Fear and the voice of silence in American education

Every week I try to listen to Clearing the FOG, a podcast created by Washington, DC activists Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese which challenges the status quo of corporate greed that has resulted from the rising preeminence of the neoliberal worldview in the United States. Flowers and Zeese welcome weekly guests to discuss the prison-industrial complex, global warming, geopolitics and international trade, and many other topics that bring in local voices and efforts in what seems to be a hope-sapping time.

On March 7th, Clearing the FOG invited Stephen Krashen and Timothy Skelar, internationally known education scholars, to discuss the state of American schooling in a segment entitled “Clearing the FOG and the Attack on Education.” Krashen says much of what we already know as progressive thinkers in the arena of schooling. He articulates salient and continuing issues including the demonization of teachers — who he argues are doing just fine and should, because of their expertise, be sources of insight in educational policy-making, rather than the targets of value-added measurements — and the fallacious conviction that testing is the means by which we should “save our schools” (in quotes because American public schools are some of the best in the world, once you control for issues relating to poverty and its significant impact on the academic and social behaviors of children). Krashen avers that educators, teacher education programs and education research all have been characterized as “broken,” a shift in public discourse which justifies the movement of millions of dollars of federal aid into the pockets of venture funders and other private interests who fund charter schools, teacher academies (which put new practitioners into the classroom after 5 weeks of training), and other “innovative” solutions. It is these private interests, corporations like Microsoft and ExxonMobil with little or no experience with educational theory, practice, or research, who most stand to benefit from the trope that public schools in America don’t work, contributing to what Henry Giroux calls a neoliberal drive to change public education into a private good.

There is so much to say, so much to lament…and yet possibly so much to take heart for. Krashen derides colleagues of his who he says have sold out and conduct research that is funded by big corporate interests like the Gates Foundation that seek to continue the justification for privatization of public schools. No one is protesting except for a few, he says, though some are writing about this. I agree and often feel sadness and resentment in cataloguing those whose voices of resistance are getting out there, including Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Krashen himself, and others. Most of those who speak boldly — and just about all of those whose voices come out loudest — are those who are already established, whose careers cannot be destroyed by a passionate tweet or a fiery blog post.

I am left with a thought. Who else in academia has both relative amounts of safety as well as access to resources to do the research that is not being shared and get the word out that is not being heard besides tenured professors? Graduate students. It is true that we must pass our classes, build our committees, develop relationships with faculty and make connections with other programs and departments where we hope we’ll be hired in the future. Yet we can experiment, explore, push boundaries, and challenge status quo in conferences, graduate workshops, student publications, and local organizing. Of course we worry about what all of these actions might mean to our future prospects. But not committing our efforts, even in a small and collaborative way, might mean a darker, colder future for all of us, including not only our students but also our colleagues and ourselves. Without the political commitments we study in the abstract, without consistent ethical reflection and revision, our work will remain self-serving, a means of competing for jobs rather than taking up one of many waiting torches.

What will this look like? I’m not sure. I have friends who say we all have different skills, different voices to lend to the cry for change, and some are better behind the scenes. This is true. But I also know that silence can act as a voice when no words are spoken.

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