The Republican Presidential Primary, a bacchanal of cruel absurdity, hasn’t failed to disappoint as an illustration of what Henry Giroux has called America’s descent into madness. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, certainly no liberal, in a 2013 article with Thomas Mann presaged the madness and characterized the Republican Party as “a radical insurgency-ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition” (2013, p. 15). In response to repeat train-wreck performances of middle-aged men behaving like pre-adolescents, which at on point actually descended into taunts about penis size, Mitt Romney, himself a two-time failed Republican presidential hopeful, has anointed himself the sage voice of Republican establishment reason. Romney took to the airwaves of the corporate media, itself complicit in the America’s embarrassing anti-political theater of the grotesque, to, in the words of Rebecca Solnit, “mansplain” that Donald Trump is a “phony” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”
Of course the corporate media has profited handsomely from turning America’s family dysfunction into a reality show complete with the attempted intervention by our rich, White, corporate turn-around guy “dad.” CBS Chairman Les Moonves referenced the media circus around Trump’s campaign as part guilty pleasure and part financial windfall for the corporate media: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going….It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” (Huddleston, Jr., 2016). I can only imagine what former CBS icon the late Ed Murrow would say. Lost in the corporate media’s obsession with marketing cheap, voyeuristic reality TV as serious political discourse is the descent of public dialogue into a hyper-masculinized curriculum and pedagogy of hubris, violence, spectacle, anti-intellectualism, anti-politics, and anti-culture aimed at the destruction of the public dialogic spaces in which the dying flames of public intellectual life are in danger of being extinguished.
Romney’s attempt to reclaim some semblance of political or social relevance is interesting for at least three reasons. First, Romney’s depiction of Trump as a fraud and fool dismisses the very real racist, classist, religiously intolerant, homophobic, misogynist, nativist rage on full display both at Trump’s rallies and in the other candidates’ rhetoric as well. While the candidates’ styles may vary marginally, their substance is based on the same bigotry, fear, and hate. Second, Romney sent the duplicitous message that the Republican establishment has had nothing to do with creating the rage that has coalesced around Trump’s candidacy. Yet both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton and the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council have for decades carefully cultivated all sorts of racist and classist fears about law and order, domestic and national security, the economy, etc., which has, in fact, legitimized multiple forms of institutional violence against impoverished communities of color, women, children, LGBTQ communities, the environment, and the victims of America’s world-wide imperial escapades. Finally, Romney is a rich, White, male elite who, like Trump, has accumulated his fortune through dispossessing middle and working-class people of their livelihoods. Scholars like Michael Kimmel (2012, 2013) have well documented the raced and classed rage of dispossessed White men, who out of a sense of economic fear and desperation have answered Trump’s clarion call to “make America great again.” Although the paradox of supporting a rich White dispossessor masquerading as an “outsider” may be lost on those angry White men, Romney’s paternalistic, condescending lecture about the folly of following Trump may fall on ears unwilling to hear.
So what does all this have to do with education?
Turn-around Guys, Turn-Around Society, and the Carnage Left Behind
Several years ago, a friend showed me a Website called despair.com, which sells “demotivational” products that satirize the motivation industry. As I clicked through the site, one poster carried a message about consulting, which is relevant to this discussion:
“If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”
That quote speaks volumes about “turn-around guys” like Mitt Romney, who market themselves as the smartest guys in the room, able to leverage (no pun intended) their business acumen and work their magic to save distressed companies. In the current de-socializing climate predicated on anti-public sentiment and an anti-politics of hubris and certitude, the American electorate seems increasingly to have bought into the narrative that being a successful businessman is the litmus test to become CEO of America, Incorporated. But, as Matt Taibbi reported in a 2012 exposé on Romney and his days at Bain Capital, there is much darker side to the vaunted “turn-around guy” myth. Romney owes his fortune to practices through which his company minimally invested its own resources in troubled firms, bought-off the existing executives with generous bonuses, and obtained the vast bulk of the turn-around financing, for which the troubled firm was responsible, from investment banks. In order to service the massive new debt, the troubled firm, which also paid hefty management fees to Bain, typically cut its workforce and benefits, which could leave the firm either ripe for sale, from which Bain would profit handsomely, or go bankrupt. Either way, Bain won.
David Harvey (2005) characterizes this process as accumulation by dispossession, a central tenet of neoliberal ideology. Through a cruel calculus of disposability, workers, families, and whole communities are viewed as dispensable in an obsessive process through which to maximize corporate profit and shareholder returns, re-distribute wealth upward, and strengthen corporate economic and political power. The turn-around guy and the concomitant emergence of the turn-around society are gendered, classed, and racialized constructs with a long history. Scholars provide a rich body of research tracing social constructions of masculinity to patterns of hetero-patriarchal gender practices formed to support evolving forms of capitalism, colonialism, empire, and institutional violence (Connell, 1995; Foucault, 1990, 2008; Kimmel, 2008; Willis, 1977). In the context of contemporary capitalism in the neoliberal era, Connell (2012, p. 14) notes that corporate masculinity depends among other things on “a callousness towards poverty and social distress that is now institutionalized in the political world as neoliberalism.”
Like the demotivational consulting poster, the turn-around guys create and manipulate crises, and make a lot of money managing the rescue attempt aided and abetted by the corporate state-Hank Paulson’s role in Government Goldman’s complicity in the economic crisis and subsequent taxpayer bailout of those who caused it in 2008 comes readily to mind. And that brings us to the issue of public education in an environment in which we appear to venerate not only the turn-around guy, but increasingly view the public good in terms of a turn-around society.
Turning Higher Education Around?
Education provides a frightening example of the turn-around ethos run amok. Just as Mitt Romney and Bain Capital convinced already struggling companies to assume crushing debts and pay exorbitant management fees to shepherd them through the financial crises created by the corporate turn-around itself, we are now following the same destructive model as a matter of education policy by turning over our public K-12 and higher education institutions to, in many cases, the same turn-around guys who tanked the economy in 2008 and were rewarded for it.
Mitt Romney’s re-emergence coincides with the ignominious end of fellow turn-around guy Simon Newman’s tenure (just over a year) as president of Mount St. Mary’s University, which hired Newman to turn the Catholic liberal arts institution around (see Stripling, 2016). Newman’s initial steps as president of Mount St. Mary’s included establishing a “shadow cabinet” of his consultant friends from the West Coast, where he had previously worked in capital management at L.E.K. Consulting (Stripling, 2016). Aside from denigrating the university’s liberal arts tradition, Newman also devised a scheme by which to encourage struggling students to drop-out of the university before they could impact the institution’s retention statistics. The plan centered on administering a survey to incoming freshmen, who would be told there were no wrong answers, using the data to identify students “at-risk of dropping out,” and then encouraging those students to drop-out early enough so as not to negatively impact the university’s enrollment statistics (see Jaschick, 2016a). In explaining his plan, Newman reportedly told a faculty member:
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.” (Stripling, 2016)
News of Newman’s analogy between encouraging students to drop out and killing cuddly bunnies initially spread via the student newspaper. As faculty began to question and oppose Newman’s plan publically, two faculty members, one of whom was tenured, were fired for “disloyalty” without due process, and the provost dismissed as well (Jaschick, 2016b). News of the survey and the subsequent turmoil at Mount St. Mary’s also attracted the attention of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the university’s accreditor. The commission demanded a response from the university by March 15, 2016 to questions about accreditation standards related to integrity, admissions and retention, faculty, and leadership and governance (Jaschick, 2016a).
The Mount St. Mary’s debacle represents just the latest in a series of “non-traditional” presidential hires in higher education. For example, former Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, now President of Purdue University, attempted while governor to turn public schools and universities around by advocating a ban on the use of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” from Indiana’s public schools and universities (Weinberg, 2013). Bruce Harreld, a businessman hired last year as president of the University of Iowa, has been under constant assault by faculty who opposed his hiring, have highlighted inaccuracies in his resume, and accused the Board of Regents of rigging the selection process (see Inside Higher Ed, 2015).
As for Newman, he resigned on March 1. As has often been the case in our turn-around society, the turn-around guy is gone, probably with a pre-negotiated golden parachute, but he left considerable damage in his wake. Newman’s tenure reportedly created a climate of fear at Mount St. Mary’s. For example, a poll of students by the student government at first showed strong student support for Newman. Yet, according to one student, the poll required students to provide their identification numbers, and many did not respond truthfully for fear of losing their scholarships (Mangen & DeSantis, 2016). Despite the damage done, one faculty member who helped organize the opposition to Newman argued: “I hope this is a clear signal to other academics-and administrators at other institutions-of what can happen when scholars join together in solidarity for justice” (Mangen & DeSantis, 2016). The deeper implied meaning in that faculty member’s statement is that higher education will continue to hire non-academic turn-around guys as they continue to operate as corporate structures, which will require intense resistance by faculty in the name of shared governance. Such resistance will remain difficult and dangerous among a professoriate in which the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has plummeted and faculty have been repositioned as disposable contingent labor.
Turn-Around Anti-Culture in Public K-12 Education
The enthrallment with the turn-around guys threatens to leave K-12 public education “public” in name only. In New Orleans the turn-around guys have obliterated public education completely. Anti-intellectual, anti-public governors, state legislatures, boards of regents, state boards of education, and members of congress have slashed public education funding, mirrored the turn-around guys’ greed-and-debt model, created financial crises, loaded students with debt, accused public educational institutions of failing, and brought in the turn-around guys to “fix” things.
And who are the turn-around guys who have been calling the shots in public education discourses in the 21st century? Diane Ravitch, in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” identifies a billionaire boys’ club (BBC), a cabal of male billionaire entrepreneurs lead by the Gates, Broad, and Walton Family Foundations. Unlike older philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation, which reviewed funding proposals submitted to them, the BBC “decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse” (Ravitch, 2010, p. 199). The BBC’s model has been called venture philanthropy and philanthrocapitalism because “it borrows concepts from venture capital finance and business management” (Ravitch, 2010, p. 199). Philanthrocapitalists proceed from a philosophy of polemical false philanthropy through which they strategically invest funds to realize pre-determined conclusions about how to turn national and international education systems around to serve them by generalizing their corporate experiences and “ethics” to complex social and political systems. Ravitch (2010) concludes:
“Each of the venture philanthropies began with different emphases, but over time they converged in support of reform strategies that mirrored the own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches….And so it happened that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education….these foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education.” (p. 200)
And what does the turn-around ethos look like in the world of K-12 education?
· In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called “the best thing that happened” to the city’s schools (Anderson, 2010), the New Orleans Recovery School District was reconfigured as an all-charter district, which has been a boon to edupreneurial turn-around guys, but a disaster for children and the community (see Kimmett, 2015).
· In Ohio, which prohibits for-profit schools, charters are nevertheless allowed to outsource their management and services to for-profit entities. As Ohio Governor, presidential contender John Kasich has presided over a scandal-ridden charter school system in which millions of dollars were misspent, charters failed at a rate 10 times higher than claimed by the state, and Ohio Education Department official David Hansen was forced to resign after “helping” charter schools to make them look better in state evaluations (see Ravitch, 2013; Strauss, 2016).
· In Florida, a 2014 investigation by the Sun Sentinel found that charter schools are essentially unregulated to the extent that “virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity” (Yi & Shipley, 2014). Further, a year-long study by the League of Women Voters (2014) expressed serious conflict of interest concerns about numerous Florida State Legislators including Representative Erik Fresen, Chair of the House Education Subcommittee on Appropriations.
· Online charter schools, which Ravitch (2013, p. 181) characterizes as the “biggest pot of gold for business-minded reformers,” were originated by K12, Inc. The founders of K12 included “junk bond king” Michael Milken, who after being released from prison turned to education philanthropy. By 2012, K12 claimed over 100,000 students, and major proponents of “virtual” schools included failed presidential hopeful Jeb Bush and Rupert Murdoch, who saw education as a $500 billion market just waiting to be tapped (Ravitch, 2013). Virtual charters continue to suck hundreds of millions of dollars away from public education (states pay for the students to “attend”), and multiple studies, three of which were funded by the Walton Family Foundation, have found the educational results to be “a colossal disaster” (see Rosenfeld, 2016a).
The Accumulation of Corporate Power and the Dispossessing of Democracy
Conservatives have long railed against the “redistribution of wealth” and “social engineering.” Yet the turn-around guys, their servants in all branches and at all levels of government, a compliant judiciary more concerned with procedures than truth, the corporate media, and the technocratic systems managers whose only loyalty is to big data and business analytics seek exactly the upward redistribution of all forms of wealth and power through social engineering projects targeted at other people’s children. That upward redistribution of financial and material wealth facilitates the dispossession of democracy as well. Ravitch (2010, pp. 200-201) writes:
“There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be….They are bastions of unaccountable power.”
Perhaps no better example of the anti-democratic, indeed authoritarian hubris of the corporate education agenda exists than Reed Hastings of Netflix fame, who has long advocated corporatized charters and “tech-centric” education. Hastings recently launched a $100 million foundation with the goal of drastically expanding technology-centered teaching despite the fact that his previous forays into the education-tech realm have floundered (see Rosenfeld, 2016b). As a teacher and a teacher educator, Hastings’ view of “learning”-children sitting in front of computers to learn decontextualized skills and content while collecting data about them-is disturbing enough. Yet perhaps more troubling is his autocratic view of education. Hastings, echoing the Trilateral Commission’s “Crisis of Democracy,” has repeatedly expressed the sentiment that democracy is an excess to be avoided in education, and he has voiced his contempt for elected school boards. Like Gates, Hastings prefers educational “management” exercised by a single figure. As Gates explained: “Instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things” (Rosenfeld, 2016b).
Fear of the Unknown and Unknowable in Education, Democracy, and Life
And so we return to the turn-around guys, whose hubris, certitude, and obsession with the techno-rationalization of society embodies a narrative of fear-fear of the unknown, of losing control-deeply embedded in White hetero-patriarchy. In the context of education, Peter Taubman wrote in 2000, just as the billionaire boys’ club was coalescing around its philanthrocapitalist education agenda, that the obsession with standards, assessment, and measurement lies in the desire to cure, control, and rescue through a grievously erroneous belief that collecting enough of the “right” data can somehow cure a metaphorical disease in which schools, teachers, students, and teacher educators are the patients. Thinking again about the demotivational poster about consultants prolonging the problem, I find Taubman’s (2000) conclusion striking:
“Hope for a better tomorrow keeps us from living in our own sentient bodies. Hope, because it is a fantasy, sustains the very problems it is meant to solve. The more we busy ourselves with designing set curricula, with perfecting exams, with testing out new hypotheses, with locating ‘best practices,’ for some generic student, the more we risk keeping things exactly as they are because we are no longer dealing with flesh and blood students or teachers, we are manipulating fantasy figures; we are simply perpetuating our fantasies.” (p. 26)
The corporate turn-around agenda of Hastings, Gates, and the rest of the billionaire turn-around guys seeks to expunge the unknown and unknowability from teaching, learning, life, and the messy process of democracy, which risks reducing K-12 and higher education to an exercise in measurement, control, prediction, and data manipulation through reframing students and teachers as anonymous data points. I certainly do not intend to romanticize the past, as education has always existed in highly contested ideological space-the question “Why can’t Johnny read?” in the context of Sputnik comes to mind.
Yet the massive upward redistribution of wealth and political power into the hands of so few turn-around guys in the neoliberal age poses some historic threats to public education as a fundamental aspect of democratic life and the public good. The explosion of charter schools as a strategy of privatization and marketization jettisons the original intention of charters as public laboratory schools to reach students who had been marginalized from traditional public schools. Charters have become another method through which taxpayer funds intended for public schools, a hallmark of democratic life, can be upwardly redistributed to the turn-around guys. The neoliberal practice of accumulation by dispossession through turn-around education policy has been wildly successful in threatening the vibrancy of public education in places like Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Arizona, and in destroying it in New Orleans. And when we see the communities most impacted by the punitive turn-around ethos in education-poor communities of color-the racist and classist underpinnings of turn-around ideology become clear.
Perhaps most concerning to me as a teacher educator, however, is, ironically, the failure of many in my profession to challenge false narratives of the failure of public education, teachers, and students. Many teacher educators have become both the victims and instruments of corporate power by succumbing to the turn-around ethos rather than standing up and challenging it. We have, in the words of Peter Taubman, become locked into an abusive relationship in which we educators attempt to prove our worth to our abusers on their terms rather than standing up and refusing to suffer their abuse any longer. We spend millions of dollars on data collection systems for accreditation and have reconfigured teacher education as technical training, the accumulation of decontextualized skills and strategies, and the replication of pre-determined measurable outcomes, all of which is broken down into auditable tasks. We are, as Taubman (2009) demonstrates, teaching literally by numbers. Rarely, if ever, do we ask teacher candidates about their own experiences and desires, develop dispositions of critical reflection on their identities and positionalities as teachers, or discuss teaching as an evolutionary process of being and becoming. We are complicit in de-professionalizing our own profession.
In response to the turn-around guys and the turn-around society they have helped create, I advocate for a praxis of refusal as an ethical stance through which teacher educators, teachers, school officials, parents, students, and community members who support public education join together with each other and with other social justice movements to refuse the condescending and authoritarian turn-around ethos embedded in neoliberal corporate-state power. Refusal will look different in each community based on its needs and circumstances, but some examples include:
· As a teacher educator and education researcher, I commit to refusing to provide what Eve Tuck (2009) calls the “damage-centered” research demanded by the hetero-patriarchal settler-colonial academy. Damage-centered research positions many communities as in need of the paternalistic cure and rescue discussed by Taubman (2000). Damage-centered research in education feeds the turn-around narrative and perpetuates further violence against many communities.
· Refusal can also look like the rapidly growing Opt-out movements in places like New York and Florida, in which parents, disgusted with the stresses placed on their children by obsessive mandated standardized testing, are refusing to allow their children to take the tests.
· Teachers, students, and parents in Chicago continue to publically protest the efforts of Rahm Emmanuel to turn-around Chicago’s schools through closing public schools and replacing them with charters. Parents and community members likewise continue to courageously resist the destruction of public education in New Orleans as well.
· In higher education, refusal might take the form of faculty and student scrutiny and opposition to the turn-around ethos illustrated by the fiasco at Mount St. Mary’s and by the actions of students at the University of Missouri whose demands for justice toppled unresponsive and dismissive leaders.
A fundamental aspect of an effective praxis of refusal lies in understanding that justice in education is intimately connected to broader justice initiatives-the explosion of the carceral state and school-to-prison pipeline; rapidly increasing economic and political inequality; environmental violence in urban communities of color such as Flint, Michigan and in rural areas such as the Pine Ridge Reservation, which continues to fight the toxic effects of uranium mining; attacks on voting rights; and hateful state legislation targeting LGBTQ communities, particularly the Transgender community.
In “Can Education Change Society?”, Michael Apple (2013, p. 41-44) enumerated the responsibilities of critical activist scholars:
1. Bear witness to exploitation and domination and highlight struggles against them.
2. Point out contradictions and spaces of possible action.
3. Broaden what counts as “research.”
4. Reconstruct “elite knowledge” to serve progressive social needs.
5. Keep multiple traditions of radical and progressive work alive.
6. Critique those traditions when they are inadequate to deal with current realities.
7. Act in concert with social movements.
8. Embody what is means to be both an excellent researcher and a committed member of society.
9. Use the privilege one has as a scholar to open spaces at universities and elsewhere for those who are not there or do not yet have a voice in educational and other social institutions.
Yes, we must turn things around, but not in the manner of the White, wealthy, hetero-patriarchal turn-around guys. The true turn-around lies in educated hope and a critical consciousness through which to bring to active presence histories, knowledge, and wisdom, such as Indigenous knowledge, which hetero-patriarchal social, political, and educational institutions have attempted to erase. No, human beings are not data points. No, education is not the manipulation of fantasy figures. No, a just, sustainable world will not be made in the image of the turn-around guys.
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