A popular refrain in the politics of American education, often buttressed by a steady stream of studies, contends that ‘we are falling behind’ students from other countries. Sometimes this decline is specified in terms of discipline, but the general premise is that American students lag behind their foreign counterparts, with special dread attached to the notion of falling behind adversaries such as China. The failure to rectify our educational inadequacies apparently portends a genuine crisis, the loss of global dominance. The articulation of such fears is particularly instructive in discerning the political role of education in late capitalism, its conceptualization and uses within the context of politics. How do the fears of falling behind speak to the political role of education in late capitalism? I draw upon the ideas of the Herbert Marcuse and his Marxist intervention into Freudian psychoanalysis. Using Marcuse’s framework, I argue that in late capitalism the political role of education, formerly understood to serve life affirming value, has been reoriented to further the aims of the death drive. The fears of falling behind, and the policies that have followed, are symptomatic of a disposition toward education that has reconfigured the school as a means of conquest, subjugation, and war.

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