rationales for pedagogical approaches that strip what it means to be educated from its critical and democratic possibilities."

We know that students' imaginations are more valuable than their ambitions. We know their decision-making processes are more important than their products. We know their collaboration is more critical than their competition. We know their engagement is more essential than their achievement. We know that creativity, communication, critical thought, and collaboration—as well as many the other "Cs" we might posit as "twenty-first century skills"—emerge from dynamic relationships and engaged activity among learners in a community, and not from fixed curricula designed to transmit information and skills, in a static package, from a dominant culture to its initiates. We know that students should not be misunderstood as apprentices to the world that we have created, but creators of the world they will inherit. And yet, as Paul Horton notes, "no one in power stops to ask us anything about what we know: we have become superfluous, dead branches of a dying tree that must be pruned back by people who don’t know much about trees."

Milton Friedman famously outlined the driving principles of his economic shock doctrine in terms of crisis:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.


What we must continue to nurture now—ironically, perhaps—is a crisis in faith in those leaders who have caused a crisis of faith in all of us. We must draw strength from Chris Hedges' affirmation that "there is nothing in 5,000 years of economic history to justify the belief that human societies should structure their behavior around the demands of the marketplace." We must draw inspiration from Carla Rinaldi's prediction that "promoting teachers from simply executing predefined programs to becoming authors of pedagogical paths and processes could contribute, at least in the field of pedagogy, to overcoming the arrogant idea of constantly separating theory from practice, and culture from practical fields." We must trust Deb Meier’s promise that "what we are facing today, and around the world, is not a crisis in education, but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people." We must embrace the belief, as Ken Robinson reminds us:

'The Education System' is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan's office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals. 'The education system' is the school they go to. If you are a school principal, you are 'the education system' for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are 'the education system' for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change 'the education system.'

And if enough people change, and they're connected in the way they change, that's a movement. And when enough people are moving, that's a revolution.


Long subject to a siege by political and corporate reformers who are "part of a movement that prays for crisis the way that drought-struck farmers pray for rain," we must continue—those of us who work or study in schools, and those of us who believe in their identity as the wellspring of our democracy—to raise our voices, move our bodies, and transform our classrooms in a collective rain dance of our own.

"We have to be quietly persistent," as Nel Noddings encourages us, "in doing things the way we know they should be done, adopting a form a nonviolent resistance." We must continue to share our most empowering ideas from our classrooms and schools, that subvert the principles of an authoritarian and anti-democratic policy, in a collaborative conversation among stakeholders that creates a shared vision from the ground up, rather than from the top down. "That, I believe, is our basic function," to turn Milton Friedman's words against his legacy: "to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."

So let us, together, pray for rain—to cool, to comfort, and to nurture the drought-struck landscape of American schools. With that rain will come a pedagogy and a policy "based on the values of human dignity, participation, and freedom," and the fulfillment of the desire framed so eloquently by Peter Gow: "We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education."

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Students studying image via Shutterstock

Julian Meehan

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