Rich Gibson, San Diego State University
On many California school playgrounds, elementary kids in working class areas are expected to "freeze," halt in their tracks, frozen in place in the midst of everything but an in-the-air jump, when a recess monitor's whistle blows, readying them to return to class. Between classes, the kids march in lines. In class, kids throughout the US now lock-step their way through textbooks, test-prep catalogues, and Big Tests, frequently taking three weeks out of the school year.
The vast majority of schools in the US are segregated working class schools. The curriculum taught, the methods of teaching, and the means of discipline, in working class schools distinguish them from upper-middle class schools, where kids walk relatively freely between classes, usher themselves in from play-time with a minimum of hassle, and where students exercise, within fairly broad limits, the options that having money, capital, allows for the masquerade of limitless choices. In US apartheid's schools where playground space is scarce, poor kids' schools, free choice can mean the opportunity for a warm seat near a heat duct, and to be simultaneously poisoned: the duct carries air from a coal furnace. The appearance of freedom stands to the right of the equation with money.
Many U.S. teachers now maneuver through days in much the same way workers once chased assembly lines, outlining their 1/4 hour by ½ hour lesson plans on the board so any overseer can check them off as to having classroom minds on target from moment to moment: a piece-work count. Frequently, supervisors and teachers alike expect educators teaching the same grade to be teaching from the same page, at the same time, shattering the matchless relationship that sets up most learning: a meeting of a unique child with a specific educator, both with individual strengths, weaknesses, and passions, inside a particular community.
The struggle for freedom and creativity is part of any job, as powerful as the battle for wages or health benefits. Many teachers subtly fight to engage kids in meaningful work--but many, many, do not--feeling they have no alternative. Even subtle fights can become, over time, sheer retreats, just getting through another day. What ends this soldiering, what supports resistors?
Or, to invert the matter: soldiers in Vietnam, realizing that the more they obeyed orders, the more they destroyed-not the enemy-but themselves, soldiered, resisted, by refusing to work, under a variety of guises. They got sick, broke their tools, and, at the end of the day, simply refused to participate, mutinied, threatening officers who ordered them to take on impossible, unethical, tasks. Of course, their motivation to resist was powerful: the task became obviously unsupportable. The other side was smart, and armed.
A soldier's job, despite claims about winning hearts and minds, is to kill. Education, to the contrary, is about the hope that humane reason builds into life. Reason, in schools, can only be constructed on a base that allows for gaining and examining knowledge in a fair and free atmosphere. Refusing to destroy reason requires the reversal of soldiering: fighting back, for much the same reason soldiers refused to fight: the more the job is done, the more self-destruction is accomplished.
As school workers, coerced or unwitting volunteers, regiment students, so the school workers become regimented themselves. And, at the end of the march, test scores snare kids-- and educators, so completely that their salaries, futures, and employment all depend on them--the scores serving as scientific proof that some people are better than others. With each test score comes a partition, one group pitted against the next, one district against its neighbors, one state vs another, and, at the end of the day, a lone student looking up at a teacher thinking, "boss." Arizona teachers saw this process come full circle when, in 2005, they got orders to pass a battery of tests to continue to teach.
Still, students are the targets of the regulation process in which they are taught three lies which cause intellectual suicide: (1) They learn that they cannot comprehend the world, but are victims within it. (2). They learn they cannot act on the world, and if they try, they will be tormented. (3) Students conclude that they do not like to learn, that interrogation and mastery are self-defeating and undesirable.
In this context, history is stripped from the curriculum, literally eradicated or made unintelligible, and students are thus deprived of an understanding of their own social context (where are we, how did we get here?) while, at the same time, the gateway to knowledge, literacy, is routinized through phonics-based methods that trivialize the key fundamental question in any classroom-why are we here?--answering with: To pass the test. Most kids know the test is rigged; reason itself is reduced to a shell game that most will lose.
Regimentation in schools today is different only in its intensity (Upton Sinclair wrote a related book, The Goslings, nearly a century ago) and its inability to forgive, both factors linked to the rapidly decaying US economy. It was not uncommon for teachers, back in the day, to demand that kids sit with hands folded. But kids who didn't learn to read in second grade would have a chance to catch up in third, and kids who dropped out could find good jobs in factories. No more. One misstep, that fearsome blot "on your permanent record," can mean a bee-line to the soup kitchen. So, parents, teachers, and kids live under intense pressure--just as US corporations live or die in competition with China, every day.
Factory-like school regimentation is a victory for elites who have a limitless need for soldier-bodies in what they admit is a "perpetual war" for imperial domination. Controlling not only what students know, but also how they come to know it, is key to this project.
The accelerated regimentation of school life is directly related to the deepening weaknesses of the US economy and the tendencies that necessarily tag along: segregation, militarization, intensified spectacles, sexism, and the role of government at every level more and more exposed as a weapon of the rich. Economic life outside schools invades educational life inside schools.
Elites recognized the need to discipline society shortly after the US fled Vietnam, the US economy in ruins. They also foresaw the central role of schools in a de-industrialized society. So, they set out to recapture control of schooling, reeling from the anti-authoritarian civil rights, anti-war, and womens' movements. From 1980's Nation at Risk report, they set out to do so--with eradicating history, especially the "Vietnam Syndrome," as part of the project. Elites began a hostile attack on schools. That attack paralleled larger wars.
Today, while the oil wars in the Caspian region and the Middle East are most conspicuous, the quieter wars of the rich on the poor takes place back in the US, with a vengeance. In September 2005, inflation hit its highest point in 25 years, the equivalent of a massive wage cut. In October, Delphi Corporation, for example, with nearly 200,000 workers world-wide, about 20,000 in Michigan alone, filed for bankruptcy and demanded the United Auto Workers union, once the dominant force in US unionism, accept 60% cuts in wages, benefits, and the elimination of pensions--this to save the jobs of about 1/4 of the workforce. Delphi also announced it planned to stop paying pensioner health benefits for 12,000 retirees. The UAW quickly moved to get a court order to cut off potential pensioner lawsuits against their unilateral action. Two days later, General Motors announced massive health care cuts for retirees, and 25,000 layoffs. Once again, the UAW signed off on GM's stratagem as a "partner in production." This follows similar moves in the airlines, steel, mining, all of what remains of industrial America. Clearly, the old union saw, "an injury to one precedes and injury to all," plays true today.
What made this practicable ? Of course, ruthless competition for profits (cheap labor, raw materials, markets, social control) set it in motion, reaching the point where 200,000 maquiladora workers in Mexico lost their jobs to China in the last five years. Even so, absence of resistance from the union leaders, indeed their collaboration, made it possible.
The groundwork for this thrashing was laid by the industrial unions conceding their ability to control daily life at work in exchange for wages and benefits, that is, in exchange for money management was given the right to determine day to day life in the factory, from line speed to the methods of production itself. Over time, the workers lost control of their workplaces, and when the economic crisis came, the UAW leadership presented them with the position that there was no alternative but to roll over. The UAW (and AFL-CIO) leadership disarmed workers, marched them from concession to concession, when it was clear early on that concessions do not save jobs, but buttress demands for more concessions.
Corresponding activity took place in schools over the last 25 years as elites, with union cooperation, moved to seize control over what is done, and how it is done, in classrooms--the path to the guillotine being curricula standards, and the guillotine itself being test results. Both teacher unions' leaders were willing participants in this process under the banner of "New Unionism," the unity of educators, unions, business, and non-governmental groups, "in the national interest." NEA and AFT joined with the Business Roundtable, the National Chambers of Commerce, Achieve, and others to take out full page ads in the New York Times to demand what became the NCLB.
The more rank and file teachers participate in this process, the more they braid their own nooses--just as relinquishing control of the work place led to the devastation of industrial workers. The Big Test divide and rule maneuver not only turns every educational process into an unjust economic struggle (since all the tests measure little but race, class, and subservience), but it sets up most school workers for their own ruin, as some whose schools have been reconstituted have already learned, lost their jobs, and as Chrysler, Delphi workers, GM, and airline workers are learning today.
What happens to teachers in working class schools now, will only happen to suburban teachers later--as Big Three auto-workers, for example, should have learned from watching their salary schedules collapse not long after the workers in parts-supply, feeder, plants, lost their benefits and incomes.
People will fight back, over time, because they must fight back, in order to live. At issue is: how will poor and working people be positioned when resistance comes (could it be too late?), and, will the lessons of the past inform the pivotal fights of the future-will the resistance be guided by wisdom?
California grocery workers, hardly militants, went on strike for months. Northwest airline mechanics struck. Delphi workers struck. PATCO air-traffic controllers struck. Meat-packers struck. Detroit teachers and newspaper workers struck. Tijuana teachers struck, and seized the school center buildings. Now, the Canadian province, British Columbia, is in the midst of a massive school workers' strike.
In the same period, entire communities rose up against oppression. Benton Harbor, Michigan, was among the first of the millennium, an anti-racist revolt. In Toledo this fall, youths and community people fought the police and the local Nazis.
Open resistance, even when it fails, offers lessons to future fighters, as would hold true, for example, in the California grocery strike, or the Detroit teachers wildcat. Sheer retreats, concessions without a fight, offer nothing but the easily understood lesson that people can lose a lot. On the whole, it makes sense to fight back, even on an individual basis, if for no other reason than the reality that bosses usually kick around people who don't fight.
Even so, resisters of all kinds faced a tsunami of assaults: elimination of most civil rights and labor laws, the privatization of public space making it hard to even hand out a flyer, a decaying economy making jobs scarce, sparkling spectacles (infested with incessant advertising), a steady drumbeat of propaganda denying the existence of a working class in all of the media, the betrayal of most of the labor movement and its leaders so steeped in patriotism that they could not act on the idea that people form unions because workers and bosses have contradictory interests, and, perhaps above all, the eradication of time, the extension of the workweek to levels that people work, there is no time to think, reflect.
And, what there was of the left, collapsed, disintegrating into a patchwork of narrow-interest coalitions, unable to mount a united campaign against a social system, and it representatives, rooted in ruthlessness.
So how do poor and working people end the soldiering, answer the social crises in schools and out? Pivotally position in the centripetal organizing point of civic life, school workers must go well beyond the schools to fashion an answer to war, racism, and the relentless attacks on wages, benefits, working conditions, and life itself. How that might happen comes in the next issue of Substance.