This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
Were this website a newspaper vending machine, it would be cobwebbed, and dusty enough for a finger-tagged “Wash Me,” with the issues left inside yellowing – but not for lack of work behind the screen. Besides the usual preparations for teaching this semester, I’ve got a very exciting project deep in the “pipeline,” one I’ve been at work on for a few months, which should be completed and hot off the digital presses sooner than later. I’m also gearing up for the Network for Public Education’s 2014 Conference in Austin, TX, March 1st-2nd, at which I’m honored to be an invited speaker.
The Network for Public Education – founded by acclaimed education scholar Diane Ravitch, and veteran public school educator Anthony Cody – provides a much needed grassroots antidote to the corporate education reform steamroller, one that has paved over the needs of children, teachers, parents, and communities. NPE seeks to crack through the concrete, and cultivate a more authentic, organic, and robust public school system, a mission I’m proud to support.
“School ™ is not so bad now, like back when my grandparents were kids, when the schools were run by the government, which sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools?”
So proclaims what sounds like a Twitter tirade by angry, futuristic teenage reincarnation of Milton Friedman. Rather, it is Titus, the wired teen protagonist M.T. Anderson’s prophetic 2002 Young Adult (YA) novel Feed, who lives in a world in which Friedman’s neo-liberal economic philosophies have been taken to their dystopian extreme: America’s environment is so spoiled by consumption that everyone must live in hermetically-sealed bubbles, in which the public commons have been so privatized, that even the clouds are trademarked. Titus – and most Americans – also live in a hermetically-sealed bubble of their mind, each plugged into the “feed” – a chip which connects his brain to a corporate controlled internet, which is constantly bombarding him with marketing, even in dreams.
While many have commented on how accurate the 11-year old Feed is in its predictions of social networking and mobile technology, its dire predictions on the corporatization of education are no less accurate – and certainly, no less frightening. Published in the same year as the No Child Left Behind was implemented, Feed takes Friedman’s anti-government belief on education to its logical conclusion: that of a corporate monopoly on our children’s minds.
In Titus’ description of his “feed” – which is no utterly normal to him, beyond the point of question – we hear echoes of corporate reformers and technological utopians, who say our public, government run-school system is outdated, in need of “disruptive innovation” – or, to put it more plainly, corporate management and products. In Titus’ future America, the “feed” is the ultimate disruptive invention for education, putting online education, MOOCs, and teaching machines to shame:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That’s one of the great things about the feed – that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
While Titus may say that the feed makes everyone “supersmart,” he can’t read, he isn’t informed on any world events, and uses the feed primarily to m-chat (mind chat), watch TV programs, and most of all, to buy the latest things – things that, somehow, the corporate-run feed knows before he does – a marketing strategy we now call “predictive analytics”:
But the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and On Feed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you…so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.
Again, sound familiar?
School ™ is perfectly designed for the “feed” – for the constant consumerism required of the hermetically-sealed corporate state he lives in. Indeed, School ™ is essential in training children for how to use to feed, to make sure its hardwired not just in their minds, but their spirits:
Now that School ™ is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag because it teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds… now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what’s the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom.
Ultimately, just as schools in a fascist nation are indoctrination sites, critical investments by the ruling class to ensure its continued rule, School ™ cultivates loyalty to corporate bubble in which Titus lives:
Also, it’s good because that way we know that the big corps are made up of real human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America’s future. It’s an investment in tomorrow (Emphasis added).
In shockingly accurate parallels to post-NCLB corporate media narratives, Titus sees the public school system as a “failure,” its bad teachers destroying the moral fiber of the youth, and his corporate masters as philanthropists, providing his salvation:
When no one was going to pay for the public schools anymore and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff.
And while Titus might be swayed by free pizza, faux-philanthropy, and discounts for the Watts Riot inspired pants from Weatherbee and Crotch, he still knows something is wrong, something worse than pimp English teachers:
Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that.
But for Titus, the corporate takeover has happened – generations ago. His life is “normal,” and beyond normal, it’s pleasant. Most of all, it’s the only way Titus knows how to live, as School ™, his parents, his friends – everyone, really – tell him the feed is all there is and should be:
But [corporations] are the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not. Plus, they keep like everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want, to have it just like, in our brain, just sitting there.
Titus’ tale, his resignation to the blind pleasures of consumerism on which he was raised and schooled, could be many of my students – heck, Titus probably was me at some point in time, or any of us who grew up in the hermetically-sealed suburbs of post-modern America Feed so poignantly reflects. Our public school system – while increasingly consumed by corporate America – still presents education as an economic service, part of the “cradle-to-career pipeline,” or worse yet, a consumable product, like a pair of Kent State inspired jackets from Weatherbee and Crotch.
Thankfully, though, Titus has hope, in the form of an unlikely flower growing in their dead world: Violet. And hopefully, she teaches Titus – and all of us, working and learning at School ™ – to “Resist the Feed. Buy an Oxcart.”
I’m honored that my latest essay for Truthout “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” was quoted by Henry Giroux in his latest Public Intellectual installment for Truthout “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Giroux’s essay, as usual, provides a grand tour of the socio-economic forces at work on public education, and the academics and artists resisting. Read it by clicking the above link.
Tired of Kim and Kayne’s kerfuffles controlling the news cycle?
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From his offices at the Daily Planet, journalist Clark Kent stripped into spandex and saved the world outside his mahogany office doors. Now, it looks like the Daily Planet is in need of Superman’s help, as the Fourth Estate is under threat from dwindling sales and dwindling real news content.
“Journalism will survive, but it will reach a limited audience, as the sparsely attended productions of Aristophanes or Racine in small New York theaters are all that is left of great classical theater,” Former New York Times writer Chris Hedges worries, prognosticating a bleak future in which news is only for the elite, the rest of us left to fed on Kayne West and Kim Kardashian’s kerfuffles.
Could comics save the day? That’s right, comics – those immensely popular picture and word stories you always flipped past the real news to get to – can they bring real news back to the masses?
Graphic journalism – “real” journalism with pictures and words (and sometimes, interactive elements) – has pretty much nothing to do with Superman, except for the fact that he was a journalist in a comic. Graphic journalism are comics about reality, about our world – not fantasy, nor escapism. This medium is still in its infancy, but illustrates a clear path forward, one especially critical for students growing up in an media-satured world, in which it’s hard to tell Kayne from Kosovo, the kerfuffles from the real news.
My former collaborator on the graphic report “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum” Dan Archer defines graphic journalism with elegance:
See him talk on BBC about his comic on human trafficking in Nepal which got ONE MILLION readers in a day: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22283856
See also Dan’s comic on comics journalism at Poytner.
Symbolia: A Tablet Magazine of Illustrated Journalism elaborates on Dan’s definition, using comics journalism itself:
Below is a brief overview to the emerging field of graphic journalism, including canonical works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, new and emerging artist/journalists like Susie Cagle and Sarah Glidden, and publications like Cartoon Movement (which is free!). For more background, you can read my article for Truthout “Warning: This Article Contains Graphic Journalism,” which includes a history of this emerging medium, along with interviews with Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Ted Rall and graphic memorist/journalist Sarah Glidden (amongst others).
FINAL NOTE: This post is intended primarily for the participants in my presentation at The English Council of Two Year Colleges, but I hope will be useful for any educator interested in exploring graphic journalism and non-fiction comics in general as a powerful means to critically engage students in our media-saturated world. Links take you to more background/purchasing info.
Sacco, Joe. Palestine (1993)
Sacco with Chris Hedges. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012)
Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon. 2007
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus 1996.
Delisle, Guy. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2007)
Jacobson, Sid and Colon, Ernie. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. 2006.
Nakazawa, Keiji. Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima (2004 – originally published in Japan 1973)
Glidden, Sarah. How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2011)
Bors, Matt. Afghan Life (2010). Read for free at CARTOON MOVEMENT!
Archer, Dan. Check out his work on human trafficking in Nepal from Archcomix.
And “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum: The High Price of Education,” with me (courtesy Truthout)
And of course, the comic which lent the title to this site: Automated Teaching Machine, with fellow community college professor Arthur King.
Cagle, Susie. Check out her excellent comics reporting at her blog.
Any comics journalists or graphic non-fiction you love? Please share with me in the comments.
My latest essay at Truthout “The Great Answer to Education Reform? The Number 42” was released last week, and it was exciting to see the dialogue on Truthout, Facebook, and Twitter, as readers debated the role of automation, corporatization, and technical progress in our schools, and our culture more broadly.
In writing the essay, I was most inspired by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s prophetic and hilarious first novel Player Piano, which vividly imagines a completely technicalized society (Thanks to Paul Thomas for recommendation).
But if it’s possible to be reverse-inspired (as I’m sure Dr. Who would agree it is, given the right kind of temporal flux), then Dave Egger’s latest novel The Circle –which I read immediately after the essay was published – vividly depicts what I was trying to express, extending upon it significantly. Egger’s novel – set in a world perhaps just a few years away – imagines quite vividly and frighteningly what will happen once Big Data dictates all elements of our lives . In one section, he explores a new data system The Circle has created called YOUTHRANK, which compares all students across the country against each other, using their standardized testing scores and other quantitative metrics. Indeed, once it’s fully up and running, with “full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly.” That way, “soon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons or daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”
YOUTHRANK may be a prophetic warning, but it’s also already here in nascent stages, in the form of the InBloom student database, funded by the Gates Foundation and built by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. And certainly, the competitive, data-driven ethos underneath YOUTHRANK is already encoded in federal law, in the form of Race to the Top – if The Circle existed, it would no doubt get the $3 billion grant it was given by the (fictional) Department of Education in Egger’s novel.
More broadly, though, The Circle provides important answers to the questions raised in my essay: What kind of world is Silicon Valley leading us to? And do we want to live there?