“We’re in the business of education,” Arne Duncan says.

The market worshipers have marched out of the building; hurray! Wait–who’s that tall basketball-playing fellow getting ready to sit in the Education seat?

As superintendent of the Chicago public schools, Arne Duncan has given us a fair preview of his vision. It’s “a business-minded, market-driven model for education,” concludes Andy Kroll for the Nation Institute’s tomdispatch.com. “His style of management is distinctly top-down, corporate, and privatizing. It views teachers as expendable, unions as unnecessary, and students as customers.” Input from community leaders, faculty, and parents’ organizations “regularly fell on deaf ears.”

As Kroll points out, privatizing Chicago’s schools was the centerpiece of Duncan’s vigorously-resisted “Renaissance 2010″ proposals, pushing to close existing institutions and replace them with charter and “entrepreneurial” schools run by for-profit education-management organizations (EMOs).

Even in the runaway financial climate of the early millenium, the EMO sector radically outperformed most other industries in terms of fiscal return on investment. Not content to pay management for test scores, Duncan has just rolled out a program to pay students for grades–dropping a Jackson on students for every C and fifty bucks for every A.

While Duncan brags about raising test scores, critics point out these come at the expense of a stripped-down curriculum targeting the test rather than actual learning (and, not incidentally, in the context of lowered statewide testing standards, like paying bonuses for hitting the bulls-eye more often after moving the target closer).

Obama gives us a look at his own priorities for education when he praises Duncan’s “results” as skills development–giving children “what they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job.” Yay, John Dewey would be proud. Citizenship? Music? Wellness? You gotta be kidding. That would be in a co-operative world and what we have here is as much competition as possible– in the same old “quality” formula. Take money from the testing “losers” and give it to the testing “winners.”

What goes well with endless competition in every corner of your existence? Discipline.

Harsh discipline, in fact. The job that many of the 91% non-white “customers” of the Chicago Public Schools are being trained for is service in the U.S. military.

A big part of Arne Duncan’s “success” as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools was in whacking down big grants from the Department of Defense to create the most militarized public school system in the country: five military academies and over fifty junior ROTC programs, most of them feeding primarily lower-income and minority youth into the nation’s war machine.

I came across Kroll’s piece courtesy of John Hess on ADJ-L. On the same forum faculty activist Joe Berry, after reading the piece, observed, “As a Chicago resident from 99-2007, all of this is true. His appointment, if not a disaster, is a bad omen at the least.”

Faculty Self-Help

Over at the New York Times, Stanley Fish gave former student Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” a nice mention. It’s a bit surprising, though, that Fish claims to have needed _The Last Professors_ to inform him about the perma-temping of the academy.

As a former dean at a public institution using an extremely high percentage of adjunct and graduate student employees to “deliver instruction,” Fish oversaw budgets dictating the hiring of plenty of cheap teachers.

Indeed, Fish heard many detailed critiques of the academic labor system from unionizing graduate employees and from at least one brilliant, accomplished faculty activist of my acquaintance.

His response? “Save the world on your own time.” If you’ve read Fish’s attack on “ideology”in education (something evidently only other people have), you know his charming mantra to faculty: “just do your job.”

Except for professionals, “doing one’s job” implies responsibilities to the profession, to other professionals, and the public. That is, as most faculty and other professionals agree, “saving the world” is part of the job description.

What Fish seems to have missed about Donoghue’s book is that he repeatedly, consistently, uncompromisingly holds the tenure-stream faculty responsible for falling down on the job as professionals in their silent acquiescence to the super-exploitation of faculty serving contingently and graduate students.

If Donoghue is right in his indictment, it suggests that Fish is the one who hasn’t been “doing his job” with respect to safeguarding the profession for future students and future colleagues.

Fish’s response to Donoghue’s claim that a whole profession is on the verge of extinction? “I have timed it just right,” Fish says of his career–“Just lucky, I guess.” Wow, what an eloquent and considered reflection on an individual’s relationship to, and responsibility for, the profession. Thanks, Stanley. Glad you enjoyed your ride.

As I wrote back in April 2008, the caveat I have with respect to Donoghue’s book regards the general probem of using “vanishing” tropes. As many have observed, the “vanishing Indian” didn’t actually disappear, but moved to degraded circumstances with a limited purchase on the public sphere. We might say the same for the faculty.

Since future higher education won’t be “professorless,” but filled with faculty — research professors of retail marketing, distinguished chairs in business ethics, but $1000-per-course lecturers in Homer — there will remain opportunities for resistance, for political action, especially by way of activist unions of the faculty serving contingently, including those faculty who serve contingently as graduate employees.

And–if you’re still parsing Obama’s cabinet choices–that’s the likely meaning of his far more welcome appointment of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor. A leading proponent of the Employee Free Choice Act, and the only member of Congress to serve on the board of American Rights at Work, her appointment virtually guarantees that it will be much easier for workers–including higher education workers–to exercise their rights to workplace association and collective bargaining.

My reading of the cabinet choices is this: we aren’t going to get any higher-education full-employment act or other great “change” in the academic labor system from above during this administration. But we can organize to make change ourselves. Of course, by “ourselves” I mean the majority of faculty–the teachers serving contingently who have appeared while the traditional professoriate “vanishes.”

Sure, it would be nice if Obama fixed our problems from above. I personally made much more satisfactory recommendations for Education Secretary than Arne Duncan.*

But as I recall, the chant was “yes we can.”


*Just in case Arne Duncan leaves the cabinet, here are my recommendations for his replacement. I can’t, however vouch for their utility on the White House basketball team.

Jonathan Kozol. A Rhoades scholar who was fired from the Boston Public Schools for teaching a Langston Hughes poem, Kozol has for decades described the way that class war from above maintains savagely unequal public schools–what he’s recently called the “restoration of apartheid” in the U.S.

Angela Davis. Of course Bill Ayers was the obvious choice, but Davis is herself a veteran of the presidential trail–having shared the Communist party ticket with Gus Hall. These days she identifies as a democratic socialist–so she should fit right in, according to the McCain camp.

Barbara Ehrenreich. She was my top pick for secretary of labor, her or Stanley Aronowitz, but since Solis filled that job nicely, Ehrenreich will do splendidly in Education. Look for strict limits on youth labor and socialization of college tuition, a la Adolph Reed’s “Free Higher Education” proposal.

Zeke M. Vanderhoek. Not a household name, but he gets my vote. Obama, sadly, loves charter schools, and Vanderhoek started the one charter school I like–a Harlem school where the starting wage for teachers is $125,000. The principal’s wage? Just $90,000. You want to reduce costs in higher education–there’s all the budget planning you need.






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