“School Failure” as a State of Exception

American public schools are failing, letting the country down and jeopardizing our national security. That is the fundamental message stated in the “introduction” to U.S. Education Reform and National Security and developed throughout the report. It perceives education and schooling as a problem of categorical failure. Historically education gave opportunity to all Americans. “Today. . . . elementary and secondary (K-12) schools are failing to provide the promised opportunity. . . . In short, America’s failure to educate is affecting its national security.”

Report Cover Image
A multi-part, close critique.

Over the past few decades, power-speak has put itself into a bind. It has so demonized the work of government and collective action that it has to envision extreme crises in order to justify the mobilization of public effort. Eschewing power-speak, reasonable people do not need to declare the public schools a failure in order to want to improve them greatly. And steady work to improve public schooling, without thoughtless panic induced by threatening crises, is surely feasible and important. But power-speak needs crises as a prelude to powerful action, swinging from an affable laissez-aller to a rhetoric of command in the midst of crisis.

But watch out! Crisis driven command presumes unchecked power, an exception from normal constraints and procedures. Power-speak has a proclivity for crisis so that it can gain command without constraint. A perception of crisis creates a state of exception, which legitimates the thoughtless use of excessive power. States of exception suspend business as usual and institute extraordinary procedures to cope with the crisis. Code Red! Power-speak has grown far too fond of crises and the states of exception they bring. It invites rash leadership and hubris. Power-speak pronounces a crisis; clamors to meet it, mobilizing all-hands in unchecked effort; but then, the fog of war beginning to clear, all look about, saddened by lives lost, poorer for resources squandered, shamed by stupidity, bewildered that the threat of mass destruction had not proved real at all. Even if chastened, the crisis-driven entanglements still remain, and new relations of power with them. Déjà vu? Perhaps it behooves us to examine closely the report proclaiming that the American public schooling has failed, creating a crisis of national security.

Read more. . . .

About Robbie McClintock

After a long career at Teachers College, Columbia University -- 50 years as a student and teacher -- I have "graduated," as I like to put it. Looking ahead, feeling energetic and well-prepared, I will concentrate on radical scholarship and criticism, work that goes to the root of education, public affairs, and culture. Early in 2012, I published a Utopian critique of schooling and historical life -- Enough: A Pedagogic Speculation. Further essays will follow. Let us speak out against fear mongers, the pundits of public parsimony, and the peddlers of self-serving prudence. We can aspire to more positive possibilities -- constructing historical realities in which humanity achieves elegant, fair, and meaningful solutions to the great uncertainties of our time.
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