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Abrupt climate change and the dead end of eco-consumerism

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

crossposted at DailyKos.com and at VOTS

Book review: Pierre-Louis, Kendra. Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Brooklyn: IG Publishing, 2012.

Green Washed cover

A recent book takes aim at the idea that we can buy our way to a clean environment.

A number of recent written pieces have reflected actual interest in doing something about abrupt climate change. Abrupt climate change is now stalling the gulf stream. Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his recent State of the Union speech. Canada dumps its Kyoto targets, but perhaps Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders are now interested in climate change legislation. “John Crapper” suggests we ought to declare war on fossil fuel. Agathena tells us more about Canadian tar sands.

Generally speaking, none of the suggested solutions to have reached mainstream respectability does what it takes. We are still debating the comparative merits of continuing along the current path, or ineffectively petitioning the government to do something ineffective. I know, this may appear to be cart-before-the-horse logic to those who simply wish to get the government to focus on abrupt climate change. However, we need to be careful to avoid imagining that our problems will be solved with anything less than a broad social transformation. You can make the “work within the system” argument all you want, but generally speaking both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are conservative parties, and we do ourselves no favors by repeating their conservatisms.

Even “John Crapper” does not go far enough:

What if we declared war on our fossil fuel dependency and waged a WWII type effort to wean ourselves off of its use and transform our economy to a non-polluting , renewable energy based one?

What we actually need is an economy that isn’t predatory, and that isn’t going to bring the natural world and the working-class society to ruin. The worst thing we could do, in light of all that, is to assuage the collective guilt about pollution and unsustainability while at the same time creating a “new economy” which is just as polluting and unsustainable as the old economy. Higher standards are not “purity” — they’re the price of sincerity.

We can already predict that, in the case of abrupt climate change, another consumer-oriented solution is going to be proposed. We are already told that, as consumers of fossil fuels, it is all our fault — never mind that the fossil fuels come gift-wrapped to us in a tremendous infrastructure of global oil, coal, tar sand, and natural gas production and distribution facilitated by an expanding global capitalist world-economy, none of which was our choice to begin with. Moreover, we will be told by the environmental advocates of business as usual that the solution to our evil consumerism is to buy carbon-credits, or to pay carbon taxes, or to buy carbon easements. Let’s assuage the collective guilt, they will tell us, and then get on with business as usual. Never mind that business as usual is a bad bargain, and getting worse.

In this regard, we ought to discuss the high standard of sincerity suggested in Kendra Pierre-Louis’ recently-published book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Fundamentally, Pierre-Louis takes aim at the idea that proper consumerism can solve our ecological problems, and concludes that it can’t. This isn’t to say that there aren’t better and worse things to consume, but rather that the whole consumption edifice is unsustainable. “Eco-fashion is less about sustainability and more about mitigating guilt.” (24-25) Systems of commodity production invariably fall afoul of ecosystem integrity, and so our main option is to become post-commodity, and thus post-capitalist.

Pierre-Louis begins by discussing how this works out for industrial agriculture. “We are told that industrial agriculture is the best way, is in fact the only way, we will ever mitigate global hunger. And yet, at the same time, it is a food system that often times seems more efficient at harming the environment than it does at feeding people.” (35) Rather than explaining right away why environmental damage is a necessary characteristic of our industrial-consumer systems, Pierre-Louis launches immediately into assessments of environmental damage. The author begins, then, by showing how tiny the window for avoiding consumer guilt really is, when one takes the world of fact into account. Big Ag is dangerously dependent upon limited water supplies; genetic engineering has manifested “superweeds”; organic agriculture is often bought up by large corporate interests.

Later we are to discuss solutions, and here Pierre-Louis is not comprehensive, advocating change in the most general of terms. But this can be forgiven of her, because she is trying to reach a consumer audience with a message aimed at transforming current modes of thinking, and that she does spectacularly.

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Book Review: Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (2009)

8:33 am in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

This is a critical review of Chris Hedges’ book Empire of Illusion, with further discussion of its relevance in a society with no future.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

*****

There are a number of reviews of this book out already. Many of them are in the vein of "ho hum, another book declaiming American society for its shallowness." So for instance if you access the review at popmatters.com, it says that this book is about the:

argument that America as a society has become enslaved to passive entertainment and divorced from any meaningful interaction with the world or our fellow citizens. To buttress this jeremiad, Hedges enlists punchy quotations from Daniel Boorstin’s "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America" and Neil Postman’s "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (Arendt, Plato, and Huxley are also called up to bat).

The page itself yawns. A proactive review of Hedges’ book, however, would take as important the accuracy of his depiction of America, and to look in an attempt to see if anything could be done with Hedges’ vision in the larger scope of things. That’s what this book review hopes to do.

*****

Hedges thesis is that there is a "culture of illusion" dominating America, a great substitution of images for reality in which America is plied with entertainment while real power is robbed from it by self-serving elites. The process has gotten to the point where collapse will at some near point be on the agenda. Hedges argues:

Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality. The elites were blinded by absurd fantasies of omnipotence and power which doomed their civilizations. (143-144)

This is what is at stake, then: civilization. So most of the book, then, is about the ongoing decay of that civilization, Western civilization, and America in particular. It is more specifically about the illusions which are peddled to the public as aspects of the promotional scheme of the culture industry, distracting the public in the service of elite domination.

The beginning of this book offers us the retelling of an episode of "WWE Smackdown." Hedges has a notion of the history of this sort of "world wrestling entertainment." It used to contain characters which symbolized evil, as determined by the reigning orthodoxy of US nationalist propaganda. There was an evil Russian, and an evil Iranian, we are told. Nowadays WWE taps into class resentment, with the upper-class pseudo-cowboy "John Bradshaw Layfield," and the working-class character of the "Heart Break Kid." WWE, of course, does not give class resentment anything like a credible narrative. Later, Hedges describes a portion of an episode of "American Idol." His point in all of this is to introduce us to the "culture of illusion." Hedges spends some time discussing the form taken by the various celebrities who participate in these televised spectacles, and concludes with a rumination on the "culture of illusion":

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks. And a culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those who are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read. There have been other historical periods with high rates of illiteracy and vast propaganda campaigns. But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, has the content of information been as skilfully and ruthlessly controlled and manipulated. Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded. (45)

In the next chapter, Chapter 2, titled "The Illusion of Love," Hedges takes aim at the pornography industry, for its brutality and for its exploitation of women. Here I will say that Hedges’ analysis may be dead-on — pornography is largely depersonalizing — but in spots he seems to have focused rather tightly on that portion of the industry which specializes in things such as gangbanging. "Porn has evolved from the airbrushed misogyny of glossy spreads in Playboy and smutty films sold in seedy shops. It is corporate and easily available. Its products today focus less on sex between a man and a woman and increasingly on groups of men beating off on a woman’s face or tearing her anus open with their penises. Porn has evolved to its logical conclusion." (86)

Hedges’ third chapter is concerned with the corporatization of academia. The argument somewhat follows Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, which I reviewed earlier. The idea of this chapter is that universities are becoming "glorified vocational schools for the corporations," (110) teaching as well as creating class segregation, while "the new class of expert professionals have been trained to focus on narrow, specialized knowledge independent of social ideas or conceptions of the common good." (111) Thus the promise of "honest intellectual inquiry" (89) in the university is (for Hedges) just another illusion as well.

In his fourth chapter, Hedges looks at the "positive thinking" industry, in terms which approach hyperbole. Here is what he says:

Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis. Positive psychology — at least, as applied so broadly and unquestioningly to corporate relations — is a quack science. It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed. (117)

Hedges’ concern, then, is that the persuaders will try to make us feel happy as everything we know and love is taken from us. But this claim has teeth: Hedges then investigates the corporate use of positive psychology to induce conformist behavior among cheap laborers in the workplace. This is now apparently the latest trend in sweatshoppery.

The last chapter of Empire of Illusion attempts to summarize the state of politics today, the empty campaign slogans leading to the same old corporate domination regardless of the group laying claim to power. Here Hedges suggests that, long ago, the America in which he grew up was a place in which hope was maintained amidst the general injustice meted out to the oppressed. That America, he argues, is now merely a "facade." (143) Hedges asks America this question:

How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and the fantasies of a glorious tomorrow, or will we responsibly face our stark, new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humanity, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up in moments of crisis and panic to offer fantastic visions of escape? (145)

That’s really Hedges’ main question for all of us. Do we choose illusion, or reality?

*****

Conclusion: Underlying Illusion

*****

As pointed out in popmatters.com above, Hedges’ book is not original for having borrowed insights from Daniel Boorstin or Christopher Lasch or Theodor Adorno. This is a synthetic work. It criticizes disturbing trends.

Hedges says little about economic issues in Empire of Illusions, focusing instead on personal encounters and important readings. But I think economic explanation bears out the truth of his extended jeremiad. The real reason that there are sizable economies around celebrity crap or pornography or academic "sales" or happytalk psychobabble is that the capitalist economy can no longer improve its fortunes through real industry, and so new "industries" must be invented to separate people from their money because the old ones, which centered around selling real products, will no longer do. This trend began in the neoliberal era among the economic crises of the 1970s, in which industrial production was confronted with reduced profits. At that point the trend shifted to "finance," which sucks your lifeblood by creating money and charging you interest on it. Today, however, we have "zombie banks," banks which do not make profits loaning to anyone because those who need loans today do not qualify for them. Thus even that is gone. The capitalist system itself brags about its entry into a "post-industrial" economy — what could be more post-industrial than selling the capitalist ethos to the masses in the absence of other sources of profit? At any rate, that’s what’s left.

Moreover, I think that we can find the reality underneath Hedges’ themes of illusion if we look at them from the perspective of economic autonomy. Entertainment, sex, learning, happiness, and governance: each of these are domains in which ordinary people can create their own, as individuals or (with everything but sex) in small, autonomous groups; instead, modern society is full of hucksters, entrepreneurs, and "professionals" with their own "fields of expertise" ready to sell to us what we can do for ourselves.

In this regard we might take to heart what Hedges says about our elites, the ones who run this whole show:

Our elites — the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Streets, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools — do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one. They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions that will satisfy the corporate structure. Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement. They lack a moral and intellectual core. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. (110)

So far the elites have not proved Hedges wrong.

*****

AFTERWORD FOR YOU, YEAH, YOU

Every once in awhile I get responses to diaries such as this which argue that "things were worse before; they are better now." This sort of response aims at the spots in Hedges’ narrative which appear (to the respondents) to be exaggerated. In some senses this response rings true; things are better. In other senses, no. Things are not better for all of the animal and plant species which have gone into extinction. Things are not better for the victims of US "foreign policy." Things may be better in one sense for college students if, for instance, the possibility of a meaningful education has improved with the improvement of systemic critique — nevertheless the material conditions of college life are, on average, themselves deteriorating as money dries up and as tuition rises.

Measuring life by "material" qualities concocted by economic "experts" (e.g. monetary income) will doubtless "prove" that life in the US is still pretty good. Me? Sure, I have a job right now, and I live fairly comfortably, although my net worth was, is, and will be significantly in the negative (student loans y’know). The prosperity I enjoy, however, appears to me as the proceeds of a previous stage of the capitalist system in its historical development. The current stage appears to me as a form of decadence, lived without any real concept of the future, and so if I need to promote a writer like Chris Hedges to dramatize that decadence, that’s what I’ll do.

Book Review: Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (2007)

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

(crossposted at Docudharma)

I’m sure that everyone’s paying attention to the oil spill in the Gulf by now — do, however, pay attention to Edger’s suggestion in his recent diary that BP is getting a pass on this one because they’re the military’s biggest supplier. And then you also have this Glenn Greenwald piece about whistleblowers, with concurring echo by Jesselyn Radack — we’ve got to prosecute those whistleblowers and protect those state secrets, for if The Enemy were to get any of our precious state secrets, it would… pardon me, what would The Enemy do that it isn’t already doing? Meanwhile the taxpayer is continually kept in the dark, and as Greenwald says:

It isn’t hard to see why Obama despises leaks. Just look at the front page of The New York Times today, which details a secret order from Gen. David Petraeus last fall ordering vastly increased Special Forces operations in a variety of Middle Eastern countries, including "allies" such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and "enemies" such as Iran and Syria. As Iran experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett contend, this constitutes, at the very least, "the intensification of America’s covert war against Iran." That is how we also learned of what is, in essence, a covert war in Yemen as well (not to mention the covert war in Pakistan). Most of what our Government does of any real significance happens in the dark. Whistleblowers are one of the very few avenues we have left for learning about any of that.

Here’s a cute question: don’t any of these people have any pride in what they do? Certainly they must have some sort of patriotic justification for their numerous wars. Shouldn’t America be proud of all they do for national security? After all, someone is bound to expose them via the global Internet anyway. Why keep it secret?

*****

At any rate, the main point of this diary has to do with a new book by Tom Engelhardt, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Become Obama’s. I’m going to recommend that you take a look at this book when it comes out, because you should at least be able to see the connections between this forthcoming book and the one Engelhardt has already written, which is called "The End of Victory Culture." This is the author’s earlier (2007) book, and its importance lies in its portrayal of US government militarism as having a cultural basis — the essence of it is ostensibly "victory culture," which came into being through the violent actions of people of European descent as they colonized North America and erected a "United States" upon its ground. (And, if you don’t know already, Engelhardt runs the TomDispatch website, a great place for news commentary.)

So with "victory culture" we have, to a certain extent, anthropologized American militarism, by attempting to tie it to cultural foundations. "The End of Victory Culture" offers its readers a history of "victory culture, then. Engelhardt proclaims that the origins of this culture lie in the "abduction narratives" of colonial American culture, starting with Mary Rowlandson’s "narrative" of her captivity by Indians as published in 1682. As Engelhardt argues, these narratives "were the origin myths of the war story, for by putting the Indians in the position of invaders, violently intruding on a settled world, they made the need for certain types of explanation unnecessary." Thus captivity narratives "created the foundation for any type of retribution that might follow." (23) And so victory culture was off and running — global conquest eventually perceived as an extension of Manifest Destiny, and everyone perceived as not being "with us" becomes classified as an Indian.

Engelhardt’s own narrative quickly fast-forwards from the Indian Wars to the consolidation of "victory culture" narratives in movie and TV productions, especially in the years after World War II:

From silent films to "hip" westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), there may have been no more common or less commented upon scene; none more generically thrilling or less considered by either audiences or critics than the spectacle of the slaughter of the non-white. Featured in thousands of movies, its prototype was certainly the band of Indians, whooping and circling the wagon train; but "they" could be Arabs charging the North African fort (Beau Geste), Chinese rushing the foreign legations (55 Days in Peking), Mexicans rushing the Alamo (The Alamo), Japanese banzai-ing American foxholes (Bataan), or Chinese human-waving American lines (Retreat, Hell!). (37)

Indeed, the cover of the paperback edition of this book has a spooky movie scene with some cowboy on a horse shooting an Indian on a horse, with a television screen interposed.

At any rate, after briefly summarizing movie victory culture, Engelhardt then proceeds to discuss the wars which, he imagines, were the beginning of the end for victory culture. First, Korea, briefly synopsized, was a war against a technologically-inferior opponent which did not produce complete victory (despite the lopsided death totals: "For much of the war, the ratio of Communist to UN casualties stood somewhere between 20:1 and 14:1" (62)) and in which much of US elite and public opinion had endorsed the use of nuclear weapons in the war effort. The Communists, then, were no longer Indians to be slaughtered, but a different kind of foe. Thus "victory culture" became "bunker culture," and American policy became one of "containment" of the enemy.

But the central chapters of this book have to do with the transformation of the American consciousness in Vietnam, in which the enemy became "invisible" (as it perhaps was when General Westmoreland was promoting his miscalculations of Vietnamese "enemy strength") and in which the final stop for victory culture was ultimately President Richard Nixon’s "madman theory." As Engelhardt suggests, "the United States sometimes seemed to be not so much as war as on screen, for the singular focus of US policy makers came to be the preservation of the look of victory culture." (241) In a memo to Robert McNamara in 1965, the Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton suggests that Americans were in "South Vietnam" "70% To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)." (241) At such a point it was the beginning of the end for victory culture, for if the purpose of fighting becomes "what will the neighbors think?" then the abandonment of the material objectives of war-fighting is just a heartbeat away. As the author observes:

As for the policy makers, so for many Americans, the enemy, previously "faceless" yet substantial, was now dematerializing except in the context of a slaughter that looked like nothing more than that — evidence of a meatgrinder at work. To understand how victory culture was transformed into that meatgrinder, an obvious yet generally unacceptable fact must be grasped. It was Vietnamese unwillingness to stop fighting, politically as much as militarily, that proved crucial to the war story’s dissolution. The Vietnamese were, of course, intent on fighting a real enemy, not a societal state of mind. But it was a state of mind, a narrative, that Americans were intent on imposing on Vietnam, just as they were intent upon building an American landscape of PXs and air-conditioned offices, of ice cream production plants and airfields on Vietnamese soil. (213-214)

Thus the narrative of "Indian savagery" becomes reversed, and the Americans at that point started to looked like savages in their own eyes. This became especially "real" to the American psyche with the dramatization of the My Lai (4) massacre in 1969.

After having interrogated ’60s culture rather intensively, Engelhardt then skips to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which he interprets as an attempt to reconstitute victory culture in full. His verdict:

… the question of whether a revivified war story could reanchor victory culture in American consciousness seems settled, not because its elements, which run deep in our history, have ceased to exist, but because it has proved impossible to force out of consciousness the quarter-century of that story’s dissolution. Its boundaried and triumphant "innocence" cannot be "recalled" in the same way that the knowledge of the making of atomic weapons cannot be forgotten. (300-301)

Thus Engelhardt imagines W.’s later 2003 attempt to reconstruct victory culture by invading Iraq with US troops, as symbolized by his "Mission Accomplished" photo opportunity, as having crashed and burned. Nevertheless, the remarketing and repackaging of victory culture stumbles forward to this day:

It increasingly looks as if we are standing in the ruins of the Bush administration’s plans for the domination of the planet, possibly in the ruins of our political system, as well as in the ruins of a mytho-cultural world that can only be brought back so many times — and in the midst of a commercial maelstrom in which even the Internet wallpaper is screaming for attention. (332)

So, where, might we imagine, do Obama’s wars fit into the notion of victory culture?

As I see it, war appears to have lost its point. The Indians quietly demand their rights, the "Communists" were either co-opted or are demanding something we all desperately need right now. The Chinese, the last proclaimed "national opponent," own $1 trillion in US dollar-denominated assets. Yeah, the warmongers are really going to piss off the Chinese right now. The real world is governed by a transnational capitalist class, operating through organizations of global governance. The Muslim Brotherhood is an unsavory bunch to be sure — but somewhere in his term W. stopped caring about Osama bin Laden. Obama’s war against the Taliban appears to be self-propelling, and mainly an excuse to forward military careers. "American enemies" are at this point all inventions of the US government and its proxies. (If they really wanted to stop the "terrorists," as Loretta Napoleoni points out in her book Terror Incorporated, they’d at least try to cut off the hawala money. Don’t ya think?) And, yeah, they’re going to invade us. Uh-huh. What’s really happening, then, is that what W.’s Dad called the "New World Order" needs a disciplinary cudgel to keep the client nations in line, and that the US Armed Forces, with bases ’round the world and a budget as big as the rest of the world combined, is that cudgel. The cudgel continues not because of any victory culture, but because military careers depend upon its continued operation. Good ol’ Ellsberg, he of the Pentagon Papers (which are mentioned at length in this book), was last heard saying that Obama continues the wars because he fears a military revolt.

The fact that so many of the wars have to continue in secret (or with trivial amounts of publicity, e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) should tell you something. Here’s what I think it tells me: the activity of the US military no longer has anything to do with victory culture. There are no longer any "Indians" to abduct our women (or so we imagined), and none of the wars our taxes are buying promise us any "victory" in a world in which industrial technology (such as it is) is discovering increasingly onerous resource and environmental limitations. Thus the US government could probably scrap about 90% of its military, the government could give each of those thus unemployed a job doing sustainability work, and all would be better off for it.

Rather, US military culture keeps alive (and is kept alive by) our dependency upon fossil fuels (and thus an economy tied in with the global dominance of capital) in an era when we should be desperately looking for ways to stop using them altogether. Without any active social opposition, however, US military culture will continue until it (and its bigger twin, capitalist economic culture) exhausts the planet.

Tests: Garrison’s “A Measure Of Failure”

1:40 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

Book review: Garrison, Mark J. A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing. Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2009. 140 pages.

Essentially Garrison’s book critiques standardized testing in the public schools as a power trip — what type of power trip a particular test is for, Garrison argues, depends upon the standards which are erected and the purposes to which the final scores on the tests are used. It is argued, then, that standardized tests have had different purposes in different historical periods. The high-stakes testing regime of the No Child Left Behind Act (of the Bush administration) is argued to be destructive (in this regard) of public schooling in general.

(Crossposted at Orange)

Teacherken’s diary of yesterday over at Orange, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality put a pall on that entire day for me. (Please follow the link and read teacherken’s excellent diary if you haven’t already). The prognosis for our educational institutions is grim. Public school education has become test insanity; college education has become, in the words of David F. Labaree, "How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning." The point of Labaree’s book, with which I concur, is that the predominant purpose of college education today is to provide its graduates with a credential good for better prospects in the job market, regardless of what was learned or how meaningful or useful the learning itself really was. So it appears that our educational institutions are not primarily about the dissemination of learning, but most importantly about the ongoing status games being played with the lives of the learners, and secondarily about learning.

As an educator, and given my especial vulnerability as a scholar with degrees in the humanities, I am especially interested in the shape of our educational systems and in the purpose of the educational efforts to which I contribute. In this regard, the bankruptcy of the various states of the Union (& thus no hiring and budget cuts) is depressing enough as a reality with which I must contend; the reality of gradual privatization of schools and of their conversion into "learning for profit" systems is unsavory as well. One would hope that one’s efforts as a teacher would contribute to an improved society rather than to just another calculation of whose account balances will be fattened by my employment as an instructor. (Disclosure: in March I will be working for a for-profit, private university. Source of income, y’know.)

teacherken’s diary of yesterday was about Gerald Bracey’s book "Education Hell," though the sense of futility imposed upon schooling today has also been captured in a neat little volume dated to last year: Mark J. Garrison’s "A Measure of Failure." The latter book is what my diary of today will be about. Garrison’s premise is simple: standardized testing measures, for the most part, the ability to pass a test, and so standardized tests are mainly suited to the task of ranking students hierarchically by test score. They thus represent a tool for the justification of inequality through the ideology of meritocratic "fair competition" (p. 2).

To say that "the schools have failed," then, is not merely to criticize or discredit the schools, but to beg the question of what social function the schools have failed to perform. And to suggest a social function for the schools, I might add, begs the question of for whom the social function is performed. Thus NCLB:

Recent analyses claim that by 2014, the vast majority of public schools in the United States will be deemed failures by NCLB. This failure will shift control of education to for-profit educational management organizations, tutoring agencies, and test-prep companies and other commercial endeavors. (109)

Garrison’s short, narrowly-argued volume does not appear to have been updated for the Obama administration, which plans to grant a reprieve from the 2014 date, although to be fair the Obama administration appears to have made its specific intentions known quite recently. In this regard see teacherken’s critique of Race To The Top, with which I concur. (Also please do see in this regard the critique of achievement culture in the schools as discussed in detail here).

Thus the current bout of political class obsession with standardized testing, at least under Bush/ Spellings and quite likely under Obama/ Duncan (given the latter’s obsession with charter schools) is focused upon the gradual privatization of public education. And this aim, then, reflects upon the overall aim which Garrison attributes to Bush reform: "the current standards movement is part of a larger trend to eliminate representative democracy" (111). We might do well to ask Obama if he hopes to continue with the ultimate aims intended in Bush’s NCLB project.

At any rate, the bulk of Garrison’s text is concerned with establishing his thesis of what standardized testing is, and of how it developed historically. In discussing what standardized testing is (chapters 2, 3, and 4), Garrison largely debunks the notion that standardized tests measure anything but the ability to obtain a particular score on the test:

I argue that psychometry (here defined as the field of test design – Cassiodorus) fails to meet its claim of measurement and that its object is not the measurement of nonphysical human attributes, but the marking of some human beings as having more worth or value than other human beings, an act central to and part and parcel of the legitimacy of a particular kind of hierarchical social system known as capitalism, and in particular its political shell, representative democracy. (30)

His sections on the history of American public schooling (corresponding to chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the book) emphasize the idea that standardized testing arose with the rise of the capitalist system, and that in replacing the feudal hierarchy with its emphasis upon bloodlines it needed a new basis for the justification of hierarchy, to justify the public perception that some people were more deserving of privilege than others.

Garrison’s solution to the problem of NCLB (and of the system-wide collapse NCLB hoped to instigate so as to privatize the educational system) runs as follows:

There is a need for assessment in education to establish a new starting point, one predicated on the equal worth, dignity, and rights of human beings and human cultures. Those working to develop assessments in the service of education must vociferously reject the linking of academic prowess with notions of good or bad. The habit of talking of good students must be replaced with a culture in which the work of teachers, students, and the community as a whole is judged by teachers, students, and the community as a whole on the basis of whether this collective work is serving to prepare youth to solve the problems they and their society face. (112-113)

I find this to be a laudable ideal for educational assessors to pursue. Though of course deciding "what problems society faces" is itself a difficult venture. And getting a community of teachers and students to conclude that they are a "community" performing a "collective work" will not be a piece of cake either. Garrison continues, in greater specificity:

This is the basis on which assessments should take place, and in fact such a drive may underpin recent efforts toward alternative or authentic assessment, in particular those predicated on Gardner’s (1993) notion of multiple intelligences, which opens up space to recognize and value a broad range of human abilities and achievements. (113)

Given that under the conditions of very late capitalism our net worth (to those who run the show) approximates nearly zero, it’s easy to argue that Garrison’s recommendation follows an ideal appropriate as a remedy for the social ills of our time and place. His book, then, is a laudable, if narrowly-focused, effort.