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Jessica Hamlin: "Neoliberalism and Education"

An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.

Text by Jessica Hamlin

Dirty Words
Before it became sexy in the art world, the common reaction to a word like “pedagogy” in certain circles was a shudder or wide-eyed terror. Saying you were a teacher simultaneously raised eyebrows and invoked pity. Academia was okay, but public education was unfathomable, disconcerting. Although artists have always taught, and teaching has always been a creative act, Joseph Jacotot as Jacques Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster” opened a new conversation linking teaching and new possibilities for cultural practice.1 Along with a revitalized interest in community activism and progressive educators including Paolo Freire, bell hooks, and others, what started with convivial relational aesthetics begat socially engaged art begat artistic activism and the educational turn, which riffed on the symbolic forms and functions of educational practices.

The work of artists described under the moniker “the educational turn” reflects the possibilities for positioning knowledge production as an artistic gesture. Reframing common modes of learning such as tours, lectures, and conferences, artists spun formal educational tropes into opportunities to work with new publics both inside and outside of gallery and museum walls. New models for school structures and opportunities for knowledge sharing often left the galleries and museums entirely and became part of a trend to enter the more complicated space of “community.” These projects were often conceived as a means of deconstructing and reimagining traditional educational models reproduced in classrooms, cultural institutions, and in the training of the artist: the ever controversial art school. This spirit of pedagogical experimentation has been inspiring to see against the backdrop of top-down, assessment-driven formal public education, but there are several critiques of the pedagogical turn worth mentioning in order to connect back to the deeper shit we’re in today as we consider the imminent dismantling of all kinds of social and economic infrastructures, and more specifically public education as we know it.

One critique of the pedagogical turn focuses on the sidestepping of existing educational systems within cultural institutions and communities. As curators and artists placed socially engaged, pedagogically minded work in the galleries, the work being done with teachers, students, and public audiences through existing and deeply established education departments and local community organizations was largely ignored. Artists appropriated the forms and functions of education and became the new pioneers and experts, while formalized education programs were expected to continue serving a reproductive function that ostensibly promoted and marketed the cultural objects and values asserted by institutional collections and curatorial exhibitions. By extension, larger strategic and infrastructural questions around the critical or pedagogical function of the institution itself were conveniently avoided, even while it could reap the symbolic capital created when associated with audience-oriented, participatory, pedagogical artwork. These projects inadvertently reinforced parallel but unequal systems functioning in isolation from each other—the hierarchies between curatorial and education, artist and teacher, cultural producer and consumer.

Another critique—largely articulated by Claire Bishop—centers around the instrumentalization of the artistic gesture as a substitution for the responsibilities of the state. If artists do the work of the state (i.e., social work, education, urban planning), the state does not need to do the work. Instead of holding civic structures accountable for the provision of effective services and equal access across public sectors, a short-term fix fills holes with fingers rather than real brick and mortar. Artists provide an alternative network of social-service work, audience outreach, and labor organizing, but only within short-term relationship building, and often with no plans for long-term sustainability or structural critique to demand accountability. This question of how we can protest the state and build relevance and urgency for artistic practice without alleviating the state of its responsibilities will take on a more pointed and urgent context in the face of the coming oligarchy.

Knowledge and Power
Because knowledge is power, schools are on the front lines of the ideological battles that continue to roil this country. There are very high and very real stakes for public education in the messy, overbearing, poorly lit places we call public schools. This is not a new fight but it has new, more shrill, and more powerful players at the table. Betsy DeVos, married to the heir of the Amway fortune and founder of Art Prize in Grand Rapids, MI, will serve as the next secretary of education and will lead the charge for a corporate takeover of public schools and the gutting of publicly funded education as we know it. In Michigan, Devos has poured millions of dollars into passing laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private-school tuition, including the use of vouchers and the expansion of charter schools. Using the semantics of “school choice” and “educational freedom,” the ongoing war against public schools, teachers, and their unions, and by extension the poor and working class, will be refined and amplified by a business class invested in corporate competition and trickle-down economics. Speaking at The Gathering, an annual meeting of wealthy Christians in 2001, Devos stated, “Having grown up in families that are in the business world, we believe that competition and choice make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevailed in the US today had more competition, if there were other choices for people to make freely, that all schools would be better as a result.”2

Privatization and Labor
Privatization will rout the infrastructures of neighborhood- and community-based institutions in favor of business models driven by competition, efficiency, profit margins, and better branding. More broadly, education and the knowledge it reproduces will prioritize corporate interests over democratic or even civic ones—producing skilled labor for a stratified workforce in the global economy instead of an active, questioning citizenry. The site of the school as a pedagogical space as well as a civic space where community members invest not only in the interests of their children and future generations, but also connect with each other via community concerns and efforts, will be all but eliminated. Of course these dire predictions will largely affect the urban poor, who have been forced to accept unacceptable education for years and deserve not only choice but transformative education that acknowledges their histories and realities, and builds individual and collective capacities to be agents of social, cultural, economic, and political change.

Within socially engaged practices there are new models for creative knowledge sharing, activist networks, and solidarity economies. I am hopeful that these structures offer new models for resistance against state-sanctioned privatization, as well as point the way towards new transformative models of education that work in solidarity with communities and not in order to profit from them. Public schools must be cultivated and nurtured to serve as civic spaces where students and adults converge across political, economic, racial, ethnic, and most importantly, ideological lines. These spaces will rapidly disappear as the rafts of neoliberal capital wash up on their shores, and yet, this is where we have some hope of providing coming generations with the critical capacities and creative tools to foster a more just, inclusive, and democratic national discourse, to learn and unlearn with empathy and solidarity.

Building from the pedagogical turn and learning from its practices and problematics, perhaps we can find ways to resist neoliberal efforts to dismantle public education and build new pedagogical infrastructures and practices in solidarity with communities.

● If social practice art largely rejects the commercial market, what can we learn in order to counter the corporatization of public education?

● If the educational turn in artistic practice called attention to the “straight-jacket of conformity”3 demanded by institutionalized education, where are the points of entry to dismantle the mass production of education as a form of labor division in an already divided nation?

● If social practice art has become implicated in covering for government responsibility, how can art and education for the public good be repositioned as a means of reconceiving citizenship, civic participation, and solidarity across racial, economic, gender, religious, sexual, and ethnic difference?

As the cultural elite, our privilege is defined in spaces like this, where we can gather and look outside our boundaries. But the spaces of academia and culture also reproduce the networks that affirm the “us vs. them” mentality felt in the larger political and social context of this election and its results. Education is under siege, as it always has been, but there is a new political landscape and urgency to the work of keeping education public, democratic, and critical. Knowledge is power and public education will shape the outlines of our future country.

● Who will choose to engage directly with the difficult and messy spaces of public education not as sites of privation and need, but possibility and deep expertise?

● Who will speak up and how will we advocate for teachers when they are further demonized and automated?

● How will we organize ourselves in solidarity with educators, students, parents, and community members to construct cross-disciplinary networks that amplify counter-messages and practices that speak to civic engagement and connection across difference?

● What new forms of community and solidarity can we produce by leveraging schools as public sites with porous borders that serve as spaces for exchange and discourse, service networks, and collective dreaming and action?


1 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).
2 Benjamin Wermund, “Trump’s education pick says reform can ‘advance God’s Kingdom,’” Politico, December 12, 2016 .
3 Claire Bishop, “The New Masters of Liberal Arts: Artists Rewrite the Rules of Pedagogy,” in Education, ed. Felicity Allen (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2011), 197–201.

Image via startclass.com.

This is a helpful and excellent piece. Thank you for writing it.

As an educator who has worked closely with public school teachers, I agree with Jess’s critique of social practice methods that have side stepped the real issues of public education. Perhaps social practice artists are not concerned with the devastation to our public education systems. I agree with Jess that as artists and educators we need to work closely with teachers in the system to ensure that they are not isolated from conversations, and that they are empowered in their own practices through diverse strategies for resisting the neoliberal agenda. It seems to me that the strategies teachers have been using for resistance in the classroom have gone largely un-noticed by artists adopting pedagogical approaches. Artists might look more seriously at how teachers are using micro-political strategies each day in the classrooms to avert the accountability gaze (Webb, 2009). What can artists learn from teachers?

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