Is Our Children Learning? The Poverty of Educational Social Science

This piece on the social science of education first appeared on Pink Scare over a year ago. I re-publish it knowing that the national debate over public education reform has largely been eclipsed by more recent events. Despite its diminished visibility, though, education reform is very much still on the agenda, especially when the demand for fiscal austerity in cash-strapped municipalities is producing increasingly aggressive, retrograde measures on the part of city governments. When combined with an entrepreneurial class harboring a deep interest in transforming education into a for-profit institution, the stage is set for the introduction of an educational model based upon public subsidy and private gain – that is, one that is very accommodating to styles of primitive accumulation under contemporary capitalism. Chicago is currently a kind of experimental laboratory of sorts for this project.

NB: For those interested, Eric Triantifillou has an excellent and related piece on the political economy of Chicago charter schools that appeared in AREA magazine a couple years ago – highly recommended.


Like many other public institutions in modern western society, the educational system seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. The lack of qualified or effective teachers, students who — for whatever reason — are often unmotivated and distracted, and the chronic lack of capital endemic to all public services are perhaps the primary factors contributing to this situation, though if one were so inclined it would be easy to break down these three main elements into a myriad of smaller and more contextually embedded factors, each of which varying in its negative effects depending on the specific social context in consideration.

And why is this the case? Political and cultural elites rail constantly about the degraded state of public education, and they never cease to be utterly shocked when the latest statistical data emerges inevitably showing a decisive academic achievement gap between American and, say, Chinese youth per capita. This nationalized achievement gap becomes more and more disconcerting for globalization’s most fervent supporters, for instance, whose anxiety about the future of America’s cultural capital fuels what Perry Anderson has referred to in a recent essay as “Sinomania.” In this rapidly escalating global economic arms race, so to speak, the ability of the American educational system to crank out the ideal economic subject— industrious, enterprising, and, most of all, unquestioning of the social validity of market logic— assumes paramount importance.

Enter the social scientific study of educational practices and institutions. The question informing the academic study and training of educational professionals has always been a perplexing one, not unknown to Plato 2500 years ago, which is simply this: how is one to educate the educators? A recent article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine tells a story about an individual, a Doug Lemov of the northeast’s Uncommon Schools charter school system, whose professional career has been devoted largely to theorizing and implementing novel pedagogical ideas. Lemov, who graduated from Harvard Business school and believes in “putting his faith in market forces,”unreservedly subscribes to the idea that in contexts riddled by pervasive racial achievement gaps, the “smarter” path to boosting student performance is “to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.” Now, to return to our cardinal question, how does this man propose to educate the educators?

By creating an exhaustive taxonomy of effective pedagogical techniques, of course. “Lemov’s Taxonomy,” a 300 + page treatise which evidently entertains “hundreds of underground fans” among the community of educational professionals, contains over 40 teaching techniques supposedly universal in their applicability, no matter the context. Any aspiring teacher can flip through Lemov’s tome and learn the basic skills underlying successful teaching for any possible setting, no matter the time, place, socioeconomic makeup, or whatever other demographic variable one may wish to bring up. Based upon hundreds of hours of fastidious classroom observation and documentation, Lemov’s work represents the distilled essence and final result of a comprehensively designed institutional experiment, combining the insights of dozens of the country’s most effective teachers and educational researchers into a set of resources available for any would-be public educator.

And such is the logic of the social sciences in action: human beings are observed behaving, interacting, acting out, and otherwise existing in a variety of more or less ‘controlled’ settings; observations are made in relation to these phenomena; and, by drawing on commonalities across diverse experimental settings, a set of inductive inferences are made to arrive at generalizations about what ‘works’ for the already given purposes of human life — in this case, improved performance on standardized tests, among other modes of school ranking. It is this underlying, broadly positivist orientation, though, that contributes significantly to the persistent failure by professionals to actually grasp the root of the problem in modern public education.

For instance, the very method of educational social science forecloses certain avenues of inquiry. The constitution of each individual student as a ‘subject’ of the experiment, that is, as an individual participating in the controlled and closed environment of the classroom, relies on the erasure of the very histories of experience that have shaped and formed the ‘subjects’ under scrutiny. The assumption is simple: in order to test for what pedagogical techniques work best, one must control for certain external variables — in this case, the individual social histories of the students. While the assumption has always been that this provides a more science-like approach to understanding human behavior, it is premised upon the abstraction from particular historical and social contexts necessary to constitute the analytic elements of the experiment.

These assumptions can only underlie a research program which forbids itself from asking questions regarding the structure of society as a whole. And as long as this continues to be the status quo, the social scientific study of education, “Lemov’s Taxonomy” included, is doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The argument could be put like this: as long as educational researchers do not know how to ask the question of why the racial achievement gap never seems to get better, they will never sufficiently understand how to improve it. Without taking a step back and thinking through the ways in which the situation of the controlled experiment is itself an effect of a larger structural cause, so to speak, the diagnoses and remedies offered by educational social science will be limited to only grazing the surface of this problem.

It is no surprise, then, that so “few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning.”

The subjectivity and individual histories of students, especially in America’s urban centers, are conditioned and shaped by the economic and cultural contexts of a liberal capitalist social formation, and any idea that they could be adequately viewed as abstract test subjects apart from the kinds of sociality that this engenders is myopic, to say the least, and hopelessly misguided, to say the most. Working and lower-class neighborhoods in American cities generate particular forms of subjectivity based upon the ways that commerce, violence, and social identities circulate within an overall economy unique to those contexts; these social contexts, in turn, are the product of a specific way of economically organizing society in which capital inevitably tends to flow one way (upward) on the social ladder. Naturally, this leads to systemic social dynamics that both restrict and enable certain forms of social agency — notably, for this context, with regard to public institutions. It is, of course, the most basic methodological prerogative of modern social science to isolate itself from all such considerations, in order to emulate the controlled experimental environment of the natural sciences. This makes the experiment manageable to design and run, but it also effectively renders it blind to the possibility of addressing itself to the actual causes of the problems it seeks to redress.

Now, obviously this is not meant as a polemic against the social sciences per se, which obviously has many useful and beneficial roles to play in modern society. Nor is it meant to register surprise at the fact that someone like Lemov, a no-doubt proud graduate of Harvard business school, should be fundamentally blind to the ways that capitalist societies form subjects at a structural level, as well as how such considerations might impinge upon the explanatory value of his theories. But it needs to be recognized how the methods of the social sciences may be more appropriate for certain subjects as opposed to others, and relatedly, how it may serve to systematically obscure the path to answering the questions that it presumes to address. It may be hard to imagine such a disciplinary shake-up, but it may be that only under such a condition could we genuinely ask, and get a satisfactory response to, the question, “is our children learning?”

Anarchist and Marxian Paths to Praxis

As 2011 draws to an end we mark the conclusion of a momentous year of progressive social upheaval the world over. The revival of spontaneous popular/mass political mobilizations has erupted across Western and Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and – thanks to the tenacious efforts of #Occupy – even the United States, to name only the most visible flashpoints. The mass social movement as a political force seems to have returned with a vengeance, and, perhaps most importantly, all of its manifestations heretofore – #Occupy, The Arab Spring, the student movement in the U.K, the Spanish indignados, the Greek resistance to draconian neoliberal austerity, and many others – have shared at least one core element: an uncompromising rejection of the increasingly hollowed-out shell of liberal institutions and the feckless, parliamentary cretinism with which it is apparently indissociable. As was discussed in the previous post, this space of collective political invention has emerged against the historical horizon of a conjunctural crisis of world-capitalism – more specifically, the collapse of what is arguably the core dynamic of value-creation under neoliberal structures of accumulation. Since the steady growth of profits, or in other words the creation, expansion, and realization of value, is the one thing that cannot change and must be held as a fixed factor within capitalist society, the burden of shouldering the costs of the crisis ineluctably alights upon those who do not own capital – that is to say, the vast majority of people alive today. The resulting squeeze upon basic standards of living has the capacity to catalyze very different movements across the globe, as great swaths of humanity become seriously disillusioned with the status quo, for quite various reasons, and elements of the radical left see an opportunity for mass political education the likes of which haven’t been seen for a generation or more.

For the first time in perhaps half a century, a political space, a scene of practice has opened up that has injected renewed vigor into theoretical debates on the left over the forms of social praxis most conducive to an historically effective radical politics. In the U.S. front, this has been nowhere more evident than in the popular assemblies of the Occupy movement, specifically designed as they are to allow the most voices to be heard while institutionalizing procedures that can fairly be called directly democratic. While the rapid spread and spontaneous formation of the basic political forms of #Occupy across the United States (not to mention other countries) has been truly remarkable, the movement remains at the germinal stage, with many observers – sympathetic and hostile alike – chattering on about whether or not it is a harbinger of things to come, an effervescent but aimless burst of pent-up populist resentment, or the opening salvo in what probably will be a protracted ideological war-of-position for the duration of the world crisis. Those who have participated in it know that it is here to stay, with the only questions being how and whither, but this does not change the urgency of hashing out differences between competing political positions that have done so much to fragment the left throughout the history of anti-capitalist organization. I offer the following remarks on Anarchism and Marxism towards a reconciliation of two of the most important, but often the most antagonistic, forces in the radical socialist camp. While a discussion like this remains at the level of theory, and it is of course true that real differences between competing organizational visions can ultimately be mediated and effectively synthesized only within practical contexts, nevertheless the times are such that a clear articulation of vision is more important than any other time in recent memory, and it is in this spirit that I offer the following remarks. Some of the most elemental disagreements between Marxian and Anarchist political theory can be drawn out through a close look at what two of their respective classical paragons – Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin – thought of each other’s ideas, at least insofar as this can be found in their explicit writings on the subject. While I obviously cannot hope to do justice to the immense complexity of the historical relationship between these two revolutionary traditions within the confines of a single post, it will serve to lay a basis for opening a discussion on the topic.

In his notes on Bakunin[1] we have Marx right away confronting some of the key objections to the Marxist line as it was being argued circa 1874. Bakunin argues that Marx’s revolutionary program already contains in nuce an incipient form of social domination [2], to which Marx’s rejoinder is rich enough to reproduce and subsequently unpack in order to set up a theoretical comparison:

[The proletariat as ruling class] means, that as long as the other classes, and in particular the capitalist class, still exist, and as long as the proletariat is still struggling with it (because, with the proletariat’s conquest of governmental power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet disappeared), it must use coercive means, hence governmental means; it is still a class and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes depend, have not yet disappeared and must be removed by force, or transformed and their process of transformation speeded up [sic] by force…A radical social revolution is tied to certain historical conditions of economic development; these are its prerequisites. It is therefore only possible where, with capitalist production, the industrial proletariat occupies at least a significant position among the mass of the people…Will, not economic conditions, is the foundation of [Bakunin’s] social revolution.

Several issues emerge here as the crux of disagreement: the status of economic and historical analysis within revolutionary theory; the question of the precise nature of the state, and its role within the revolutionary program; and attitudes towards authority, how it emerges, is reconstituted, or is transformed in the course of revolutionary practice, to name only a few central points of contention. Without too much simplification these are arguably still the core issues that divide many anarchists and marxists to this day, notwithstanding all that has changed since the time of Marx and Bakunin.

Marx essentially accuses Bakunin of two major and related oversights: one, a kind of ‘voluntarist’ stance on political insurrection that pays no attention to economic and historical circumstances, and two, the lack of a historically and socially grounded critical theory – à la Capital –  that could adequately illuminate those circumstances. For Marx, the possibility of revolution is inextricably linked to a critical theory of society, one that not only can purportedly account for the historical preconditions of a radical social revolution, but that is also meant to serve as a practical force in the path of struggle leading up to that revolution. From Marx’s perspective, Bakunin and the anarchists’ revolutionary campaign is all heart and no brains, so to speak; in its unrelenting focus on the church and the state as the two fundamental institutions of oppression it remains stuck at a level of analysis that Marx takes himself – along with the socialist movement as a whole – to have already surpassed [3]. The critique of capitalism as a system of social relationships has to form the intellectual bedrock of any viable and enduring socialist movement.

The anarchist typically sees much of this talk of economic preconditions, coercion, correct theory and so on as rather suspect within the context of trying to imagine and enact radical social transformation. From this standpoint it is deeply problematic to predicate a revolutionary program upon some privileged theoretical or intellectual basis, as it would seem to open up a possibility for the distinction between a cadre of the knowing elite and the more or less benighted masses. Within the debates between classical anarchism and marxism this concern was not unrelated to the question of the state, and particularly whether or not it could be really supposed that seizure of state power and economic centralization could be seen as merely a means to the given end of class dissolution. Anarchists charged and still charge marxists with a grievous miscalculation on this score, arguing that Marx’s predilection to scientific socialism – oriented as it was toward illuminating the theoretical conditions for revolution – effectively diverted his attention from concrete questions of organizational structure and practical politics that are integral to the revolutionary project [4]. The critique has always been that, no matter how theoretically sophisticated, one cannot hope to occupy an institutional complex that is as deeply authoritarian in structure as the modern state apparatus, with surrounding class antagonisms still intact, and really expect its eventual self-cancellation. Rather, authoritarian and hierarchical relationships must be remade from below, starting at the level of everyday human experience, in a process wherein an organizational ethics informed by a shared assumption of equality reshapes the ways in which people interact, imagine collective existence, coordinate social production, and generally get things done [5]. The anarchist sees revolutionary possibility in the everyday social relationships through which people engage each other, in the potentially radically democratic content of interactions in which people treat each other not as superiors or inferiors, but as equals and ends in themselves.

This subject of the ethics of organizational praxis is one key element among others that anarchism can contribute to the reconstruction of a mass-left politics today.  Conversely, within this project the strengths of marxian social theory and political analysis cannot be ignored; these include not only the elaboration of a social theory that can potentially explain and help people to make sense of their world, but also the role that a theory of the deep-structure of capitalism can play in potentially orienting mass-movements and bringing a common goal into focus, thus maximizing the possibility for radical change. By continually encouraging a systemic, historical critique of the social formation within the context of directly-democratic social forms, marxian theory can contribute to a remediation of ‘common sense’ in which ideas like economic democracy and a de-stratified society are no longer abstract, utopian notions but actually live options within everyday consciousness and lived experience.

It is a sign of the interesting historical moment in which we find ourselves that such discussions are losing their status as “merely academic” for more and more people. Anyone who has participated in an Occupy assembly is aware of the myriad diversity of  viewpoints that can be brought to bear in any given meeting, and how difficult it can seem to articulate a sharp political vision when the twin imperatives of direct democratic organization and radically open participation must be maintained. Additionally, as with any movement in the United States aiming at mass inclusion, it must openly acknowledge and reflect on the classed, raced, and gendered aspects of its social constituency, though increasing numbers of talented organizers across the country are starting to do just that in order to overcome them. A huge step in addressing the obstacles to rekindling a popular capacity to imagine radical change has been initiated, in practical form, in the still developing popular assemblies, if for no other reason than showing people directly that they can organize and act in an effort to determine the basic conditions of their own existence. But at present the question of the theoretical content and the shape – if any – that a unified vision will assume for the movement is still largely up for grabs.

[1] See Marx’s notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy on

[2] Bakunin: “We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the     workers… the foundation of a people’s state…the proletariat organized as ruling class…if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state,”

[3] Marx’s frustration at this seemingly regressive step in left-socialist Continental thought and practice in the last quarter of the 19th century also appears very explicitly in Critique of the Gotha Programme.

[4] I must leave aside the immense question of the political party in Marx, as well as its lasting impact as an aspect of revolutionary consciousness largely as a result of Lenin’s writings and the legacy of 1917. Obviously Marx and Engels saw a doctrinally-sound Communist Party as the definitive vehicle of working-class revolutionary consciousness, but as Marx never lived to see an actual “communist” revolution take place, we can only conjecture about what he would have made of something like the Bolshevik Revolution.

[5] This entails what Murray Bookchin would call “the physiology of freedom – of freedom as the process of communizing… [this is] those subjective dimensions that link the remaking of society to the remaking of the psyche.” Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004) x.

Preliminary Notes on the Discourses of the Crisis

A crisis occurs sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves and that despite this the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them within certain limits and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will concede that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that the opposition organizes.

Gramsci, Prison Notebooks*

How might we theorize the discursive limits of the public debate over the latest implosion of the capitalist world-system? As Gramsci suggests, the appearance of structural crisis can be taken as a definite sign that certain contradictory aspects at the deepest levels of capitalist society have come to a head, resulting in an abrupt drying-up of capital liquidity, the widespread destruction of value and assets, and a general state of economic chaos and uncertainty that engulfs public discourse indefinitely. For some, such a seemingly blatant manifestation of system irrationality prompts the observation that it must be met with an equally systemic policy response at the national level; some argue that it merely represents a particularly steep slump in the normal capitalist business cycle, to be corrected again with due time – and without undue political interference; and some rail against the degenerate state of the prevailing culture, alleging its responsibility for the recent unpleasantness, and place virtue and moral regeneration at the center of any reformist vision. This period of greatly heightened ideological struggle, in tandem with the cascading effects of social and economic dislocation at basically every level of society, form the outlines of the historical ‘conjuncture,’ in which the everyday conflict over the dominant public meaning of widely-shared concepts, values, and ideals – indeed, sometimes over what can even count as “public” – is ratcheted up to a new level of intensity, as various social forces vie with one another to determine what shape will be taken by the unfolding judgment of history.

In the fall of 2008, after the abrupt, serial evaporation of a handful of absurdly over-leveraged investment banks and the ensuing panic in world markets, a discourse fairly quickly emerged in the U.S. media identifying the arcane instruments of a post-Bretton Woods form of finance capital as the main culprit. Dominant media channels did a pretty decent job analyzing and producing informed commentary on the world of financial derivatives, credit-default swaps, and other esoteric mechanisms for what essentially amounts to the creation and dissemination of fictitious capital, and, hence, fictitious value. It didn’t take too long for liberal and center-left commentators to begin arguing that these elements were just one piece of a much larger puzzle, which had to do with a massive speculative bubble in housing markets, which was itself based on massively over-inflated (false) housing prices, which were run up in a global credit market nourished by a larger historical trend of stagnant real wages and metastasizing household and state debt, which was itself a product of financial liberalization as a response to the long world crisis of the 1970s, which was caused by….

In other words, there was for a short time – let’s say, for sake of argument, from October 2008 to the end of summer, 2009 – some fairly serious reflection going on about the root causes of the crisis within a wide range of media channels, as public intellectual figures like Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Joseph Stiglitz argued the case for a correspondingly thorough policy response that would hopefully strike at those causes, and restore the conditions for renewed accumulation and growth. There was a fairly widespread call, in other words, for a systemic response to what clearly appeared to be a crisis of the system.

It didn’t take long, however, for a powerful counter-systemic discourse to set in. This shift largely parallels the time it took for a shell-shocked conservative political establishment, reeling from the double whammy of the economic crisis and a decisive defeat in the November general elections, to re-emerge with a powerful narrative that centered upon a particular explanation of the crisis based upon the morality and nationalistic virtue of “the American people.” Crucially, a key precondition of their success in this endeavor – which arguably was registered in the electoral results of the mid-term elections in 2010 – was a discursive reconstitution of the crisis that went beyond arid, center-left economic explanations to recast it as a much broader and deeper cultural phenomenon. This discourse subjugated the definition of the crisis as socially and economically produced to a deeper one that tapped into the fears and anxieties of broad swathes of the American electorate, for whom recent economic events were a mere manifestation of a more serious malaise rooted in a corrupted national ethos. From this standpoint, the ‘activist,’ overweening government of the Obama administration was simply driven by the machinations of a morally corrupt and ethically debased political cadre determined to fleece the middle-classes for pure, venal personal gain. From here, it was only a short step to the reconsolidation of the default neoliberal discursive stasis, premised upon an axiomatic faith in the idea that any government action is bad, by presumption, unless it can be shown to leave things as they are – that is, to leave untouched the foundational social relationships upon which economic life is organized.

The overall point is to illuminate one way in which enduring aspects of political hegemony in U.S. public culture have been operative in the discursive construction of the current crisis. While of course the discourse of reaction did not emerge ex nihilo, preformed and intentional in its activation of far-reaching paths of circulation and identification, it was assembled over time as conservative journalists, Tea-Party activists, Republicans, and – importantly – myriad lesser known bloggers and commentators struggled to give voice to inchoate feelings of dread and despair following the events of the fall of 2008. This was perhaps most iconically performed in Rick Santelli’s famous rant, the following February, in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, broadcasted on CNBC and quickly circulated at a viral rate throughout the conservative and far-right online community. This was the context in which the re-conjuration of “the people” took place, eventually replacing rationalized discourses of supply, demand, regulation, and economic stimulus with a static discourse of Being, grounded in the enduring images of the American middle-class as responsible, individualistic, and hard-working, which was itself premised upon the negation – abstract but terribly efficacious – of any form of explanation grounded in a concept of the social whole. Society, as Margaret Thatcher explained to us, does not exist – it is pure non-Being. This lived ‘reality,’ this common-sense, was merely reasserted, albeit with a difference, by the the establishment backlash following the inaugural meltdown of the neoliberal regime of accumulation.

*This quotation appears at the beginning of Gopal Balakrishnan’s essay “Speculations on the Stationary State,” New Left Review 59.