Janresseger: How a Marketplace, Consumerist Mentality Threatens Core Institutions and Harms Our Society
I cannot even keep track of all the press coverage I have seen in the past couple of weeks about school privatization proposals under discussion in the state legislatures. And in almost all of the articles I read, the move to privatize schools is accompanied by descriptions of culture war fights about book banning, interference with curricular standards, and elimination of programs that encourage “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in public schools and public universities. I have a stack of very recent articles about Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Hampshire, and I am sure I have missed others.
What is the cause of today’s attack on public schools and the kind of programming that many of us believe is essential to help our children live well in our diverse society?
In her Washington Post piece about a battle between two parent groups, Concerned Taxpayers and Support Education, in Mentor, Ohio——Hannah Natanson blames COVID for the controversy: COVID Changed Parents’ View of Schools—and Ignited the Education Culture Wars.
And in a powerful report from the Network for Public Education, Merchants of Deception, political scientist Maurice Cunningham identifies the role of Astroturf parents’ groups that present themselves as though they are a spontaneous welling up of parent outrage. Even though financial support for these groups is untraceable dark money, here is how Cunningham tracks evidence that these supposedly local groups are well connected from place to place and supported by powerful, far-right political interests: “First we should watch for groups that have “grown at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.” Then we should identify the group’s allies to “get a better idea of the real powers behind” the organization. Additionally: “We’ll use another tool to draw telling inferences about these fronts: identification of their key vendors, such as law firms, pollsters, and public relations firms, which we’ll see are often instruments of conservative… networks… Another recurring clue… is the ‘creation story.’ A new non-profit group bursts forth with some version of claiming that two or three moms began talking over what they see as problems in schools and resolve to start a nonprofit to take on the teachers’ unions, administration, or school board. By some form of miracle, they almost immediately receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in funding from billionaires. Next, they find themselves gaining favorable coverage on right-wing media—Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News…. ”
Of course both the disruption COVID thrust upon our communities and the use of parents by far-right groups trying to ban “WOKE” policies represent what many of us have been watching in the past couple of years. But on a deeper level, it is not a coincidence that the outrageous school board disruptions and the attempts by the far right to scrub the textbooks, and the legislatures considering parents’ bill of rights legislation also seem to be happening in places where slate lawmakers are also pushing vouchers, and not merely the old-fashioned tuition vouchers for private schools, but the new Education Savings Account universal programs to provide wider parental “freedom” and lack of oversight of the public dollars being diverted to these plans. These new vouchers are being designed to give parents the ultimate latitude in school choice—homeschooling and micro-schools where parents put their vouchers together to pay for a teacher for several families. Lack of regulation is a key ingredient in most of these plans. In every case the worldview underneath the proposals involves extreme individualism along with marketplace consumerism.
In her new book, The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession, Alexandra Robbins describes parents who view themselves and their children as the customers teachers must please: “At a candidate forum during the COVID pandemic, a Maryland school board member called students the ‘customers in our school system,’ as if teachers existed to satisfy students rather than to educate them… On a broader level, the student-as-customer attitude has contributed to a growing politicized movement pushing for parents to have authority over what is taught in schools.” (pp. 66-67) Believing your child is the client who must be pleased by services rendered is a very different conception of the parent-teacher relationship than believing that the teacher is a professional whose expertise and cooperation you can and should consult for guidance about your child’s education.
Because I am not a political theorist with enough expertise to explain—even to myself—the deeper meaning of parents disrupting school board meetings and demanding Backpack vouchers and claiming all this is the way citizens are supposed to operate, I returned to reread some sections of Benjamin Barber’s classic, Consumed, a 2007 book whose subtitle is: “How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.” Here is some of what I discovered:
“Freedom is not just about standing alone and saying no. As a usable ideal, it turns out to be a public rather than a private notion… (N)owadays, the idea that only private persons are free, and that only personal choices of the kind consumers make count as autonomous, turns out to be an assault not on tyranny but on democracy. It challenges not the illegitimate power by which tyrants once ruled us but the legitimate power by which we try to rule ourselves in common. Where once this notion of liberty challenged corrupt power, today it undermines legitimate power… It forgets the very meaning of the social contract, a covenant in which individuals agree to give up unsecured private liberty in exchange for the blessings of public liberty and common security.” (Consumed, pp.119-123)
Barber continues: “To oppose this perverse use of liberty as a cudgel against our collective and moral will, against democracy itself, we need to recall and reaffirm the language of positive or moral liberty… (W)e need to understand that there can be no viable idea of public liberty outside of the quest for a moral and a common life defined by purposes that are to some degree public in character.” (Consumed, p. 125)
Barber concludes: “The consumer’s republic is quite simply an oxymoron… Public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices… Asking what “I want’ and asking what ‘we as a community to which I belong need’ are two different questions, through neither is altruistic and both involve ‘my’ interests: the first is ideally answered by the market; the second must be answered by democratic politics.” “Citizens cannot be understood as mere consumers because individual desire is not the same thing as common ground and public goods are always something more than an aggregation of private wants…. (W)hat is public cannot be determined by consulting or aggregating private desires.” (Consumed, p. 126)
Having read Barber’s warning, we face two urgent questions today. First, how can those of us who seek to ensure the survival of public education convince our legislators to protect the public investment in the institution of public schools which can, by law, protect all children’s rights and be required to serve all children’s needs? Second, how can we ourselves learn how to more clearly and forcefully articulate the threats posed to our collective well being by our society’s growing consumerist, marketplace ethos?
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