Reclaiming the Radical Critique of Education

The left has a long history of critiquing not just the content of schooling, but the very concepts and institutions foundational to formal education. Sometimes incompatible but sometimes complementary, radical arguments have marched along side by side over the centuries. Some claimed that the working classes deserved open access to elite education, others that what schools taught was actually nothing more than indoctrination in service to elites and that schools needed a total overhaul in content, while yet others argued that the concepts of school and teacher were in themselves tools for indoctrination and disempowerment and should be abolished. Sometimes one person would adopt more than one, even all, of the above views, depending on the situation or moment. Sometimes radicals just argued the principles among themselves. But there were loud voices for every one of these ideas, as well as many in between and beyond.

That glorious noise of radical discussion on education has been becoming more and more monophonic since the 1960s and 70s.

As the social services we could expect the state to provide vanished one by one in the wake of elimination of welfare as we know it, radicalism seems to have been in retreat, circling the wagons to protect liberal concepts, institutions and processes that were previously subject to sometimes withering critiques. Emma Goldman’s slogan “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” used to be found on T shirts and bumperstickers; now those who used to scoff at electoral politics pour their efforts into undoing gerrymandered districts or fighting voter ID laws. Net neutrality campaigns, defending such no-brainer basics as anti-monopolism and free speech, absorb activists who might otherwise have been paying attention to the Congressional January re-authorization of another 6 years of the government surveillance of Americans. Providing immigrants with housing and legal support has far too often displaced the analysis of and resistance to…

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