Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Education as Enforcement

[Kenneth J. Saltman and David A. Gabbard, editors. Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. (First edition, 2003.)]

The different things brought together by this book feel variously useful and a little strange, but the final mixture, for all that it has moments that are less engaged and engaging, is quite a bit more emotionally moving and politically meaningful than I generally expect from an edited scholarly collection.

This is a revised edition from 2011 of a collection originally published in 2003. Most of the essays are from the original, with a greater or lesser amount of updating, but there are also several essays new to the second edition as well as a new foreword from critical pedagogy superstar Henry Giroux. Though the focus of the collection might sound quite narrow -- the intersection of neoliberalism, militarism, and education -- the essays are a real mix in terms of the scale they talk about and how abstracted and/or empirical they are. So, for instance, you have sweeping analyses mixed in with careful, local case-studies. There's an interesting overview of the integral role of compulsory education in capitalist societies from one of the editors; a moving ethnography focused on the voices of poor and working-class youth of colour and their experiences of education in a small US city; various essays dissecting aspects of the always-neoliberal and often-militaristic education 'reform' in the US from Reagan onwards, with particular emphasis on how such reforms have predictably and consistently entrenched educational and broader social inequalities; a provocative (and not necessarily entirely convincing) piece linking the growing trend of single-sex classrooms with the militarization of women's bodies in the US armed forces; and lots of other things. The geographical focus is almost exclusively the United States, though there was one on the militarization of language education that also talked about Japan, a very powerful look at the role of formal education in militarizing the worldviews of children in Israel, and a still very US-centric sort of overview essay focused on the Obama era by someone at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.

I have been reflecting a little bit over the last year about the ways in which neoliberalism and militarism are connected. My increasing conviction that there is a deep and essential intertwining of the two is not an original idea, but at the same time most of what I have encountered that talks about one of them either treats the other as connected but peripheral or doesn't have much to say about the other at all. There are exceptions, and it's possible I just haven't been looking in the right places, but I was pleasantly surprised by how this collection starts from an openness to recognizing exactly that kind of deep integration and goes on to explore what that might mean in different contexts. Given the diverse kinds of essays in the book, I didn't leave the collection feeling like it had enabled me to develop a stable sense of how it is all socially organized -- another axis of diversity in the book is the extent to which the essays actually explored aspects of social relations in grounded materialist ways, versus the extent to which they used more distant and reified approaches -- but it did include plenty of examples of specific ways in which neoliberal and militarist impulses play out in relation to one another. Given the paucity of other material that I've found that does this, I think this book would be a useful resource for anyone attempting to write about neoliberalism and militarism together, regardless of whether they were particularly interested in questions related to education.

Another surprise that I encountered in my engagement with this book was its emotional impact on me. You don't necessarily expect that from scholarly collections, and of course not every essay in this one affected me in that way. But some did, and the book as a whole did, such that it took me rather longer to finish it than would usually be true of a book of this sort. And I think that is because it hammered home in a way that I had not appreciated before how the US education system as it currently exists -- as it has been constructed by reforms instituted under all presidents from Reagan to Obama -- is quite openly and horribly premised on various forms of violence against youth, particularly youth of colour. Progressives and radicals have pointed out that this is the case each time so-called reforms have been proposed; they have documented the fact that these have in fact been the impacts each time such reforms have been implemented; and they have attempted to make more and more people aware of this. Yet this trajectory of reform continues unabated. There's lots to say about why this might be the case, but it is inescapable that part of the mix has to be the fact that lots of people, particularly people who are better off and/or white, really don't care that these changes amount to, depend on, and reproduce (in very clearly demonstrable ways) violence against kids who are poor and/or non-white. And that, however unsurprising, is heartbreaking.

I should add that it's not that I was completely unaware of these things before reading this book. But, given that I don't live in the US, I had never had to face the whole picture, presented in both broad brush strokes and specific details, in quite this way before. And I think, for various reasons -- including white privilege, the fact that the trajectory of the white supremacist neoliberalization of capitalist education is in a bit of a different spot in Canada, and my own experiences of education as a youth -- I still tend to default the starting point of my criticisms of mass, compulsory education to the many things that I see wrong with the social democratic ideal for such things, without fully appreciating the extent to which anything resembling that ideal in most places in the United States is far back in the rear view mirror.

And that leads to consideration of a common dilemma in the age of neoliberalism: What is the best way to talk about something that has gotten much worse in recent years without indulging in romantic nostalgia for and idealization of the better-but-still-bad of years gone by? There are any number of areas where that is a risk in the Canadian context, given the direction of so many social changes in the last 20 years, and it can be depressingly difficult to find writing or conversation that doesn't fall into either left-nationalist/centre-left nostalgia for the high point of the welfare state and liberal internationalist foreign policy, or sectarian revolutionary-socialist/anarchist rhetoric that names the systemic evils but so easily forgets that gradations of livability and awfulness in people's lives really are crucially important. I'm not sure that this collection solves this dilemma, at least not in a blanket way. Many essays don't even try to escape the idealization of the social liberalism of earlier decades. Many others do make that attempt, and it is interesting to observe how many don't quite manage it despite trying. I'm not sure I could really capture what's happening without re-reading portions of the book, but there are some of the essays which manage to name the (not-so-) recent worsening without idealizing that earlier moment, and that I think really do come from a radical place and make usefully radical criticisms, but which still include aspects of a distinctly US-flavoured celebration of liberal and republican social forms that, to someone who didn't grow up inside of it, feels a little incongruous. This is not meant, incidentally, as a sort of backhanded Canadian left nationalism -- I know that analogous rhetoric happens here, based on somewhat different building blocks from social liberalism and social democracy, and such rhetoric will no doubt continue to grow and infest the political culture unless mass movements displace our current neoliberal militarist trajectory.

Of course that leads to the question of how to relate this book to the Canadian context. I don't think I actually know enough to say in any sort of conclusive way. Certainly attacks on teachers and on education systems have been a key plank of neoliberal governments in Canada (though given the distribution of powers here, the role for federal action in this area is less direct than in the US). In Ontario, we saw that most spectacularly with the Harris Tories of the late '90s, and it has happened in a different way with the current Liberal regime. I think it is the provincial Liberals in British Columbia that are at the forefront of attacks on teachers and students at the moment. And certainly militarization of Canadian society has been a goal that has been tied into almost everything that the current federal Conservative government has done while in office, and I know from the bits and pieces that I see from my own kid that there are ways that has trickled down into schools. But I'm not sure how it all works here. And though I know that schools have more often than not failed indigenous, Black, and other racialized kids in Canada -- that is, when they haven't been quite blatantly put together to inflict violence on them, as in residential schools -- I have a (poorly informed) sense that the way this is playing out in the neoliberal era continues to take a somewhat different form here than south of the border. So I would be very interested to see the focus of this book taken up in the Canadian context, but I'm not sure I know enough to even suggest what that might look like.

So this is an uneven collection in a number of respects, but one that does a lot of important things that I haven't seen done, or haven't seen done in quite the same way, elsewhere. And I do hope that it is the tip of an iceberg of material out there that really does take seriously the integral connections between neoliberal shifts in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and militarist shifts in same.

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