The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Education Part Four: "Revolutionary Radicals," Consciousness, and the Privatization of Education

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students. I hope to continue it for a while, and, of course, any critical dialogue upon what is presented is more than welcome. I will try to space these out weekly.

Read Past Contributions:
Part One: Banking or Problem Posting Education?
Part Two: Selective Omission and What We Learn from Malcolm X's Schooling Experience
Part Three: Education, for Liberation or Domination?


Progressive era (1890s to the 1920s) educational philosophy presented a dramatic shift from traditional methods and organization of education. Due to the immensely changing social conditions, education was forced to make changes in order to address urbanization, industrialization, the “labor problem,” new technologies, and the growth of corporate capitalism. Many progressive era philosophers, such as T.S. Elliot, wished to overhaul the entire educational system and install compulsory attendance for children in schools, emulating “factories in which the raw materials are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (Tozer, 157). Proponents of this philosophy, termed social efficiency education, hoped that this sort of education would produce obedient and efficient workers who would not dare question the wage system, upon which the premise of American society was built. Given the rise of standardized tests, bureaucratic school control, unequal funding, privatization, and the act of “separating students into different curricula and preparing them for different occupational outcomes,” (Tozer, 159) the social efficiency approach seems to have, unfortunately, become the dominant philosophical approach to education in the United States. It is no surprise, given the balance of power, that the ruling elites have set the terms upon which children in this country are (mis)educated.

Challenging this elite educational ideology was John Dewey, a prolific thinker who provided a unique contribution to educational philosophy with his concept of developmental democracy. It was, in large part, a rejection of the moribund, traditional approach but also a contemporary rebuttal to the social efficiency postulation. Dewey’s approach was multifaceted and involved the engagement of the students and teachers in the democratic process where schools served as models, or microcosms, for how the larger democratic society should function. This participatory engagement would foster dialogue, debate, and nurture the democratic culture which is a fundamental necessity in a democratic society. One aspect of Dewey’s argument is his rather lucid support for the transformation of society from one of economic hierarchy to one that involves workplace democracy. As political analyst and linguist Noam Chomsky explains:
[T]he most pressing obstacle was one of the themes of the leading American social political philosopher of the 20th century, John Dewey. He pointed out that, as long as we live under what he called industrial feudalism, rather than industrial democracy (by industrial feudalism he meant the corporate, capitalist structure) then politics will be nothing more than the shadow cast by business over society [emphasis added]. Industrial democracy would mean placing economic decisions and workplaces under democratic control (Chomsky, as quoted by Shah, 2007).
This concept is fundamental to understanding Dewey’s position. Indeed, his entire educational approach was modeled upon the democratic ideal and thus, he hoped this ideal would be carried out into the political and economic realms of society.

This presented a prodigious challenge to ruling elites and the capitalist structure itself. Dewey was drawing into question two foundational tenets of capitalist ideology, the individualistic concepts of private property and the profit motive, and replacing them with a vision of society where those who labored and produced, whether they are teachers or factory workers, collectively decided how their workplace should be organized and how the products of their labor should be distributed. He, however, also challenged many on the left, the “revolutionary radicals,” whom purported that “the schools are completely impotent,” they “necessarily reflect the dominant economic and political regime,” and the only way “to change education in any important respect is first to overthrow the existing class order of society” (Tozer, 164). This position, held by some of the leftist currents at the time, rightfully condemned schools as “tools of the dominant class” but failed to explain how, assuming a revolutionary change were to occur, the new system “could grow to maturity without an accompanying widespread change of habits of belief, desire, and purpose” (Tozer, 165). With this passage, Dewey is attempting to examine the impetus behind revolutionary change and how this energy should be manifested; he is addressing the vital aspect of consciousness. He expands by explaining that “no social change is more than external unless it is attended by and rooted in the attitudes of those who bring it about and of those who are affected by it” (Tozer, 165).

This idea, historically espoused by Marx, that the liberation of the working class (any wage worker, not just a factory worker) must be brought about by its own self-activity, cannot be overstated. No politician (even of the benevolent, Dennis Kucinich variety), piece of legislation, or philanthropic venture can bring about the dismantling of working class oppression. This concept, if it is applied in any meaningful way, must also be applied to educators working within a capitalist school system. Indeed, radical and revolutionary educators must play an integral role in helping to bring about social change, both in the classroom and in the larger societal sphere. This undoubtedly must involve the development of consciousness in youth going through the educational process; this consciousness cannot be inculcated, but must instead be cultivated through participatory democratic models where students can engage themselves, their peers, their teachers, and their own interests in an educational setting. Many progressive teachers, disappointed with the horrendous state of public education and lack of democratic control, decided that private initiatives and charter schools are the way forward for progressive education.

Charters schools, however, are a reactionary solution to a nation wide problem that actually perpetuates the atrocious state of education even further. In fact, one quarter of all charter schools are for profit, which means they are state funded but still run along a business model; this only opens up the possibility for more charter schools to run as for profit institutions where, as Sarah Knopp explains, “the drive to make a profit will compromise educational quality” (Knopp, 40). She further outlines the problem with charters: charters have not been shown, given current data, to perform any better than public schools (and only do so when they have access to extra resources), they are forced to the same national standardization of curriculum as public schools, they do not provide equality of education since they conditionally admit students and choose who they want to attend, and, lastly, often support right-wing educational initiatives such as merit pay for teachers and anti-unionization policies (Knopp, 41-2). Charter schools are, contrary to the wishful hopes of many parents and teachers, not the democratic haven of education which some ostensibly claim to be.

Thus, educators should be engaged in the fight to provide a more equitable, better funded, and well resourced education for all students. It appears that, in opposition to the “revolutionary radical” proposal, teachers should be engaged in this struggle inside of the school system, the classroom, and the community. As Dewey points out, “while school is not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary condition of forming the understanding and dispositions that are required” for “the creation of a new social order” (Tozer, 165). Educators must be at the forefront of this struggle to change the consciousness of the people. Indeed, teachers must be proactive in helping to provide the matrix in which revolutionary ideas can be fostered inside the classroom and the community in general. To do this, one cannot simply withdraw from the realm of public education, despite its current condition, and dismiss its potential as a vehicle for change. By removing oneself from the mainstream sphere of education, one becomes isolated and thus, has absolutely no chance of reaching out to those who may be searching for change but are not sure how to articulate it yet.

This strategy will only lead to further privatization, decreased living standards, devastation of some of the most militant (and grounded, since teachers cannot be outsourced) unions left, and an increased intensity in the indoctrination of the young with specious propaganda into the current system. Instead, educators must make a concerted effort to fight the states and federal government for resources for the schools and for better living conditions for themselves; the two are not mutually exclusive. For instance, smaller class sizes not only increase the educator’s ability to reach out to individual students and foster better relationships, it also provides the teacher with a less stressful, more enjoyable environment in which he or she can teach. Likewise, educators must be on the forefront of the informational campaign against charters; ambivalence will only allow the neoliberal privatization effort to entrench itself into the educational realm much more deeply than it already has. Radical teachers whom understand they have no stake in perpetuating a system which produces poverty, war, alienation, exploitation, and various forms of oppression must help open up the dialogue with students who can, in turn, and with their own words, delve into the liberating process of critiquing the system under which they are forced to serve.

Works Cited

Knopp, S. (2008) Charter Schools and the Attack on Public Education. International Socialist Review, 62, November-December. Also available from

Shah, N. (2007). Five Minutes With: Noam Chomsky. Wiretap Magazine. Retrieved February 14, 2009, from

Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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