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 28, 2009

On Education Part Seven: Slum Schools and Marginalizing the Marginalized

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.


The political, economic, and social context in which American education revolves extensively around the Cold War rancor between the United States and the Soviet Union; an atmosphere of fear, generated by the red scare and accusations of anti-Americanism, gripped the nation as the press, politicians, and corporate heads embellished the threat of Communism to the average American. It was within this historical context, where two world super powers and their respective ruling elites were colliding to achieve militaristic and economic dominance, that the conservative educational philosophy of James B. Conant would be lengthily developed and happily regurgitated by status quo-promoting school officials. Conant, an extreme advocate of meritocracy, would push for a national school reform where standardized testing, selective schooling, limited access to education, and vocational training for the majority would ensure “a stable American democracy” where “a government run by experts with only limited participation by the masses” would help to marginalize the more subversive, “diverse populations of students” that “had strengthened the position of radical elements on campus” (Tozer, 2009, p. 221).

Schools and universities, according to Conant, should function not as democratic institutions where students and faculty are actively engaged in the democratic process to foster a sustainable democratic culture but instead a meritocratic, intellectual ivory tower where a skilled elite would be cultivated with the purpose of running society. Despite the democratic rhetoric, Conant’s ideas would promote a vision of an extremely exclusive quasi-democratic state more akin to ancient Athens than to a real, participatory democracy where the majority had control over their lives and labor. Thus, Conant’s primary desire was not only to maintain and perpetuate the current class structure but to strengthen it; he hoped to accomplish this by training a highly skilled elite in advanced academic institutions while utilizing public schools to force feed a mind-numbing, ultra-nationalist, conformist, training-based educational regimen down the throats of the rest of the population.

A recurrent theme throughout Conant’s educational ideal is what, in his mind, he identified with freedom: bourgeois democracy and the capitalist state. Thus, any sort of dissident or radical who questioned the foundation upon which the capitalist order rested was pigeonholed into the caricature of a subversive, anti-American Communist. Despite the fact that many, though by no means all, progressives and radicals within the New Left dismissed the state-capitalist model of the Soviet Union as nothing more than a pretty fa├žade of worker’s power covering an ugly, brutal regime, Conant and the rest of the public officials during this time period would consistently raise the specter of a Communist takeover and associate any sort of dissent with such a threat. As Conant explains:

Communism feeds upon discontented, frustrated, unemployed people… The young people are my chief concern, especially when they are pocketed together in large numbers within the confined of big city slums. What can words like ‘freedom,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ mean to these young people? With what kind of zeal and dedication can we expect them to withstand the relentless pressures of communism? How well prepared are they to face the struggle that shows no sign of abating? (Tozer, p. 219)

The kind of “zeal and dedication” Conant envisioned would be one of nationalistic furor and unquestioning obedience to the authority of the skilled minority which, ironically, was quite a similar theoretical approach to Soviet-style state capitalism. It would take a public school system that conditioned students and teachers to act, respond, and think in a specific way to commands from the educated elite to solidify this meritocratic ideal. The result of this sort of educational program does not require much pondering; the established elite and intellectual ruling clique would maintain their dominance over the majority and do with them, their labor, their resources, and their lives, what they pleased.

Conant knew that in every corner of American society there remained a wide gap between those who have it all and those who have nothing. Tozer explains that “At one extreme, the urban schools in low-income and poverty neighborhoods stressed vocational education and…the wealthy suburban schools educated almost all their students for college” (Tozer, p. 219). The policies Conant vehemently postulated would further inequality by promoting “segregation of Black students from White students in the college preparatory and advanced placement classes [he] so vigorously endorsed” (Tozer, p. 221). This, of course, was no concern to him; socioeconomic factors were not important enough to consider when analyzing the academic and intellectual ability of a student. Or, rather, Conant hoped to downplay their importance purposefully and designed a theoretical approach which would not only ignore reality but actively seek to displace it from consideration.

For educators, then, the absolute and unequivocal renunciation of Conant and his meritocratic vision is necessary. For democracy to flourish, the control of society cannot be restricted to an educated elite who acts on behalf of the people. The people must be intricately engaged and involved in their own lives and how society is organized through democratic participation. The example of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro in Cuba can be utilized here for educators, especially those involved in the field of history. A small band of revolutionaries, aimed to dismantle the oppressive, U.S. backed dictatorship of General Batista in Cuba, fought a guerrilla war on behalf of the Cuban people in an attempt to liberate them from their oppressors. Unfortunately, despite popular support, the actual involvement of the people in the revolution was limited. As Paul D’Amato explains, “The revolution was wildly popular for its land, educational and economic reforms, but the Cuban masses neither carried out the revolution nor created the state that emerged from it” (D’Amato, 2008). Consequently, a relatively small, bureaucratic elite now maintains power in Cuba under the guise of a socialist democracy. Although Conant’s desires and ideal differ prodigiously from the hopes and dreams of the Cuban peasants, toiling workers, and guerrilla revolutionaries, the concept is transferable. Democracy must include full participation of the masses; without an education which allows for such a democratic culture to develop, however, this goal is largely unattainable.

In the classroom, this means that democratic participation by the students is absolutely essential in the learning process. A dictatorial, teacher-student dichotomy where the relationship is defined in strict terms of depositor and receiver, one simply giving information and one simply accepting it, is unacceptable for a democratic atmosphere to flourish. Rather, a relationship where the teacher engages the students by proposing problems and facilitating the development of solutions, meanwhile learning from and immersing him or herself in the lives of the students, provides the most fulfilling, democratic, and humanizing form of education imaginable. This, in contrast with the meritocratic, structured hierarchy of Conant, provides a glimpse into the possibilities for the future of education if students, teachers, and parents take up the struggle for autonomy and active engagement in the learning process. It will be more than simply requesting it from the established structural norms or hoping a few benevolent politicians implement it; indeed, it will only come through a dedicated struggle waged by those who truly desire the development of democracy. Thus, the radical elements developing with progressive ideas of how to significantly alter democracy must not be shunned or marginalized but creatively explored and tested. Educators cannot afford to simply understand the pedagogical aspects of working with students; they must also be prepared to accept and utilize the organizational principles required to fight back against oppressive working conditions and the bureaucratic school systems, lacking union organizations, and corporate impingement into the public arena. The fight is ours to win; we, as educators, just have to be willing to engage in it.

Works Cited

D’Amato, P. (2008) Tyrannies Ruling in the Name of Socialism. Socialist Worker, 679, August. Accessed March 20, 2009. Available:

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

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