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Assessment Opinion

How To Counter the Counter-Revolution?

By Deborah Meier — May 03, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Blue skies overhead, green leaves popping out daily, and yellow, blue, and white blossoms. It eases the pain of seeing the work of so many wonderful people over so many years get torn down—whether it’s for money or for a dearly held belief in the marketplace.

The money part is what’s driving it along—the “belief system” has been around for a long time, and it’s the infusion of billions of dollars into a coordinated public relations campaign on every level imaginable that has given it its current revolutionary power. Yes, it’s a radical and revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary?) full-scale campaign to keep the trappings of democracy, but roll back 250 years of reform. On every front.

You and I “happen” to have spent between us almost a century (not quite) with our eyes focused on schools. We have had rather sharp differences over the years about K-12 education. (I ran across some of our much earlier correspondence the other day and ... Wow!) But underneath it there was an unspoken shared conviction about the importance of public education—of a democratic society with all its warts. As we smelled the oncoming counter-revolution in the air we both became very nervous. I stopped worrying as much about defending progressive school allies (and the schools to which I had given so many years) from the onslaught, but grew more concerned about the fundamental underpinning of what public’ness means in a democracy. I attributed some of my differences with the foundation/corporate reforms to simply being one of their ignorance about the pace of change possible in an essentially conservative institution with many constituents. I misunderstood.

They had their eyes on something different. In the name of equality—and our survival as a nation—they decided we had to get rid of our sentimental attachment to public space, public life, and so much more that we “foolishly” associated with our nation’s democratic history. Suddenly I, and others working in “the trenches,” were an obstacle to reform! We were blocking the 2lst century, aiding America’s enemies, etc.

There was indeed a substantial group amongst our founding white fathers who distrusted democracy—deeply. Our opponents’ nostalgia goes back in part to those olden days. The ignorant “public” needed to be led by their betters: ALEC et al. But they see a chance—born of their own “mistakes"—and they are leaping on it. Yes: Crisis equals opportunity, and they are using our economic crisis as a way to make quick and hard-to-reverse changes in every domain of our lives. They are preparing us for their own version of internationalism. The crazies on the Right had a point about the New World Order! The ALECs are shedding their blind patriotism and USA-centrism for one that allows them to invest in our rivals as enthusiastically as they invest in their home towns (which they do not seem to have, or have dozens of them spread throughout the world).

Irony: While blasting us over and over about the importance of beating our foreign rivals by teaching 4-year-olds their phonemes they are investing equally in education in China!

So it may not be surprising that you and I found fewer disagreements. And that’s good. But talking last week in Newark, N.J., to some of the leaders of the anti-"reform” agenda, it was clear that they were also hungry for alternative visions. They aren’t and don’t want to be “just” defenders of the past practices of Newark schools, but they see themselves being shut out of the discussion about the future.

It reminded me that they need hope, enthusiasm, and vision. We need to also be addressing education in terms of what “it could be.” We often can appear to rest our case on a nostalgia for a simpler world where face-to-face, long-term human relationships were more a part of daily life, even as we know that it can’t be done by resurrecting simpler times! And, besides, simplicity wasn’t as great as we sometimes remember it. Especially for the .... (See a list of the usual suspects.) We need to exercise our imaginations to prevent the unimaginable horrors of what is being proposed by the coalition of wealth, greed, and chutzpa.

That’s why I think you and I should be devoting more energy to considering what our “utopian” solutions might be, as well as the next steps for getting there. What’s the direction, the criteria, the underlying precepts that should drive our vision of the future of schooling for educating the next generation? What’s needed to maintain a healthy planet, nation, community, and family that treats each and every one with equal respect—democratically. As I’ve said before, believers in the marketplace see it as the natural solution to all problems; democracy is not a natural solution. We’re not born with—or without—the habits of democratic citizens. It’s even at times counter-intuitive.

I think you and I read the world of schooling (our concerns about pedagogy and subject matter as vehicles for developing such democratic habits, as well as our concerns over whose interests control translating these into daily realities for our children) with similar biases. Maybe it’s not enough to join forces against the immediate danger, but also to begin to imagine a different future.

So, my request? I want your advice, ideas, and critiques of my thoughts on future possibilities, and what we are fighting FOR. The chapter I wrote for In Schools We Trust about “scaling up” and “stacking the odds” was my last effort on this score. I’m rethinking it and would enjoy your thoughts on the matter. How to balance competing, but legitimate, agendas on the part of individual families, communities, and the common good? It may not be immediately relevant, but I think we need to put our current “crisis"—and, for a change, it’s a real one—into a larger picture of possibilities unexplored.


P.S. Preserving the Public in Public Schools, by Phil Boyle and Del Burns, is worth reading. Also, The Seduction of Common Sense, by Kevin Kumashiro, from Teachers College Press.

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