Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Education for Democratic Empowerment

Editorial Introduction

by Bruce Lofquist

Schools today are in a state of unprecedented crisis. In the United States the funding crisis manifests itself most starkly in marked disparities in school funding. Kozol has characterized the resulting racial and class inequalities ineducational opportunity in one word — "savage."* Such inequalities are the inevitable outcome of a finance system that faithfully reproduces the class and racial inequalitiey existent throughout society.

In response to this crisis, communities are being offered "choice" — enter the school voucher system. "Choice" however, is a false panacea. Whether as public school plans or private school plans, "choice" poses a profound threat to our hopes for equitable and democratic schooling.

In response, corporations have proposed privatizing the public education system and running for-profit schools in an education marketplace—enter the privateers. Chris Whittle, a corporate communications magnate, has plans to open two hundred profit-making schools by 1996, and forsees as many as one thousand schools serving two million students within another decade. "Burger King Academies" are presently fully accredited quasi-private high schools in fourteen cities. The new "corps curricula" are indicative of other corporate efforts at school colonization. Environmental education programs have been designed by such fitting curriculum developers as Dow Chemicals and Plastics, and the Exxon Corporation with its "ecological risk game." Channel One—enter Whittle again—has initiated the widespread commercial penetration of the school student market, while McDonald's (McLunchrooms?), Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut, and other fast food marketeers are vying for the lucrative breakfast and lunch school programs.

The above responses reflect the vision of a privatized school system, one informed by the logic of the marketplace. They form part of a neo-conservative agenda which is successfully framing the education issue, utilizing a discourse of "malestream" capitalist economics — notions of "efficiency," "profits" as bottom line, "international competitiveness," and students as "assets" or "productive units." The solution to the school crisis, according to this logic, lies in making them more efficient, productive, and thereby more profitable and competitive. This analysis and vision, however, are not uncontested.

To reflect the real and central crisis, the school issue must be reframed as primarily a cultural and political one, employing an alternative, radical and hegemonic or counter-hegemonic discourse, e.g., "schools as democratic public spheres" and "students as agents of change." The central crisis in the schools reflects the overarching crisis in society at large, i.e., the crisis of democracy or the participatory crisis. According to this vision (more correctly, visions), solutions to the school crisis lie essentially in making them more democratic and empowering. Of course it must be added that notions of, for example, empowerment, beg the question—empowerment for whom and by whom? The "particularities" of such grand notions and designs as democratization and empowerment need to be constantly kept in mind.

The following are the pivotal questions in the great education debate: What is the purpose of society? Who decides? How can we change the situation? To reframe the first question in somewhat oversimplified fashion, should schools function primarily as marketplace "private" institutions, or as democratic "public" institutions, or to put it another way, should schools serve as sites for social reproduction or as sites for social transformation?

This issue of Synthesis/Regeneration responds to the above questions by exploring the notion of "education for democratic empowerment" as an alternative to both traditional mainstream "transmission" education and recent attempts at privatizing and further colonizing schools. As the subtitle of this issue suggests, an attempt has been made to examine the theme of "school democratization" through a diversity of voices, as expressed in differences in class, gender, race, and age. A proportional representation has not been achieved — in spite of the editor's efforts; however, something approaching a meaningful mix has. While the authors are united in their depth of concern about formal education, at times opinion sharply divides, as for example, on the fundamental question of the potential for change in schools.

Lastly, one of the prime objectives of putting together this issue was to further stimulate interest among Greens in the school question — a large number of the articles are by non-Greens (i.e., Greens in the organizational sense of the word). Many of these authors represent the radical edge of educational theory and practice. Their analyses and visions provide invaluable signposts for future Green educational work. This is not to discount the works by Greens in this area; notwithstanding, formal education has not been a high profile issue with Greens at any level.

The educational implications of Green theory and practice, are in one word, subversive! Perhaps this issue of Synthesis/Regeneration will help initiate some Green educational action — a school project as part of the Green national action plan in 1993?

*Jonathan Kozol, 1991, Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (New York: Harper Perennial).

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