Enron and the Question of Public Schooling

Rich Gibson March 2006

CA has sued Enron and other "energy providers" (Enron really never produced any energy at all) and will likely win back small settlements, as it has vs. SDGE, etc. Enron looted the state of California, with the help of state officials at every level. Many of those officials then went to work for Enron. The state of California went from having a budget surplus of well over $10 billion to what is now likely a $30 billion deficit, offset somewhat by the postponement of the debt via bond sales-rather like older workers in a factory thinking they can save themselves by adopting a two-tier wage system that pays younger workers less, only to discover that the bottom wage quickly becomes the norm. Enron looted California, and the education budget for the largest state in the nation went further into ruins, adding to the wreckage of Proposition 13, accelerating the move from what was once the finest, and least costly, education system in the US, to the worst.

However, this issue about Enron, like the issue on whether or not the main thrust of the powerful in the US is to privatize education, goes to a philosophical, but very practical, question: Why have government?

There are, at base, two answers to that question. One (1) taught in most civics and social studies classes, that is, the government has been around pretty much forever in one form or another, but today the government serves as a more or less neutral body (open to many more or less democratic leanings and pluralistic pulls) which largely serves the common national interest, recognizing some glaring, but unconnected, problems, like the many examples of corrupt governmental officials.

The other answer (2) is that the government (all government, with some local peculiarities) is there because inequality exists, and the government is, at the end of the day (recognizing, again, local peculiarities and a variety of contending interests) a weapon of the powerful, in the case of the US, the rich. The government exists to enforce inequality. The government, then, is a tool of force and violence, and an executive committee, of the rich---recognizing that the rich often have competing interests (GM vs Kaiser on health care for example), but that they know what most poor and working class people seem not to know: there is a class war going on and while there are disagreements among the rich, they know whose side they are on.

The nature of government under capitalism, or any economic system, is at the center of most school workers'--and students'-- problems.

Depending on how you answer that question, "Why have government?" (and surely several others, but this is a essay) leads to the practical side, as the answer to the question has built into it a message that urges people to do certain things. That is especially true of teachers, who play a major role in setting up not only what youth think, but perhaps more importantly, how youth do analysis, that is, their tools of critical, or in most cases, uncritical, thinking. Not to teach that there is a competing idea with #1 above is to teach a central position of uncritical thinking. Most teachers don't teach there is an alternative to the neutral government thesis because they don't know it themselves, and others that do are often restrained by fear.

On the Enron question, those who believe in the idea of a mostly neutral government will urge people to go vote for honest regulators, or to sue Enron, or to pick off a few Enron execs and try them, etc. Of course, this kind of activity on the one hand largely ignores the evidence of the last decade (or century) and wrongly suggests that Enron, Worldcom, Haliburton, Exxon, etc etc, are flukes, aberrations, and it ignores the deep involvement of people from both political parties in Enron etc( liberal San Diego Democrat Steve Peace led the drive to deregulate and privatize energy in CA, a preposterous idea from the outset and Gray Davis' vending machine government made the looting of the state treasury, by Republican Enron, possible).

On the other hand, each of these actions (voting, suing, etc) only deepens most peoples' participation in the creation of their own oppression, ie, enhances the power of the government that serves the rich.

In the case of the question on schools, that is, "Is the main drive in education to privatize public education or to both serve the needs of capital's profits, and, often more importantly, serve the needs of the rich in the US for social control?", the way we analyze government plays out in ways similar to the Enron issue.

For example, those who believe that the main drive in schools from the powerful (I would call them a ruling class, while others would not), is to privatize schooling, to destroy public education, ignore the fact that there is no single system of public education in the US, but six or seven school systems, mostly reproducing the class and race character of the parents of the kids in the schools. The US "public" school system is an apartheid , segregated, system, by class and race.

There are pre-med public schools, pre-social worker and teacher public schools, pre Walmart worker public schools, pre-military public schools, and pre- prison public schools. In those schools, depending on class and race, teachers teach different "facts" , have different levels of "academic freedom," and , significantly, use different methods which, in turn, set up kids' analytical abilities.

Real ruling class people maintain their own system of private schools, like Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich, or Exeter. Those private schools teach the truth of that birth-class, a truth denied to poor and working class kids: We can understand and transform the world.

Much of what occurs in public schooling is either soldiering, a dull waste of time that would be astonishing if it were not so clouded by normalcy, or teaching lies to kids (the government is your friend) using methods so obscure, disconnected, incoherent, unsystematic, that it becomes nearly impossible for kids to unravel the lies. Seeing school and the struggle for reason completely disconnected from their daily life practice, kids learn to not want to learn, to wittingly reject the processes of knowledge itself-a dramatic achievement of capitalist schooling.

The falsely dubbed "public" schools in the US are funded by a tax system that is, especially in the last 30 years, designed to unfairly tax working class people; hence, the powerful (ruling class) not only win using time honored divide and conquer methods through apartheid forms of not-so public education, but they force the victims of that not so public education system to pay for it.

While there is struggle in schools, just as there is in any work place (though schools are slightly different from most work places in that our "product" is human beings), schools are not "semi-autonomous" sectors of society (Gramsci, et al), and they are not "contested terrain." They are capital's schools, mostly serving capital's needs--recognizing that, as always, capitalism really does not work, requires human misery, crises, and war.

Yes, many good teachers seek to create caring communities where people can unite theory and practice in an effort to see that knowledge counts. They are a relatively tiny minority, more and more under attack every day, not only by a system of high-stakes testing, regimented curricula, and the whims of petty administrators, but by their own colleagues whose blinkered backgrounds (inside a 90% plus white teaching force, growing more white every year) cause them to see rebels as threats to their suburban lifestyles--or their own self-aggrandizing school projects.

While some segments of the ruling class in the US can, indeed, profit from privatizing education (rather like Chris Whittle who has looted the companies he has created, but whose education systems have routinely fallen far short of the goals that he himself established) for the most part, the key sections of the ruling class who hold overarching power (like Rockefeller wealth, entangled completely with the governmental apparatus today), have no real need to privatize education. It is working pretty well, serving its purpose.

Those who argue that the main thrust of the powerful in the US is to privatize education, and who therefore call to Save Public Education (and I am oversimplifying many very sophisticated arguments made by a variety of people whose understandings are, admittedly, more complex than I have time to pose here), misread the "public " nature of "public" schooling, suggesting that everyone has a stake in kids learning, when it appears to me that everyone does not have a stake in kids learning anything of any significance. The powerful military does not want kids learning that recruiters routinely lie, that youth rarely learn valuable skills in the military, and, above all, they might get killed or maimed, not for nothing, but in service to the enemies of their enemies.

To merely support Saving Public Schooling means to support the racist, exploitative, social relations that make "public schooling," not so public at all. Indeed, it leads people to supporting, for example, Democratic party hacks who, promising reform, typically can offer no reforms anymore, instead offer disguised support for high stakes testing and curricula regimentation ( social control, regulating what people know, and how they come to know it, within a carefully segregated environment). Or, Save Public Schools can become a demand for Nicer Bosses, Kinder Regimentation--velvet gloves over iron fists--capitulating to the essence of oppression and bickering over its nature; agreeing in fact to participating in domination, for example, by proctoring more and more exams, in exchange for a pay hike, or a better pension.

So, only calling to Save Public Education means, at once, to be uncritical of the not public nature of public education, and to set aside critique of government itself. It also leads us to adopt unreliable allies, ie, governmental officials, union bosses, electoral activity (a sheer dead end now), uncritical support for the "bread and butter" demands of the leaders of teacher unions. (which usually ignore the needs of kids and community people---show me the union-led boycotts of high-stakes tests, or even significant opposition). and the cul-de-sac of the court system, designed at the outset as the last stop gap of the rich (the same court system which has destroyed every labor law and civil rights law of any significance in the last thirty years).

The current context of the debates about Enron and public schooling is as often ignored as the historical nature of government itself. The context of our current situation is:

  • an official guarantee of perpetual war,
  • rising racism and nationalism,
  • booming religious hysteria,
  • sharpened systems of surveillance,
  • mass spectacles offered as diversions from everyday life,
  • growing inequality,
  • formalized fear of sexuality as a matter of responsible pleasure, written into every curriculum,
  • terror and barbarisim-as displayed in Abu Ghraib, or the beheading of hostages,
  • the use of government as a direct tool of wealth.

In fact, government and the corporate sector is merging so one grows indistinguishable from the other--note the conduct of the Iraq war where private military contractors not only provide prison goons, but fix strategy and tactics--all under the sponsorship of public funding. Remember the merger of Enron bosses and the national and state government regimes. Look again at the public-private merger of school training institutes, textbook companies, test companies, and state sponsored curricula. There is a word for the sum of these factors: fascism.

Not seeing the context of debates obscures the underlying factors at work in society that set up the debates from the start. Take, for example, the "literacy wars," the battles between Whole Language and Phonics-First intensified reading projects, the latter typical of most scripted reading curricula in most schools today, and heavily funded by textbook companies as well as wealthy foundations like the Broad Foundation. It may appear that the deeper insight into the difference between Whole Language and Phonics-First is that whole language seeks to fashion not only a better way to read, but a way to read that seeks to connect the methods of reading with a method of seeing the processes of the world--connected and interrelated in a struggle for meaning. Phonics-First, in opposition, attempts to create an encapsulated, disconnected, world view in that the method of reading can set up the entire process of interpreting the world.

There is truth in those contradictions. But, perhaps a deeper question is: Reading toward what end? Is it not naive to think that simply teaching people to read leads to a more just world? There is no evidence of that. Indeed, the most literate societies in the world before World War II were Germany and Japan, easily transformed into virulent fascist populations with resistance organized, at base, only by communists, anarchists, and socialists. The social context of the literacy wars cannot be ignored--and attention paid to not only the processes of reading, but also the substance of material read, and methods of analysis.

A better world can be won, but not through the common methods and organizations of reformers, not through elections to restrain future Enrons, not through appeals to the millionaires on the Supreme Court, not through the habitually corrupt and segregated unions.

The alternative is, in shorthand, to address matters of analysis, organization (strategy and tactics), consciousness, and ethics. In analysis, the relentless struggle for what is true, gaining and testing knowledge, checking evidence, calls for a much more profound look at the question raised at the outset: Why have government? I have tried to offer brief alternatives that have practical consequences and I quickly laid out the tactics of those who think the government is potentially neutral, or even on the side of the mass of people in the US, or the world.

Those who answer that analytical question otherwise, who recognize the necessarily partisan role of government, need to look to founding new kinds of organizations, centering on but extending out from schools, including parents, kids, community people, and all school workers, treating us all more or less equitably, reasonably democratically (with a determined eye to fight even democratically chosen tactics that are, for example, racist or sexist). Those organizations need modes of communication, in print and online, that can reach into poor and working class communities. Substance News in Chicago (http://www.substancenews.com/) and the Rouge Forum (http://www.RougeForum.org), are embryos of that kind of organization.

Those organizations need to look to both involving themselves in groups that involve masses of people, from unions to churches and schools, with the outlook of having two toes inside the mainstream groupings, and eight (or nine) out, with the view of transcending them.

Toward what end? Toward a just, caring, society where people are freed from the drudgery of wage labor, where creativity, aesthetics, reason, and sensuality share a common place with production, where democracy and equality are so intertwined that one is indistinguishable from the other.

The social relations that make Enron, and bad public schooling linked and necessary, particularly in a society in as rapid decay as the US, must be overcome.

The crux of the matter, though, is mass consciousness, class consciousness, which is key to making any kind of social change that can be sustained in the face of the most vicious forms of reaction from those who would lose from democratic and egalitarian action. What has been missing from the movements that set their sights on that kind of result in the past has been a clearly laid out ethic of equality, democracy, anti-racism, anti-sexism, internationalism, a patient sense of urgency, and a commitment over time to take direct action for change.

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