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Composition Forum 18, Summer 2008

Lyons, William and Julie Drew. Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2006. 255 pages. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2006. 255pp.

Saltman, Kenneth J. and David A. Gabbard, eds. Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003. 332pp.

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Octavia Davis

While these volumes are not written directly to the composition community, they address educators committed to liberal education, people who believe education should foster ethical commitment to the public good. Together they provide an unnerving portrait of K-12 public education as a largely antidemocratic socializing force that prepares students to conform to authority and accept the status quo as inevitable. Through detailed interviews, close readings, and analyses of political and economic documents, these books challenge writing teachers, writing program administrators, and writing across the curriculum directors to engage in critical pedagogy, to acknowledge and intervene in the disempowering socialization many of our students have endured.

Starting with the earlier text, Kenneth Saltman’s and David Gabbard’s Education as Enforcement comes out of work started prior to 9/11 but completed after political opportunists used that event to invigorate military and corporate incursions in education. The editors provide a coherent volume that moves from Henry A. Giroux’s call to action in the foreword to essays united in their critique of education for the sake of preparing, on the one hand, uncritical consumers and corporate employees, and on the other, credulous recruits for the armed forces. The most valuable moments for writing teachers appear in those chapters that offer evidence of the corporatization and militarization of public schools, provide comparisons of elite and impoverished schools, and highlight the words of excluded students, i.e., those who don’t make it into our writing classrooms or do so under labels such as “conditional admits,” “at risk students,” or “developmental writers.”

Of particular interest to knowledge workers in writing, Giroux challenges educators to expand curricula to include texts students deem important, whether those come from popular culture or other sources. Students need to recognize themselves as critical cultural consumers; they also need to be producers--making films and books, for example, rather than just consuming them--learning to view themselves and their texts as embedded in social contexts that exceed the bounds of the classroom. Giroux writes, “becoming media literate is largely meaningless unless students take up this form of literacy within the larger issue of what it means to be a critical citizen and engaged political agent willing to expand and deepen democratic public spheres” (xx). Becoming critically engaged takes time, and Giroux urges educators to break out of what Jerome Binde calls “emergency time,” a notion of time narrowed to the needs of the immediate future and fostered by regimes committed to war. Instead, educators should operate according to an expanded notion of “public time” that promotes prolonged commitment to social good.

Rather than maintaining a passive attitude toward power, public time demands and encourages forms of political agency based on a passion for self-governing, actions informed by critical judgment, and a commitment to linking social responsibility and social transformation. Public time legitimates those pedagogical practices that provide the basis for a culture of questioning, one that provides the knowledge, skills, and social practices that encourage an opportunity for resistance, a space of translation, and a proliferation of discourses. Public time unsettles common sense and disturbs authority while encouraging critical and responsible leadership. (xii)

What does public time mean for writing? It could mean many things within classrooms, programs, institutions, and communities, but it certainly means projecting beyond the learning objectives of the semester to the long-term goals of liberal education and how those might be achieved over the course of years rather than months.

Teaching in public time could mean fostering long-term relationships with students through publication efforts that transcend a single writing course or teacher (and eschew competition) to involve other readers and writers, including those at local schools and community centers. It could mean encouraging students to examine their own notions of time and urgency and how external forces, such as grades, standardized tests, and school policies have shaped them. Whatever form it takes, teaching in public time requires that educators shift their eyes from last semester’s syllabus to the stretch of time running before each student and acknowledge that these people live in a country becoming ever less democratic, more inequitable, and more in need of critical citizens. From this perspective and with no panic, we can be flexible and our classrooms contingent.

Educators need to provide spaces of resistance...that take seriously what it means to educate students to question and interrupt authority, recall what is forgotten or ignored, make connections that are otherwise hidden, while simultaneously providing the knowledge and skills that enlarge their sense of the social and their possibilities as viable political agents capable of expanding and deepening democratic public life” (xxi).

Writing assignments need to be shaped such that they provide “places of resistance” and lead to conversations that expand beyond the classroom, and these can’t be drafted without the input of students. Writing teachers can “provide spaces within classrooms and other sites for personal injury and private terrors to be transformed into public considerations and struggles” (xxii) only if they make safe spaces for those personal and private issues to become public.

For many students, writing about the personal can be liberating, but connecting those experiences to larger social contexts can seem impossible and pointless. The first chapters of Education as Enforcement offer educators economic and ideological contexts that help explain why many students recoil from considering anything beyond their immediate milieu. In his introduction, Kenneth J. Saltman, for example, points out that the national discussion of public education uses market metaphors that force parents and students to participate in a rhetoric of conformity.

There are high social costs of measures such as scripting, standardization, and the testing fetish. Citizenship becomes defined by an uncritical following of authority; knowledge becomes mistakenly presented as value-free units to be mechanically deposited; schooling models the new social logic that emphasizes economic social mobility rather than social transformation… (7)

From long experience, students know that being successful means getting high scores on dull, tiresome tests created by invisible experts. Students can’t question the curricula or the tests; they can’t question why their time is spent taking them nor who gets the money paid for them. Talking back to boring or ethnocentric readings, or even challenging the agency that selected them, earns detention, low scores, and in the long run, failure--economic ruin. It’s the product, not the dreadful process that counts. No wonder our students look at us with suspicion when we ask them to question authority. Why should we be trusted?

Continuing the point, Noam Chomsky looks at “great books” curricula and rankings within schools as further evidence that “the institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity, and to make them controllable and indoctrinated” (29). David Gabbard takes the discussion a step further, arguing that compulsory schooling in the modern nation-state has always served the interests of the market. The “corporatist dimensions of compulsory schooling focus on ‘incorporating’ everyone into the same collective body of persons who share the values of the market and who equate those values with secular salvation--the American dream” (72). Because the market requires credentials and diplomas for more highly rewarded work (despite the fact that the work itself might not be satisfying or meaningful), students rightly view obtaining the credentials as the purpose of education. “One of the most essential lessons for learning to ‘thrive’ within a market society is to eschew the search for meaning in either the development (education) or the expenditure (work) of one’s use-value” (72). In a system more and more invested in test scores that rank individuals and schools according to the standard, schooling socializes students to view higher education as a means to an economic, rather than an intellectual, end.

As writing teachers, these chapters challenge us to acknowledge the sagacity of our students who resist meaning making as a fruitless endeavor. Rather than assuming our students lack intellectual energy, we need to help them identify where and how they already make meaning in their lives and transfer that expertise to their writing. Without acknowledging the rational assumptions our students bring to the classroom, we cannot expect them to hear our insistence that they frame their writings with purpose as anything but another stupid exercise meant to satisfy the person in power. A seeming inability or reluctance to question, to analyze, to seek connections, may be the result of rational, economically sound conclusions.

Several chapters of Education as Enforcement offer persuasive and well-documented evidence of what Jonathon Kozol elsewhere calls “savage inequalities,” the details of which can be useful to educators who have not spent time in public schools and don’t know how vastly unequal their students’ educational experiences can be. In her essay, for example, Enora R. Brown examines two Chicago area public high schools to show how their physical spaces reinforce existing inequalities whose roots, she demonstrates, run deep in American history. While inner-city, under-funded schools become increasingly controlled, regimented, and militarized, well-appointed suburban schools become more expansive and better equipped:

these schools are structurally embedded in, and historically constituted through, dynamic postindustrial, global economic, and political relationships. As such, the edifices stand for/represent a polarized and interdependent relationship between the upper class and the working class, the relative valuation of these classes in the dominant culture, and the “rightful” inherited identity positions of their youth in the existing social order. (128)

Students who dwell in crumbling, prison-like, overcrowded, and policed structures see the world differently, have different choices available to them, than those who occupy sumptuous facilities that convey the approval of power. As Brown suggests, educators must “challenge the corrosive ideologies and institutional practices that constrain the possibilities for youth” (148). How can we do that? Provide “a forum for students to critically examine their immediate realities and the broader questions that have bearing on their lives” (148).

Putting students in conversation with one another about their schools immediately reveals social forces and broader questions that can be analyzed, researched, and discussed in writing. Pepi Lestyna’s chapter, “Facing Oppression,” starts from the premise that students come to classrooms from complex contexts already speaking and writing with voices; it’s the educator’s charge to “be willing to create dialogical spaces where all these lived experiences and worldviews can be heard” (107). Writing projects that put college students in dialogue with one another, and with younger students in the community, could be one way to create space for hearing and honoring diverse experiences and viewpoints, as well as making connections that might otherwise be lost to view. To bring social forces and contexts into vivid relief, writing programs could engage in long-term community research or service learning projects that students document over the years through writing, photographs, videos, blogs, oral histories, and any other forms they choose. Through projects such as these, students can start the work of becoming active, critical citizens in their communities.

Education as Enforcement pushes us to acknowledge and confront the forces that shape many of our students into people who don’t want to raise their hands or “overcomplicate things,” but just want to get out of our classes and on their way to making money. They are participants in their education, yes, but innocent of creating the social and economic conditions within which they are educated. They need our respect, not our disdain. They need our long-term commitment to the aims of liberal education, social justice, and democracy. In practical terms, they need us to engage them in critical conversations that bring their own diverse voices to the fore in forms they recognize as worthy, meaningful, and purposeful in a context greater than themselves.

Building on the work of Education as Enforcement, in their book Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education, William Lyons and Julie Drew offer a deep analysis of two very different high schools in Ohio, one in the inner city and one just a few miles away in the suburbs. Wide-ranging and impressive, the analysis demonstrates how a “zero tolerance culture” plays to the fears of more powerful constituencies and ignores the fears of less powerful groups, with the effect that each ends up with less power vis-à-vis the state. Through compelling portraits of Suburban High School (SHS) and Urban High School (UHS), Lyons and Drew demonstrate that political leadership punishes rich and poor schools alike, while schools punish students, treating them more and more like criminals rather than human beings with civil rights.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Lyons and Drew examine SHS in the context of a close reading of the film Pleasantville to show how a magnificently appointed school, closely embraced by the community, constructs itself as “nonblack, nonurban, nonpoor” (6) and thus “not deserving of punishment” (6). Operating from a false nostalgia for a past that never existed, or a past lived primarily by a particular kind of subject--white, middle-class, heterosexual male--this school codes difference as dangerous (5, 63). Integrated into the lavish architecture of SHS, surveillance cameras and locking doors ensure that students police themselves and one another to conform to the dictates of authority. Police dogs sniff students for drugs during lockdowns, while school leaders insist that search procedures don’t violate student rights. Students, learning about Civil Rights leaders and the Holocaust, nonetheless can’t imagine standing up for themselves in the face of authority (88-89). Instead, they “harass” one another to conform to prevailing styles, sexual mores, and displays of wealth. While teachers fear an unknown student will commit a Columbine-like atrocity, students fear one another’s cruelty: “The one constant in every interview, across populations at SHS, is fear--fear of the students inside the building for one reason or another” (38).

Constant surveillance, every move regulated--the overwhelming impression the students receive is that the adults are waiting for them to break the rules; the adults have the impression that chaos and violence could come from any quarter at any moment. Everyone is fearful. They are all offered a palatial prison in a high-tech, expensive setting, but the disciplinary vigilance and punitive consequence reveal the prison mentality at work. (76)

The “prison mentality,” according to Lyons and Drew, trains scrutiny on students as either victims or perpetrators and encourages everyone in the school community to depend upon state power for protection (86).

In Chapters 4 and 5, Lyons and Drew document decades of under-funding at the city, state, and federal levels to show how leaders have driven UHS and other inner-city schools into decrepitude, while at the same time giving breaks to corporations, to the extent that the Ohio congress exempted unsafe inner-city facilities from building codes (94). Media coverage of the schools, however, focuses on the neighborhoods, parents, and children as the culprits:

leaders are punishing our inner-city schools for the challenges they face, as if their decaying buildings, decades of disinvestment, disappearing residential neighborhoods, and status as power-poor communities stand as evidence of parental neglect and uncontrollable youth. (97)

Rather than funding primarily black inner-city schools, leaders point to them as violent and dangerous, taking no responsibility for fostering the conditions that give rise to their existence. This stance allows leaders to “govern through crime control” (98). In UHS, fears focus less on conflicts arising within the school and more on those that come from without. “The students, teachers, and parents of UHS experience their school as a target for punishment from state and (to a lesser extent) local leaders, who punish their school for the challenges their students (and by extension) their teachers face (96). Efforts to resolve student conflicts that arise out of broader social issues, however, locate problems and punishment within the students, completely erasing everything but personal culpability (147). If students fight over access to inadequate bathroom facilities, in other words, they’re the ones with the bad attitude, not the politicians that deny funds to fix the plumbing.

Chapter 6 pulls together the analyses of SHS and UHS to demonstrate that school communities, whether rich or poor, suffer from a zero tolerance culture that emphasizes punishment over pedagogy. Suburban schools, defining difference as conflict, position themselves as not black, urban, or poor, enabling privileged white students to see themselves as deserving their relative power, to “confuse leadership with growing up wealthy” (176). At the same time, constructing all youth as dangerous or in need of protection limits their agency and perversely puts them in control; rather than mentoring students, adults fear them (176). Furthermore, zero tolerance culture distracts citizens from larger issues by focusing them “on those lesser fears that draw our attentiveness not to power but to blaming the power-poor” (186).

A zero tolerance culture cultivates citizen identities as inattentive to failed leadership, amplifying fears that divide and paralyze us, insulating us within a passive and dependent articulation of citizen agency as consuming subjects, and reinforcing state agency and a vision of limited government limited to punishment. (186)

Democracy itself is at stake: “Schools that create less innovative and more vulnerable citizens--citizens without the democratic citizenship skills that can only be forged by addressing visible conflicts in routine practice--are schools that construct democracy itself as a threat to their communities” (176). Only through education do the authors see solutions. We need to analyze the histories of our communities and participate in the shaping of their futures, and we need to teach our students and the public to be attentive to power.

Conflict is normal and necessary to the workings of democracy. This is the single most practical, important lesson Punishing Schools offers to educators who work with writing. This is a phrase that I, for one, will be repeating to my students, my colleagues, and myself. Working in groups, whether in class or faculty meetings, can be messy, uncomfortable, and time-consuming, but it’s only in groups that we learn to identify (and be) effective leaders and work toward consensus. Staking out a controversial claim can lead to conflict, that’s true, but only in voicing our diverse opinions and experiences can we understand the ideas of each person and achieve solutions that serve all. Working through conflict requires reading (and listening) critically and writing persuasively. That’s the business of composition.

Finally, both Education as Enforcement and Punishing Schools challenge educators to accept that if students have made it to college, they’ve learned to conform to authority in ways that will most likely impede our efforts to communicate with them. Students come to us from schools and communities that disrespect and fear youth; they’ve inherited, not created, attitudes antithetical to critical thinking, social justice, and democracy. If students aren’t contributing in class, for example, is it because they’re personally flawed--dull and apathetic--or because they’re socialized to conform, to avoid conflict, and be silent? If students are reluctant to post their work on a shared drive or in an online course, is it because they’re obstinate and lazy or because they’re afraid of creating controversy or being the object of scorn? If students plagiarize, is it because they lack integrity or because they’ve dutifully learned that product, not process, is paramount? Whether students appear overindulged or unruly, they are likely defensive, cynical, or inert for good reason. Their schools have taught them to be that way.

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