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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Should Radically Rethink the Foundations of Education

Leftists have a long history of experimenting with alternatives to traditional education. Now is the perfect time to re-engage with radical pedagogy.

While only mere decades have elapsed since President Bill Clinton’s go-to defense of education was, “What you earn depends on what you … learn,” a truism so benign as to seem inherently bipartisan, some renegade Republicans have spent the spring of 2023 asking whether learning actually gets in the way of earning—in the sense that time spent in school could be better spent on the farm or the factory floor. Of course, the sentiment itself is not new: the think tank Foundation for Economic Education published a rosy defense of 20th century child laborers on their blog in 2016. “Think about their inner lives,” libertarian author Jeffrey Tucker encourages readers, linking to a Washington Post gallery of photographs of “children at work” from 100 years ago. The photographs, by Lewis Hine, helped push the country to change child labor laws. But Tucker sees something different. “They are working in the adult world, surrounded by cool bustling things and new technology. … They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money.” The image of the industrious young worker is juxtaposed with that of the indolence-promoting 21st-century classroom, what Tucker describes as “30 kids sitting in desks bored out of their minds, creativity and imagination beaten out of their brains, forbidden from earning money and providing value to others, learning no skills … desk after desk, class after class, lecture after lecture, test after test, a confined world without end.” What is new is this sentiment going quite so mainstream as to make its way into legislation that has rolled back child labor laws in a number of Republican-led states, including Arkansas, Iowa, and Ohio. 

Kids themselves might concur with some aspects of Tucker’s description of the modern classroom experience: in a 2020 survey of more than 20,000 American high schoolers, the three words that appeared most frequently in their descriptions of their educational experience were bored, tired, and stressed. “Bored” and “tired” also topped a similar Gallup survey of teens in 2004. In the 2000s, as in the two decades before, school appears on screen as a veritable hell: in films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, every high school is a small authoritarian country unto itself, dominated by faculty who hate children; in others, like Heathers and Mean Girls, it is kids themselves who—malicious, even murderous, by nature—make their own lives so miserable.

But it hasn’t always been taken for granted that education must be unpleasant and irrelevant, nor that schools must maintain martial law in order to facilitate that education. In fact, throughout the 20th century—and, indeed, into the present—alternatives have abounded: modes of education that exchange order for independence, rote and repetition for spontaneity, curriculum for exploration, and so forth. Many look like traditional schools from the outside, but their internal operations are so different from the mainstream as to seem entirely foreign: kids call their teachers by their first names, come and go at will, participate in hiring their own instructors, receive no grades, take no tests, and run their schools as democratic institutions, with discipline decided by a judicial committee consisting of both students and staff. It has been said by some observers that the students of Sudbury schools—which are predicated on the idea that the “consent of the governed,” aka kids, is necessary for a school to operate effectively—are in a state of “perpetual recess.” “Nothing disturbs visitors to Sudbury Valley School more than the sight of children of all ages playing freely all day long,” claims the website of the first Sudbury school, still in operation in Framingham, Massachusetts, today. They play with toys, instruments, arts and crafts materials, video games, gymnastics equipment; they leave the building to play outside by themselves or with friends—in nature, in town; and days’ worth of play engender days’ worth of conversations, debates, arguments, and more.

But there is a method to the madness. Daniel Greenberg, founder of the Sudbury method, explained the purpose of a less rigid approach to education in a 1991 speech.“It seems rather difficult—in fact, close to impossible—to have people grow up in what is basically an authoritarian environment until they’re 18, and then suddenly have them transform into effective citizens of a democracy,” he said. “There’s no hope for this being a really democratic society in the way most of us would like it to be—of people really living together in brotherhood and making decisions together and participating and having a voice in their own fate—unless it happens from the earliest age.”

A similar sentiment is shared by the students and staff of the Brooklyn Free School, a private school founded in 2003. The school (which was born in true Brooklyn fashion with an ad in The Linewaiters’ Gazette, which is published every three weeks by the Park Slope Food Coop) has exchanged Greenberg’s focus on producing “effective citizens of democracy” for something more contemporary: raising “agents of social change.” The school has called many parks, libraries, and rentals home over the years—it is now located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, tucked between an outpost of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, the International African Arts Festival, and an Applebee’s Grill and Bar. But it has held fast throughout this time to the vision of a school where play is centered and children are free to be themselves.

The students at BFS exert enormous control over its operations. Their executive director Monique Scott smiles ruefully while explaining that the BFS is actually a bit more rigidly scheduled day-to-day than most free schools—but only because the kids have voted in favor of structured mornings spent focused on the core subjects of reading, writing, math, history, and science. But once the textbooks go away, the kids come out to play—and that play is itself a form of learning, explains a BFS parent. Because the kids aren’t solely remembering “to the test,” what they learn “can’t be shaken out of them,” she says. An overnight camping trip far from the concrete jungle of New York City is an opportunity to study the natural sciences; meanwhile, the school’s drama instructor is continually trying to use the annual schoolwide musical as a way to supplement instruction in other areas, like literacy. The kids have packed their daily schedules full of electives one would be hard-pressed to find in a public school: a wall-sized weekly schedule includes group classes on botany, fashion, the Mali Empire, chess, tae kwon do, real estate, finance, cooking, climate change, as well as any number of independent pursuits. The extensive projects produced by the dozen-or-so kids studying paleontology this year begs the question: What if instead of merely indulging kids’ perennial interest in dinosaurs, we took that interest seriously? 

Taking seriously the playful and treating playfully the serious seems to be a guiding, albeit unofficial, ethos for the school. Kids of all ages partake in courses called “Social Justice and Revolution” and “LGBTQIA Liberation and Revolution,” then apply their learning in wide-ranging ways. Two musicals ago, the students adapted the script of The Little Mermaid to reflect its queer origins. The social justice dimension of the BFS model—born of the belief that the original free school vision, when unmatched with a focus on social justice and without a clear intention to target patterns of oppression, would inevitably reproduce those patterns—sets it apart from the Sudbury schools and other democratic peers. Transcripts (in which students reflect alongside their instructors) include not only academic progress but also notes about student leadership and participation in democratic decision-making and the broader community.

But free schools are not free in that sense. BFS charges tuition on a sliding scale, making it affordable to interested families of all socioeconomic backgrounds—but enrollment in a Sudbury school costs around $10,500 per child, and other types of alternative schooling (like Montessori) far more. Indeed, even the most Charles Fourier-esque (Fourier being a utopian socialist of the early 19th century) vision of a school is apt to be part of the problem: the pay-to-play of nearly every alternative mode of education, barring public magnet schools, charter schools, and homeschooling. 

Today, radical alternative educational approaches originally developed for the everyman have been appropriated to enhance the upbringing of the elite, largely in private settings. Meanwhile, the students of American public schools—who would most benefit, no doubt, from educational modes that treat them as students and people, rather than statistics-in-the-making—languish under draconian restrictions: they enter their schools through airport security-style bag check queues and must dutifully request permission to use the bathroom; once granted permission, they are expected to walk there in silence, past rows of barred windows, on color-coded lines painted across the linoleum floor. 

“There is no lack of people who are convinced that there’s something seriously wrong with the educational system,” said Greenberg in that same 1991 speech. “Even the most devoted advocates of traditional schools can’t help noticing that the system gobbles up incredible sums of money at an ever-increasing rate, which nevertheless rarely seems to produce satisfactory results. But it’s much more difficult to go from there to a completely different worldview which concludes that the whole traditional way of looking at education is wrong.” It is as necessary now as in 1991 to remember that the walls of the school have not always been so impenetrably thick as they are today. Indeed, a mere four decades ago, pedagogues tried to do away with them all together.  

Class in the Classroom 

By rejecting many conventions of mainstream education, free schools take aim at the very social and political categories of “child” that have produced mainstream education as such. The Italian educational philosopher Maria Montessori—creator of the eponymous Montessori method, which is famous for its hands-on learning at a child-led pace, though it has been misappropriated in recent years as a justification to grossly hike the price of wooden blocks and puzzles—famously referred to the child as the “forgotten citizen,” the “neglected citizen.” Children as a class are functionally bereft of the key rights that comprise citizenship by virtue of their legal subordination to adults, particularly their parents: as much as that status protects children, it also renders them both politically voiceless and economically disempowered—not that the GOP’s efforts to revive child labor are the answer. “Children and young people make up a vast population,” Montessori declared before the UNESCO Institute for Education in 1951, “a population without rights which is being crucified on school-benches everywhere, which—for all that we talk about democracy, freedom and human rights—is enslaved by a school order, by intellectual rules which we impose on it.” Even before the genesis of what is now called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” by which schools are gradually militarizing, Montessori identified a key fact about mainstream public education: that, whether by design or due to stress on the system, it is less about the liberatory power of knowledge than the maintenance of one-two-three-eyes-on-me classroom discipline. 

In its most extreme form, this school order functions as a literal extension of the criminal punishment system. In school as on the streets, youths of color are overexposed to law enforcement, incarnate in the classroom as “school resource officers”—complete with resources like guns, tasers, handcuffs, and the occasional drug-sniffing dog. The number of cops serving as hallway monitors has increased precipitously since the Columbine shooting in 1999: while only 1 percent of schools reported hosting an officer in 1975, more than 50 percent do in the present day. And in many schools, these security officers have displaced other key service providers: according to the ACLU, 1.7 million American students attend schools that host cops but no counselors, 3 million attend schools that host cops but no school nurses, 6 million attend schools that host cops but no psychologists, and 10 million attend schools that host cops but no social workers. By allocating resources thus, American public schools enact a pattern of discipline in which Black and Latino students in particular are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or subject to in-school arrest; children as young as 6 have been taken into police custody, fingerprinted, and photographed in jail. Many are treated with violence that would be unacceptable even if the victims were adults, as when a North Carolina police officer repeatedly slammed an 11-year-old boy’s head into a hallway floor. These students are subsequently at increased risk of encounters with the wildly abusive juvenile justice system, which, in turn, make them more likely to spend time behind bars as adults; those who evade further imprisonment find themselves at inordinately high risk of depression, suicidality, and poor health as adults. 

The life-altering consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline are compounded by what might as well be called the school-to-poverty pipeline. Because public schools receive nearly half of their funding from local property taxes, unequal resourcing of public education is one legacy of how property values have been historically tethered to race. While straightforward segregation stratified housing below the Mason-Dixon line, Northern neighborhoods found their own ways to enact legal discrimination: by redlining, a practice wherein services like mortgages were denied to the minority residents of “hazardous” areas—thereby entrapping them in decaying inner-city neighborhood —and racist housing covenants, which prevented certain properties from being sold to nonwhite owners. When all else failed, white residents fled for suburbs ever further afield. In the present, this race-based differential in property values directly affects how much public school teachers have to pay out-of-pocket to make a classroom functional: in 2019, EdBuild found that predominantly nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less annually than predominantly white school districts. On average, that works out to an additional $2,226 per student that predominantly white school districts have and predominantly nonwhite school districts do not, though in some places the gap is far greater. These funding disparities have a direct impact on student outcomes: high quality early childhood education, rigorous curriculum, and well-trained instructors are costly investments, but key to student achievement. And student achievement—no matter how rigged the game may be—has immense bearing on college acceptance, which, in turn, actualizes higher earning potential. As dated as Bill Clinton’s assurance that what-you-learn-dictates-what-you-earn sounds to contemporary ears, the average college graduate earns more than $1 million more in a lifetime than the average high school diploma holder.

But even the less explicitly punitive and impoverishing dimensions of mainstream public schooling are pernicious: the mode of teaching that undergirds most schooling—which the formidable Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire refers to in his 1968 classic, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as the “banking” method, in which students are treated as, functionally, empty vessels needing to be filled with information—reproduces, by means of its inherent power differential between student and teacher, inequality and injustice more broadly. For intellectuals like Montessori, Freire, and other later interlocutors, including bell hooks, the traditional school system is a veritable engine of oppression. Freire describes it as “suffering from narration sickness,” its “outstanding characteristic … the sonority of words, not their transforming power.” Students are expected to be the passive recipients of knowledge bestowed on them by their teachers, the blank slates onto whom are projected “absolute ignorance … a characteristic of the ideology of oppression [that] negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry,” says Freire; education becomes instead a matter of creating automatons who will perpetuate an unequal and unfair society—ideally without question.

Freire cut his teeth as a teacher educating the illiterate poor of Brazil, where—until 1985—it was illegal to vote if one could not read. He was not the only midcentury leftist militant to engage in pedagogy as a form of political practice, nor was he the only midcentury leftist theorist to write books about the ideology of “hitting the books.” The contemporaneous French philosopher Louis Althusser includes schools in his theory of ideological state apparatuses, those civil society entities (including churches, clubs, even the family) that use nonviolent means to reproduce the status quo. “One [such apparatus] certainly has the dominant role,” he writes, “although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.” For Althusser, everything taught in schools is either explicitly ideological, like ethics and civics coursework, or more subtly so, as in the case of literature and the sciences—and the function of state education is, quite simply, to provide the student with an ideological framework suitable to his or her function in society. “The reproduction of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills,” writes Althusser, “but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order.” The purpose of the school is to create more workers: docile subjects who enter the workforce and perform jobs that are low-paying, brutal, repetitive, and unfulfilling.

But the status quo is a two-way street—and just as future workers must be trained in docility, future bosses must be prepared for dominance. The flipside of the education in submission received by the working class is an education in how to “manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for … exploitation and repression.” Those destined for power wind their way through private alternative institutions: preppy Country Day Schools and well-heeled college preparatory schools—which offer wide-ranging elective courses, opportunities for independent projects, and extensive extracurricular offerings—with parents often shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of tuition before their offspring have even set foot on a college campus. Where public schools teach the so-called “liberal arts” under the most illiberal of circumstances, students whose families can afford boarding school receive a world-class liberal education. For the low, low price of $64,789, students at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, have the privilege of never again encountering the banking method described by Freire; instead, they are educated via the Harkness method—an updated equivalent to the Socratic method that encourages, above all, critical thinking.

The problem is not merely that students from different socioeconomic strata can afford different educations; it is that those educations then reinforce—materially, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically—one’s place in the capitalist system, all the while peddling the false promise of social mobility by way of “meritocratic” achievement. The practice of “tracking,” by which students are sorted into classes based on achievement, has been controversial in the U.S. since its advent in the early 20th century; but the most pernicious and profound form of tracking is that which determines students’ achievements based on their class.

Party Pedagogy

When Freire, Althusser, and others argued in the 1960s and 1970s that the pen would be at least as important as the sword in bringing about a more equal world, they were dialoguing with leftists going back hundreds of years. The problem of education—and, more accurately, the lack thereof among so much of the working class throughout time—has plagued the Left since its nascence in 18th-century France. Philippe Buonarroti (a veteran and chronicler of the Conspiracy of the Equals, an abortive 1796 coup d’état) went to his grave believing that the way to the rule of the people could only be paved by the success of elite (meaning, in part, well-educated) conspirators, whose temporary command would serve as a necessary transitional stage toward a system run by workers. Later, the pre-Marxist socialist Louis-Auguste Blanqui would echo Buonarroti in his belief that any viable socialist revolution would necessarily be helmed by a small band of conspirators, organizing in obscurity against the forces of capital. 

But as later leftists would realize, revolutionary power lay not in secrecy but in size. Karl Marx and those writing after him, especially Rosa Luxemburg, would exchange the notion of the conspiratorial cadre for the mass movement—a revolution from below, made possible not by proletarian ignorance of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the elite, but proletarian initiative in their own right, born of the learned ability to see clearly and strike at the sources of their oppression. Social democracy begins with the education of workers in class struggle, and proceeds with political activity that workers themselves direct. “In order to be able to overthrow [absolutism],” writes Luxemburg in The Mass Strike, “the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organization. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.” She herself taught for several years in the German Social Democrats’ national party school; contemporaneous anarchists, including Peter Kropotkin, were on a similar wavelength.

Illustration by Ellen Burch

Luxemburg and co. took for granted that there would necessarily be a pedagogical component to fomenting the proletarian revolution—alas, a fact far more easily identified than acted upon, then as now. Freire felt, acutely, this paradox, posing the following: “If the implementation of a liberating education requires political power and the oppressed have none, how then is it possible to carry out the pedagogy of the oppressed prior to the revolution?” He tentatively concludes that it necessitates educational approaches that emphasize dialogue, cooperation, unity, problem-posing, organization, cultural synthesis—as opposed to the division, domination, repression, manipulation, and cultural indoctrination that are par for the course in most American classrooms. Only through collaborative and culturally-engaged education could students develop what Freire calls “critical consciousness,” an awareness of the social, political, and economic conditions under which one lives, and the ability to confront it head-on.

While the mainstream was distracted by the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that came to define the counterculture, a contingent of leftists and fellow travelers began putting these pedagogical approaches into practice. Even before Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed made its way into an English translation in 1970, a range of leftists—from Civil Rights activists to hippies—had already followed in Luxemburg’s footsteps and refocused their attention on that too-often-overlooked political subject: the “forgotten citizens,” the “neglected citizens.” Many still students themselves, they heard the far-off bell ringing and headed back to school—this time, as teachers.

Old School Cool

The landscape in which the forebears of the Brooklyn Free School found themselves was far different from the landscape in which Luxemburg once taught. Practically all of the pedagogical innovation that has happened in the United States happened during the 20th century, particularly in the five decades after Luxemburg’s 1919 death. After hundreds of years of education by way of rote and repetition, the convergence of a number of social and economic factors at the turn of the century inspired a shift toward more “student-centric” methods of instruction. The education historian Larry Cuban highlights, in his seminal work How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890–1990, an unprecedented amount of immigration as a major driving factor in the first wave of reform. School administrators, charged with educating not just children, but future American citizens, introduced a new goal to their schools, says Cuban: namely, “helping children discard their ethnic cultures in order to embrace what educators saw as American ideals and habits.” Of course, when those children grew up and had children of their own, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, as Jewish and Italian communities agitated for some degree of cultural preservation in public schools.

One effect of this demographic shift was a gradual pivot toward more student-centric and community-oriented educational tactics. Progressive schools allowed their students to select some of their own classes, including language instruction; forgo individual recitation for a growing range of group activities, including in-classroom dramatizations, discussions, and projects of various sorts; and express themselves as individuals through arts education. Some progressive institutions began to debut the principles of democratic schooling as well: the first iteration thereof in the U.S. was the Antioch School in Yellow Springs, Ohio—affiliated with Antioch College, which was, at that time, under the leadership of the progressive education reformer Horace Mann—where students to this day participate in the governance of the school. None of this should sound fantastic to modern ears, of course, because many of the progressive tactics first implemented in the first half of the 20th century are practically ubiquitous today: everything from student government to clustered desks to field trips to elective classes has its roots in this era of reform. 

But for other early-20th-century educational theorists, reform was not ambitious enough. Anarchist and libertarian thinkers in particular questioned the basic dominant assumptions about the nature of children—proposing, for practically the first time in history, that they might be inherently good—and called for a more substantial reimagining of modern education. Most overtly political, the Ferrer movement came stateside in the early 1900s following the execution of the Spanish anarchist pedagogue Francisco Ferrer, whose short-lived La Escuela Moderna offered a secular, libertarian alternative to Catholic education in Spain. In 1911, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and other New York City anarchists convened the Ferrer Association and opened the Ferrer Center, which operated the Ferrer Modern School (later Stelton Modern School) until 1953. While the Ferrer Modern School was not quite so radical as Ferrer’s own La Escuela Moderna, it offered a powerful progressive education to working-class children. In the latter half of the 20th century, when the Modern School movement experienced a resurgence, some of its alumni would themselves pioneer ventures in radical alternative education.

That wave of innovation would prove even more ambitious in its divergence from both traditional and progressive educational tactics. Of particular influence in the U.S. was the autonomous Summerhill School, which had been in operation in Suffolk, England, for four decades by the time its founder, A.S. Neill, published Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing in 1960. The book, revised and republished in 1993 with an introduction by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, details the principles and practices of the still-operant Summerhill School, centered around Neill’s oft-repeated maxim of “freedom, not license.” At the height of Neill’s 50-year tenure at the helm of Summerhill, classes were optional, discipline and top-down direction nonexistent, decisions made by direct democracy during weekly meetings, and “the most frequent remark [made by] visitors … [was] that they cannot tell who is staff and who is pupil,” wrote Neill. A large number of that staff was involved with the Socialist Party and Communist Party of Great Britain, as many Summerhill students would later be; Neill himself was a fellow traveler, though foremost an educator and (extremely amateur) psychoanalyst.

the summerhill school / photo by axel kuhn

Summerhill sold millions of copies and spurred the so-called “Summerhillian” movement in the United States, though Civil Rights activists had already come to similar conclusions about what was missing from American education—and especially the education which was available to Black students in the South. While British kids ran amok in Suffolk, thousands of Black students—ranging in age from child to senior citizen, though averaging about 15—enrolled in Freedom Schools, which employed proto-Freirian tactics to supplement the public education available to Black students and prime those students for participation in the events of the Freedom Summer (a 1964 volunteer campaign to register Black voters in Mississippi) and beyond. Questioning was the core instructional tactic of these classrooms: “[Black students] have been denied the right to question,” says a pamphlet distributed to Freedom School teachers, most of whom were themselves college-aged students. “The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help them begin to question.” While critics joked that reading was a rare skill at Summerhill, the Freedom Schools focused on literacy and other key skills that Mississippi public schools failed to teach effectively. For the Freedom Schools, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic were inextricable from the revolution: the “Introduction to the Academic Curriculum” suggests that “if, for example, the group of students plan to canvass, the language arts phase of the program could concentrate on an appropriate verbal skill, the social studies area could be devoted to the study of the population to be canvassed in terms of economic, social, religious factors and the implications of those factors, the math area could be given over to statistical breakdowns, charts, etc.” 

While Summerhill was primarily a psychological intervention and the Freedom Schools a delimited political undertaking, most alternative education in the 1960s and 1970s existed somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes. Though limited in number, the ranks of alternative schools came to include everything from specialized magnet schools (like the ​​Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City) to democratic free schools (like the Sudbury Valley School, home of the eponymous Sudbury method, in Massachusetts, and the Brooklyn Free School) to schools-without-walls (like the literal School Without Walls High School in D.C.), all of which have persisted into the present—the former as a mainstay of mainstream education, the latter two as something like oddball cousins: accepted, even beloved, but held at a distance. Nonetheless, some of the ideas that these oddball schools pioneered—like open-plan classrooms—became commonplace the following decades. As with so much of the legacy of the counterculture, informal education tactics were castigated by contemporaries as failures and farces—and yet subsequently made their way into the mainstream, their radical roots obscured by time.

What has perhaps actually vanished since the 1970s is the spirit of educational experimentation that drove these radical interventions. Cuts to educational funding under President Richard Nixon and the implementation of standards-based educational reform under both Presidents Bush made alternative education difficult, if not untenable, to finance and sustain. At this point, alternative education became the prerogative of the privileged (as in Montessori Schools that charge upwards of $30k annually for full-time enrollment) or—with few exceptions—quickly fell prey to funding shortages, further centralization and standardization of public education, and (no surprise for any endeavor of the Left, alas) internal ideological dispute. Radical education seems as dead as a doornail: even as a sense of educational crisis has mounted in the United States, no widespread call for educational experimentation has risen from its New Left-era grave.

When Public Goods Aren’t Good Enough

No doubt grandparents have been complaining about falling educational standards since they themselves were walking barefoot, uphill both ways, to school while their own grandparents griped at home about the simultaneous snow, sleet, hail, and blistering heat that plagued their own walks back in the day. But there is more than a little truth to the claim that public education is seriously failing its students: according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the test that has classrooms across the country in a chokehold—conducted in 2019, the present state of American education, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, was not particularly robust. Among high school seniors, a whopping one-third read below NAEP Basic standards, and only a quarter were at or above NAEP Proficient in mathematics.   

Liberals and leftists—the former known for their faith in reform, the latter for their supposedly revolutionary disposition—are odd bedfellows in their shared diagnosis of the causal factors at work here. They may point fingers at lack of funding, lack of teachers, lack of space, lack of parental involvement, lack of technological access—and, of course, more recently, the glut of school shootings that is gradually transforming ever more primary and secondary schools into state-of-the-art juvenile detention centers. But no matter the intervention, and no matter the issue those interventions seek to address, the test results remain dire—so dire that one must wonder whether throwing money at the problem is enough to adjust its outcomes. After all, SmartBoards and iPads—despite studies indicating that technology can be a real boon in the classroom—have done seemingly very little to raise NAEP reading or math scores on standardized tests. In fact, seniors performed either roughly the same or worse on these tests in 2019 than they did in the 1990s and early 2000s, long before computers had come to dominate the classroom.

Of course, funding is important: improved student-to-teacher ratios, enhanced materials, the reintroduction of long-lost arts and physical education classes, and perhaps more beautiful campuses (or, at very least, buildings with windows) in which students might spend their compulsory 8-hour days are all interventions that—at scale—would no doubt improve educational outcomes. But the problem is no doubt curricular as well: not only does most American education fail to prepare students for life in a changing labor landscape, but it also fails in many cases to provide an intellectually rich learning experience. Most curriculum is bound to (possibly well-intentioned, certainly poorly-implemented) standardized testing requirements, which themselves are a political pawn. And the same government that giveth and taketh away much-needed money also calls certain key curricular shots: during the vitriolic curriculum wars of the 1990s, the Senate condemned (99-1) the Bush administration-funded National Standards for United States History on the grounds that it was, in short, un-American: that is, it called for history curriculum to address slavery, colonial conquest, and race- and gender-based disenfranchisement. In the present, states like  make headlines for placing major restrictions on what can and cannot be taught in the classroom, though Floridian students already perform significantly below the national average in both reading and mathematics.

The underperformance of public schools renders the entire system vulnerable to right-wing calls to deregulate and even privatize public education—and according to some educational scholars, that’s why the GOP has an interest in, in fact, encouraging underperformance. In 1981, just a year after the Department of Education came into existence, President Ronald Reagan was already calling for its dismantlement. His effort fell flat largely because of stiff resistance in Congress, but that cannot be taken for granted, especially as a growing number of representatives around the country express willingness to send kids back to work. This March, 161 Republican congressional representatives voted in favor of the (failed, thankfully) Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would have terminated the Department of Education’s administration of anything pertaining to primary or secondary education, no doubt including federal support and protection for students with disabilities, immigrants, and other vulnerable and underserved populations. “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist,” said former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a Moms for Liberty summit in Tampa last year.

While the cherished fantasy of the American right might be the abolishment of the Department of Education, they seem willing to settle in the meantime for taking advantage of the federal government’s relative lack of control over public education to erode and propagandize curricular materials across the country. A New York Times analysis of a popular social studies textbook in California and Texas found telling differences between the two editions: in the Texas edition, resistance to Reconstruction is attributed in part to tax increases and, on the same page where the California edition highlights the experiences of a Dominican immigrant to the U.S., the Texas editions features a quote from a border control officer. Time and again, national standards are bent toward the lowest common denominator. Conservative bluster about the dangers of “cultural Marxism” and “critical race theory” turned curricular as the College Board revised its AP African American History course to assuage criticism: on the chopping block were subjects including the last two decades of Black struggle and writers like bell hooks. 

“Education is about the pursuit of truth,”  Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted in January, “not the imposition of ideology or the advancement of a political agenda.” It was doublespeak, of course. Where education is concerned, the absence of certain information is as ideological as its inclusion.

Propaganda 101

The Moms for Liberty (M4L) summit where DeVos issued her damning indictment of the DOE was none other than a multi-day seminar on how to skew school rightward, helmed by the “moms” behind the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida, nationwide book banning and bounty hunting of liberal educators, and even the now-presidential-candidate Ron DeSantis himself—the Four Horsemen of the educational apocalypse. M4L’s tactics have proven canny: its members—who number, according to the group’s leaders, more than 100,000, spread across 195 chapters in 37 states—run and endorse candidates for school boards across the country, an estimated 200 of whom won their elections in 2022. Once elected, they can exert substantial influence over the education offered in their district, such as hiring and firing administrators, managing district budgets, making sure schools are adhering to state and federal standards, and shaping curricula.

The Left needs to remember what the Right—grappling with an aging electorate—clearly knows: that public schools are the ideological battleground of the future. “The war will be won in education,” said none other than Florida’s own Commissioner of Education in a 2021 lecture. It is possible to dismiss creeping authoritarian restrictions on everything from the books on library shelves to the signs on bathroom doors as vote-mongering meant to appeal to the most socially conservative of Republican voters. But regardless of their tactical purpose, the result is always the same: what Freire and Althusser describe as the indoctrination of students into the maintenance of an oppressive status quo. While mainstream education masquerades as a relatively neutral public good—fueling accusations from both sides of the political spectrum that the other is imposing ideology on education—the “banking” method described by Freire is inherently ideological. It is, after all, the selective introduction of information to a captive audience. The essential problem is thus a variation on the theme first composed by poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

But there are tools that can—and the dissemination thereof has always been at the heart of radical education. “There is very little if anything that you can teach [Black students] about prejudice and segregation,” reads the “Notes on Teaching in Mississippi Freedom Schools” pamphlet distributed to Freedom Summer teachers. “They know. What you can and must do is help them develop ideas and associations and tools with which they can do something about segregation and prejudice.” The demand for tools persists today, and leftists are well-suited to rise to the occasion in a moment such as this. Post-pandemic, negative views of capitalism have reached highs of 54 percent among 18-24-year-olds. But feelings of political inefficacy, namely a sense that “political involvement rarely has tangible results,” have also shot up to 36 percent among 18-to-29-year-olds. Here again, the Freedom Schools provide a valuable referent. Even under the exceedingly adverse circumstances of the Jim Crow South, students bound by their experience of radical education managed to organize, picket, boycott, and protest with unprecedented success during the summer of 1964. “The legacy of the Freedom Schools suggests that despite the best efforts of the architects of the Jim Crow system,” writes historian Jon N. Hale, “community-based efforts taught students to act as historic change agents.”

There is good reason, therefore, for leftists to start now to take back the American school system—not through programs like Teach for America, which sics largely untrained, prestige-hungry Ivy League grads on school districts, but in the old-fashioned ways: by becoming tutors and teachers, joining school boards, advocating for greater federal oversight of education. And—where the political environment is hostile to critical pedagogy—perhaps even taking matters into the Left’s hands and founding alternative schools. There are fights to be had on many fronts: against a GOP insistent on degrading public education; against extant federal standards that, in practice, enforce what the critical pedagogist Henry Giroux describes as the “deskilling” of teachers; against anti-teacher and anti-teachers’ union propaganda, as rampant in liberal cities as conservative towns, deployed with the goal of subjecting schools to ever-greater parental purview; against neoliberal solutions for failing and underfunded schools, such as the circus of edtech startups which hasten the slouch toward privatization and the Uber-ification of teaching; against the pervasive (and often racialized) culture of suspicion and disdain for children that has, in recent decades, transformed schools into ever-more-repressive and punitive institutions; against private schools that hoard intellectual and material resources for the benefit of the rich; and perhaps even against children themselves, indoctrinated at such young ages into apathy and resentment for education that they, too, might need to be convinced of its liberatory potential.

If ever radical education proper has been ripe for reinvigoration, it is this moment of flux, as public schools lose students to private, parochial, and charter schools—and even, in fact, homeschooling—and few Americans seem content with the current system, least of all students themselves. A new path from K to 12 need not be built from scratch. The enormous body of theory produced by radical pedagogists during the 20th century awaits contemporary interlocution. And, as many such theorists have vowed, the upfront costs are low because this kind of pedagogy can take place anywhere: “Provide teachers and use the city itself as the school,” writes social theorist Paul Goodman, “its streets, cafeterias, stores, movies, museums, parks and factories.” Indeed, if it is the world that leftists seek to reinvent, they must educate their students in that world—because, says Giroux, “The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world,” how to articulate one’s place in it, how to act with agency against its many injustices.

It’s often said that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach—but that is itself an insidious piece of ideology. Education is in the midst of an ideological battle royale, and for the sake of America’s children, the Left needs all hands on desk.

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