(New York: Verso, 2015), 230 pp., $16.95.
It’s a political truism that the easiest and most emotionally effective way to hammer home a point is to gesture to the children. Who, we’re asked, will think of the children?
“The children”—specifically their education—have long served as surrogates in debates around how society will be run, as New York educator and Jacobin editor Megan Erickson demonstrates in Class War: The Privatization of Childhood. 19th-century moral crusades combined with the capitalist need for an educated workforce to create the US’s existing public school system. And in today’s atmosphere of austerity and technocracy, moral crusades and workforce imperatives are once again shaping our schools to fit the demands of the neoliberal economy.
Class War is part of a series of short books published collaboratively by Jacobin and Verso Books; as such, it’s intentionally concise, getting straight to the point in four chapters that, though exhaustively sourced, make for a quick and accessible read. The book delves deep into the ideological underpinnings of the education system, delivering a critique that’s relevant far beyond the school walls.
The first chapter examines the uneven landscape of the US public school system in the 21st century, showing that despite the absence of official segregation, de facto segregation along lines of class and race is alive and well. Entrance examinations, tracking and ability grouping, the funding of school districts based on property taxes, the policing of school-district boundaries, and of course the unequal disciplinary measures that have generated a school-to-prison pipeline all contribute to a system that prepares students for their assumed station in life, whether middle-class professional, low-wage worker, or prisoner.
Erickson also points out that many of the presumed fixes to which politicians and parents often point amount to simply abandoning the public schools. For conservatives this means funneling public money to private institutions and charter schools through “school choice” voucher programs or religiously oriented homeschooling; for many on the left, it’s about “unschooling” or otherwise getting out of the public system, an individualistic solution that’s realistically available only to those with the time and financial freedom to have a parent give up paid employment (Erickson calls it “homeschooling for middle-class people with masters degrees” (57)). Emphasizing these individual solutions, Erickson points out, is a problem because it separates how we structure society (for other people) with the decisions we make to survive (for ourselves and our children). “Individual priorities hardly ever reflect collective priorities,” she notes: “Which is why, in a democracy, policy-making should not be a matter of individual choice, but a macro-level plan that reflects the values of people acting in coordination” (44). This is the most basic level of citizenship required to sustain public entities like the schools, yet in the current climate of neoliberalism, it sounds positively Bolshevik.
And that’s the point, as Erickson makes clear: “It’s the ideal of public education as part of a social ‘commons’ that makes the schools such an important target for conservatives as well as neoliberal privatizers” (55). Advocating, as unschoolers do, that we should dismantle the system and come up with our own version is profoundly unhelpful when the class attack by neoliberal capitalism is already quite literally tearing down schools and selling off the pieces. Erickson points out that such solutions, framed as “freedom” and “choice,” “are in perfect accordance with market-based ‘reforms,’ and with the neoliberal vision of society on which they’re based” (64). In approaching education in general rather than dealing with the specific realities on the ground, furthermore, this rejection of the existing system “allows these critics to imagine easily that they stand with the oppressed, while neglecting the very specific and very real oppression in today’s schools” (65). Erickson is unsparing in skewering this view: “Tearing down our public spaces is not victory. It’s a capitulation” (67).
The second chapter, “A Nation at Risk?,” reviews the ideological shifts in education policy from the Reagan administration to today, using Reagan’s 1983 education report, A Nation at Risk, as its starting point. The report argued that US students were falling behind the rest of the world academically, and that in the Cold War context this posed a national security threat. Its recommendations were straight out of the free-market playbook:
performance-based salaries for teachers, the use of standardized tests for evaluation . . . the shuttling of disruptive students to alternative schools, increased homework load, attendance policies with incentives and sanctions, and the extension of the school day—in other words, longer, harder hours. (74)
Erickson sums this up as “standards, accountability, choice,” and goes on to show how these neoliberal principles continue to direct school reform efforts, even as corporations and their billionaire owners become ever more enmeshed in those efforts. The underlying implication is that there’s no real need to worry about the material circumstances students and teachers face, no need to address poverty or a lack of healthcare or instability or racism, because ultimately anyone can overcome even challenging circumstances if they just work hard enough. It’s about nothing more than willpower, a question of character rather than access: “If a poor kid couldn’t succeed, she just didn’t have the right attitude. That is not an overstatement—it is the central assumption that animates every initiative we gather together and call education reform” (78), which Erickson shows comprehensively in a section on No Child Left Behind as the culmination of this thinking.
Chapters 3 and 4 take on two of the most popular myths of education reform: that technology can fix everything, and that teachers’ interests are opposed to those of their students. Chapter three, “Edutopia,” deals with the technology myth—in which Bill Gates and his like tell us that “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” in the classroom are the answer to the question of willpower. There’s a lot of money behind this approach, as Erickson shows, and she goes on to tease out the ideological motivations for it, showing that, ultimately, the “tech-savvy classroom” approach is little more than an updated way for capitalists to groom the incoming workforce. “The rabid optimism of the techno-utopian vernacular, with its metaphors that no longer register as metaphors,” she notes, “obscures the market imperatives behind the industry’s vision for the future” (126). But industry is failing to address the basic underlying problem of inequality, which is why “edutopia” solutions don’t work: “The fact is, education is not a design challenge with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on trying to innovate out of existence” (127).
The flip side of this cold, shiny techno-approach is, as Erickson shows in chapter 4, “Every Child Should Have 100 Parents: Against Personal Fixes to Political Problems,” the importance of human warmth: a mother’s hug or a teacher’s guiding hand. This warmth, as she points out, is “at once idealized as a sacrificial act and devalued because it comes from the heart” (144). Caring work, from teaching to nursing to social work, is still an overwhelmingly female occupation, and one that pays very, very badly. Reproductive labor, Erickson writes, is
so critical to the maintenance of social life that those who are entrusted with it are expected to undertake it out of sheer joy with no eye to monetary ‘rewards’—and so vital to the perpetuation of economic life that failure is unacceptable. (145)
“Bad” teachers, therefore, are vilified, blamed almost entirely for negative outcomes, regardless of how much control they actually have over those outcomes. And even the best teachers, despite the physical, intellectual, and emotional labor they pour into their work, are called selfish and greedy when they organize to demand fair wages and improved conditions.
Here Erickson takes a slight detour to theorize the ideology that constructs children as the property of their parents and separates the spheres of the public and the private, “work” and “family” (“family,” she points out, having become a substitute for “life” in working women’s “work-life balance”). If the family is entirely private, this worldview posits, there is no obligation for taxpayers to help sustain or educate others’ children; nor do employers or the state have any obligation to provide leave for new parents, who must shoulder full responsibility for all consequences of their decision to reproduce.
In a society where inequality is greater than ever, neoliberal ideology chooses to frame “poverty” as a problem without a cause, one that can be solved through ingenious design rather than any fundamental changes: “‘There are victims, but no victimizers.’ The language of ‘poverty’ keeps us from questioning and critiquing our economic system in a way that ‘wealth inequality’ and ‘class disparity’—or class war—does not.” Yet that’s precisely what we need to do, Erickson argues, if we are to create an education system that teaches children how to think, how to relate to one another, and how to create a better society than the one we’re raising them in.
In her conclusion, Erickson mentions hearing fellow educators tutting over children whose parents sign them up for after-school care: “’Eight hours is a long day for a kid.’ It is also a long day for an adult.” As a parent with a kindergartner who attends public school and an after-school program, I can relate; in fact, coming as it did after the book’s thorough indictment of life in the neoliberal public school system, this line was enough to move me to tears. Fortunately, Erickson doesn’t leave us mired in frustration and helplessness: she goes on to ask what it would mean to distribute the burdens of childcare and education equally across society, and what “school” and “work” would look like in a liberated society. These are moving, important questions—and our children deserve nothing less than that we keep asking them, loudly, and as often as possible.
Reviewed by Sarah Grey
Grey Editing (www.greyediting.com)