Spotlighting Inequality and Injustice

Against the Current, No. 172, September/October 2014

Marian Swerdlow

Badass Teachers Unite!
Reflections on Education, History, and Youth Activism
By Mark Naison
Haymarket Books, 2014, 200 pages, $16.95 paper.

Giving Kids a Fair Chance
By James J. Heckman
MIT Press, 2013, 152 pages. $15.95.

Class Dismissed:
Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality
By John Marsh
Monthly Review Press, 2011, 328 pages, $20 paper.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF Occupy Wall Street was to put U.S. inequality, and the discussion of how to address it, front and center. One potential solution receiving a lot of attention and debate is education. Three recent books, by an economist, an English professor, and an historian, explore this avenue of addressing this most pressing issue.

James J. Heckman is a Nobel prize-winning economist. In the first paragraph of Giving Kids a Fair Chance: A Strategy that Works, he states that “a principal source of inequality in America today” is that “society is dividing into skilled and unskilled.” Heckman associates being unskilled with “low lifetime earnings . . . poor health, teen pregnancy and crime.”

For readers who view the most important division as “the one percent vs. the rest of us,” let alone any view within the Marxist tradition, this is at best disappointing, indeed cringe-worthy. It’s an early sign that Heckman’s critique of social conditions will be limited, and his proposed reforms, mild.

Heckman, it develops, “merely urges that social policy should . . . be directed toward the malleable early years . . .” and not wait for elementary education to begin, or even for kindergarten. His further recommendation is that it “be guided by the goal of promoting the quality of parenting and early life environments of disadvantaged children, and not at cognitive development solely.”

Heckman rejects, by implication, other strategies such as jobs programs, growing the social safety net, raising minimum wage levels, extending “living wage” legislation, or strengthening protections for collective bargaining rights.

In a single paragraph headed “Predis­tribution, Not Redistribution,” Heckman argues, “redistribution . . . does not, by itself, improve long-term social mobility or inclusion.” This implicitly shifts his goal away from the avoidance of “low lifetime earnings . . .” etc. to greater social cohesion and mobility.

If Heckman glosses over the issue of predistribution vs. redistribution and their respective effectiveness, John Marsh, a professor of English at Penn State University, explores and plumbs it. In Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn our Way Out of Inequality, Marsh makes a forceful and well-documented argument why redistribution is the only effective way to make inroads against inequality.

First, he develops the point that, even if every single person in the United States moved from unskilled to skilled (to use Heckman’s categories), it would not create a single additional well-paying, safe, interesting job with benefits: “Conferring a degree on someone does not magically generate a job …. into which . . . the . . . person steps . . . ”

Rather,  “the question is not whether the [unskilled] jobs exist — they will — but what they will pay. More education does not . . . make them pay more.”

Race and the Meaning of Equality

Both Marsh’s and Heckman’s arguments are complicated by the racial caste system of the United States, which endows a double meaning on the concept of “equality.”

It can mean race equality, in which all races are equally represented at all levels of society. This would not automatically reduce the amount of income or wealth disparity, even though it certainly would change the racial composition of each level of society. The economist Heckman, with his emphasis on individual social mobility and inclusion, may implicitly be aiming mainly at this concept of equality.

The other meaning of equality means a flattening of income and wealth distribution, so that the proportion of people in extremes of wealth and poverty dwindles, and those extremes are considerably closer together.

Although he has been criticized for not addressing the first dimension of inequality, Marsh is clearly focusing mainly on the latter meaning. He argues that with “redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, a renaissance of labor unions, we could decrease poverty and inequality tomorrow.”

Marsh doubts, however, that  “we truly care about lessening inequality and poverty.” A good part of his book is devoted to his account of the history of the competition between the respective goals of social equality and equal opportunity in U.S. ideology and policy. He concludes that the latter is more popular among the U.S. public, and that it is not really meant to achieve the former.

Although he touches upon the idea that this serves the interests of the powerful, in the end he attributes it to an “American public willing to help people get ahead, but … only by increasing equality of opportunity . . .  they want people to have earned their equal place.”

This drives Marsh to despair of any policy shift to bring about the lessening of social differences: “it is easy to propose impossible solutions.”

Badass Teachers’ Anger and Hope

Mark Naison manages to combine Marsh’s realism with Heckman’s optimism and willingness to make policy prescriptions. The dozens of short essays that make up his Badass Teachers Unite: Reflections on Education, History and Youth Activism, are invigorating jolts of insight, righteous anger, and hope.

Naison is a Professor of African Amer­ican studies at Fordham University, and a community and cultural activist in the South Bronx neighborhoods that surround that campus. From first-hand knowledge, Naison paints a visceral picture of the “toxic mixture of food insecurity, unstable living situations, and violence” of urban poverty, especially for the students who attend public schools:

“Living with fifteen people in a space meant for six, where you have to sleep in shifts; they sleep in shelters, subways or cars, where there is no place for you to do your homework. They move in and out of foster care. They regularly fall asleep in class because it is difficult to sleep” where they live.

Naison writes “of having to go to the ER and wait eight hours for someone to see you . . . Of never being able to go to the dentist . . . Of walking a gauntlet on your way to school . . .”

“None of this is new,” he concludes, “what is new is the extent of the suffering as more and more families whose lives were stable get pushed into poverty.”

Naison rages against the packaging of destructive education “reforms,” the so-called “no excuses” approach, as a “new civil rights movement,” which he calls “a brilliant tactic to avoid dealing with the real causes of poverty and inequality, while finding a convenient scapegoat in public school teachers and unions.”

“Most teachers, students and parents experience their policies as raw coercion … regimentation and intimidation,” Naison writes. The real causes of poverty and inequality are “global economic trends,” such as offshoring, runaway shops and redlining, “coupled with government policies, that siphoned wealth upward, destabilized and in some instances destroyed inner city neighborhoods, ruined these neighborhoods, not teacher unions or poorly run public schools.” He calls the reforms a “dismal failure . . . one of the strangest social movements in modern U.S. history.”

Naison vividly evokes how these “reforms” pummel students. The stress of constant test preparation and tests, he writes, “ratchets up the pressure . . . will turn teachers into virtual slave drivers . . . turns schools into zones of fear and stress.”

Test preparation and tests “produced anxiety attacks and stress related disorders on a massive scale among students as young as eight” who are “traumatized by the length of the tests and the growing difficulty of the material.”

He deplores the aridity of the school day stripped of sports, exercise, music or art, so that “Once-eager youngsters hate going to school.”

Schools turn recess and after-school recreation programs into study halls. This particularly affects poor urban children, like those he knows well in the Bronx, who cannot play in the streets or public parks because they are too dangerous.

“Activities that leave room for imagination and creativity are being squeezed out. Dreamers and those who express themselves through physical activity find their talents devalued. Those who are uncomfortable sitting still . . . are marginalized and humiliated . . . ”  This new regime is “declaring war on play. . . Suppressing playfulness and spontaneity.”

Schools where the students do not perform well on these tests get closed, and Naison shows how this also punishes poor urban kids. Not only does this exacerbate the pressure on schools, teachers and students, but the schools that are being closed represent a real loss.

He visits a technical high school and sees “the high morale of students and teachers,” and later learns it is going to be closed. “You are closing the one school that actually trains [students] for decent paying jobs in their own community!” he cries.

The new, small schools that replace the closed ones do not represent an improvement: Naison visits the six small high schools that were started in the building of Theodore Roosevelt High School, which had been closed. He finds “prisonlike conditions, militarized discipline.”

Each school is on a different floor and “infractions from wearing a hat to being found on a different floor” can be punished with suspension. The atmosphere in the classrooms is stifling as well, “when students begin discussing interesting subjects, teachers shut the discussion down for fear it might undermine students’ performance on tests that their careers depend upon . . . ”

Sleeping Giant Awakening

 Like Marsh, Naison finds that posing education as the answer to inequality “reflects the discomfort of much of the American public with collective solutions to social problems,” and denies there is any evidence to show that “schools alone, no matter how well-funded they are, can lift people out of poverty when every other social policy drives them down . . . ”

He espouses most of the same policies as Marsh: “programs of progressive taxation, promotion of unionization in low wage enterprises, and efforts to uproot discrimination in labor markets and in the criminal justice system . . . ” It is jobs and political mobilization, he concludes, “that lift people out of poverty.”

Naison points to the powerful interests behind the disdain for the policies he advocates. He describes the current social reform program as “the American elite’s preferred response to poverty and inequality. It requires no sacrifice, no redistribution or self-organization by the disenfranchised,” and “gives a free pass to economic and political elites whose policies helped create the very conditions that lock people into poverty. No wonder billionaires love these policies.”

At the same time the reform program is “a wonderful job program for children of the middle class. . . . Many people have built careers in promoting these reforms, backed by limitless money and fueled by the profit motive.”

He implicates both political parties in these scams, and mourns that teachers’ unions can only try “desperately . . . to save their organizations by making compromises.”  But, “how many jobs for students or their parents have education reform funds created . . . Has this money helped keep families in their apartments . . . secure medical care?”

Yet Naison resists despair. His deep involvement with grassroots cultural, political and educational activism in the Bronx fuels his hope. He introduces us to some of the inspiring educators, organizers and artists who have built community in the Bronx, without fanfare, for generations.

One is Vincent Tibbs, who ran the night center at P.S. 99, and influenced thousands of South Bronx kids to stay in school and keep out of trouble in the 1960s. Tibbs saved the life of 15-year-old Howie Evans by standing in a doorway and refusing to let him leave the after-school center to go to a rumble, where several youths died.

Evans himself went on to become a teacher, youth center director, college basketball coach and a sportswriter for the Amsterdam News. Another life Naison celebrates is that of the great jazz trumpeter and composer Donald Byrd, who taught music in a South Bronx public school and mentored many talented younger musicians.

Naison joins and builds “Occupy the Bronx.” He visits a high school to talk about the history of hip-hop and “what began as a lecture turns into an old-school hip-hop party . . . students let loose with an explosion of talent and joyous activity . . . ”

Naison marches and chants in a rally against budget cuts at another high school, and rejoices that the “students . . . created a loud and forceful protest.” He remembers and draws parallels with the struggles and victories he experienced in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

He takes part in the Save Our Schools Conference and March in 2011, and joyfully finds that he is “surrounded by young people who feel the same way” about the injustices of our society today, “and are willing to do something about these problems.”

 In 2013, he celebrates the rise of the test refusers, and speaks at their rallies and protests. Out of this movement, a Facebook group is formed, “Badass Teachers Association,” and it grows astronomically.

“It’s time to flip the script,” declares Naison. The school, he says, “must become a place” to launch not individual upward mobility but radical social change, “where political education and political organizing take place.” His book shows why he predicts that “the sleeping giant” of “students, teachers and parents joined together . . .” is about to wake.

September/October 2014, ATC 172