For MR this [special issue] represents only a starting point and we hope to continue to address the education question in future issues—not only in relation to the United States but also globally. Except for the crucial, concluding essay on Cuban education, provided by Ricardo Alarcón (President of Cuba’s National Assembly of Peoples’ Power), which points to what can be achieved in the realm of education once the barriers represented by capitalist society are removed, all of the articles in this special issue are concerned with the changing context of schooling in the United States. This is not meant, however, to ignore the rest of the world, but to constitute a warning of what may be in the offing for much of the global population—since the United States is the fountainhead of neoliberal policy.… It is clear…that education is under fire within much of global capitalist society.… Yet, the global struggle in this area is only just beginning and remains undetermined. The final outcome will depend to a considerable degree on the actions we take now.
Education at the beginning of the twenty-first century is in crisis and contestation. The economic instability of capitalism—reflected in the slowdown in the economic growth trend since the mid-1970s, worsening financial crises, and the growth of draconian neoliberal policies—has had the effect of further compromising a capitalist educational system already beset with problems.… The conflict over the agenda of the powerful with respect to schools is increasingly apparent. On the one side we find: privatization; drastically lowered expectations for students and families; the demonization of teachers; zero-tolerance as a cat’s paw for surveillance and control; sort-and-punish curricula; a culture of obedience and conformity; and narrowing definition of learning as job-training and education, i.e., as a product to be bought and sold in the market. On the other side we find: a growing fight-back based on the principle that all human beings are of incalculable value and that life in a just and free society must be geared toward and powered by a profoundly radical idea: that the fullest development of all human beings—regardless of race or ethnicity, origin or background, gender identity, ability or disability—is the necessary condition for the full development of each person; and, conversely, the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.
Schooling in the twenty-first century United States is not the product mainly of educational philosophies and resources—together with whatever imagination and initiative that teachers, students, parents, and communities can bring to bear. Instead, it is dominated by the changing demands of capitalist society for an increasingly stratified and regimented workforce. In the first article in this section, John Bellamy Foster analyzes the political economy of education in capitalist society; the relation of this to the evolution of U.S. schools from the early twentieth century on; and the current corporate reform movement aimed at the restructuring and privatization of education—symbolized by the Bush No Child Left Behind and the Obama Race to the Top programs.
Today’s conservative movement for the reform of public education in the United States, and in much of the world, is based on the prevailing view that public education is in a state of emergency and in need of restructuring due to its own internal failures. In contrast, I shall argue that the decay of public education is mainly a product of externally imposed contradictions that are inherent to schooling in capitalist society, heightened in our time by conditions of economic stagnation in the mature capitalist economies, and by the effects of the conservative reform movement itself. The corporate-driven onslaught on students, teachers, and public schools—symbolized in the United States by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation—is to be explained not so much by the failure of the schools themselves, but by the growing failures of the capitalist system, which now sees the privatization of public education as central to addressing its larger malaise.
We are reprinting this essay by Grace Lee Boggs from the September 1970 issue of Monthly Review with only slight editing because of the historical perspective it offers and what we regard as its direct importance to the present struggle over public eduction.
As the articles in this section indicate, the new corporate schooling in the United States combines many of the worst aspects of capitalist schooling in a period of economic stagnation, financialization, and militarization/securitization together with a strategy of privatization of the schools. Public education is being degraded, regimented, and increasingly racially segregated—while the resulting worsening conditions in the schools are used to justify the restructuring of the entire education system.
Standardized testing occupies a central place in the ongoing reorganization—or demolition—of public education in the United States. The key question is not whether leading sectors of capital—major foundations from Gates on down, business groups including the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce, a near-endless array of think tanks and policy groups, major media, well-funded “Astroturf” (faux grassroots) groups such as Stand for Children, and leading forces in both major political parties at the state and national levels—promote standardized tests as a tool for making major, “high-stakes” decisions about students, educators, and schools. The better, and unanswered, questions are: Why are tests such an important weapon, What are the goals of the test-driven offensive, How does testing interact with other corporate school “reform” goals, and What can be done to turn this around?
With the military’s ready and waiting personnel, infrastructure, and resources, no one should be surprised that the JROTC [Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps] is now offered as the alternative to physical education in urban school districts, or that the Department of Defense has responded to the educational crisis by opening and staffing public military schools. Currently, the military is education normal.… [P]ublic schools [have become] recruiting entities, and their targeting is not race, class, or gender neutral.
One of the most powerful metaphors in critical education literature is “the school to prison pipeline.” The phrase conjures a vivid, unambiguous image, the meaning of which few would debate: poor and black and brown children being sucked into a vortex from mainstream educational environments and heaved onto a conveyor belt carrying them onto a one-way path toward privatized prisons, where the economic outcome of under-education and discipline is most evident.… Excessive discipline is often a critical first step out of schools for select youth—black boys, in this case—who disproportionately find themselves in prison. Being designated as disabled nudges the other foot out of the schoolhouse door.