Thursday, May 19, 2011

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / May 24, 2011

I have been thinking a lot about “ideological hegemony;” how and why we think about the political world in the ways we do. I do so not to add another layer of theory to an already complex set of arguments about economics and politics. Nor am I interested in immobilizing political activists. Rather, I think progressives need to think about how to challenge the ideas that most of us are supposed to accept and believe.

Of course, the primary public institutions that transmit ideas and ways of thinking to people, from the start to the end of their educational careers, are schools. Our friends on the Right know how important it is to shape schools at all levels. Early in this century I remember hearing Rush Limbaugh say on one of his radio programs that “the only institutions we do not yet control are the schools”

With this as a goal, just the other day we read stories about Koch brothers’ money financing faculty positions at Florida State University in economics (presumably Marxist or structural economists need not apply). Just a week earlier a story broke about rightwing efforts to cut and splice public recordings of lectures in a labor studies class at the University of Missouri to leave the impression that the instructors are advocates for labor violence. Using the methods of vilification and distortions that worked successfully against green jobs advocate Van Jones, community action group ACORN, and Shirley Sherrod, an African American employee of the Department of Agriculture, attacks on education are growing. The use of more sophisticated technologies than in the days of McCarthy or David Horowitz’s print crusades against “dangerous professors” are becoming common.

In addition to smear campaigns and using money to shape hiring practices at universities, access to varieties of knowledge remains very much constrained by institutional and political pressures, from kindergarten through high school and college. For example, we can talk about two subject areas, militarism and economic orthodoxy. Both subjects were prominently featured at an elementary school, Mayflower Mill Elementary School in Lafayette, Indiana.

As the local newspaper, the Journal & Courier reported approvingly on May 12, 2011:

“When Mayflower Mill Elementary students were told they would be able to hear the approaching helicopter that would land behind the school before they saw it, their ears perked up.” Although the noise they first heard was only a delivery truck, soon a Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter which was used in Vietnam, and piloted by a group of veterans, arrived. The pilots were part of an organization committed to maintaining a positive public image of the helicopter.

The helicopter and its veteran pilots spent the day at the elementary school, called by the school “Operation American Pride,”

“After Wednesday’s landing, students broke into groups…..including lessons on flag etiquette and the life of the soldier.” Kids got to go in the helicopter, sit behind a Humvee, and a military truck. The whole day was a celebration of the military, military values, super-patriotism. One student referred to experiencing the helicopter as “cool” and “exhilarating.”

Organizing the day’s activities took combined efforts of members of military families, community donations, support from the Army National Guard and members of Purdue University’s ROTC. Of course, the activities required the full cooperation of teachers, the principal, and members of the school board.

I wonder what would have happened if a parent or brave teacher had proposed that “Operation American Pride” include an historical discussion of the millions of Vietnamese people who died in the U.S. war in that country; or perhaps, if course material include reference to the 57,000 American soldiers who died in the war or the lingering effects of Agent Orange on subsequent generations of Vietnamese and U.S. veterans.

In addition the J & C reported on May 16, that fourth and fifth graders at the same school recently completed a class project simulating commerce and manufacturing. Students designed and sold products to their school mates (and the money earned went to recognized charities such as the American Heart Association and the local fire department). Kids produced “slime,” decorated pencils, and chocolate coated plastic spoons. Students designed their products, shopped for supplies, and produced and sold them. The teacher, it was reported, has done a similar project every year because she said about students that “they need to understand finance.”

The newspaper reported that the project was supported by long-time economics education lobbyist and think tank, the Indiana Center for Economic Education. An ICEE spokesperson, who offered a program that the teacher had taken years ago, spoke about the lessons kids learned: “The basics of operating their own business, the fact you’ve got to produce a product customers want and counter the cost of resources you need.” The spokesperson claimed the exercises such as at Mayflower Mill highlight real issues which sometimes get lost in teaching more dominant subjects.

I wonder if students learned anything about the historic role of organized labor in the state, high unemployment in Indiana, growing economic inequality, the forty year deindustrialization of the state economy, and the differences in economic opportunity between African Americans, other minorities, and whites, and between men and women.

Almost accidentally, I accessed stories about political struggles from 2004 until today at my old high school, Senn High School, in Chicago. It seems that the high school which over forty years ago was white and middle class was now populated by young people from working class and poor African American, Latino, and immigrant families.

By the new century it was experiencing problems in reference to academics and social order. The authorities, the City alderwoman, the head of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, Mayor Daley, and the military came up with a “great” idea. They created in 2005, over the objections of students, teachers, and community activists, the Hyman Rickover Naval Academy which occupies a large physical space in the high school and has enrolled at least 25 per cent of the student population.

Meanwhile programs to teach English as a second language and advanced placement courses for college preparation were reduced. The teaching staff in the non-military portion of Senn High School was cut by 33 per cent. CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) continues to challenge the militarization of the Chicago school system.

In our communities we need to work in solidarity with those immediately involved in educational institutions. Where issues of militarism and economic orthodoxy shape school curricula our voices need to be heard. Our political agenda, in sum, needs to address as best our resources allow what we learn, how we learn it, and who controls the institutions that shape our thinking and the thinking of young people.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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