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The Bleak Landscape of American Education

Readers of this blog don’t need convincing that the current political landscape is bleak. Faced with a choice between centrist austerity-mongers led by chief austerity-monger Obama, and nihilistic anti-government Ayn Randians that go by the name of Tea Partiers, it’s no wonder that leftist intellectuals are reduced to compelling if pointless banter about what motivates the President.The landscape of American education, a synecdoche for the crumbling American welfare state more generally, is equally bleak — equally comprised of lesser-of-two evil choices. On the one hand, we have the so-called liberals in the binary equation, those like Education CEO Arne Duncan, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and education-reform-darling Michelle Rhee. Their stated desire is to bring justice to the nation’s poor children in the form of better teaching. But their preferred mechanism for doing so is to introduce market “incentives” to the teaching profession, a euphemism for labor “flexibility,” another euphemism for the destruction of teacher’s unions, one of the last sectors of unionized employment that corporate America has yet to outsource.

On the other hand, we have the Tea Partiers of the educational world, those who see the Department of Education as a bureaucratic, totalitarian nightmare. There is a long history of conservative thought hostile to public education (which I analyze at length in my book Education and the Cold War). Beginning in the 1930s with far right-wingers such as Elizabeth Dilling — whose famous 1934 catalogue, The Red Network: A “Who’s Who” and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, oriented a generation of right-wing Americans to the “truth about the Communist-Socialist world conspiracy and its four horsemen, Atheism, Immorality, Class Hatred, and Pacifism-for-the-sake-of-Red-revolution” — an alliance was drawn together by its common collectivist enemies: New Dealers, communists, and progressive educators. By the early Cold War period, as traditionalist conservatives concluded that the New Deal was at one with secular humanism, cosmopolitanism, moral relativism, and progressive education, their stance on state-run schools became one of unadulterated antipathy. This persists: in a recent blog post, conservative historian Clare Spark incomprehensibly implies that late historian of education Lawrence Cremin, quintessentially a Cold War liberal scholar in the mold of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr and Richard Hofstadter, had fascist tendencies for supporting cosmopolitan education reform efforts (fascism being the new right-wing boogeyman for statism, replacing the largely outmoded communism analogy.)

Plenty of astute political analysts have pointed out that austerity works well alongside Tea Party nihilism. Obama was able to reduce federal spending on necessary and humane social programs by pointing to the threat represented by the Ayn Randians. Austerity was the only choice if we were to keep any semblance of social spending; if we were to keep the federal government up and running. But fewer education pundits have pointed out the close links between the so-called education reformers and anti-public school conservatives. Even though these connections are unmistakable. How else could Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have implemented his anti-teacher measures if not for the fact that teachers are low hanging political fruit? How else but due to the anti-teacher meme that has wormed its way into public discourse, thanks to the liberal reformers who constantly bash teachers?

Indicative of the bleakness of the contemporary landscape of American education is that a Hollywood actor (Matt Damon) is suddenly one of the few spokespersons for teachers. (Don’t mock Matt Damon! Leave that to the organs of the centrist middlebrow!)