Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 25, 2006

The Classroom And The Class Struggle

Filed under: Education,swans — louisproyect @ 4:56 pm

(Swans – September 25, 2006) At first blush, the “campus wars” would seem to pit rightwing ideologues like David Horowitz against nearly everybody to the left of Howard Dean. While this is supported by the meat cleaver approach of “The Professors,” Horowitz’s McCarthyite dossier on the 101 most “dangerous” professors in the USA, there are significant differences among the ultraright’s targets. For example, UCLA Marxist education theorist Peter McLaren and Penn State postmodernist liberal Michael Bérubé are worlds apart politically, despite coming under attack from Horowitz and those under his influence.

The latest evidence of this is an exchange on the MRZine between former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Bill Ayers and the organizers of an event honoring civil rights veteran Bob Moses for his contributions to progressive education. Despite counting Ayers as one of the most respected progressive educators in the country himself, they are regrettably forced to inform him that he is not welcome:

It is because of our commitment to educate the public and to undertake what is primarily a symbolic project that we cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past. We believe, of course, in your right to express your views, then and now.

Ayer’s reply to the organizers gave no quarter to their liberal cowardice:

Your hope to position progressive education “not as radical or threatening but as nurturing and familiar” is in some ways a fool’s errand. Of course, no one argues that the progressive movement should threaten students or teachers or citizens — progressive education does indeed hold the hope of realizing a humane and decent education for all within a revitalized politics and a more authentically democratic society. But progressive education, if it means anything at all, must embody a profound threat to the status quo. It is a direct challenge, for example, to all the policy initiatives that deskill and hammer teachers into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily monitored tasks, all the imposition of labels and all the simple-minded metrics employed to describe student learning and rank youngsters in a hierarchy of winners and losers. It’s a threat to all that, and more.

Ayers and like-minded educators stress the importance of class criteria in developing an effective pedagogical approach. In an epoch of neoliberalism, all public institutions are under attack. For revolutionary-minded educators, class plays a central role since establishment-minded administrators view the student as a micro-economic actor who has to be prepared for the future — one that puts an emphasis on survival skills in a Hobbesian universe. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” It is this lie that people like Bill Ayers are anxious to refute.

For educators who still cling to old-fashioned notions of class, there is always a need to distinguish themselves from postmodernists who actually enjoy much more power on the campuses than socialists. Postmodernism has also influenced academic feminism, “queer studies,” postcolonialism, and other ostensibly radical trends on campus. As a group, they argue that class is superseded by various “identities,” including race, gender, etc. Any attempt to subsume women, blacks, gays, etc. under the universal category of the working class is resisted because it supposedly sacrifices the particularistic needs of an oppressed group on behalf of some abstract notion of a White Male in overalls.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy40.html


  1. A question on the ISO and the Greens: why is it okay for them to support a petty-bourgeois party which has done bad things in Germany and seems to bill itself as a means of pushing the Democrats to the left? The SEP is running a candidate against Clinton, and I’m torn. I have little faith in the sectarianism of the SEP, but equally little in the–apparently–opportunistic ISO. The whole state capitalist legacy is a bit iffy…the accomodation to Islamism by the British SWP, etc. What’s a good socialist case for voting Green–and not, as it happens to work in this case, SEP?

    Comment by Poulod — September 27, 2006 @ 6:02 pm

  2. This argument about the Democratic Party vs. the “labor party” has been going on for at least 60 years and hasn’t changed a whit. It’s the filioque of the American far left.

    It’s no longer my glass bead game, which is perhaps why it makes my eyes glaze over.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — September 29, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

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