The United States in the opening decade of the twenty-first century is dominated by a new imperial project that is affecting all aspects of its society. The most obvious manifestation of this (see this month’s Review of the Month) is the expansion of the military-industrial complex. However, another, in some ways even more insidious, manifestation, as Rich Gibson and E. Wayne Ross pointed out in a February 2, 2007, Counterpunch article entitled, “No Child Left Behind and the Imperial Project”, is the current assault on the nation’s public schools through the No Child Left Behind law enacted by the Bush administration with broad bipartisan support. As Gibson and Ross explained, “Any nation promising perpetual war on the world is likely to make peculiar demands on its schools…and its teachers and youth….NCLB [No Child Left Behind] is the result of three decades of elites’ struggles to recapture control over education in the U.S., lost during the Vietnam era when campuses and high-schools broke into open-rebellion and, as a collateral result, critical pedagogy, whole language reading programs, inter-active, investigatory teaching gained a foothold.”
No Child Left Behind was conceived within the top corporate and political echelons of U.S. society with the aim of reversing such progressive gains. At the same time it created within the sphere of public education an enormously expanded market for standardized tests and test-oriented textbooks. The standardized tests and the textbooks expressly written to fit these tests seek to Taylorize students according to the precepts of scientific management. This is justified in terms of a drive for “higher achievement” and eliminating inequities, while in fact undermining all but capitalist and imperialist ends. All critical thinking and imaginative thought are compelled to give way to regimented, industrialized forms of learning.
These extreme developments in public education are not to be viewed as the product of some grand conspiracy, but rather as an institutional outgrowth of monopoly capital in the neoliberal era, as U.S. capitalism seeks to cope with a declining empire, economic stagnation, and growing concerns at the top regarding the recalcitrance of an underlying population ill-suited to the needs of a mechanistic, militaristic society. The reduction of public schooling to the manufacturing of cheerful robots is made possible by the existence of a separate system of private education aimed at the children of the well-to-do.
Gibson and Ross went on in their article to outline the necessary resistance efforts in the educational sphere. “Poor and working class parents and students,” they wrote,
need to learn, probably from teachers, that the tests are not designed to make education equitable, but to track them into meaningless jobs….In addition, they need to learn that their power supersedes the boycotts in rich areas, in that it can truly bring the testing to an end and even serve as a foundation for much broader social change for equality and democracy….The linkage of education and social action that could come from anti-test boycotts could be part of that change of consciousness so urgently needed now.
Another major, concurrent assault on the public schools is represented by the intelligent design movement, which is pushing the teaching of creationism alongside (if not in place of) evolution. Despite the defeat that this movement suffered in the 2005 Dover Area School District trial in Pennsylvania, pressures to incorporate intelligent design creationism into the public school curriculum continue to grow, with almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the U.S. population backing it (Poll: Public Divided on Evolution, Associated Press, September 1, 2005). Not only President Bush, but also presidential and vice-presidential candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin are on record as supporting teaching creationism in the public school classrooms. This is part of a much larger struggle, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headed by Bruce Chapman (former United States ambassador to the United Nations and former director of the White House Office of Planning and Evaluation and of the U.S. Census Bureau under Reagan). For the Discovery Institute, the attack on evolution is the thin end of the wedge in a wider strategy aimed at shattering materialist philosophy, science, and culture (epitomized above all by Darwin, Marx, and Freud). It is thus conceived as a part of a millennia-long battle between materialism and design.
For those interested in understanding the full background of this intellectual and political struggle (and its relation to the rise over the last 2,500 years of materialist philosophy and science) we urge you to read the new book just published by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Richard Levins, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences, Harvard University and coauthor (with Richard Lewontin) of Biology Under the Influence (Monthly Review Press, 2007), has said of Critique of Intelligent Design:
In combating the new creationism repackaged as Intelligent Design, it is not enough to refute particular misunderstandings about chance, complexity, or natural selection. ID is part of an offensive against materialism and humanism aimed at imposing a Christian fundamentalist culture congruent with the needs of a declining empire. Critique of Intelligent Design places the debate in its broadest context and historical roots from Epicurus on up, in a vigorous defense of a materialist view of nature that rejects the tepid compromise that would simply divide the turf into domains of science and religion.
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