How Marxism replaces education with indoctrination
In an essay titled “Teaching Standardized English Isn’t Racism—it’s Education,” I critiqued the pedagogy of a prominent writing studies scholar, Asao Inoue, for seeming to replace education with indoctrination. In a presentation for the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), Inoue expressed, in no uncertain terms, that students of color who wanted to master standardized English are “selfish” and “immature” for having such a want, for it did nothing to combat our capitalistic and systemically racist society—echoing Ibram X. Kendi’s demand that one can be either racist or anti-racist; no in-between can exist. For Inoue, any black student who does not want to speak in his or her “home” language is a dupe who wants nothing more than to “become a nice little cog in the system.” Thus, I argued, Inoue reflects the devolution of the field of rhetoric and composition, and perpetuates the infantilizing victimization of black students.
How can we make sense of Inoue’s stance? What frame of reference would justify his statements?
In my view, Inoue’s beliefs make sense if the real goal is not writing instruction at all, but the fundamental transformation of society into one that deemphasizes the individual and emphasizes the communal—a society that does not see individuals as sovereign beings but as valuable parts in a collective; a society that sounds much to me like a Marxist utopia. I would argue that Inoue and his ilk are a temporal manifestation of the “long march through institutions” put forth by economic and cultural Marxists, who—despite their differences—agree that society is nothing more than a battle between oppressor and oppressed. It is this belief that informs Inoue’s pedagogy, and through citing prominent Marxist theorists and pedagogues, one can better understand why a writing teacher would, with such righteous indignation, refuse to actually teach writing.
It may seem excessive and conspiratorial to some, but identifying Inoue’s pedagogy as distinctly Marxist is no speculation or exaggeration. Inoue is not shy about his penchant for Marxism, and is not afraid to display it in the classroom. As a self-proclaimed “scholar of Marxian Stripes,” Inoue is forthright regarding his faith in Marxist thought, and how it is imperative to facilitating anti-racism in society and the writing classroom. In Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, Inoue describes a “writing assessment ecology” as “a complex system made up of several interconnected elements” that influence the assessment of writing practices. Explaining Marxism’s importance to this concept in Chapter Two, Inoue writes that:
…it is best to see antiracist writing assessment ecologies as Marxian ecologies, which reveals the ways power relations work both historically and from the classical Marxian dialectic. Seeing writing assessment ecologies as explicitly Marxian ecologies provides students with language to understand the way all assessment ecologies determine our desires and expectations for discourse, and the evaluations of our writing, and perhaps offers some ways to counter that determining.
Further along in the chapter, Inoue elaborates on the heuristic importance of Marxism:
Students need explicit Marxian language to help them understand the politics of the antiracist assessment ecology they participate in and to problematize their existential writing assessment situations; in particular, students can reflect upon the ways rubrics, assignments, or descriptive judgments of their drafts determine their expectations that may have uneven benefits among students in the classroom, or that determine their own desires for their writing or the writing of others.
It would seem that Marxism does not merely inform Inoue’s writing pedagogy; it is Inoue’s writing pedagogy.
I am not here to argue for the inefficacy of Marxism, per se, but rather to say that judging students for not being sufficiently Marxist—and, by extension, compelling them to believe Marxism is the only way to be unselfish, mature, and a decent person—is the very reason Inoue and others like him are accused of replacing education with indoctrination.
Other work from Inoue suggests that he sees some efficacy in racial conflict as an impetus for change. (See 2019 CCCC Chair’s Address; “White Teachers are a Problem”). Although there is and always will be significant room for improvement, in the context of twenty-first century America, actual racial conflict has never been weaker. Race relations are not so bad that most people of color dream of revolution and the complete eradication of the system. Thus, they have to be convinced—and once convinced, used. This is to say, although Inoue laments students’ desires to be cogs in the capitalist system, he wants to recruit his students to be cogs in his system, one that can be called culturally Marxist in nature.
The understanding of blacks as the de facto foot soldiers of revolution is not a novel concept in Marxist thought. The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse knew this all too well. Marcuse did not have to convince middle-class white America to revolt because the already angry black Americans would make a fine proletariat. As Marcuse writes in One-Dimensional Man, blacks represent “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and unemployable . . . their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not.”
Another clear influence on Inoue’s pedagogy is the Marxist progressive education scholar Paolo Freire, whose scholarly corpus challenges that of John Dewey’s as the most prominent influence on American progressive educators. Inoue cites Freire often in his work, so one should not be surprised when the former seems to echo the outlook of the latter. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes:
Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. . . . at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction toward the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them.
You may recognize in Freire’s words echoes of Inoue’s complaints about resistant students of color and their desire to succeed in the current system, and his insistence that for his students to succeed they “gotta be somebody else” who must “mouth the words that are white.” It seems that part of Inoue’s desire is to rescue his students of color from “false consciousness” and decolonize their minds.
Perhaps the most telling connection is found in Vladimir Lenin’s take on the purpose of education. In a 1920 speech titled “The Task of Youth Leagues,” Lenin expresses what he believes is the only moral purpose of education: the creation and perpetuation of communism. For Lenin, Marxism could not be a mere subject to be studied; it must be the sole justification for all subjects studied. He believed that “Only by radically remoulding the teaching, organisation and training of the youth shall we be able to ensure that the efforts of the younger generation will result in the creation of a society that will be unlike the old society, i.e., in the creation of a communist society.”
At other points in the speech, the ubiquity of communist thought in education is more blatant. While speaking to the Youth League, a Russian organization for the younger generation of burgeoning communists developed after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin stated:
You are faced with the task of construction, and you can accomplish that task only by assimilating all modern knowledge, only if you are able to transform communism from cut-and-dried and memorised formulas, counsels, recipes, prescriptions and programmes into that living reality which gives unity to your immediate work, and only if you are able to make communism a guide in all your practical work. . . You must train yourselves to be Communists. It is the task of the Youth League to organize its practical activities in such a way that, by learning, organising, uniting and fighting, its members shall train both themselves and all those who look to it for leadership; it should train Communists. The entire purpose of training, educating and teaching the youth of today should be to imbue them with communist ethics (emphasis mine).
Lenin’s ideal was for education—all education—to be subordinated to communism; learning for any other reason was literally immoral. Lenin continues, stating that education “must subordinate to this struggle [of Communism], and link up with it, each step in its studies, education and training. Communist morality is based on the struggle for the consolidation and completion of communism. That is also the basis of communist training, education, and teaching.” For Lenin, anything that was not done for the sole purpose of fortifying and perpetuating Communism was completely anti-communist and, therefore, immoral. He believed that education as a mode of inquiry, as content knowledge, or for its own sake could lapse too easily into another form of exploitation. Lenin insisted that education was valuable “only when every step in its teaching, training and education is linked up with participation in the common struggle of all working people against the exploiters” and could maintain this value “only by inseparably linking each step in the activities of the schools, each step in training, education and teaching, with the struggle of all the working people against the exploiters.”
If you’ve been paying attention to contemporary trends in education, Lenin’s pedagogy may sound familiar. It has become a commonplace notion that education should be repurposed to align with social justice initiatives, especially when it comes to race. Math has become math for anti-racism, put forth famously by a white paper titled The Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction. History is taught only in a way that justifies counter-hegemonic sentiments, exemplified by the infamous 1619 Project. Social Emotional Learning has been revamped to become Social Emotional Learning insofar as it is used for social justice, which can be seen by the Collaborative on Social Emotional Learning coining the term “Transformational SEL” to distinguish it from its traditional meaning, now downgraded to “white supremacy with a hug.” And, as Inoue has shown us, instruction in communication becomes a tool for dismissing conventions and norms of the bourgeoisie. For contemporary Marxist pedagogues, education must become education as it pertains to counter-hegemony.
With this information, Inoue’s pedagogy makes more sense; he seems to be operating within a Marxist framework. Yes, it may be clear that I am not a fan of Marxist pedagogy (even though I actually admire parts of Freire’s theory of education) but my critique of Inoue is less about his preferred politics and more about his pedagogy perpetuating the “long march through institutions,” famously put forth by Rudi Dutschke, that usurps necessary education.
I do believe that Inoue and others sincerely think that they are doing the right thing, the moral thing. However, whether his motives are well-intentioned or not, one thing is clear: the actual wants and needs of his students are of less concern to him than they should be as an educator. The field of rhetoric and composition seems to be turning into a Trojan Horse for seemingly Marxist modes of social justice, to the neglect of the adequate study of rhetoric. Closing the achievement gap and helping to ensure upward mobility and prosperity for these students may be of little concern to Inoue and his colleagues, because that achievement can only exist in the system they are trying to dismantle. Because of this not-so-hidden agenda, students of color are being sacrificed for a goal they may not share.
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