Schooling Fear: Bush’s Education Reform (Part 2)

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Henry Giroux

SCHOOLS IN BUSH’S proposal function primarily as agents of social and cultural reproduction, spheres of regulation that largely benefit a small group of students who are mostly white and middle class.

For instance, Bush has allocated $25 million to the education budget to develop programs that would instill character in students, that is, teaching students right from wrong. Such “character education,” however, is not aimed at schools for the rich and privileged, who would hardly tolerate the strictures of obedience training and the modes of authoritarianism that accompany them. Educating the managerial and cultural elite cannot be grounded in the imperatives of character education that promotes passivity rather than engaged leadership.

Bush’s support of character education, or “character” building lessons, coupled with his endorsement of reading programs based on phonics or correct sounding of letters, rather than the communication of something meaningful, the struggle with ideas, or even word play, turns teaching and learning into a crushing bore. Such approaches to teaching are passionately ideological in the most retrograde sense and utterly instrumentalist.

Yet character education as a basis for promoting a highly restricted notion of literacy and moral reasoning has long been supported by conservatives such as William Bennett, Dinesh D’Sousa, Chester Finn, Jr. and others who see it as a way of imposing rigid restrictions on what can be taught in schools — particularly in regards to subjects considered dangerous, such as sex education, or for that matter viewed as irrelevant to the Western canon.

Learning to follow the rules, adapting rather than critically engaging the values that reproduce existing structures of power, or developing a curriculum around “patriotic” and traditional views of history, are designed largely for those students who are portrayed as either a threat or are completely dispensable to Bush’s version of America. Character education, as it has been defined among neo-cultural warriors such as Lynne Cheney, is a euphemism for promoting pedagogical practices in which students learn core values that reproduce “good” habits of conduct such as being polite, learning how to compete with others, providing the “right” answers, keeping classrooms tidy, and returning library books on time.

Character education shifts attention to the moral values that guide student behavior, but has nothing to say about how institutions assume and should be held accountable ethically and politically for the ways in which they exercise power and its effects on others. Character education focuses on controlling individual behavior but has nothing to say about the relationship between individual behavior and the responsibilities of social life, or ethics as a social discourse grounded in public struggles.

Moreover, character education is part of the discourse of right-wing conservative and religious groups who exercise an enormous influence over Bush’s policies. In this context, character education is used to impose a highly charged conservative set of values upon how and what is taught in schools, and its consequences will strengthen the spirit of reverence, authoritarianism, and control that is central to Bush’s view of schooling and educational reform. The effects will be devastating for those teachers and educators who believe that a spirit of diversity, dissent and public discussion are central to a critical education.

Public schools don’t need character education, which is just euphemism for conservative modes of moral and social regulation. Instead, schools should provide forms of critical education in which ethics and values are connected to teaching students to keep the spirit of justice alive in themselves, embrace the need to be compassionate, respect the rights of others, and be self-conscious about the consequences of their actions.

Schools need to do more than teach students to just say no to drugs and sex. Moral education, in the best sense, means taking a hard look at what we as adults and educators impart to kids in schools on a daily basis. Engaging schools as a site of moral and political education means developing curricula and classroom social relations that teach students the basic values of tolerance, acceptance, decency, civic courage, gender equity, fairness, and racial justice. Moral education also means giving students the knowledge and skills to enable them to interrogate and defend the values and norms that are crucial to recognizing anti-democratic forms of power and expanding the operations of freedom and democracy.

Closely linked to Bush’s call for character education is his emphasis on providing funds for schools to “remove violent or persistently disruptive students from the classroom.” Moreover, “to receive funds from this program, states must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for violent or persistently disruptive students.”(1) Bush’s proposal also provides funds for children to transfer from dangerous schools to safe ones.

In this instance, choice and flight rather than engagement and struggle become the antidote for dealing with failing public schools. It is difficult to understand the rationale behind this policy, except as a way of linking character education to the culture of fear and punishment. As many educators have indicated, schools are among the safest places for kids to be.(2)

Pushing the moral panic button in No Child Left Behind, Bush paints public schools as dangerous sites and in doing has grossly exaggerates the statistics on crime and violence that take place in the schools. As Richard Rothstein has pointed out in the New York Times:

“In fact, of the 2,000 killings of children a year, only about 10 occur in or near schools . . . . Even gun violence is not a significant school problem, despite some highly publicized, horrifying instances. For very teenager killed by a gun in school, more than 300 are killed by guns elsewhere . . . . To enhance child safety, we would do better to control drunken driving on weekends than to turn schools into lock-down facilities with metal detectors.”(3)

Exaggerations aside, Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft believe that guns, poverty, racism, the hyper-commercialism of corporate culture, and the brutal machismo at the heart of the society have nothing to do with the problems and violence that students sometime face in and out of schools.

Under Bush’s plan, those students who don’t fit in, resist the new testing orthodoxy or who organize opposition to lock-down schools can now be removed from schools, and under the imperatives of zero-tolerance polices, handed over to the police or other elements of the criminal justice system.(4) Moreover, Bush wants to standardize such policies so as to further undermine the possibilities for administrators, teachers, and others in schools across the country to make critical judgments and deliberations about student behavior that take account of a wide range of considerations and factors that guarantee a genuinely fair appeals process.

But such policies do more than turn administrators into pawns of a rigid criminal justice system; they also further abet the discriminatory policies against minorities that are already deeply entrenched in school practices such as tracking, inordinate rates of expulsion and suspension for students of color, the warehousing of Black and brown kids in dead-end schools and classrooms, and the underfunding characteristic of schools inhabited by poor and minority kids.(5)

Every parent wants their child in a safe school, not only because such environments provide a basic condition for learning, but because schools are one of the few places left where adults do make a commitment to invest in the quality of children’s lives. When schools become unsafe, punitive measures should not be enacted against children but against those adults and institutional forces that allow such negligence to take place. Discipline policies should educate kids, not merely punish them. School safety policies should offer kids a second chance, not simply dump them into the criminal justice system, and students should be given the power to play a governing role in shaping such policies.

Bush’s education agenda represents one of the most conservative and powerful assaults ever faced by advocates of public education. Against the current onslaught to privatize and undermine public education, various groups on the left in conjunction with other progressives must offer a staunch defense of public education as a resource vital to democratic and civic life.

Such groups also need to engage in the hard work of making the pedagogical more political by providing analysis of the crisis of education on multiple fronts, particularly in relation to those wider economic, political and social forces pitting education against market culture as a master design for all human affairs — reducing substantive democracy to the imperatives of hyper-capitalism and the glorification of financial markets.

This requires, in part, that educators consider the political and pedagogical importance of struggling over the meaning and definition of radical democracy, authority and social responsibility, as part of a broader debate over human rights, social provisions, civil liberties, equity and economic justice.

Activists and educators must make clear that the struggle over education is part of a wider struggle over class, community control, and public resources. As oppositional public intellectuals, progressive educators need to create a broad-based movement for the defense of public goods and democratic public spheres, linking the struggle for autonomy within the public schools to universities, workplaces and other sites.

More specifically, progressives fighting for public education must ally themselves with groups opposing privatization in spheres such as housing, transportation, the prison system, child care and health care. Such a movement suggests that progressive educators take seriously the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle, and be able to use these resources in a variety of public spaces.

Educators both within and outside public schools must find ways to connect their work to social policy, especially addressing the role that public policy currently plays in undermining the basic foundations of democratic public life. The link between education and social policy is important and complex, and as social activists we need to support such a vital connection. Though far from widespread, groups such as Fair Test do precisely this kind of work around questions of assessment and testing and have offered a welcome opposition to many of Bushs testing schemes.

At the same time, I want to extend this insight by arguing that the call for educators to link their work to policy remains too abstract unless it engages the crucial role of pedagogy in developing and enabling forms of political agency. Without a viable notion of political agency, among professionals and the broader public, that makes such a connection both attractive and viable, such calls for linking theory and practice become empty.

Critical educators will need to rethink what it means under present conditions to redefine public schooling as a public good, and teachers as oppositional intellectuals whose pedagogical role in part is to link learning to social change. But they also will have to join with community and other activists to change social policy and to struggle against the Bush Agenda while exposing the ideological and political interests at work. Such a project will have to create few forms of communication and solidarity capable of addressing and challenging the dangerous threats that the Bush proposal presents to public schools, minorities of class and color, and democracy itself.

Challenging the Bush agenda at the level of daily school experience means, in part, reaffirming the importance of the curriculum as a site of critique, critical exchange and social struggle. Moreover, the struggle over curricula, both hidden and overt, offers progressive educators the opportunity to challenge those approaches to pedagogy in the Bush agenda in which knowledge becomes capital — a form of investment in the economy that appears to have little value when linked to the power of self-definition or the capacities of individuals to expand the scope of individual and social freedom.

By viewing the curriculum as a site of critical inquiry, contestation and resistance, pedagogy is defined as a normative and political practice rather than as a neutral methodology or a fixed discourse. Engaging the relationship between knowledge and power highlights the socio-historical formations and ideologically laden common sense assumptions that frame how teaching and learning are framed in the curriculum.

Rather than viewing teaching and learning as a sacred ritual buttressed by modes of authority that appear unproblematic and beyond the range of deliberation, progressive educators would challenge all types of authority “that would fail to render an account and provide reasons . . . for the validity of its pronouncements.”(6) At stake here is the attempt to rethink what it means for critical educators to produce knowledges, social relations, and modes of authority capable of challenging those forms of moral and political regulation that perceive public education as a training ground for corporate berths as well as a guardian of dominant cultural capital.

The model for some of these interventions can be see in the work of Rethinking Schools, Radical Teacher, and Youth United For Change. But again, these groups occupy marginal positions in the struggle against dominant liberal and conservative forces driving the education agenda.

As critical educators we must forcefully challenge the way in which the Bush agenda abstracts knowledge from the central dynamics of politics and power. Culture in this instance is always tangled up with power and becomes political in a double sense.

First, questions of ownership, access and governance are crucial to understanding how power is de*/ployed in regulating the images, meanings and ideas that frame the agendas for classroom life and articulate with broader ideological and institutional forces. Second, school culture not only offers up specific knowledge, values, ideologies and social practices — through which students define themselves and their relationship to the social world — to different groups of students situated within unequal relations of power. It also makes a claim on certain histories, memories, and narratives.

As James Young has noted in a different context, such histories tell “both the story of events and its unfolding as narrative” in order to influence how individuals take up, modify, resist, and accommodate themselves to particular forms of citizenship, present material relations of power, and specific notions of the future.(7) In this instance, the representation of politics that shapes the content of the canonical knowledge and the broader curricula is inseparable from the institutional conditions, mechanisms of power, and social relations through which questions of meaning, public memory, belonging and desire are produced, mediated and distributed.

Under the Bush educational agenda, the concepts of the social and the public are being refigured and displaced — not being erased as much as they are being reconstructed under circumstances in which public forums for serious debate, including public education, are being eroded. Within the ongoing logic of neoliberalism, teaching and learning are removed from the operation of democracy and civic culture — defined as a purely private affair.

Divorced from the imperatives of a democracy society, pedagogy is reduced to a matter of taste, individual choice, and job training. Pedagogy as a mode of witnessing, a public engagement in which students learn to be attentive and responsible to the memories and narratives of others, disappears within a corporate-driven notion of learning. Here the logic of market devalues the opportunity for students to make connections with others through social relations which foster a mix of compassion, ethics and hope. The crisis of the social is further amplified by the withdrawal of the state as a guardian of the public trust and its growing lack of investment in those sectors of social life that promote the public good.

The greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes, or the lack of rigid testing measures. On the contrary, it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, that consigns 14 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services, and defines masculinity through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate-controlled media industries.

Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools. Young people are under siege in American schools because far too many of them have increasingly become institutional breeding grounds for racism, right-wing paramilitary cultures, social intolerance, sexism and homophobia.

We live in a society in which a culture of punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain, it is easier to put young people in jail than to provide the education, services and care they need to face problems of a complex and demanding society.(8)

As intolerance replaces critical judgment, right-wing religious, corporate and conservative advocates refuse to address what it would mean for a viable educational policy to provide reasonable support services for all students and viable alternatives for the troubled ones. As the criminalization of young people finds its way into the classroom and every other aspect of social life, it becomes easier for school administrators, educators, and legislators to punish students rather than listen to them or, for that matter, to work with parents, community justice programs, religious organizations and social service agencies.

The notion that children should be viewed as a crucial social resource, who present for any healthy society important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions, and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests, appears to be lost in a society that refuses to invest in its youth as part of a broader commitment to a fully realized democracy.

As the social order becomes more privatized and militarized, we increasingly face the problem of losing a generation of young people to a system of increasing intolerance, repression and moral indifference. Bush’s agenda for education embodies and exacerbates these problems and as such it leaves behind a lot more kids than it helps.


  1. Both quotes are from President George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind (Washington, D.C. Govt. Printing House, 2001), 20.” Both quotes are from President George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind (Washington, D.C. Govt. Printing House, 2001), 20.
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  2. For example, Richard Rothstein, Schools, Crime and Gross Exaggeration, T<MI>he New York Times,<D> February 7, 2001, A16.
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  3. Ibid.
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  4. I take up this issue in Henry A. Giroux, Public Spaces, Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism<D> (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001); see also, Franklin E. Zimring, Gordon Hawkins, and Sam Kamin, Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
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  5. For an extensive analyses of racial discrimination in the public schools, see the report by Rebecca Gordon, Libero Della Piana, and Terry Keleher, Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in U.S. Public Schools (Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center, March 2000).
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  6. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime, Constellations, 4:1 (1997), 4.
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  7. James Young, “The Holocaust as Vicarious past: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Afterimages of History,} Critical Inquiry 24 (Spring 1998), 673.
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  8. As has been widely reported, the prison industry has become big business with many states spending more on prison construction than on university construction. See Anthony Lewis, “Punishing the Country,” The New York Times, December 2, 1999, A1.
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from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)