Tag Archives: CUFA

Remarks for Book Symposium on Schooling Corporate Citizens

Ron Evans has written an impressive series of books that critically examine school reform in the United States, with a specific emphasis on the impact of those reforms on social studies, civics, and democratic education. 

In January 2015, I had an opportunity to interview Ron about his latest book Schooling for Corporate Citizens and this month, in Washington, DC, the College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies sponsored a symposium on the book, below is the text of my remarks at the symposium.

Remarks for Book Symposium on Schooling Corporate Citizens (Ronald W. Evans)

College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies
Washington, DC
December 1, 2016

E. Wayne Ross
University of British Columbia

Why are things the way they are?
In Schooling Corporate Citizens, Ron Evans has written a compelling history of how bureaucratic, outcomes-based accountability reforms have “damaged” civic education and undermined democracy. Evans notes that social studies education is haunted by two ghosts, the first neoliberal capitalism and neo-conservative cultural warriors and secondly the progressive politics, philosophy, and pedagogy of 20th Century icons such as John Dewey and Harold Rugg.

Evans argues the dilemmas that define social studies at the moment are found (1) in classroom practice (drill and kill/content coverage, driven by testing versus inquiry- or social issues-oriented teaching); and (2) in curriculum politics, which encompasses the social studies wars, but more broadly has elevated a capitalist social efficiency conception of teaching and learning to hegemonic status in combination with an essentialist philosophy of education that focuses on content at the expense of pedagogy.

I agree with Evan’s analysis, but as Chris Hedges recently wrote about the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, “it’s worse than you think.” Evan’s book is an indispensable history of what has happened to social studies and civic education from the inside-out, but stepping away from the history of education reform and considering a much broader, messier, but real life question about relationship between what is taught in social studies and the political, social, economic, and cultural circumstances of the US (and the world) today, then it’s clear that in terms of social studies and civic education things are obviously much worse than the already dismal state of social studies as described in Schooling Corporate Citizens.

Perhaps it’s a professionally narcissistic question that implies too much import to what we do as social studies educators, but when he majority of people either actively or passively support destructive systems of power—white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy—we should be asking: What hath social studies wrought?

Mass ignorance. In explaining how it is that the Republican Party now rules a nation that hates it, Paul Street points to the “supreme ignorance that the nation’s dominant ideological and cultural authorities and institutions have bred in much of the U.S. populace.” The “double-whammy” of “infantilizing and unreal media” and the education students receive in capital’s schools that creates “millions of dumb-downed people” who know little to nothing about relevant issues of the day, like climate change or the nature and history of fascism. Hedges describes of the current cultural moment as celebrating ignorance—political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry replaced by celebrity worship and spectacle. And social studies and civic education is far from blameless for this sorry state of affairs.

The distortion of democracy, or how democracy is taught in schools versus the really existing form of governance in so-called democracies. As research by Gilens and Page demonstrates the United States not a functioning democracy, rather it is a plutocracy. As social studies educators we need to stop teaching a mythic democracy and start teaching the real everyday political realities. Gilens and Page provide the empirical evidence that illustrates average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence on what their government does.

In our illiberal democracy (or what has been called inverted totalitarianism) the people, the electorate, are prevented from having a significant impact on policies adopted by the state. Our governing system has elections, yes, but citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power as a result of lack of civil liberties and a massive publications/propaganda machine that includes highly concentrated media corporations that project the illusion of a free press.

Authentic political participation can be found – look at movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock – but the version of democracy long taught in most social studies classes is a victim of political cleansing. As Sheldon Wolin argues, US electoral democracy is now a “political form in which governments are legitimated by elections they have learned to control.”

As Huxley wrote in Brave New World, the old forms remain – elections, supreme courts, parliaments and all the rest, but the underlying substance is a new kind of totalitarianism.

All the traditional names, all the hollowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

Corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy – capitalism trumps politics – every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to death as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their civil liberties and their participation in government is reduced to excessive consumerism and sensationalism.

There are two main totalizing dynamics in the US, according to Wolin, (1) the war on terror; and (2) neoliberal, free-market, economics, which subjects the population to economic rationationalization (e.g., downsizing, outsourcing, dismantling of the welfare state) destroying the commons and creating a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that makes it even less likely people will engage politically, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of illiberal democracy. All the while social studies continues to teach faith in the system, nostalgically looking back to the past, unthinkingly maintaining a corrupt system while stuck in the mire of the unholy apocalypse that is now.

Disconnection between what the people want and reality of everyday life. As Street argues in his book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, Washington runs on corporate and financial cash, connections, reach, and propaganda, not public opinion. The “unelected dictatorship of money” is not interested in crafting policy that responds to public opinion polls that show:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.
  • 61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it is mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.
  • 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.
  • 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.
  • 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.
  • Almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.
  • 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year.
  • 50% of Americans support limits on money earned by top executives at large corporations. (Street, 2015)

The disconnect between public opinion and reality of government’s (non) responses to inequality and injustice and its attacks on civil rights, is a direct challenge to our work as social studies educators. We can no longer rely on the old tropes of democracy and freedom that have dominated the curriculum and classroom discourse; to do so to sell students a lies about history and contemporary life.

Obedience. Why are things as they are? Part of the answer, a big part of the answer is consent, we’ve let things become this way. We need to learn, practice, and teach disobedience, in the name of social justice, in the name of trying to achieve the visions of democracy that are so often glibly taught in social studies classrooms.
In an open letter posted on Susan Ohanian’s website by Omaha lawyer, Rob Bligh writes:

I think that I understand the political malice that guides the Republicans. I think that I understand the political correctness that guides the Democrats. I think that I understand the arrogant ignorance that guides the Gates crowd.

What I do not understand is the deafening silence of nearly all … teacher-training faculty employed by America’s colleges and universities. They are allowing their graduates to be roasted slowly over a flame of lies and they are doing nothing about it. Perhaps the professors think that they will escape to early retirement before Gates and the politicians come for them. Some profession!

Ohanian herself writes, in an article that amounts to a call to arms for critical educators titled “Against Obedience,”

When teachers stoically keep their silence while corporate politicos shovel shit on them, they really can’t expect that tomorrow they’ll get roses. Or even less shit. I’m thinking of getting cards printed so I can distribute this message: You deserve what you accept. We can see the stages of teacher reaction to Common Core Standards: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression … But please, please, we need to skip ‘Acceptance’ and move to resistance. Real resistance, not just Twitter/Facebook/blog complaint.

Whining is not the same thing as doing something. Whining is whining. Action is something else. …. Not to resist is to become what you do. …. There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolution or you stand against the needs of children, and you aid the destruction of your own profession, not to mention democracy.

We MUST build a mass movement. Revolution is the only answer.

Believing in and teaching faith in the system is a fool’s errand for anyone claims to claims to be working for democracy, justice, and equality given present circumstances – a world plagued by climate change, species extinction, imperial war, and systematic violence against women, people of color, and the poor, and the rise of 21st Century fascism. If as social studies educators we are serious about working for democracy, then our work requires practicing and teaching disobedience and resistance, which would be an about-face for the field. The old tropes of democracy have failed us as social studies educators and have failed the public. Here’s a workout plan for anyone who’s ready to challenge totalitarianism:

Start with a warm up: protests, strikes, and public events. Push your boundaries and find out what your skills are. Then comes the cardio: organizing, the long distance running of the movement. Weight training is composed of civil disobedience and low-level hit-and-run techniques, gaining experience with each strike. Finally comes the competition itself: the revolutionary confrontations, sabotage, undermining, hacking, and other actions necessary for dismantling empire. (Max Wilbert, Counterpunch, 2016)

No magical thinking. Warming our own and our students’ hearts with myths of democracy is a dangerous practice. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, Chris Hedges warned that societies in terminal decline often retreat into magical thinking. The reality is just too much to bear so people are susceptible to “fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age.”

These promises, impossible to achieve, are no different from those peddled to Native Americans in the 1880s by the self-styled religious prophet Wovoka [aka Jack Wilson]. He called on followers to carry out five-day dance ceremonies called the Ghost Dance. Native Americans donned shirts they were told protected them from bullets. They were assured that the buffalo herds would return, the dead warriors and chiefs would rise from the earth and the white men would disappear. None of his promises was realized. Many of his followers were gunned down like sheep by the U.S. army.

We need a revolution in our thinking and the courage to act in politically and pedagogically in revolutionary ways to build mass democratic movements to combat totalitarianism. We must not allow social studies to become a ghost dance of democracy … or perhaps we already have.

Theory into practice: Social justice, solidarity & AESA

The American Educational Studies Association is currently facing a dilemma that forces its leadership and membership to decide just how committed they are to the principles of social justice, principles upon which the organization has built its reputation.

How much are the organization’s principles worth?

Should AESA members cross the picket lines and hold its 2016 meeting at the Grand Hyatt Seattle to save itself from an $83,000 cancellation fee? Or, bite the financial bullet in the name of walking the talk on social justice, solidarity, allyship?

Yesterday the AESA membership voted to punt these questions back to the leadership. But before that decision was made there was a long and sometimes puzzling discussion of these issues. Below are some musings on that discussion.

Spot the similarities: AESA 2015 / CUFA-NCSS 1998

Similarities between the AESA’s financial versus principles dilemma and the one CUFA-NCSS faced in the 1990s are striking.

I was deeply involved debates/actions related to the boycott of California in the 1990s in response to the racist, anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Prop 187 was passed in 1994. The College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies was scheduled to meet in Anaheim in 1998.

At its 1994 meeting in Phoenix, the membership of CUFA-NCSS voted to boycott Anaheim and then lobbied NCSS to do the same. NCSS, which is a profoundly conservative organization, rejected the boycott arguing that it had “contractual obligations.”

Despite that fact that CUFA leadership had four years to make arrangements for an alternative meeting site (CUFA is an affiliated group of NCSS and while it meets in conjunction with the larger organization, it functions as an autonomous group), it took no substantive action.

The delay tactic worked, creating a crisis situation.

In 1997, the combined efforts of the leadership of CUFA and NCSS convinced the CUFA membership to rescind its boycott and meet in Anaheim. Every African American member of CUFA-NCSS (and a few others) in the room quit the organization the night of the vote.

NCSS did not condemn the racist, xenophobic Prop 187 until 1997. It also promised not to meet in California while Prop 187 was in effect, with the exception of the 1998 meeting in Anaheim.

With their actions the NCSS-CUFA leadership was boldly saying something like:

Sometimes doing the right is inconvenient, so we’ll make our commitment to social justice when it doesn’t hurt our pocketbook. Don’t you know we have contractual obligations!

In the AESA 2015 business meeting (held in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt San Antonio), many folks offered up similar lines of reasoning as CUFA-NCSS leadership on why the organization can’t take a stand in solidarity with the workers at the Grand Hyatt Seattle:

  • contractual obligations / sizeable cancelation penalty
  • financial hit would have deleterious effects on the organization
  • let’s wait and see what happens
  • boycotting the hotel will not accomplish anything
  • boycotting the hotel will hurt the workers
  • let’s illustrate our solidarity by our academic discourse, not a boycott
  • not all organizations are boycotting, etc.

In addition, as was pointed out at yesterday’s meeting, AESA’s leadership has been aware of the union boycott of the Grand Hyatt Seattle for years, but never developed any viable alternatives.

To be fair the AESA Executive Council (EC) offered up several options, including a “shadow conference,” but none of these were thought through. There was not even a detailed assessment of the impact of the cancelation fee on the AESA finances. (Although one EC member stated AESA has the funds to pay the cancelation fee, which was supported by the financial report distributed to members).

Rather than providing concrete details to members about risk factors and logistical options, the EC members raised the spectre of members having to cover the costs of the cancelation fee via increased conference/membership rates and the difficulty of finding alternative spaces for the Seattle meeting, implying that honouring the boycott meant cancelling the 2016 meeting.

Perhaps the most appalling leadership tactic was a long harangue by an EC member that argued Grand Hyatt Seattle workers already had a pretty good hourly wage and being able to form a union would not increase their wages much. This EC member also offered up the twisted logic that drinking coffee from un-unionized Starbucks wasn’t much different from crossing a picket line at the Grand Hyatt Seattle … and everybody drinks coffee from Starbucks, right?

The leadership of AESA is correct that there’s not much time left to make a plan for an alternative site for the 2016 meeting, which begs the question of what they’ve been doing the past 4 years. Likely, just hoping that situation would resolve itself and save AESA from having to make a tough choice.

In some ways the membership endorsed that strategy by refusing to take a vote on the motion to honor the boycott and instead kicking the issue back to the EC.

Some EC members repeatedly stated their concern for the Hyatt workers and their desire to be responsive to members who support the UNITE HERE Local 8 boycott. But, these sentiments were weakened in the face of repeated statements that the EC wanted to investigate the circumstances of boycott before they took any action.

Which side is the AESA EC on? After yesterday’s meeting I have a strong feeling this is a repeat for the CUFA-NCSS California boycott debacle.


AESA is an organization whose members frequently write about social inequity, privilege, and allyship. But there was a stunning lack of sensitivity to these issues in the business meeting discussion of the boycott.

I am convinced that if one substituted people of color or LGBTQI folks for the members of UNITE HERE Local 8, many of the comments made in the business meeting would be immediately rejected by most AESA members has reflective of the privileged telling oppressed people what their problems are and how they should be solved.

Indeed many comments were the opposite of allyship:

  • UNITE HERE Local 8 wants to make this an either/or question and it’s not;
  • We want to support the workers, but I don’t think the boycott is the best way;
  • The union is not interested in other ways we can support the workers.

These kinds of expressions ignore what the workers have requested of would be allies, namely not to eat, sleep, or meet at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

Many members of AESA obviously think they have better ideas for how they might support Local 8, and are offended when the union isn’t interested in what they think.

As the Anti-Oppression Network argues:

allyship …is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. Allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with …

Is There Potential for an Organizational Split in AESA?

I heard lots of talk at AESA about holding an alternative meeting (and protesting) if AESA goes ahead with its plan to meet at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

The circumstances have significant differences, but the CUFA-NCSS boycott collapse was a significant factor in the creation of the Rouge Forum, which worked within CUFA-NCSS for a years, but ultimately went its separate way.

While remote, I do believe there is possibility of a faction within AESA looking elsewhere if the current plans for AESA 2016 are not changed. At the very least there might be reduced commitment to the organization by some members if AESA cannot find the will to walk its talk.

Based upon yesterday’s dialogue, some members of the EC seem quite sincere in their pledge to lead AESA out of this dilemma, while preserving its credibility as an organization committed to social justice.

What AESA needs right now is a little less conversation and a little more action.