Former Swarthmore educational studies professor Kevin Kumashiro returned to campus this past Monday to present his new book “The Seduction of Common Sense: How the Right has Framed the Debate on America’s Schools”. Kumashiro, founder of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education and an associate professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, spoke on the political right’s efficiency and effectiveness in passing conservative educational initiatives over more liberal mandates.
In a style reminiscent of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, Kumashiro wondered aloud how the right consistently persuades constituents to vote against their own interests when considering educational issues. His thesis: a wisely-constructed conservative rhetoric has made promotion of leftist agenda on any educational debate exceedingly difficult.
Kumashiro illustrated this argument with several examples of how Republican politicians were able to influence standards of testing movements, censorship of curriculum, district funding, and other crucial aspects of public education through a seduction of terminology. Conservatives have shaped the forum for debate in such a way that any right-aligned argument is seen as commonsensical or natural, as if “this and only this is what policy should be”. The right continuously bombards the public with this “just makes sense” message until it sinks into constituent consciousness.
Kumashiro went on to examine the politics of the “achievement gap”, stating that “the right has expressed a simplistic call to close the achievement gap to appear compassionate” while promoting a subversive agenda of power. The public sees a conservative movement that wishes to increase efficiency of funding and effectiveness of teaching in schools to bring up minority performance. What is not seen is the actual effect of conservative policy: the inherent inequalities of property tax funded education, horrible, base-line teaching to the test, and a basic ignorance of historical, civic, and moral aspects of the debate. Ultimately, Kumashiro claims that the right aims to “put the blame on the individual rather than the overall infrastructure”, turning the issue into a politically useful tool to refute claims of structural racism.
How to combat such an aggressive and subversive strategy? Reframe the debate in terms of civil rights. In his book, Kumashiro asks Democrats to reconstruct the debate in an anti-oppressive framing. “Staying in the language of the right makes winning any debate impossible, the Left must realize three main points [outlined in the book]: 1) The right way is the wrong way. 2) However, the right has been strategic. And most importantly, 3) It is not too late for the left to act.”
Kumashiro’s proposal seemed common sense until a few practical questions from the audience revealed holes in the integral fabric of the argument. “What of oppressed communities,” asked one Swarthmore student, “will another elitist promise of trickle-down emancipation really be enough to begin a strong movement of change?” Kumashiro acknowledged the difficulty but largely avoided the question, vaguely stating that oppressed communities would be involved in the inherently-elitist “reframe the debate” action. Along the same lines, another education major wondered if “out-righting the right was really the way to go?” Kumashiro, again, largely avoided answering the query.
While his work has certainly revealed an important aspect of how education mandates are sorted out politically, Kumashiro himself acknowledged that several questions remained in the approach to reframing the debate entirely.