The Era of Neoliberal Deform: A Review of Marx and Education by Jean Anyon, Part Two
This is the second part of my two-part review of Jean Anyon’s Marx and Education. Read the first part here.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In taking us from the early pioneers of Marxist thought in education to the present day, Anyon mostly draws on her own work. She ties the recent assault on public education to the rise of the neoliberal consensus. In particular, Anyon points to the publication of Nation at Risk, a government sponsored report published under the Reagan administration, as a turning point. Published shortly after a severe recession, Nation at Risk blamed the trouble that U.S. corporations were having competing on the international market on the poor quality of public schools. But as Anyon argues, “blaming the schools for economic decline is like assuming that, for example, the decline of Detroit’s car economy was caused by the poor educational achievement of Detroit students.”
For Anyon, the deterioration of public schools during this period cannot be explained without understanding the political economy of cities. Urban policies such as redlining, tax codes that favored corporate investment outside the city, property tax laws that penalized cities with shrinking property owners to tax, all contributed to the disinvestment and increased segregation of public schools.
Anyon extends this critique to flagship education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. She maintains, “both regimes have counted on education to solve the problems of unemployment and increases in poverty…. Race to the Top, and its antecedent No Child Left Behind, are policy substitutes for economic reform.” She makes the important case that more education does not often translate into more and better jobs. In Anyon’s words,
in 2006, the occupational demands of jobs required that only 27.7 percent of the workforce have a college degree or more. The Department of Labor predicts this share will rise by one percentage point to 28.7 by 2016…. In 2005, One of six college graduates was in a job paying less than the average salary of high school graduates. Between 8.8 and 11 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree made around the minimum wage…Even the education levels of welfare recipients are higher than ever…. Given these fallacies in the argument that higher education standards and more difficult tests will pull people out of poverty by allowing them to obtain good jobs, it would make sense to actually create good jobs for people who need them.
Anyon points to a range of progressive economic policies as the way to fight poverty: minimum wage legislation, a progressive tax code, anti-poverty and jobs programs, affordable housing and public transportation and more union-friendly labor laws. Yet Anyon argues that in order to win these reforms we should draw on Marx’s vision of political struggle. She draws on the social movements of the past in order to provide a vision for how education reform is won:
The radical tumult of the early 20th century Progressive Era opened public schools to the community in many cities, and increased educational opportunities for working-class immigrant families in the form of kindergarten, vacation schools, night school, social settlement programs and libraries. As a result of the Civil Rights Movement Head Start, a radical innovation by activists in Jackson Mississippi, moved to center stage in federal education policy; and segregation of blacks in public schools became illegal…. In the 1970s and 80s, the women’s, disabilities, and bilingual education movements also had significant impacts on schooling—opening up opportunities previously denied great numbers of students.
Her final chapter suggests ways to extend Marxist theory and practice for contemporary problems. In particular, she asserts that David Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession, where public resources are converted into private profit-making enterprises, can help us understand the increasing drive to privatize public schools. Anyon also claims that an analysis of the increased financialization of the economy should help inform any examination of schooling today. As she writes, “School districts, as well, have been caught up in the financial turmoil, and have been dispossessed of money they invested with wealthy hedge funds and banks…. towns and cities have lost almost 30 billion dollars in the last two years, as they have attempted to extract themselves from complicated financial arrangements.”
While these efforts to extend Marxist theory for contemporary issues should be welcomed, throughout the book Anyon also mischaracterizes Marxism and uncritically gives too much ground to Marxism’s critics. She names a number of education scholars who use Critical Race Theory or feminism in their critiques and base their analyses of oppression on race or gender rather than class. We should certainly acknowledge that important contributions to our understanding of education often come from scholars who are not solely inspired by Marxism, but in Marx and Education there is no discussion about how these theories stack up to the Marxist view of oppression and more importantly, which theories might be more helpful for those fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. This leaves the reader with the false impression that Marx and Marxists, more generally, have had little to say about racial or gender oppression.
Anyon also argues “Marxist theory is based on industrial capitalism as it existed in the late 19th century,” and consequently, “in addition to organizing at the ‘point of production’…we need to organize society-wide. The struggle is no longer only of low-income, minority and white working-class families against the capitalist class. Working for progressive change now involves all of us.” This analysis seems to stem from a misinterpretation of Marx’s theory of the working class, which she characterizes as “the industrial proletariat.” But Anyon goes even further conceding, “’Revolution’ itself appears an old fashion concept.” These formulations strike me as particularly misguided at a time when revolutions are spreading through the Middle East and North Africa with the working class playing a crucial role.
There are also crucial discussions that are completely absent from the book. While this should be expected in a short introduction only a little over one hundred pages long, I think some subjects left out are too important to be neglected. There is no discussion of the class position of teachers or the teachers’ unions, or why the unions continue to back the Democrats despite their position on education, or how Marxist teachers could work inside the unions to challenge these policies and help build a social movement for better public education. Given that teachers are the largest sector of unionized workers in the country, this seems to be a glaring omission. Furthermore, while there is plenty of discussion on misguided ruling class policies, there is little written about why —from a ruling class mindset—these policies are being implemented, and in particular, why they have gained steam during the economic crisis.
Despite these weaknesses, Marx and Education is a crucial text for those looking to explore how Marxist theory can be and has been applied to education. In little more than one hundred pages, Anyon provides a crucial starting point for Marxists looking to explore education theory and makes a strong case for the relevance of Marxist theory in the struggles to defend and improve public education.