Authoritarian Schools, Authoritarian State in the Service of Privilege

The fruits of the Reagan Era are proving to be mostly poison apples.

Both begun under Reagan, mass incarceration and high-stakes education reform have escalated the rise of the authoritarian school and the authoritarian state in the service of privilege.

During the past few years, teachers and police are coming under increased scrutiny in the wake of disaster capitalism’s influence how we do school and how we enforce law—significantly at the expense of children living in poverty, black and brown children, and children speaking home languages other than English.

Jose Vilson has offered a bold and critical examination of how political and public calls for greater teacher and police quality and oversight intersect, revealing, I think, that these are not simple black and white issues. Bad teachers and bad police there certainly are, but to play the flawed individual game feeds into the central problem in the U.S.: We refuse to acknowledge systemic causes (racism, sexism, homophobia) for individual situations.

Vilson builds to what I think is the crux of the matter: “To protect and to serve, and that’s something we can never turn our backs to.” Teachers and police are public servants, embodying the will of the people. As public servants, teachers and police fail their charge when they twist their service into authority over the public, instead of from or in service of.

Authoritarian (and thus “bad”) teachers and authoritarian (and thus “bad”) police are consequences of a larger reality: The U.S. is a racist and sexist nation functioning as an authoritarian state, and most of our structures serve that status quo as well as the interests of the privileged.

Democracy and meritocracy along with the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone remain worthy of a people, but those are not what our public institutions serve in the U.S. today.

Sacrificing Democracy and “Other People’s Children” at the Alter of Authority

Well before Bill Ayers was demonized during Barack Obama’s run for president or before Ayers’s radical past was more widely recognized after his memoir in 2001, I was introduced to his wonderful To Teach while in my doctoral program in the mid-1990s.

Ayers offers characterizations of traditional schooling that resonated with me then and do also now:

There are a lot of quiet, passive classrooms where not much learning is taking place, and others where children’s hearts, souls, and minds are being silently destroyed in the name of good management….

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal asks the teacher, and the teacher asks the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (pp. 23, 64)

At nearly every level of considering education, we always come back to classroom management and discipline. And it is here I want to ask two genuinely important questions:

  1. Why do we persist at accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes tests even though that approach has never worked over 100+ years?
  2. Why do we persist with harsh policies such as police in schools, zero-tolerance, “no excuses,” grade retention, and corporal punishment even though they are ineffective and even do more harm? [1]

Because all of these commitments do accomplish one thing that is actually the sacred element in formal schooling—authoritarian environments.

As long as we remain trapped in accountability reform and in-school authoritarian practices, we are admitting that we are not seeking universal public education in the service of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—individual freedom and democracy.

Authoritarian schools feed an authoritarian state (where, for example, police are feared and teachers are disrespected).

Democracy must be fertilized with schools that practice community and collaboration.

So in our necessary and important rush to honor good teachers and good police, let’s be careful about our accusatory gazes because when teachers and police are bad, it may well be that their behavior reflects a failed system, an authoritarian system that serves the status quo and the interests of the privileged.

We need to lift our eyes and look closely at who supports accountability-based education reform and harsh in-school policies—and why.

There is the place to start toward better teachers and police who honor, as Vilson noted, their need to serve and protect as agents of the public good.

[1] I think in the context of these two questions, we must ask, Why are reformers convinced class size doesn’t matter (despite many enrolling their children in private schools with very low class sizes)? The answer is likely that large class size forces teachers to focus primarily on classroom management/discipline and consequently accomplishes again the main objective: authoritarian classrooms.

NOTE: HT to David Kaib for a series of Tweets recently.

2 comments

  1. Marilyn J. Hollman

    I commend you for writing this, especially b/c of your connections with NCTE.
    Richard Ohman published “English in America: a Radical View of the Profession” in 1976, and it is one of the most influential books a/b what we do, for me. A friend scoffed at his connections of Comp 101 and the “military, industrial complex,” but he has come to agree!
    You manage to sneak Lou LaBrant into almost every post – so, I’ll follow suit and say that Wallace Douglas, one of my mentors, wrote an essay that appeared in the first edition at least.

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