[Marxism] Re: education, racism and the nuclear unconscious

Peter McLaren mclaren at gseis.ucla.edu
Sun Jul 9 11:44:13 MDT 2006

Thanks for the article on education-- I think it is from  John Taylor  
Gatto's book.   I don't have a copy but flipped through it once, and  
he writes about James Bryant Conant (president of Harvard).

I wrote a bit about Conant in an interview I did for Hobgoblin in  
England, and it is reproduced in my book, Rage and Hope.  Here is a  
snippet from the interview (the interviewer is the British Marxist  
educator, Glenn Rikowski):

Glenn:  From my reading of the situation, urban education in the  
United States is in turmoil and has been for years.

Peter:  Yes-and there are many reasons for this, and there has been  
much discussion on this issue.  However, in their discussions of  
structural racism in the United States, particularly as it affects  
education, not many people have delved into the history of the  
founding of the American comprehensive high school, in particular,  
the connection between the founding of the comprehensive American  
high school and the Cold War.  Dean MacCannell has written  
provocatively on this subject and some of his insights are apposite  
here-especially in understanding the historical roots of racist  
schooling in the United States.  MacCannell links the politics of the  
Cold War and United States nuclear strategy-specifically post- 
Hiroshima strategic foreign policy-to what he calls the “nuclear  
unconscious” that was instrumental in structuring urban education in  
the 1950s and 1960s.  He sees educational policy as connected in an  
unconscious way to the doctrine of deterrence and the concept of  
limited survivability.  Directly after World War II, the dominant  
thinking amongst U.S. military strategists was that cities of over a  
million people were the only targets of sufficient economic value to  
warrant the use of atomic weapons.  The U.S. believed that the  
Soviets would strike first, and many cities would be wiped out.  Yet  
it was also believed that a sufficient number of people outside the  
cities would survive an attack and rebuild U.S. society-and as we  
shall see, this would be white people.  Rural white folks and those  
living in smaller cities outside the large metropolitan areas were  
those that were slated for saving the reigning values of free  
enterprise after a Soviet first strike. The cities would therefore be  
‘cured’ of their officially designated social problems (crimes,  
disease, and high mortality rate).  The idea was that the city would  
absorb the attack so that damage minimally spilled over into  
surrounding ‘survival areas’ made up of predominantly whit  
populations.  To try to defend the cities by ‘hardening’ them would  
only intensify the attack, and it might spill over to white  
communities.  Along with the accelerating nuclear arms build-up in  
the1960s came massive withdrawal of upper to middle class white  
folks, including many of the intelligentsia, into small towns beyond  
the suburban fringe.  In the 1970s and 1980s rural areas continued to  
grow at a more rapid rate than urban areas.  As MacCannell points  
out, rather than moving towards a form of Euro-socialism, where  
minimal standards of living (housing, health care, income) would be  
created for impoverished ethnic communities, or opting for a renewed  
commitment to educational and legal justice, the U.S. began to  
warehouse its marginalized citizens in large cities.  Interestingly,  
about this time, fiscal policies of public spending to increase  
investment and employment were replaced with monetary policies that  
regulated interest rates, moderated investment and accelerated  
layoffs.  Harvard University President, James Bryant Conant, who had  
been a member of the secret National Defence Research Committee, and  
had helped to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki-in particular, workers  
and their homes-became an influential educational reformer in the  
1950s and early 1960s.  In fact, he helped to create the public  
school system that we have today in the U.S.  Conant’s national level  
involvement in planning the inner-city school curriculum advocated  
vocational education for Puerto Ricans and African-Americans, and  
recommended school counselor-student relationships on the model of  
the relationship of a probation officer to a parolee that extended  
four years after completion of high school.  He also recommended  
public works projects to provide ghetto-based employment for black  
male youth.  The idea, of course, was to keep them contained in the  
cities, which were expendable under the “first strike” scenario.  He  
questioned the relevance of having African-Americans in the Civilian  
Conservation Corps working on forest projects that would keep them  
out of the city.  In fact, he was opposed to any program that would  
move black youth out of the city, even temporarily.  Conant also  
argued that the private enterprise that was moving outside the city  
should not be responsible for the welfare of inner-city inhabitants  
whom he referred to a “inflammable material”.  He was against  
bussing, even voluntary bussing, and argued that ghetto schools must  
require students to ‘rise and recite’ when spoken to and suggested  
boys wear ties and jackets to school.  As MacCannell argues, we see  
the nuclear unconscious at work in Conant’s vision of public  
schooling and public life.  He placed the future hope in society’s  
projected survivors (overwhelmingly white) who would live in small  
cities of populations of 10,000 to 60,000.  When you examine the  
current decay and neglect of urban schools in the United States, some  
of this can be traced right back to Conant’s reform measures for the  
comprehensive high school.

Here is the MacCannell article:
MacCannell, Dean. (1984). Baltimore in the Morning…After: On the  
Forms of Post-Nuclear Leadership. Diacritics, (summer, pp. 33-46).


On Jul 9, 2006, at 8:01 AM, Prem K Govindaswamy wrote:

    This article helps understand one reason the U.S. working classes  
to shy away from Socialist ideals. The U.S. public schools were  
designed to
suppress all intellectual and philosophical development in the workers.
Despite sincere attempts by dedicated teachers to educate their  
they run into massive resistance due to the fundamental structure of  
education systems. Here are some of the most important quotes from the
major capitalists themselves regarding the formation of U.S. public

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