“A Marxist Education – Learning to Change the World,” by Wayne Au, 2018
I’ll bet you didn’t think Marxism had anything to do with teaching? Well, think again. Au is a prominent activist in Seattle who is influential in fighting ‘one size fits all’ testing, charter schools, profiteering, Bill Gates and rote, hegemonic corporate education. This book fleshes out his ideas, using dialectical materialism and people like Paulo Freire, Lev Vigotsky and V.I. Lenin to make the case for a transformational form of teaching.
Au starts with a brief introduction to dialectics and materialism. He shows that these did not just originate in ‘ancient’ Greece or with Hegel or Marx, but in early Chinese philosophy, with some Egyptian concepts and in Aztec ideas of the universe. As any one who has studied the development of ideas, they arise in different places because they respond to something universal in human society. You only have to look at the Chinese ‘yin-yang’ symbol to see several aspects of dialectics in visual form. He challenges those who see Marxism as a ‘white man’s’ philosophy, given its reality among the proletariat in every country in the world, including U.S. black and Latino/a communities. As you might imagine, he is a rarity as an education professor in the U.S.
In the process, Au takes on neo-Marxism or bad readings of Gramsci and Althusser which attempt to downplay Marx’s emphasis on economics, as false readings of Marx. This debate centers around arguments about ‘base,’ ‘superstructure’ and the supposed consequence of ‘economic determinism.’ Au concludes that schools are both sites of indoctrination and control, but also resistance. Yet in the end, Au states that “…the general functioning of schools cannot contradict the capitalist economic base.”
On to the specifically educational material!
Au’s statistics indicate that 60% of outcomes in U.S. education are determined by the social environment children live in. Only 20% is due to the schools themselves. This should be a ‘duh’ fact, but it is ignored in the clueless hysteria against teachers and public schools. His stats also show that charter schools either do as well as or worse than public schools. That is not counting their segregationist, anti-democratic, fraudulent, anti-union, privatizing, real estate or ‘exclusive’ sides, where they pick their student body and still have a higher rate of expulsions than public schools. He shows instances of charter schools that even after failing are allowed to keep all the public assets they purloined. This is another example of the ‘enclosure of the commons’ - which is still going on.
Neo-liberalism is the prime culprit in our present educational system, as it is everywhere else. A market-driven approach to education fails society and students, and only enriches corporations and a strata of education profiteers. Students become ‘consumers’ instead of learners. Au sees ‘quantification’ as key to neo-liberalism, which is why “No Child Left Behind” and ‘Common Core’ testing is pushed. Studies show that the conditions in which the test is given influence 50-80% of student performance on that test. Testing companies use shabby, quick piece work methods to score those tests. Unlike the bogus concern for minorities, standardized tests are actually constructed to make minorities and economic disadvantaged students fail. The NAACP and BLM have both come out against charters and this kind of testing. Au led a struggle started at Garfield High in Seattle against corporate testing and it was successful. In this context, the ‘benevolent’ Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was key in bringing rote testing and charter schools to the U.S. and to Washington state. When you see the Gates Foundation involved, run.
Au studied both Lenin and Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He makes a somewhat labored case that ‘learning’ in either the class struggle or as a student occur in similar ways. Most people start at a spontaneous or emotional level, and only through dealing with the increasing contradictions and challenges that develop can they rise to a more broad view of what is actually going on. In the same way, the job of a teacher or a revolutionary is to guide students or workers towards a greater, more scientific understanding. At the same time the teacher or revolutionary is also learning – it is a dialectical, feedback process for both. This process also flows into an understanding of auto didacticism, where people learn on their own through books, film or experiences.
Au seems to think there are only two stages of understanding, which actually hides a whole ‘process’ that might leave someone in the middle, at a partial point. Much as various kinds of ‘reformism’ are midway points between the status quo or economic labor struggle only, and a revolutionary position. Or a partial understanding of some academic topic, like algebra, which a student feels he will never need to know in full. Refusing to learn can also be a part of directed learning.
Brazilian Marxist educator Paulo Freire wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Education for Critical Consciousness” long ago, and both books are now foundational to some forms of teaching. Au tries to rescue Freire from liberal educators who don’t understand Freire’s basis in dialectics and materialism. Essentially, Freire thought that seeing the submerged structure of society allows students to possibly break free from its constraints, and even … change it. In this chapter, he uses an example of teaching ‘whiteness.’ Au seems not to have realized the biologic fact that there is only one race, the human race. So his Freire-like example for students of deconstructing ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ as social constructs is marred at a very definitional level. Accepting the concept of ‘more than one race’ actually plays into the hands of racists.
Freire borrowed from Soviet literary and communications theorist Mikhail Bakhitin’s theory of the ‘dialogic’ – a dialogue method based on dialectics.
In another example, Au takes apart a white woman teacher who claimed that she could not teach or discuss racism with her students because she was white. Au counters his kind of guilt-laden identity politics, which actually reinforces racism. He points out that if ‘intersectionality’ is true, then being ‘white’ is not a prohibition from either understanding parts of racism or fighting institutional racism. Of course, intersectionality is only a half-way point to understanding that some 'intersections' have much more weight than others.
Au notes that curriculum is a crucial battle-ground nationally, in school districts and in individual schools. He makes the point that there is no neutral curriculum. As such objective reality exists as part of our ‘standpoint’ perceptions, and the goal is to encompass that reality from that standpoint. In one instance, Au shows how fossil fuel companies used Scholastic Magazine to push a coal-mining agenda and how green organizations and individuals got the magazine to stop distribution.
Au is an Asian-American and his final chapter lists the various struggles he has waged over educational practices in the U.S. – some successful, some not. His father was a communist – probably a supporter of Mao - and taught his son some foundational truths. One of these is that ideas and action go together, and Au has certainly done that.
Other reviews on this topic: “Latest Developments in Hungary,” “In and Out of the Working Class,” “University in Chains,” “There is Only One Race…” “The Servant Economy,” “The God Market,” “Monopoly Capital.”
And I bought it at May Day Books!
August 29, 2018