Ever since the midterm elections in the United States, not a day goes by without news of some new offensive by the Right on a “hard” target of the modern welfare state: labor unions, environmental protections and, most prominently, public education. To some, the pace and power of the attacks signal the dawn of a political age; to others, they simply represent another stage in the Reagan Revolution.
Either way, though, it is painfully clear that their opponents preferred strategy — waiting for the pendulum to swing back — is unlikely to prevent some of the most important damage. Supporters of the Affordable Care Act repeatedly made the case that, even though President Barack Obama’s health-care initiative represented a poor compromise with private industry, it was crucial to get it passed, because once a benefit becomes firmly established as the norm in a society, removing it proves extremely difficult. While there is some truth to this assertion, a bedrock principle of libertarian thinking, recent history suggests that a combination of ideological tenacity and seemingly limitless funding has given American reactionaries what they need to remove, not only recently established programs, but ones that have been around so long that they seemed inviolable.
Attempts to reduce the size of government by refusing to pay salaries for new positions or to fill those left vacant after retirement turned out to be the leading edge in a much more sweeping assault that seeks to downsize the state regardless of the public’s resistance. Right now, in states once known for their progressive heritage and concomitantly robust public sector, such as Wisconsin and Illinois, drastic proposals have been made to dissolve entire government units and restructure the state university system radically. Parallel moves to restrict both the Federal and state government’s control of elementary and secondary education at the local level are also being undertaken on a variety of fronts, from encouraging the redirection of tax revenues to charter and private schools under the rubric of maximizing “choice” to restricting the imposition of national tests and standards such as the Advanced Placement exams of the College Board.
For people who work in public education at any level, this trend is extremely alarming. Instead of merely seeking to defend their efforts to innovate and reform, teachers and administrators are facing the very real prospect that they will lose their livelihoods altogether. Things look so bleak, in fact, that many people are leaving the profession altogether, either by searching for a new career or retiring early. And that, of course, is precisely what the ideologues on the Right want. They would like nothing better than to make the idea of working for the state repugnant, whether within the government proper or the many institutions that depend on it for financial support.
If anyone doubts the ideological character of this assault, they need only look at those instances in which politicians have confessed a desire to eliminate programs that they believe to be biased against them. Last week the story broke that the board overseeing the University of North Carolina system intended to abolish three interdisciplinary centers identified with progressive causes. Instead of communicating in the carefully vetted legalese that used to be deployed to conceal the political nature of a decision, this decision was explained in the bluntest possible terms as an attempt to stop funding work that could bolster criticism of conservative actions.
More commonly, though, the Right shields itself from criticism by declaring its interest in making education more practical, so that students will be more likely to get decent jobs once they enter the workforce. Whether emphasizing the importance of STEM initiatives focused on science and technology at the K-12 level or their corollaries in higher education, they have repeatedly made the case that the sort of teaching most likely to inspire interdisciplinary critical thinking is “wasteful” because it doesn’t translate directly into the skills that the private sector deems most desirable.
The ideal of an education that can’t be reduced to vocational training has often met with resistance in the United States. At times when the romance of the business world was being celebrated most vigorously, such at the 1920s, complaints about the humanities and social sciences often reached a fever pitch. But there are specific reasons why these words are now turning into deeds to an unprecedented degree. First, the coupling of ever-improving communications technology with a truly global labor market more or less guarantees that somebody somewhere will be willing to do work for longer hours and less pay than would be the case in countries like the United States. Second, the expansion of “Big Data” to almost every sphere of human activity is making the indeterminacies of humanistic learning seem more and more like the secular equivalent of religious belief. Third, unprecedented availability, not only of content, but also of free commentaries on how to use that content is making it seem foolish to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for instruction that isn’t explicitly technical.
When all these developments are considered simultaneously, it’s hard not reach the conclusion that we are in the midst of a transformation of education as dramatic as the one that started to befall heavy industry in the 1970s. There may not be bankruptcies, acquisitions and mergers on the horizon in quite the same way that they restructured the landscape for steel, mining or automobile manufacturing back then. But the overall impact is likely to be similar. Conservatives could not have asked for better circumstances to shift their ideological goals from rhetoric to praxis. By arguing that their opponents are on the wrong side of history, they can position themselves as the standard-bearers for progress despite their reactionary worldview.
It’s enough to plunge the Left into a debilitating despair. The excitement generated in its ranks by ΣΥΡΙΖΑ’s recent electoral victory testifies to a disturbing realization: within a society being ruthlessly reshaped by the Right, the world of public sector employees — including almost everyone involved in education, since even private institutions, from Harvard on down, depend on income from the state — is rapidly turning into an internal “Greece”, where they are being forced to choose between complying with austerity measures that are the prerequisite for receiving what remains of public funding or risking everything in order to repudiate the neoliberal order. But so long as they are unable to secure new financial resources to which few ideological strings attached, their future looks very dark indeed. Just as ΣΥΡΙΖΑ’s room to maneuver is sharply limited by Greece’s subordinate position in the European Union, the public sector in the United States can only go so far in asserting its autonomy relative to the government proper.
That’s why the question isn’t “What is to be done?” so much as “What still can be done?” The pendulum may, in fact, swing back towards the left in 2016, but however much that curbs the influence of reactionary zealots going forward, the structural problem will remain. Perhaps a radical proposal such as “a la carte” taxation — in which people get to decide how a proportion of the money they tithe to the state gets spent — might help. Certainly, opinion polls suggest that more Americans support public education than the Right would have us believe. But it is more likely that the results of such a radical transformation of government funding would be underwhelming. It may be the case that, at least in the short term, the only thing educators can do better than they are already doing is to demonstrate how much value they add both to students’ employment prospects and their lives as a whole. Although selling that argument to the general public won’t be easy, it has a lot more chance of success than petulantly declaring that status quo should be maintained indefinitely.
Photograph courtesy of Green MPs. Published under a Creative Commons license.