Swans Commentary » swans.com September 25, 2006  



The Classroom And The Class Struggle


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - September 25, 2006)   At first blush, the "campus wars" would seem to pit rightwing ideologues like David Horowitz against nearly everybody to the left of Howard Dean. While this is supported by the meat cleaver approach of "The Professors," Horowitz's McCarthyite dossier on the 101 most "dangerous" professors in the USA, there are significant differences among the ultraright's targets. For example, UCLA Marxist education theorist Peter McLaren and Penn State postmodernist liberal Michael Bérubé are worlds apart politically, despite coming under attack from Horowitz and those under his influence.

The latest evidence of this is an exchange on the MRZine between former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Bill Ayers and the organizers of an event honoring civil rights veteran Bob Moses for his contributions to progressive education. Despite counting Ayers as one of the most respected progressive educators in the country himself, they are regrettably forced to inform him that he is not welcome:

It is because of our commitment to educate the public and to undertake what is primarily a symbolic project that we cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past. We believe, of course, in your right to express your views, then and now.

Ayer's reply to the organizers gave no quarter to their liberal cowardice:

Your hope to position progressive education "not as radical or threatening but as nurturing and familiar" is in some ways a fool's errand. Of course, no one argues that the progressive movement should threaten students or teachers or citizens -- progressive education does indeed hold the hope of realizing a humane and decent education for all within a revitalized politics and a more authentically democratic society. But progressive education, if it means anything at all, must embody a profound threat to the status quo. It is a direct challenge, for example, to all the policy initiatives that deskill and hammer teachers into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily monitored tasks, all the imposition of labels and all the simple-minded metrics employed to describe student learning and rank youngsters in a hierarchy of winners and losers. It's a threat to all that, and more.

Ayers and like-minded educators stress the importance of class criteria in developing an effective pedagogical approach. In an epoch of neoliberalism, all public institutions are under attack. For revolutionary-minded educators, class plays a central role since establishment-minded administrators view the student as a micro-economic actor who has to be prepared for the future -- one that puts an emphasis on survival skills in a Hobbesian universe. As Margaret Thatcher once said, "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." It is this lie that people like Bill Ayers are anxious to refute.

For educators who still cling to old-fashioned notions of class, there is always a need to distinguish themselves from postmodernists who actually enjoy much more power on the campuses than socialists. Postmodernism has also influenced academic feminism, "queer studies," postcolonialism, and other ostensibly radical trends on campus. As a group, they argue that class is superseded by various "identities," including race, gender, etc. Any attempt to subsume women, blacks, gays, etc. under the universal category of the working class is resisted because it supposedly sacrifices the particularistic needs of an oppressed group on behalf of some abstract notion of a White Male in overalls.

These fault-lines were exposed in 1996 when Barnard president and feminist scholar Judith Shapiro provoked a strike by the mostly black and Latina clerical workers at her institution by attempting a cutback in the health insurance benefit. On May 21 of that year, The New York Times reported:

After the sit-in, picketing and demonstrations, after the disruptions at commencement and weeks without paychecks, the 41-day-old strike at Barnard College has left the school's administration and the 150 striking clerical workers badly bruised, but hardly closer to a settlement.

What started as a polite dispute over whether the workers would have to help pay for their health insurance premiums has evolved into a test of wills in which neither side appears willing to reach out to the other. There have been no negotiations for almost six weeks, and no new ones are scheduled.

As the two sides have dug in, the union has begun saying the issue is not so much the demand that new workers contribute to their health coverage, but the demand that workers drop their current health plan and join the one Barnard wants.

"It's wrong for the school to dictate to its workers what health plan they have to be in," said Maida Rosenstein, president of the union, Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers. "Barnard says it's a feminist institution, but it's not showing much respect for its female workers."

With socialist educators coming under a combined assault from both the ultraright and postmodernist left, it is high time that the attacked mount a defense of their perspective. Teaching Against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism, co-authored by Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur, amounts to a kind of manifesto for the revolutionary left in the academy. With an unabashed defense of the need to conduct class struggle both within and without the campus put forward in decidedly partisan tones, McLaren and Farahmandpur make the lines of demarcation clear.

While McLaren was not included in David Horowitz's The Professors, he was the number one target of a McCarthyite campaign on his own campus. On January 30, 2006, The Ottawa Citizen reported:

"Beneath contempt" isn't the usual quote from professors who win academic awards. But then, Peter McLaren at UCLA didn't win your typical research prize.

He was voted top gun on the "Dirty Thirty," a group of faculty at UCLA denounced for having leftist or liberal opinions.

Denounced, incidentally, by their own students. For cash.

The Bruin Alumni Association offers students $100 for turning in profs they consider guilty of "actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic." The alumni would prefer taped evidence, please.

Teaching Against Global Capitalism has two goals. It seeks to remind the reader that the contradictions of capitalism have become deeper than ever over the past few decades as imperialist war abroad and cutbacks at home become more and more typical of a profit-driven logic. It also points out repeatedly and in great detail why postmodernism cannot offer a serious challenge to this offensive, despite the radical-sounding verbiage of its representatives in the academy.

Contrary to popular opinion, wealth depletion among developing nations is not rescued by capital from the imperialist activities of advanced capitalist countries. This is because transnational corporations drain the local capital from the open economic veins of poor countries rather than bring in new transfusions of capital. Because their savings are often low, banks in developing countries would rather lend to their own subsidiary corporations (who send their profits back to advanced nations) than to struggling local businesses in developing nations. Faced with low prices for exports, high tariffs on processed goods, and a lack of capital and rising prices, local businesses are locked into entrenched impoverishment because of structural adjustment measures to balance the budget.

On page after page, McLaren and Farahmandpur remind the reader of the stark realities of world capitalism. Marxism had been on the wane in the 1990s as a result of an unsustainable stock market bubble that appeared to defy the economic laws encapsulated in Marxist economics. Closely related was the collapse of "official socialism" in the Soviet bloc, an outcome that had been gestating for decades. With Marxism on the defensive, it was only natural that postmodernism would assert itself. With its narrow focus on surface appearances and its neglect of structural economic matters, it seemed an ideology made to order for the go-go years. In their characteristically acerbic style, the authors put it this way:

Postmodernism's apostasy is Delta Force landing in Panama in 1989 and putting a pair of Noriega's red bikini underwear on a goat. It is the equivalent of transgressing capital's proprietary norms without challenging the extraction of surplus value. Postmodernism's petit bourgeois-driven movement away from a "represented exterior" of signifying practices renders an anticapitalist project not only unlikely but also firmly inadmissible.

McLaren openly acknowledges the influence of the late Paulo Freire on his own work, most obviously in Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution. Freire is the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a work that cemented his reputation as the world's leading authority on popular education. After years of exile, Freire returned to Brazil to work with the Workers Party. When it won local elections in 1986, Freire agreed to become the Secretary of Education for São Paulo, where he would eventually form an institute devoted to promote his theories. He died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 76.

Parts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed can be read online at:
http://marxists.anu.edu.au/subject/education/freire/pedagogy/index.htm, and in the many international Websites that keep a copy of the "Marxists Internet Archive" (marxists.org or marx.org). Chapter two presents education in bourgeois society as analogous to banking, a highly useful metaphor for an institution that prepares students for their future roles as wage slaves:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits, which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry, human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

While one can take inspiration in the rise of a Marxist left in the academy that is not afraid to defend elementary class principles and to take a stand on political issues inside and outside the academy, there can be little doubt that they too are swimming against the stream like the non-academic socialist left. Freire's ideas took shape at a time when capitalism was on the defensive but for the past 20 years or so it has been the socialist left that has been in retreat.

To an extent, this sense of being under siege has led to certain concessions to David Horowitz. Radical professors might feel the urge to assure reactionary politicians that they make clear lines of demarcation between their private beliefs outside of the classroom and what students hear.

However, it should be obvious that the right is not interested in banning propaganda but scholarship that has largely been embraced in the rest of the world, where McCarthyism did not do as much damage and where governments are less ideologically driven to turn back the clock to the 19th century. For example, the Middle East and Asian Language and Culture (MEALAC) department at Columbia University has been singled out by Horowitz and Daniel Pipes for presenting a one-sided view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but this boils down to MEALAC professors like Joseph Massad refusing to present Zionist ideologies. In the context of Middle Eastern studies, this is analogous to a biologist refusing wasting time on creationist ideas.

The relationship of forces was not always so unfavorable to the left. In the 1960s, it was widely understood that students and professors were expected to use the schools as a base camp to transform society as a whole.

After French students challenged the state in 1968, a wave of student strikes swept the world. But it was in Yugoslavia where the dialectic was developed to its fullest. Belgrade students called for a Red University, as described in the Trotskyist Fourth International's internal bulletin for a 1970 World Congress:

During the massive student protests in Yugoslavia in June 1968, the Belgrade students summarized their demands with the call "For a Red University!" This formulation was very apt in their situation. They meant that Yugoslavia is supposed to have a socialist educational system but that actually it has been shaped to fit the interests of the ruling bureaucracy. Consequently the Yugoslav students face problems that are quite comparable to those faced by students in the capitalist countries. To solve these problems, they demanded that the Yugoslav educational system be transformed to what it ought to be -- let the bureaucratic university give way to a "Red" university.

This idea was also advanced by radical students in some of the capitalist countries and adapted to their situations.

"For a University that Serves the Working People -- for a Red University!" With this basic orientation radical students seek to answer the questions: "What kind of education shall students get? Toward what ends should this education be directed? Who shall control the educational facilities? What layers in society should the educational institutions serve?"

While one cannot be sure if a new radicalization will appear next year or ten years from now, it is certain that the capitalist system is generating contradictions far more powerful than those that characterized the 1960s. Workers had much more hostility to student radicals back then than they do today. Layoffs, speedup, outsourcing, industrial accidents -- particularly in mining, attacks on immigrants, the growing expense of medical coverage, exorbitant housing and energy prices, and unrelenting war in foreign lands has a way of undermining confidence in the ruling class. While discontent is largely focused today in the Bush presidency, the working class has little hope that the Democrats in the USA, or social democrats abroad, will be capable of ending the one-sided class warfare going on today. If and when workers gain the self-confidence and the class consciousness to fight back, they will surely rely on allies in the academy like Bill Ayers, Peter McLaren, and Ramin Farahmandpur who are capable of making class distinctions and who know how to fight for those on their side of the class line.


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Published September 25, 2006