The dialectical practice of a Marxist educator

A Marxist Education:

Learning to Change the World

This year, there was a nationwide K-12 educator uprising: West Virginia teachers went on strike, Oklahoma teachers organized walkouts, and Kentucky teachers conducted work stoppages. Their actions were spurred by legislative attacks on their pensions, health care, and school budgets. These assaults are part of the neoliberal formula that pairs austerity measures for the working class with privatization of public institutions. Championed by Democrat and Republican education secretaries Arne Duncan and Betsy DeVos, neoliberal policies directly oppose the premise that education is a right. Instead, neoliberals view public education—one of the remaining bastions of social support—as a system that should be privatized.

Written before the teacher rebellion, Wayne Au’s A Marxist Education: Learning to Change the World provides a framework to understand the roots and the significance of this resistance. Since the publication of his book Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality in 2008, scholar, educator, and activist Au has been a prominent critic of US

neoliberal education reform. In A Marxist Education, Au explains his own path to becoming a Marxist educator, defends Marxism as a legitimate paradigm for analyzing and understanding the US educational system, and reclaims the work of Lev Vygotsky and Paulo Freire as part of the Marxist and dialectical materialist traditions.

The structure of A Marxist Education is unique and compelling. Au combines a personal autobiographical narrative, an introduction to and a defense of Marxism, and a thorough critique of neoliberal educational reform to lead readers to a call to action. The breadth of topics covered in A Marxist Education makes it an invaluable resource for educators as well as activists and others interested in understanding the relationship between education and human liberation. For those who want to learn more, the bibliography contains a comprehensive list of resources.

Au exposes how neoliberal education reforms, including mandatory high-stakes testing and the vast expansion of charter schools, have been established and justified by wealthy donors seeking to privatize public schools, and how funding for public schools has been diverted to finance charter schools:

Recent research on charter school expansion has consistently shown that charter school growth has a short-term and long-term negative fiscal impact on public school systems, reminding us that, again, like with high-stakes testing, between federal programs, state laws, and charter contracts, these are public monies being transferred into the coffers of private industry vis-à-vis the system of public education.

Au also explains that the current high-stakes testing paradigm that dominates public education is based on the faulty premise that tests fitted to a bell curve can be used to end the achievement gap. When standardized tests—including criterion-referenced tests—are fitted to bell curves, the distribution of student test scores will range from low to high, guaranteeing that there will be a gap between low- and high-performing students.

In addition to exposing and critiquing top-down education reforms, Au delves into debates among the left and defends Marx and Marxism. Au debunks claims that Marx and Engels were economic determinists; instead, Au illustrates how the dialectical method employed by Marx and Engels is incompatible with and contrary to economic determinism. The heart of dialectics is the revelation that everything is in motion and in a process of transformation. Thus, what appears permanent is actually in flux. Based on their dialectical analysis of capitalism, Marx and Engels argued that people’s conditions are not determined; rather, humans can change their conditions.

Au also refutes the assertion that authors Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis made economic reductionist arguments in their seminal work Schooling in Capitalist America. Au builds upon their analysis to explain how schools are simultaneously superstructural institutions that reproduce capitalist inequalities and sites of potential resistance. He writes,

In essence, schools materially reproduce structural capitalist inequalities for groups of students based on race and class while advancing an ideology of individual equality and achievement. . . . This contradiction presents a dialectic relationship between production of capitalist social relations and the maintenance of bourgeois hegemony vis-à-vis education.

In general, schools maintain societal inequalities via a meritocratic system of rewards, punishments, and the liberal ideology that individuals—if they work hard enough—can lift themselves out of poverty. Au contends that although this is the general function of the educational system, individual schools and classrooms have the potential to foster critical awareness, class consciousness, and resistance, although he acknowledges that this is the exception to the norm.

One of Au’s most valuable contributions is providing a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between the ideas of great revolutionary philosophers, as well as the relationship between their theories and educational practices. For example, Au provides an extremely useful explanation of the relationship between Vygotsky’s ideas and those of great revolutionary thinkers: Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Vygotsky’s theories, particularly his concept of the zone of proximal development, are widely taught and generally accepted in the field of education. Au explains that Vygotsky’s references to Lenin and Marx were intentionally removed from initial translations of Vygotsky’s work into English. Even after the publication of accurate translations that include references to Lenin and Marx, Vygotsky’s Marxism is still ignored due to the anti-Marxist ideology pervasive in academia. However, all academics interested in human liberation would benefit from understanding the connections between Vygotsky’s and Lenin’s ideas. Au explains,

Lenin’s political project was the development of class consciousness as part of a vision of macro-level socioeconomic transformation, and Vygotsky’s analysis helps us think concretely and pedagogically about Lenin’s organizing at the individual, micro level of the transformation of consciousness through learning.

Au hypothesizes that by explaining how individuals can become agents of change through the social development of their consciousness, Vygotsky answers the question posed by Lenin: What is to be done?

Freire is another intellectual whose ties to Marxism and the dialectical materialist tradition are ignored by many education scholars. Because of the potential of his ideas to foster radical education and organizing, Freire was put in jail and exiled. Today, Freire’s ideas continue to be attacked by reactionaries concerned about his influence on education.

Au explains the alignment between Freire’s liberatory pedagogy and curriculum standpoint theory, a theory Au helped develop. Based on Georg Lukács’s standpoint theory, curriculum standpoint theory provides a framework for educators to help students develop a critical consciousness of their material conditions in order to be able to change these conditions. Curriculum is not neutral; rather, it is a site of political struggle over whose knowledge and understanding of reality gains credence. Curriculum has the potential to be a powerful transformative tool:

The key point here is to understand that curriculum is political and helps shape our understandings of the world. Given this reality, it is imperative that we continue to develop curriculum standpoint—a curriculum of the oppressed, if you will—in order to both help students understand reality more critically and lay a foundation for students to become the activist changemakers and leaders of mass movements of the present and future.

As this passage indicates, Au’s message is a pressing yet fundamentally hopeful and optimistic call to action. He supports his call with inspiring stories of success like the defeat of the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test by Washington state educators and community members. However, Au also includes a cautionary message about the reality of being a Marxist educator and academic.

Au begins and concludes A Marxist Education with personal anecdotes about the experiences and influences that led to his political development. By exposing his own vulnerability, Au leads by example, encouraging readers to reflect on their own process of becoming radical educators and their own practice. He discusses why he has been careful about revealing that he is a Marxist. Au’s father was a Communist, and he instructed Au to be quiet about this to avoid persecution. So, from an early age, Au learned that there were dangers associated with revealing one’s leftist politics. Later in life, as a graduate student, Au learned that US academics generally dismiss Marxists as illegitimate. To become a successful academic and publish in acclaimed journals, faculty members must be cautious about sharing their Marxist orientations.

Although a reader can infer from Au’s tone and anecdotes that there are dangers associated with being a Marxist educator and implementing radical pedagogy and curriculum, it might have been helpful for Au to be more explicit about potential risks. When individual educators act in isolation, at a minimum, they risk being ostracized, but they may face more serious risks, such as being fired, threatened, or worse. It is important for Marxist and radical educators to be cautious, aware, and well supported. This support can come from a variety of sources, including from friends, family members, and colleagues, as well as local, national, and international organizations. Citing another Marxist educator, Brian Jones, Au explains that even if you are the only Marxist educator in your workplace or community, you do not have to be the lonely Marxist. He advises readers to network, collaborate, and spend time with other radicals in person or by other means, including social media.

The philosophy, optimism, and advice that Au shares are invaluable to other radical educators. Au reassures readers that they are not alone and encourages them to be brave and understand that the choices they make, including what and how they teach, as well as how they conduct themselves in their communities, are political decisions. Au writes, “[F]or me there is always this link between teaching, learning, developing critical consciousness, and the potential this created for developing a more collective class consciousness as well.” Ultimately, A Marxist Education is a timely, ardent, and persuasive call to educators to study, unite, and contribute to the fight for a better world. By sharing his dialectical approach to teaching, activism, and life, Au provides the framework necessary to answer this call.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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