Friday, May 6, 2011

The Corporate Think Machine Invades the Classroom

This is an essay coming out in a Faculty at Community and Technical Colleges of Washington publication, FACTC Focus. In Washington State, we have hundreds of millions of tax rip-offs to corporations. Some call them loopholes, but whatever you want to use to denotate corporate crime, we in the state are in a massive spasm of cuts to schools, communities, health, and other safety nets for the public good, health and safety. May Day parade in Seattle was huge, bringing together all sorts of groups, including labor and immigration rights. More on that in a future post.

I will come back to some tech issues, and green issues, but, alas, without schools, without the liberal arts and sciences, then no number of computer and IT things will do us a damn good.

The Corporate Think
Machine Invades
The American Classroom

By Paul K. Haeder, Spokane Falls Community College

The events unfolding just in the past few months tell us why we need more free speech, critical analyses, more students and more teachers rubbing at the veneer of a corporate controlled society:

We just hit the one-year anniversary of British Petroleum-Transocean-Halliburton-US government oil disaster and the misinformation and inaction abound.

Fukushima is unfurling a gigantic radioactive disaster for not only Japan but the rest of the world while Barak Obama and the nuclear industry say all systems full sail for more toxic plants to be built.

Citizens United versus the Federal Elections Commission was a Supreme Court decision that has given a green light for corporations to buy off elections.

Wiki-Leaks supposed information hacker Bradley Manning is being tortured and all his rights are stripped in a New Orwellian gambit of prison is freedom.

Asking the great questions of our time, and facing down injustice at our own peril, those are the values of a free thinking human. How we invoke this critical thinking and deep regard for learning and social and environmental justice is by reinventing the classroom as a safe and unfettered place of inquiry and debate.

More academic freedom and more open regard for new paradigm thinking is the way to emancipation. The 20th Century has to make way for the 21st.

As educators, we have to be part of the change, this shift in thinking, and that can only be done by embracing diversity of thought and action.

This movement afoot to attack alternative thinking and abort radicalism is closely aligned to the idea of agnotology, the deliberate denuding of knowledge from a culture, culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups like corporations and oligarchies working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth.

How can we even ask the question, “Is too much freedom-(transparency-thinking-knowing) bad for the classroom?”

Chris Hedges quoted a New York public school teacher in his piece, “Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System.” The teacher laid out the groundwork of his state’s decimation of public education:

Imagine going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. . . . What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.

Community has been replaced with self-empowerment and individualism.

Asking the questions and having a classroom safe haven for those questions or inquiries to germinate and blossom are the only ways a country will understand the deep entrenchment of wrongheaded thinking and policies driving education to extinction. Corporations want nothing of students asking questions about Monsanto’s genetically modified crop experiment. Why would Wall Street and the financial industry want students in economics looking at ethics and the value of a competitive concept of “free enterprise” over one driven by monopoly? Why would Oil Inc. want students looking into community rights and the environmental impact of hydrological fracturing on millions of people’s water supply?

How much freedom in the classroom was given to Japanese students where an entire generation has failed to ask the simple questions about nuclear power in a country subject to seismic activity and tsunamis?

Academic freedom is about asking those questions, and about revving up critical thinking skills. In essence, our role in the classroom is to protect, profess and promote liberal arts.

Freedom in the classroom is about dissent, and about questioning mores and standard operating procedures for almost every aspect of society, every discipline and profession.

Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States tells how the ruling white class has been domineered into thinking there is too much multiculturalism, too much diversity engendering tinkering, and leftist teaching in our institutions of higher learning.

Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is grounded by a Frederick Douglass epigraph, so apropos to this FACTC Focus article submission:

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. . . . This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both."

That was said in 1857, one hundred years before I was born, and it seems as if the struggle Douglass spoke of is our call to duty to give voice to those questioning empire, something I take as my marching orders to elevate rebelliousness in our classrooms as our raison d’être as both K-12 and higher education teachers.

Education is being assaulted on all fronts. Where’s the outrage from administrators, executive staff, operations workers, faculty? Where’s the outrage? Where’re the teach-ins? The true lessons in participatory democracy?

The great American writer Chris Hedges, an American journalist,who spent more than two decades covering wars for the New York Times (his most recent book, Death of the Liberal Class) speaks of education rot and its evisceration by the Neanderthals spewing hate, anti-science and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

One line from his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is the opening title in the 2009 Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

Hedges was shouted down in May 2003 as he gave the Rockford (Illinois) College commencement speech. He questioned the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Right before he had to pause because of a huge disturbance in the audience, Hedges warned the graduating class of what some of us in education have seen as worthless panacea for years, cited by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "Modern western civilization may perish because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good."

Then all hell broke loose, and Rockford College President Paul Pribbenow had to grab the microphone:

My friends, one of the wonders of a liberal arts college is its ability and its deeply held commitment to academic freedom and the decision to listen to each other's opinions. If you wish to protest the speaker's remarks, I ask that you do it in silence, as some of you are doing in the back. That is perfectly appropriate but he has the right to offer his opinion here and we would like him to continue his remarks.

This FACTC Focus theme is based on how we as faculty navigate these tortuous and contentious times, or how we embrace the full range of ideas in the classroom, but in a sense there is this underlying fear that just five years ago was promulgated by ultraconservative ideologue David Horowitz and his Student Bill of rights that would ban “liberal indoctrination.”

It’s the politics of fear infusing itself in the classroom. The root of what we face today as educators is not the death of ideas or the seepage of consumerism into lesson plans.

It’s a failure of today’s so-called liberal class to protect our right to freedom of speech in and outside the classrooms.

The experiences of a 24-year-old former student is an example of utter failure of our society to give young men and women a choice of two worlds – one that allows for opportunity, and a future, and one with no choices but war. This young man is a product of the Spokane K-12 system. A wrestler and good student, he ventured to go into the military instead of continuing his education. A question at the Air Force recruiting office derailed that branch of service: Have you smoked marijuana in the past two years? My student told the truth.

At 17, he ended up in the US Marine Corps and ended up in the Battle for Fallujah. “Why weren’t the administrators and teachers encouraging truth and real Iraq War ex-vets to come to school and give us their stories . . . another side to the pro-war story?” he now asks.

With PTSD, a desire to get a PhD in English, and the tools of self-medication – copious amounts of booze and pot -- his battles are in the context of two societies: the community, that wants to erase veterans of wars in our midst. The second one is an increasingly hostile community college system where class sizes are swelling, offerings are dwindling, social workers are grossly undervalued, and more and more courses are being retrofitted into Skype or on-line Facebooking sessions.

His struggle is one of working and studying with a faculty fearful of speaking truth to power. He said I was his first instructor who allowed for his anti-military voice to sound loudly.

Some of us face this attack on our intellectual freedom with intimations of “...if there’s smoke then there’s got to be a fire” upswelling from insidious and inaccurate student evaluations of us. Administrators are less willing to call a spade a spade, as parents call college presidents demanding faculty be dismissed, demanding the intellectual space be constrained. As more and more students find their own realities challenged by a more diverse and robust intellectual environment, complaints rain down on some of us.

Any talk about freedom of expression in the classroom, or how to trudge through the mine (mind) fields placed in front of us and our students are irrelevant until we as faculty face down this sort of preemption the overpaid CEOs and administrators demand -- as if faculty can’t think for themselves, or that the Trustees are part of a demigod group unwilling to hear from the rank and file ideas on how to save and advance education.

Mathematician Chandler Davis, who has spent more time in Canada than the US after being ousted from the University of Michigan executives like the ones manning the helm today, had this to say in regard to the notions of politics and rebellion.

"Political discourse has been impoverished (since the 1990s)n the 1930s it was understood by anyone who thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They collected more proportionately from the poor than from the rich. Regressive taxation was bad for the economy. If only the rich had money, that decreased economic activity. The poor had to spend what they had and the rich could sit on it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as to reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the 1950s and it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s. But this idea, along with most ideas concerning economic justice and people’s control over the economy, was cleansed from the debate. Certain ideas have since become unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such as Goldman Sachs.
The power to exclude certain ideas serves the power of corporations. It is unfortunate that there is no political party in the United States to run against Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections, but there is no way I can vote against Goldman Sachs."

These ideas we must grapple with are not so complex to handle, and while they may be considered political hot potatoes by our administrators, we have to allow for the academy to be our places of intellectual and spiritual rebellion.

That means almost anything goes while in the classroom.

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Paul Haeder

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