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Where Do I Fit In? Adrift in Neoliberal Educational Anti-Culture

by Jim Burns - April 26, 2016

After reflecting on a recent collaborative research effort, the author of this commentary asks two questions: "Where do I fit in?" and "Where do I find hope?" He suggests that fitting in, in the context of neoliberal educational anti-culture, may actually be a non-place of restive work in techno-rationalized education institutions.

True culture supports its people; it doesnt destroy them.

Delpit, 2012, p. 7

I recently attended the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators with a group of colleagues where we were presented with the ATEs 2016 Distinguished Research in Teacher Education Award. Our work offers insights into serious issues confronting teacher education (see Stremmel, Burns, Nganga, & Bertolini, 2015), suggestions for re-envisioning teacher education to meet those challenges, and an invitation for teacher educators to engage in critical dialogue to resist and subvert the oppressive audit culture described by Peter Taubman (2009) in Teaching by Numbers. We conclude that the war on public K12 and higher education through what Michael Apple (2001) calls conservative modernization, an amalgam of neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, authoritarian populism, and technocratic systems management is destroying teacher education and education more broadly across the world by exporting that toxic ideology.

Thinking back on this work with my colleagues, I am most struck by the new questions that emerge from that difficult emotional labor. Although I no longer work at the same institution as my collaborators, we speak often and as we continue to think about the issues identified in our initial paper, two questions that re-emerge in every conversation include: Where do I fit in? and Where do I find hope? I wonder daily about how I can maintain my integrity while working in corporatized educational institutions that have largely sold themselves on an anti-political anti-culture enthralled with marketization, business analytics, big data, and corporate systems management. Those institutional practices fundamentally contradict my ethics, beliefs, and understanding of education as a way of being and becoming. I wonder about my place in a profession in which teacher education programs, long under attack by anti-intellectual politicians, technocrats, and a billionaire boys club of philanthrocapitalists (Ravitch, 2010) increasingly structure themselves to meet the data management demands of accreditors rather than the needs of the students and communities they serve. Teacher education has become enmeshed in what Taubman characterizes as an abusive relationship engaged in a futile struggle to prove ourselves worthy to our abusers on terms they have set for us. I am also deeply concerned about the descent of teacher education, and by association K12 education, into the replication of instrumental, discrete, predetermined, and measurable performance outcomes.

The ethos of techno-rationalization on which conservative modernization is predicated has increasingly essentialized teacher education as the accumulation of auditable and decontextualized skills and an obsession with strategies, assessment, and data management. This essentialization reduces teaching and learning to the manipulation of data points, or as Taubman (2000) calls fantasy figures, formerly known as children and teacher candidates. I often despair when I hear many colleagues excitedly extoll the virtues of new data collection and analytics infrastructures that drill down into the most minute measures of childrens and teachers performance. Even more tragic are those who know such impoverished forms of teaching to be empirically worthless and ethically wrong but say nothing. It is a sterile vision of teaching as doing rather than teaching as an abundantly messy, evolutionary, and subjective struggle of being and becoming as reflected in the scholarship of Deborah Britzman (1992).

Thinking about Delpits conceptualization of culture, contextualized in her critique of Ruby Paynes culture of poverty discourse, I use the term anti-culture to indicate that the institutional practices and power relations inherent in the corporatized education-industrial complex represent nothing less than a curriculum of social, ecological, political, and cultural death. I wonder where I fit into a profession that has become complicit in its own deprofessionalization and self-destruction.

This curriculum of death is embedded not only in education but also nearly every sociopolitical sphere: environmental degradation, militarized state violence, the criminal injustice system, growing economic and political inequality, the folly of empire, the list goes on. Certainly the fundamental purposes and philosophies of education have always been highly contested, and their aims defined by those exercising social and political power during any particular historic era. What appears new in the context of neoliberal hegemony is the staggering upward redistribution of all forms of wealth, accumulated by very few through dispossessing so many more and the concomitant upward redistribution of power in the corporate state. Through my work with colleagues, I have developed a much deeper appreciation of the connectedness between issues of educational justice and courageous activism throughout the world in pursuit of racial justice, justice for immigrants, economic justice, voting rights, environmental justice, justice for Indigenous Peoples, the rights of women, justice for LGBTQ communities, ending warfare, stopping police violence, and reversing the militarization of society.

Where do I find hope? I must admit that seeing hope can be difficult in a dystopian neoliberal world in which crises are created and manipulated to maintain cynicism and cultivate fear, where violence and dysfunction are commodified and marketed as entertainment, or worse as legitimate political discourse. In addition, as Connell asserts, corporate masculinity has been institutionalized as a callousness towards poverty and social distress (2012, p. 14). I see hope in principled, ethical resistance in places like the University of Missouri; in the Black Lives Matter movement; in those who struggle for justice in places like Flint, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation; and in the worldwide struggles for the rights of women, children, LGBTQ people, Indigenous communities, and for environmental and economic justice. I find educated hope in the historicized subjective struggle to understand myself in the world through my academic study and bearing witness to that which I have learned, what Pinar describes as the complicated conversation (2012).

Where do I fit in? In attempting to find that place, I return to Apples (2013, pp. 4144) list of responsibilities of critical activist scholars:


Bear witness to exploitation and domination and highlight struggles against them,


Point out contradictions and spaces of possible action,


Broaden what counts as research,


Reconstruct elite knowledge to serve progressive social needs,


Keep multiple traditions of radical and progressive work alive,


Critique those traditions when they are inadequate to deal with current realities,


Act in concert with social movements,


Embody what it means to be both an excellent researcher and a committed member of society, and


Use the privilege one has as a scholar to open spaces at universities and elsewhere for those who are not there or do not yet have a voice in educational and other social institutions.

I suppose fitting in is intertwined with feeling a sense of educated hope, joining with others, embracing an interconnected journey to rethink the world differently, and finding joy in the struggle toward justice as the late Dennis Carlson (2002) wrote. Working toward an unknowable future in ethically and intellectually bankrupt institutions that privilege narrowly defined intelligence through the hubris of data and technological rationalization is difficult and dangerous work. Of dying institutions, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Institutions, to extend their lives when confronted with collapse, will swiftly betray the stances that ostensibly define them. Only individual men and women have the strength to hold fast to virtue when faced with the threat of death. And decaying institutions, including the church, when consumed by fear, swiftly push those endowed with this moral courage and radicalism from their ranks, rendering themselves obsolete. (as cited in Hedges, 2016)

The anxious mood associated with existential death and a critical historical consciousness through which to engage with ones past, present, and imagined future reveals possibilities for authentic being and becoming as suggested by Heidegger (1962). Therefore, fitting in may be a non-fixed place of resistance and subversion. In the spirit of Foucaults theorization of governmentality, fitting in may require working in a restive manner within a system of governmentality in pursuit of the strategic reversibility of institutional practices and power relations. Foucault concludes that working within a governmental system implies neither subjection nor global acceptance. One can simultaneously work and be restive. I even think that the two go together (as cited in Gordon, 1991, p. 46).

In that restiveness, I find my non-place of hope.


Apple, M. (2001). Educating the right way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Apple, M. (2013). Can education change society? New York, NY: Routledge.

Britzman, D. (1992). The terrible problem of knowing thyself: Toward a poststructural account of teacher identity. JCT, 9(3), 2346.

Carlson, D. (2002). Leaving safe harbors: Toward a new progressivism in American education and public life. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Connell, R. (2012). Masculinity research and global change. Masculinities and Social Change, 1(1), 1418.

Delpit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for white people: Raising expectations for other peoples children. New York, NY: The New Press.

Gordon, C. (1991). Governmental rationality: An introduction. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, (pp. 151). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hedges, C. (2016, January 25). The suicide of the liberal church. Common Dreams. Retrieved from http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/01/25/suicide-liberal-church

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Pinar, W. (2012). What is curriculum theory? New York, NY: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Stremmel, A., Burns, J., Nganga, C., & Bertolini, K. (2015). Countering the essentialized discourse of teacher education. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 36(2), 156174.

Taubman, P. (2000). Teaching without hope: What is really at stake in the standards movement, high stakes testing, and the drive for practical reforms. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 16(3), 1933.

Taubman, P. (2009). Teaching by numbers: Deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 26, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20275, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 4:23:22 AM

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