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Radical Eyes for Equity: Unpacking Nonsense: Knowledge as Commodity

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The school choice debate, reaching back into the twentieth century, tends to be framed around either/or concepts such as the free market (the Invisible Hand) versus public institutions (the Commons). But school choice that pits universal public education against private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling (as well as unschooling) is at its core a debate about the autonomy and humanity of children and teens along with a rarely interrogated idealism about parents and parental choice.

The U.S. has a long history of struggling badly with childhood and exactly when a human is an autonomous adult—from child labor to the garbled array of ages at which teens and young adults are allowed to behave as full adults (15-16 for driving, 18 for voting and joining the military, 21 for alcohol, and dozens of conflicting ages and laws across the country governing sexual autonomy, etc.).

If anyone clings to the foundational commitment to universal public education (often associated with the arguments posed by Thomas Jefferson) as necessary for creating and preserving a democracy, a so-called free people, then we must admit that a public education grounded in knowledge that is critically interrogated must be preserved against the forces of indoctrination.

Education is about asking, What do we know? How do we know it? And who does this knowledge benefit (or leave out)?

This final point is one of the tensions with religious education or church-grounded schools. I have taught in a graduate program that included teachers from a nearby Christian school where every lesson taught had to be linked directly to passages from the Bible.

Regardless of your faith or lack thereof, this is a necessarily distorted education—one that is being presented to children and teens as facts or t/Truth.

I have taught many students at my university, also, who came from religious schooling and noted that they had never been taught evolution (for example) or, when we covered evolution in my foundations course, they explained that their education had presented the scientific concept significantly differently than what we examined.

Whether we call what students learn in school “knowledge” or “content” or “curriculum,” we always must be aware that what students are taught is always chosen by someone for some reason; in other words, there is no politically, ethically, or intellectually neutral “knowledge.”

In fact, every classroom is by its nature of humans interacting with different levels of power a political space.

All of this lies beneath the current attack from conservatives and Republicans on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project (what we teach in U.S. history).

The reasons these attacks on public schooling are relevant to the school choice debate are, as I recently noted, that all alternatives to universal public schooling (private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and unschooling) benefit from a discredited (and demonized) public education system.

Now one of the natural consequences of the rightwing attack on schooling is waving the “For Sale” sign:

I am happy to announce my new business, I will be providing an anti-woke, pro-American, and fact based history education for middle and high school students. Check out my site to learn more!

— Jenny Anzaldua (@RaincoatedL) April 21, 2021

Let me note here that this isn’t parody, but a very real addition to the school choice/homeschooling movement.

Elements of this “anti-woke” version of U.S. history are stunning, although predictable.

First, Anzaldua frames herself as an early career high school history teacher, who “was not just a leftist, but a full-blown socialist, intersectional feminist, and ‘antiracist’.” She adds (seemingly unaware of the irony) that her own anti-woke wokeness can be attributed to one of the most discredited academics of our time, Jordan Peterson.

But more importantly, the course that is being advertised as “fact based history” has several supporting links that perpetuate misinformation—scary uses of red and imagery linking CRT to “communism!” and CRT resources that are simply a list of links to misinformation and more scare tactics.

From “communism” and “socialism” to “CRT” and any use of the term “critical,” conservatives are uniformly misinformed [1], and thus, all of their arguments are invalid since they start with a false premise—the most significant of which is that essentially no one in public education is teaching history/social studies from a CRT lens.

Even in higher education, CRT is rare.

Setting aside that the exact people accusing public education of being politicized by the Left are themselves politicizing the teaching of history, what is wrong with this entry into the market place of ideas for education children and young adults in the U.S.?

How about considering the textbook choice—published in 1888!

Here is a fundamental problem with the long history of debates about the teaching of history in the U.S., a complete misunderstanding about what history is, how history is always biased and evolving.

Conservatives are often some of the loudest about combating the “rewriting of history” (consider the debates about statues and memorials to Confederate generals and the Civil War)—as if there is anything other than the perpetual rewriting of history.

In other words, history is the writing and rewriting of history.

Offering seventh graders a textbook 133 years old is educational malpractice; it is making a conscious decision to deny children (who have no political power and very little intellectual autonomy) the wealth of historical thinking that has occurred in the century-plus.

Consider that in 1888, women could not vote and the U.S. existed under Jim Crow laws of segregation.

So a U.S. history course grounded in a textbook from 1888 can be yours (or your children’s) for a mere $900.

While many (too many) culture war debates in the U.S. are overly simplistic—Us v. Them—a reasonable person can recognize that some aspects of human existence are well suited for the free market while others are not (the military or legal system working for the highest bidder).

This brings us back to the Commons. Tax-funded roads and highway systems are some of the most powerful and important contributions to the free market thriving, for example, and thus, evidence that the free market and the Commons are not in competition, but symbiotic.

But just as essential are public schools, and I would argue, universal healthcare.

As this homeschooling course proves, knowledge can be a commodity—truth determined by the consumer (and even for the consumer).

But knowledge must not be a mere commodity if we value learning and a well-informed citizenry, populated continually by children growing through adolescence into whatever moment we deem them adults.

Counter to the cartoon version of critical educators (as Leftist, Marxist indoctrinators), all aspects of critical education are in fact committed above all else to this: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

Critical educators are invested in helping foster critical students; these are acts of interrogating knowledge, not indoctrinating anyone.

While the attacks from conservatives and Republicans are both an affront to the discipline of history and the founding principles of teaching and learning, this is another example of idealizing parental choice over the autonomy of children, adolescence, and young adults.

I have explained often that I was raised in a home and community that taught me directly and indirectly incredibly harmful “knowledge” as t/Truth (much of it racism, and a great deal of it sexist). I am biased about the value of universal public education because my school and teacher experiences were opportunities for me to discover knowledge and embrace my own intellectual autonomy that was corrupted and even stunted by the choices made by my parents and community.

As a career-long educator, a critical educator, I must tell you when it comes to “anti-woke, pro-American, and fact based history education,” don’t buy it.

[1] Consider that Anzaldua identifies as a “freethinker,” a term that has a meaning I suspect she is completely unaware exists: “freethinking is most closely linked with secularismatheismagnosticismhumanismanti-clericalism, and religious critique.”

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...