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New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Educating for War No More

May 23, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Economy, Harry Targ, Politics

Resisting Militarism in Our Schools

by Harry Targ

I have been thinking a lot lately about “ideological hegemony” — how and why we think about the political world in the ways we do. I do so not to add another layer of theory to an already complex set of arguments about economics and politics. Nor am I interested in immobilizing political activists. Rather, I think progressives need to think about how to challenge the ideas that most of us are supposed to accept and believe.

Of course, the primary public institutions that transmit ideas and ways of thinking to people, from the start to the end of their educational careers, are schools. Our friends on the Right know how important it is to shape schools at all levels. Early in this century I remember hearing Rush Limbaugh say on one of his radio programs that “the only institutions we do not yet control are the schools.” With this as a goal, just the other day we read stories about Koch brothers’ money financing faculty positions at Florida State University in economics (presumably Marxist or structural economists need not apply).

Just a week earlier a story broke about rightwing efforts to cut and splice public recordings of lectures in a labor studies class at the University of Missouri to leave the impression that the instructors are advocates for labor violence. Using the methods of vilification and distortions that worked successfully against green jobs advocate Van Jones, community action group ACORN, and Shirley Sherrod (an African American employee of the Department of Agriculture), attacks on education are growing.

The use of more sophisticated technologies than in the days of McCarthy or David Horowitz’s print crusades against “dangerous professors” are becoming common. In addition to smear campaigns and using money to shape hiring practices at universities, access to varieties of knowledge remains very much constrained by institutional and political pressures, from kindergarten through high school and college.

For example, we can talk about two subject areas, militarism and economic orthodoxy. Both subjects were prominently featured at an elementary school, Mayflower Mill Elementary School in Lafayette, Indiana. As the local newspaper, the Journal & Courier reported approvingly on May 12, 2011: “When Mayflower Mill Elementary students were told they would be able to hear the approaching helicopter that would land behind the school before they saw it, their ears perked up.”

Although the noise they first heard was only a delivery truck, soon a Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter which was used in Vietnam, and piloted by a group of veterans, arrived. The pilots were part of an organization committed to maintaining a positive public image of the helicopter. The helicopter and its veteran pilots spent the day at the elementary school, called by the school “Operation American Pride.” As the local paper noted: “After Wednesday’s landing, students broke into groups … including lessons on flag etiquette and the life of the soldier.” Kids got to go in the helicopter, sit behind a Humvee, and in a military truck.

The whole day was a celebration of the military, military values, and super-patriotism. One student referred to experiencing the helicopter as “cool” and “exhilarating.” Organizing the day’s activities took the combined efforts of members of military families, community donations, support from the Army National Guard, and members of Purdue University’s ROTC program. Of course, the activities required the full cooperation of teachers, the principal, and members of the school board.

I wonder what would have happened if a parent or brave teacher had proposed that “Operation American Pride” include an historical discussion of the millions of Vietnamese people who died in the U.S. war in that country; or perhaps, if course material include reference to the 57,000 American soldiers who died in the war or the lingering effects of Agent Orange on subsequent generations of Vietnamese and U.S. veterans.

In addition, the local paper reported on May 16 that fourth and fifth graders at the same school recently completed a class project simulating commerce and manufacturing. Students designed and sold products to their schoolmates, and the money earned went to recognized charities such as the American Heart Association and the local fire department. Kids produced “slime,” decorated pencils, and chocolate-coated plastic spoons. Students designed their products, shopped for supplies, and produced and sold them. The teacher, it was reported, has done a similar project every year because she said about students that “they need to understand finance.”

The newspaper reported that the project was supported by long-time economics education lobbyist and think tank, the Indiana Center for Economic Education. An ICEE spokesperson, who offered a program that the teacher had taken years ago, spoke about the lessons kids learned: “The basics of operating their own business, the fact you’ve got to produce a product customers want and counter the cost of resources you need.” The spokesperson claimed the exercises such as at Mayflower Mill highlight real issues which sometimes get lost in teaching more dominant subjects.

I wonder if students learned anything about the historic role of organized labor in the state, high unemployment in Indiana, growing economic inequality, the forty-year deindustrialization of the state economy, and the differences in economic opportunity between African Americans, other minorities, and whites, and between men and women.

Almost accidentally, I accessed stories about political struggles from 2004 until today at my old school, Senn High School, in Chicago. It seems that the high school which over forty years ago was white and middle class was now populated by young people from working class and poor African American, Latino, and immigrant families. By the new century it was experiencing problems in reference to academics and social order.

The authorities, the City alderwoman, the head of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, Mayor Daley, and the military came up with a “great” idea. They created in 2005, over the objections of students, teachers, and community activists, the Hyman Rickover Naval Academy which occupies a large physical space in the high school and has enrolled at least 25 per cent of the student population. Meanwhile programs to teach English as a second language and advanced placement courses for college preparation were reduced. The teaching staff in the non-military portion of Senn High School was cut by 33 per cent.

Organizations such as CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) continue to challenge the militarization of the Chicago school system. In our communities we need to work in solidarity with those immediately involved in educational institutions. Where issues of militarism and economic orthodoxy shape school curricula, our voices need to be heard. Our political agenda, in sum, needs to address, as best our resources allow, what we learn, how we learn it, and who controls the institutions that shape our thinking and the thinking of young people.

Harry Targ teaches foreign policy, US/Latin American relations, international political economy, and topics on labor studies in a Department of Political Science and a program in Peace Studies. He is a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), the Northwest Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO), and the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition (LAPC). He regularly blogs at: Diary of a Heartland Radical.

2 Comments to “Educating for War No More”


  1. It is important to note that ‘schooling’ and ‘teaching’ have always been associated with ‘training’ and ‘instruction’. The first state schools were set up in Prussia, and were conceived as centres for military training, with a school uniform that was a military uniform. More recently, in Greece at the time of the military junta, the school children wore military uniforms. Within this context, schools are seen as institutions of indoctrination.
    On the other hand, once you regard schools as centres for learning and education and opportunity where young people learn to investigate and criticise and discover, then militarism and obedience cease to be important.
    If it is too difficult to consider schools and colleges as centres of experiment and problem solving, it becomes necessary to promote education and learning in the home, the community centre, the street corner, the farm and field: as Illich stated, ‘the deschooling’ of society.
    I will admit that this topic is not helped by the ambiquity of the language. But it is always important, first, to ask people what they understand by ‘education’.
    If it is to do with qualifications and exams, then instruction and training and rote learning and obedience is top of their priorities. When they talk about discovery, then they are looking for experiment and relevance and learning. Today, this can mean ‘on-line’ learning wherever the PC/laptop is to be found.
    The debates about ‘education’ go on and on. What is undeniable is that those who pay, whether family, church, corporation, or government get to say what is done!
    I am convinced that the most effective centre of learning is the family. What is debatable is what goes on in schools.

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  2. Brave Teacher says:

    With all due respect, Mr. Targ, as an organizer of the convocation you spoke so tritely about, I am disappointed that my research on your background suggests you’re of the socialist (read communist) mindset.

    First of all, it wouldn’t take a parent or “brave teacher” to have suggested “an historical discussion of the millions of Vietnamese people who died in the U.S. war in that country” or “the lingering effects of Agent Orange on subsequent generations of Vietnamese and U.S. veterans.” as if to insinuate that the teachers must all keep quiet and are brainwashed.

    There was a reason the content presented was selected. Perhaps you missed in the article that these are ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN. That means their ages range from 5-10 years old, approximately. I’m not sure what content you think could have been historically discussed and more importantly absorbed and retained from the content you so tritely suggested.

    As an organizer of the convocation, I felt it was much more important to enstill pride and respect for this country in our children; to teach them that there is a reason we say the Pledge of Allegiance and how we’re supposed to act when we say it; to teach them that it isn’t easy to be a solider but yet our servicemembers are so very important to our country; to teach them that the freedoms we so readily enjoy are only made possible by the men and women who have gone before us.

    I could be upset about your comments, but I considered the source so it didn’t bother me at all!

    …OH, and by the way, you can thank a soldier you have the freedom to share your viewpoint. If you think America is so messed up, you’re welcome to go elsewhere and I know many service members who would be glad to help you go.

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