Suppose you are a liberal-minded person and sincerely want to help people — specifically, poor people and minorities. What kind of educational strategies do you use? The two main options are:
A: Young children quickly learn how to read and write; they master basic skills and knowledge. The emphasis is on becoming an educated person.
B: Children are directed toward social and psychological goals. The emphasis is on behavior and indoctrination.
Is any decision more basic, more profound? But stop and think: have you ever heard this issue debated? Or even mentioned?
In fact, this issue has been played out in secret, below the surface, and guess what: option B won. To a degree that should shock you.
In this country, people who call themselves “progressive” or “liberal” have campaigned against academic content, knowledge, and even literacy. They have crusaded in favor of the standardized or leveled child — not too informed, not too capable of independent thought.
These people have engaged in what seems to me a very regressive strategy, even as they insist on calling their theories and themselves progressive, liberal, and modern.
A real liberal (as the word was used by Thomas Jefferson or by most people before 1925) was a person passionate about liberty. As part of its agitprop, the far left has mutated the word “liberal” to mean the opposite of what it once meant. In the process, our modern-day liberals have eagerly supported educational strategies that are more totalitarian than liberal, as that word was historically used.
Today, the sad paradox is that many would-be liberals, thinking they are helping the poor, are eagerly supporting policies which damage the poor. We can see this dialectic played out in the thinking of two famous Communists.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is an impressive historical figure. As high-powered intellectuals and theorists go, he was a big shot. One of his projects was a rethinking of Marx (and probably everybody else). But when it came to young students in the slums of Rome, Gramsci suddenly got practical. He pointed out that there was no hope for them if they did not have a good basic education. He advocated for an emphasis on reading, writing, etc.
His opposite number in the Communist pantheon is Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a schoolteacher from Brazil. He was especially concerned about the dispossessed natives, and the poor generally. Freire has become synonymous with an idealistic opposition to capitalism and exploitation. He wanted students to remain outside the system. If workers became too educated, they would inevitably become part of the corrupt society he hated. Freire’s thinking ended up being anti-education.
In practice, Freire was concerned more with sabotaging capitalist society than in building up poor students. It’s a vicious sort of thinking. Communists and socialists are always assuming they know what’s best for the masses. You see this mentality in a pure form with Freire. He was famous for his most influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In operation, his pedagogy kept the oppressed ignorant, thus continuing their oppression.
Jonathan Kozol, modern-day disciple of Freire’s doctrine, told a graduating class of teachers: “don’t be drill Sergeants for the state.” He wanted teachers to help children retain their “innocence,” a nasty little euphemism for ignorance. The local newspaper reported his speech with this thought-free headline: “Buck the system, put kids first.”
Freire, and now Kozol, dread the thought that the poor and minorities should become cogs in the capitalist-military-industrial complex. The solution is to ensure that these poor wretches never acquire too much in the way of facts and knowledge.
Antonio Gramsci, whose Communist credentials are second to none, would doubtless think that Freire and Kozol are lightweight dilettantes for opinions that will only hurt the children they say they care about.
Gramsci is the humanist thinker here. Freire and Kozol are merely reiterations of the long Communist sermon demanding that individuals be subservient to ideology.
Looking back a hundred years, we see that John Dewey and all the other early educators were Socialists who wanted to use the schools as the road to a socialist America. They knew that the American population, overwhelmingly, would disdain their plans. So Dewey had to work in secret. He and his followers schemed to use education as a way to control the masses.
So if you look at our schools and you wonder why so many children can’t read, can’t count, and don’t know basic information, the answer is simple. The people in charge did what was best for their political agenda.
What Freire and Kozol are saying is, let’s use the children — dumb and dumber — as weapons in our war against capitalism. A badly educated child won’t be a success, so leftists won’t have to put up with all that nonsense about Horatio Alger and the American Dream. An ignorant kid can’t contribute much to his society, so “progressives” won’t have to listen to how wonderfully successful the USA is.
This clash of priorities is still a hot topic. Unfortunately, American professors tend to forget Gramsci, even as Freire is treated as a hero in grad schools. His ideas are used to undermine ambitious or substantive education.
Our elite educators took the wrong side. So now you have Kozol going around to teachers’ colleges delivering the opposite message from what young teachers need to hear — namely, if you hope to help poor kids, make sure those kids receive as much education as they can absorb.
Bruce Deitrick Price founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. This site explains theories and methods.