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Dispatches from the Education Wars: Solidarity Not Meritocracy Is the Answer

Apr 21, 2022

As evidenced by the hysterical stagecraft around “critical race theory” during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the Republican obsession with demonizing schools shows no sign of abating.  As many have noted before, the polling on parents and schools doesn’t reflect such outrage, which is puzzling unless one considers some of the other factors surrounding the discourse about education in America.

Jessica Grose recently pointed out in the New York Times that it’s clear that even after the pandemic, the folks most upset about education are not directly impacted by it:

Digging deeper into the Gallup numbers revealed that the people who seem to be driving the negative feelings toward American schools do not have children attending them: Overall, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools. Democrats, “women, older adults and lower-income Americans are more likely than their counterparts to say they are satisfied with K-12 education,”

All of this at least raises the question of whether some of the people driving the outrage, even animus, against schools might not have much skin in the game and might not have any recent experience with teachers or curriculum. As we head into the midterms, at the very least we should resist easy conclusions about who is angry about what’s happening in our public schools and whether it has anything to do with the reality of what’s going on day to day for millions of children and their families.

So, if it is not parents with pitchforks driving the backlash against education, what are some of the other factors, aside from the American right from Bannon on down trying to gin it up for political advantage?

One potential answer to this question was put forth in another Times piece that dove a little deeper than the superficial discussion of critical race theory in some political circles.  Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider note that it would be foolish to ignore the conservative assault on education as it has gained traction, and, according to a recent analysis from the Democratic Governors association, the Democrats need to take back the issue by proving their trustworthiness to voters. Key to this effort, they argue, is rethinking a core Democratic assumption since the Clinton years, “that education is the key to addressing economic inequality.”

This problem is a longstanding one that speaks to a central tenet of the neoliberal turn inside the Democratic Party.  As Berkshire and Schneider observe:

The party’s current education problem reflects a misguided policy shift made decades ago. Eager to reclaim the political center, Democratic politicians increasingly framed education, rather than labor unions or a progressive tax code, as the answer to many of our economic problems, embracing what Barack Obama would later call “ladders of opportunity,” such as “good” public schools and college degrees, which would offer a “hand up” rather than a handout. Bill Clinton famously pronounced, “What you earn depends on what you learn.”

But this message has proved to be deeply alienating to the people who once made up the core of the party. As the philosopher Michael Sandel wrote in his recent book “The Tyranny of Merit,” Democrats often seemed to imply that people whose living standards were declining had only themselves to blame. Meanwhile, more affluent voters were congratulated for their smarts and hard work. Tired of being told to pick themselves up and go to college, working people increasingly turned against the Democrats.

This critique should sound familiar to anyone who has studied the work of Thomas Frank. In Listen Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank eviscerated elite Democrats for abandoning their labor base and substituting “meritocracy” for “solidarity,” hence shifting the blame for growing inequality from an increasingly rigged economy to individual workers themselves.  Instead of helping support unions and promoting economic policy to level the playing field, too many Democrats simply suggested that workers suffering from economic insecurity go back to school.

This, along with the embrace of neoliberal trade deals, left the Democrats vulnerable to the Republicans’ shift toward an angry populism that enabled the otherwise unthinkable phenomenon of the populist billionaire who was Donald Trump, fueling cultural anger and backlash rage all the way to the White House.  The end result of this has been the horrible transformation of American politics that the Democratic establishment is partially responsible for in the final analysis.

Nonetheless, it is hard to change course, as Berkshire and Schneider explain:

Today, as the middle class falls further behind the wealthy, the belief in education as the sole remedy for economic inequality appears more and more misguided. And yet, because Democrats have spent the past 30 years framing schooling as the surest route to the good life, any attempt to make our education system fairer is met with fierce resistance from affluent liberals worried that Democratic reforms might threaten their carefully laid plans to help their children get ahead.

Although, the authors never cite Frank’s work, they share his prescription that abandoning the turn toward meritocracy is the way forward.  Perhaps it’s time to stop putting the full weight of fighting economic inequality on education and return to a more robust economic populism that takes that issue back from the Republicans.  At the same time they do this, Democrats could reframe the issue of education itself:

We don’t fund education with our tax dollars to wash our hands of whatever we might owe to the next generation. Instead, we do it to strengthen our communities — by preparing students for the wide range of roles they will inevitably play as equal members of a democratic society.

While this might not happen in time for the potentially disastrous midterm elections, let’s hope the Democrats figure it out sooner rather than later before the right destroys our schools and undermines our democracy in the service of saving them from “the cultural elite.”


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