Michelle Obama got one thing right at her "Reach Higher Prep Rally" in Atlanta the other day. She jokily referred to her traveling partner, neoliberal anti-union Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as her partner in crime.
What the Obama administration is doing to public education is indeed a crime: its cruel, billionaire-fueled Race to the Top-Common Core agenda is actually the antithesis of education. It's been called child abuse across the ideological spectrum. It's teaching children to un-think, to consume instead of to create, to compete instead of cooperating and caring for others.
To be fair, education in the age of Obama is only the latest variation on a classist theme as old as the oligarchy itself. It was the same scam in the last gilded age. Nearly a hundred years ago, British philosopher Bertrand Russell had capitalist education pegged as "the road to money, not the gateway to wisdom... a means of acquiring superiority over others; it is infected through and through with ruthlessness and glorification of social inequality."
Don't take my word for it. Let Mrs. Obama explain the goals of neoliberal education for herself... but only after her obligatory cool mom-in-chief (TM) dance routine, performed in a futile attempt to fire up her student audience:
Mrs. Obama: Well, I’m here today because all of that that I just mentioned -– all those tests, all the papers, the extracurricular activities –- here -- and I want you all to listen to this -- all of that stuff isn’t just important to get you through the day or even this year. Everything you are doing in school right now is critical to the rest of your life.Study to the test, build up your college résumés through nonstop extracurricular activities, because the rest of your lives depends upon how well you can do the soul-killing Gradgrind. Getting enough sleep, kicking back once in a while, stopping to smell the roses, painting a picture, or reading just for fun? Not part of the neoliberal equation.
That’s why I’m here -- because I want you all to succeed. And I want you to understand how people like me go from being kids like you to standing here as First Lady of the United States. (Applause.) That’s my message to all of you and to all the students across the country who may be watching this today -- that your time in school is extremely important. And what you do here each and every day will set you up to achieve so many of the dreams that I know you have for yourselves in the years ahead.Here's where Mrs. Obama departs from the pedantic Gradgrind teacher in Dickens's Hard Times and goes full Josiah Bounderby. That's the annoying up-by-the-bootstraps capitalist fraudster who inflicts guilt on a whole classroom full of inmates by incessantly bragging how, through sheer dint of grit and hard work, he rose up from the gutter to become rich and famous. He is such a "bully of humility" that at one point in the novel, his bloviating causes Gradgrind's daughter Louisa to literally pass out.
But, I digress... if you want to grow up to be Michelle Obama, here's what you need to do:
So first, the prep part. And one of the reasons why we’re here at Washington High is because you all already have a great head start. You have got teachers and counselors who are doing everything they can to help you get to college. Your school offers classes that give you college credit. And you’ve got access to special programs that will prepare you for careers in health sciences, business, finance.Business and finance to serve the needs of Wall Street. Health sciences so that you may prolong the lives of Wall Street financiers, corporate CEOs and the rest of the .01% who possess more wealth than half the planetary population combined. Forget history, art for art's sake, theater, classic literature, the mental adventure and joy of learning. Those things will not help you succeed. Those things will only make you happy. Those things will only help you to think. And independent thought by the lower classes is anathema to CEOs and financiers. It makes their positions at the top of the teetering heap very, very tenuous.
So the first thing that you can do to prepare yourself for the future is to take advantage of all the resources that are right here for you. And to do that, you have to show up to school every day. Yes, attendance matters. You are not going to learn or get the support that you need if you’re not here. And then once you’re here, you have to completely commit to learning all that you can –- in other words, when you’re here, you have to challenge yourself. You just can’t -- you can’t be hanging out. You can’t just coast through. You can’t just take the easy classes. You’ve got to stretch yourself.Since the students whom Mrs. Obama is addressing are mostly "of color" and from lower income families, there is that implicit racist assumption that all they want to do is have some fun, hang out, and skip class -- that is, when they are not taking easy-way-out classes like art or drama or music. It is an assumption that these kids need to be taught ethics and morals on a fairly continuous basis, lest they fall into the morass of critical thinking. Would the First Lady be talking this way to a group of students at the elite Chicago Lab School, or Phillips Andover Academy? Of course not. Nor, for that matter, would Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton ever have gotten away with scolding students at an all-Black school.
When rich kids "hang out," there is no price to pay. Minorities just normally have to work at least three times as hard as whites, because that's the way it's all set up. Michelle Obama never mentions changing the oppressive status quo -- she simply gives a "pragmatic" and simpering pep-talk to the victims of the oppressive status quo. Don't ever dare challenge your oppressors as inherently unjust, kids. Just challenge yourselves. Work till you drop.
Because here’s the thing -- studies show that when you’re working hard and stretching yourself, when you’re struggling to solve a problem or read a book or write an essay, you’re actually making new connections in your brain. The brain is just like a muscle -- it needs exercise. And remember -- I want you all to remember, nobody is born smart. You become smart by thinking hard and challenging yourself. And that’s how you’re going to prepare your brain not just for college, but for the rest of the challenges that you’re going to face in life. And that doesn’t happen right away. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes planning -- and let me tell you, it takes a whole lot of courage. And I know this from my own experience.OK. You knew the ubiquitous, guilt-inducing Personal Responsibility Profile in Courage was coming sooner or later:
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Neither of my parents went to college. But I set a goal for myself: I wanted to go to Princeton University. So I sketched out a plan to get there –- which classes I needed to take, when I needed to take my SATs, when I needed to apply for financial aid. And I worked incredibly hard to execute that plan.My school was halfway across the city, so I had to get up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning just to get to school, to study in the morning. Had to stay up late at night doing my homework because it took me forever to get home. And when I didn’t understand something, I had to drum up the courage to ask for help, and believe me, there was a lot I didn’t understand going to high school.Studies show that adolescents who are chronically sleep-deprived are at high risk for mental, emotional and physical problems, both now and in later life. So if Michelle Obama isn't exaggerating when she brags about getting only a couple hours sleep at night in her teenage years as the price for an Ivy League education, it is no wonder that there was a lot she didn't understand in high school. The girl was exhausted and "stretched" to the breaking point! But I guess the health risks were well worth it. She's still here, after all, and looking pretty damned good. (thanks at least in part to servants, hairdressers and make-up artists on call 24/7.)
In other words, I had to take control of my education, had to set my own course for my future. And here’s the thing that I do know, which is why I am here and I’m not anywhere else in this country -- I am here because I know that every single one of you can do that, too. I know that. If I can do it, you can do it. There is absolutely no excuse. You are no better or no different than me. I didn’t have money growing up. I didn’t grow up in a nice neighborhood. But I am here.Ah, the Bill Cosby/Oprah "no excuses" cudgel, the vapid noblesse oblige of helicoptering into Atlanta... when she could have gone to Detroit! But that would have been so awkward. A lot of those kids have had the water turned off in their homes because of their parents' inability to pay. And that would not go well with Mrs. Obama's corporate "DrinkUp!"(TM) campaign in conjunction with the bottled water industry. She saved her high-priced water gig for a group of wealthy (and non-scolded) students at a private New York City school. Meanwhile, her Let's Move initiative is partnering up with an entrepreneur who invented a talking water fountain get people fired up (TM) as they slurp. Wish I were kidding. But I'm not.
Let's MoveOn.org to the gradgrind, though:
To the juniors and seniors, you all should be working hard to execute your plans. You should be studying for the SATs and ACTs. Let me tell you, my daughter, who is a junior, is studying for her tests right now. She studies every weekend, on the weekdays, in addition to her homework. I’m just telling you what one kid is doing, but I know that every kid in her school is doing the same thing. Got to fill out that FAFSA form, look for those scholarships and those grants that are out there just waiting for you. Got to start working on those college applications and essays starting now.What utter bullshit. The Obama children will be accepted to the colleges of their choice, whatever their grades or test scores. The private school they attend does not teach to the test, nor even have class rankings. The Obama children are also traveling extensively, having fun, and do not spend all their waking hours grinding away like their mom. I guarantee it. There is no comparison between the Obama children and the students at Booker T. Washington. But the students at Booker T. Washington are supposed to feel something (guilt), knowing that the Obama children do their homework religiously even though it is not a prerequisite for their "success." The SATs are a for-profit, moral imperative when you are a child in America. To prove it, they've gotten rid of the creative and expository writing sections. Too hard, even for rich kids.
You’ve got to figure this stuff out. And the Internet is an incredibly useful resource. You can find all sorts of information online at websites like StudentAid.gov -- we’ll make sure your counselors have that information. KhanAcademy.org -- if you haven’t heard of Khan Academy, it is a free, online educational resource, and they’ve created this new platform to help young people like many of you prepare for college. They’ve got all sorts of videos, checklists to help you plan your high school classes and activities; to search for schools that fit your needs; to fill out your college scholarships and applications. So thanks to websites like these, it’s easier than ever to before to take the steps to prepare yourself for the future.Khan Academy, heavily subsidized by billionaire school privatization advocate Bill Gates, also aims to substitute online courses for living, breathing teachers. The Internet, even in homes where electricity is spotty, is such an incredible source! So what a nice, sneaky neoliberal shout-out by Michelle Obama. And don't even get me started on all the rip-off student loan predators out there, kept in business with the help of "partner in crime" Arne Duncan. A couple of examples of his perfidy are here and here.
MRS. OBAMA: But here’s the thing –- even if you’re working hard and doing everything right, there will still be times when things don’t go according to plan. That ever happen to you all?
MRS. OBAMA: Stuff just doesn’t work out. Maybe something goes wrong in your family or with one of your friends. Maybe you don’t do as well as you wanted on the SATs or the ACTs. Maybe you fall behind in classes. And when things like that happen, it’s easy to get down on yourself. It’s tempting to just give up. But trust me, that’s just not the answer.At this point in the speech, one of the human props standing behind Mrs. Obama gave in to gravity and suddenly crumpled to the floor in a dead faint. Exhaustion? Disgust? Hunger? Sleep deprivation? Humility-bullying victim? Named Louisa Gradgrind? Who knows. But the first lady was at the rescue with her reliably firm moral support:
She’s okay? It’s okay, that happens to a lot of people who have to stand up for a long time. We need one of our medics here. We’ve got a young girl who fainted. But it happens all the time. She’s going to be okay. Sometimes standing up -- if anybody is starting to feel tired standing up, bend your knees -- and eat your breakfast and lunch. (Laughter.) You okay? Make sure she’s okay, too, right here. Right here. Everybody else feeling okay?Wow. Since when does fainting happen all the time? In the New Normal Serf Economy, I suppose it does. Mrs. Obama is right. A lot of these kids don't get enough to eat, given that a bipartisan cabal in Congress drastically cut food stamp funding last year. Maybe a trip to a Talking Water Fountain will knock some fear and sense and fullness into them!
But whatever. Once the unfortunate optics of a crumpled-up heap of insensate human flesh were removed from Mrs. Obama's sight, she forged right ahead:
MRS. OBAMA: Are you all still fired up and ready to -- are you listening to me? STUDENTS: Yes!
MRS. OBAMA: Do you hear what I’m telling you? STUDENTS: Yes!
MRS. OBAMA: Because I’m giving you some insights that a lot of rich kids all over the country -- they know this stuff, and I want you to know it, too. Because you have got to go and get your education. You’ve got to.Oh, wow... not again. The kids are never allowed to forget where they come from, are they? They get condescendingly treated to the insider-y Secrets of the Rich, so that they too can aspire to become Rich on three hours of sleep a night, and lots and lots of Gradgrinding and Bounderbying. It's the dogma of Personal Responsibility... a dog-whistle to the racists and the plutocrats out there watching in TV land that these kids who have already showed up have to be further prodded, poked and guilt-tripped into working hard! Besides being a grind, you gotta have Grit and Determination. (TM) Plus, live up to the legacies of Booker T. and MLK! (the sanitized version of MLK, that is -- not the socialist part where he marched with striking sanitation workers, nor the pacifist anti-Vietnam war rhetoric part.)
I would be absolutely fired up if Michelle Obama suddenly snapped, developed some grit and determination of her own, and urged the adolescents of America to help get the money out of politics, demand social and economic justice, march for civil rights instead of cramming for standardized tests, and question just why the hell it is that the post-Jim Crow social contract dictates they have to work so much harder than their more affluent peers, just to avoid being slammed into prison.
But that would take real Thought, leading to a social upheaval of epic proportions. Therefore, public education in the Age of Obama avoids the teaching of independent thinking like a plague of Ebola.
"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” -- Bertrand Russell.