Review of Kevin Kumashiro’s “The Seduction of Common Sense: How the Right Has Framed the Debate on America’s Schools”

“Common sense does not tell us that this is what schools could be doing; it tells us that this and only this is what schools should be doing.” In The Seduction of Common Sense: How the Right Has Framed the Debate on America’s Schools, Kevin Kumashiro takes on the monumental task of denaturalizing and interrogating the hegemonic assumptions surrounding issues of public education, social class, gender and sexuality, and race in American society. According to Kumashiro, the “Right” has been successful in its efforts to maintain the status quo and undermine progress through an appropriation and manipulation of certain frames about traditional values, safety, innocence, equality, etc. It is the eternal task of the beleaguered and underdog “Left” to expose these frames as vacuous, power-serving distortions of reality, and presumably replace them with their own disinterested, objectively accurate frames. The “Right” is conveniently defined as those interests and organizations fighting to maintain the status quo, whereas the “Left,” inevitably, is defined as those advocating for change in the form of social and economic justice and equality. These facile caricatures of the Right and Left are the greatest weaknesses of Kumashiro’s analysis and serve to undermine what would otherwise be an interesting and thoughtful examination of the ways in which power manufactures truth in order to serve its own interests.

The entire framework of Kumashiro’s argument rests on the foundation that there exists an eternal struggle, almost cosmic in nature, between two diametrically opposed groups, what he labels the “Right” and the “Left,” for the hearts and minds of the people. At the current historical juncture, the “Right,” by virtue of its organization, resources and vision, is winning the fight. To be fair, Kumashiro does grant the Right some complexity; he is not trying to portray the Right as a monolithic devoid of any diversity or substructure. However, the mosaic of the Right he does offer is unsophisticated and severely limited at best. Kumashiro cites Kathleen deMarrais’s delineation of the Right into several subgroups: “the Christian Right, conservative internationalists, the conservative mainstream, libertarians, militant anticommunists, national security militarists, neoconservatives, the new Right, the old-guard Right, paleoconservatives, and social conservatives.” This may indeed be a comprehensive list of the various brands and flavors of the Right in American society; however, the “Right” Kumashiro goes on to talk about in his analysis of the economic, social and cultural frames influencing education policy bears little resemblance to the majority of these groups, and is in fact simply a misnomer for powerful political-corporate interests. The clearest example of this is the complicity of the Democratic party, and a majority of traditionally mainstream liberal or leftist organizations in the preservation of the status quo and the fight against progress and change.

Kumashiro’s fallacy is evident from the first chapter where he identifies five “current initiatives to undermine public education.” The first of these initiatives are tax cuts and privatization, or more specifically “reducing the amount of taxes that the government collects and redistributes in the form of public services (cutting taxes), and restructuring whatever services are being provided into a market-like industry (privatizing).” Such privatization often manifests itself in the form of outsourcing or “the hiring of private companies to provide services and goods.” Since the time of the Reagan administration, the outsourcing of traditionally governmental services to the private sector has accelerated and expanded. This insidious trend has not stopped or even slowed under the Democratic administrations of Clinton and now Obama. Over the past thirty years, politicians aligned with business/corporate interests have worked tirelessly to diminish the public sphere and dismantle essential social services in the name of privatization. From trash collection and parcel services to health care, education and the military, privatization has wreaked havoc on the social contract and placed profits over the basic needs of people, but it has not been the Right at the heart of this onslaught. Rather, it has been those in power, whether on the Right or the Left, and the capital interests they serve.

In his discussion of privatization, Kumashiro identifies two particular education initiatives which he associates with the Right, vouchers and charter schools. According to Kumashiro, charter schools “look more like private schools than public schools, with outsourced management, corporate funding, selective enrollments, and even religious bases.” They, along with vouchers, are another front in the battle to privatize public education. However, Kumashiro acknowledges that some Leftist groups support charter schools and voucher programs for their potential to “affirm cultural differences and strengthen communities,” as well as localize decision making. In other words, Rightist groups support charter schools and vouchers because they align with their eternal goal of dismantling the public sector while increasing corporate profits, but Leftist groups only support these initiatives for the purposes of cultural preservation and community control. This is an all too convenient analysis, and one which does not hold to scrutiny. The Seduction of Common Sense was published in 2008, right before Barack Obama took office. If Kumashiro were writing this book in 2010, he would have to account for the fact that the Obama administration, along with many organizations on the Left, is pushing heavily for the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs under the pretense that they do more with less money. The argument made by people like Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, is that traditional public schools are failing America’s youth. These ardent reformers point to declining standardized test scores in low-income urban communities and elsewhere as proof that the status quo is not working. Of course, questions are never raised about the root causes of this regression: poverty, limited access to healthcare, malnutrition, incarceration, etc. because fixing the problem is not the goal of these liberal reformers. Rather, the goal is to pave the way for the continuous march of privatization in the name of corporate profit making.

Moving away from initiatives undermining public education, Kumashiro begins his analysis of the power of frames with a discussion of “traditional” family and core values and how this particular frame has been appropriated and manipulated by the Right. Here, Kumashiro’s argument is weakened further by his association of the Right with the Republican party. He discusses the “strict-father” family model and defines it as “one in which the father is the leader of the family, knows right from wrong, protects his family from the dangers outside, but does not dote on his children…” In Kumashiro’s view, the Right, particularly Republicans, have adopted this model and “metaphorically” framed its issues around it. For example, just as the father is the leader of the family, so too is the United States the leader of the world family and, like the father, the U.S. knows what is best for the family. This metaphor conveniently justifies U.S. imperialism and corporate expansionism. The United States protects itself and its family with a strong military, expensive weapons systems, and implements economic protectionism in the form of import tariffs and subsidized exports. Domestically, the U.S. protects its citizens with a robust prison system (the largest in the world) and tough sentencing, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses which account for one quarter of those currently incarcerated (roughly 500,000 people). Like the strict-father, the U.S. government does not dote on its citizens with social welfare programs like single-payer healthcare and universal state pensions, the trappings of a “nanny state.” With respect to civil rights issues like same-sex marriage, the strict-father model denies equal rights to all human beings out of a visceral fear that the traditional family would somehow be undermined. In the realm of education, the strict-father pushes standardization and accountability in the form of adequate yearly progress for school districts and merit pay for teachers. All of these, Kumashiro argues, are Republican issues and policies, but how do these differ from the issues and policies of Democrats? Democrats support continued U.S. imperialism (Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan for example). Democrats have no intention of reducing the bloated Pentagon budget or cutting military spending, nor do they have any interest in implementing fair trade policies. Democrats are not reforming drug laws to decriminalize usage and possession, or attempting to scale back the massive, tax gorging prison system, and Democrats have not made any meaningful steps towards granting equal rights to LGBT citizens. How, then, is the strict-father frame strictly a Right, Republican frame?

In his subsequent discussion of neoliberalism, Kumashiro recovers somewhat from his previous lapse in critical analysis. Here, he recognizes that both Republicans, the mainstream Right, and Democrats, the mainstream Left, are complicit in the myth of the “free market” and universal prosperity through deficit reduction, privatization, deregulation, reductions in corporate tax, etc. In Kumashiro’s own words, “the ‘Washington Consensus’ became so taken-for-granted that although the U.S. presidency and Congress have since shifted back and forth between being controlled by Republicans and Democrats, U.S. economic policy throughout has remained firmly within neoliberal ideology.” Kumashiro notes that, on the surface, neoliberalism appeals to notions of equality and freedom with its emphasis on personal responsibility, and its equation of hard work with success and prosperity, but he fails to expose the utter hypocrisy behind this appeal. Neoliberalism operates to undermine freedom and democracy by concentrating capital into smaller and smaller segments of society while diminishing the public sphere and transferring decision making to within unaccountable private tyrannies (corporations).  Privatization is a potent weapon in the neoliberal’s arsenal. Within education, current reform efforts emphasize an increase in school vouchers and public-private partnership schools. Both of which are designed to use public tax dollars to subsidize the profits of private educational institutions, thereby undermining public education while enriching the private sector. According to the neoliberal philosophy, public services like education and social welfare programs are burdens to the economy and barriers to the accumulation and consolidation of capital. This system, of course, is inherently unequal and undemocratic, however, as Kumashiro notes, frames are often successful enough in their duplicity to portray themselves as opposite of what they truly are.

From frames about “traditional” family and core values, Kumashiro moves on to a discussion of the appropriation of frames about “safety.” Specifically, the safety of LGBTQ students in schools, which “has become the focal point of initiatives on policy, research, funding, training, and student organizing…among the most visible organizations on the Left.” In this area, Kumashiro is critical of the Left and their focus on safety with respect to LGBTQ issues. He cites several drawbacks to this approach. First, the frame of safety focuses attention on homophobia and fails to interrogate the normalization of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is left unexamined as a culturally constructed phenomenon which relies on the marginalization of non-heterosexuals to justify its own correctness and moral superiority. In this way, heterosexuality is naturalized and homosexuality denaturalized. Second, “the focus on safety can be interpreted as advancing assimilation…” In other words, there would be no attacks on LGBTQ students if there were no LGBTQ students in the first place, or if those students were less flagrant about their gender-nonconformity. This is also a way of placing blame on the victim for inviting the abuse through “antagonistic” behavior. Finally, the Right has played on the notion that the abuse of LGBTQ students, or those suffering from “same-sex attraction,” keeps them in their “bondage to sin” by exacerbating their feelings of inadequacy. To abuse or bully LGBTQ youth is to prevent them from overcoming these feelings of inadequacy and recognizing the wrongness and immorality of their lifestyle. For all of these reasons, Kumashiro is right to be critical of the Left’s appropriation of frames about safety with respect to LGBTQ issues. However, as throughout most of his analysis, Kumashiro is unclear about who exactly the “Left” and “Right” are here. Presumably, the “Right” is the evangelical Christian Right and its spokespeople in government, and the “Left” is all of those organizations working to combat abuses against LGBTQ citizens, however, this is never explicitly stated.

Throughout his analysis of the hegemonic assumptions surrounding issues of public education, social class, gender and sexuality, and race in American society, Kumashiro fails to accurately define the “Left” and “Right.” In his introduction, Kumashiro posits that the “Left” is that which fights for progress and positive social change, whereas the “Right” is that which fights to maintain the status quo. These definitions are far too convenient and fail to place these terms within the context of the complex historical, socio-political landscape from which they grew. Stalinists fought to maintain the status quo in Soviet Russia, just as Libertarians in the United States fought for the expansion of individuals’ civil liberties. It is as though Kumashiro intentionally “reframed” the traditional Right/Left dichotomy to advance his own agenda. This is the greatest weakness of what would otherwise be a thoughtful examination of the ways in which power frames debates and manufactures consent. For it is power that Kumashiro refers to when he talks about the “Right,” and the disempowered when speaking of the “Left.” This is the reason the “Right” has been so successful in its campaign to undermine freedom and democracy; the “Right” has all the power in the form of capital, resources, media, etc. because it is power, and the survival of power depends, above all else, on the maintenance of the status quo and the suppression of progress.

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About josephdmoore

I am currently teaching English at a small private school in Samut Sakhon, Thailand. Prior to coming to Thailand, I substitute taught in several urban school districts in Northern and Central New Jersey. I also worked part-time as an SAT instructor for The Princeton Review. In 2010, I received a Master of Arts degree in teaching from The College of New Jersey where I specialized in teaching English literature and writing at the secondary level. In 2008, I finished a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. My hobbies include traveling to remote parts of the world, reading the news voraciously, debating politics with friends, hiking, surfing, playing soccer and watching movies.
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