Unpacking "Neoliberal" Schooling, Part 3: Progressive Education: Enter the Matrix

Chris McNutt
September 25, 2021
Instead of finding ways to fight fire with fire through more critique, we deviate from the norm in ways that confuse, conflate, and separate ourselves from the narrative. Baudrillard-inspired theorist Franco Berardi writes, "the best thing to do is to make friends with chaos."
...the world seems no longer to be one that is under human control (if it ever was), but a world that is de-regulated in all major aspects. (Kline & Holland, 2021)

Working in progressive spaces has an eerie paradox: we feel like what we're doing is restoring humanity to the classroom, but ultimately it is isolating. In The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, feels like he doesn't belong in his world and sees visions about another reality, constantly feeling at odds with his existence. Hope is found when Neo meets Morpheus, who shows him that in fact reality isn't real and he is the key to changing it. Morpheus offers Neo the choice between the red pill (to leave this world behind) and blue pill (to return to normalcy), and he takes the red pill to go on and transform the world.

Although it's certainly a stretch to equate teaching with a weird movie about robots, human-batteries, and questions of free will, it does feel like educators working to make change are doing something wrong, or that we're alone in this process. I've often equated entering the world of progressive education as "taking the red pill." In this sense, we are recognizing that education isn't what it seems: it isn't doing what's best by kids, in fact, for most it is doing the opposite. Once we recognize that, we move into a space that challenges all assumptions about how our work is organized and operated.

The Matrix is based on Simulacra and Simulation, philosopher Jean Baudrillard's work on simulation, reality, and the blending of the two. Rarely has Baudrillard been connected to pedagogy, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Jean Baudrillard and Radical Education Theory: Turning Right to Go Left by Kip Kline and Kristopher Holland. And in the introduction they write,

Unfortunately, the popular notion that the film The Matrix is illustrative of Baudrillard's simulation theory is wrong.

As someone who references this movie a lot, this did not feel good to read. But it begs the question: what exactly is the connection between simulations, Baudrillard's philosophy, and that eerie, disconnected feeling of making change in the classroom?


Baudrillard (1929-2017) was a radical French philosopher who specialized in two unique concepts:

  1. That the world is no longer under human control. Deemed the "hyperreality", Baudrillard claimed that reality has become too deregulated and we no longer live as human beings.
  2. That modern communication technology that massively changed how humans interact. Our society is now both more real and more virtual. We have lost "critical distance."

Hyperreality refers to the intense, better version of our lives that informs how we live, such as Disneyland or shopping malls. This originates from Baudrillard's four orders of simulacra:

  1. The first order is where representation of the real is obvious. We know it's not real, such as a theatrical performance.
  2. The second order begins to blur reality. Sometimes we recognize what is real and what's not real but it's hard for us to tell, such as CG in a movie.
  3. The third order is where the simulation replaces reality or hyperreality. Kline & Hollard point to Disneyland's "Main Street", a nostalgia-filled space that is meant to simulate hometown America. As more and more small American towns have disappeared, Main Street is an idealized reality of what they used to be. When we visit Disneyland and tour Main Street, we engage with it as a real space, even though it is entirely artificial. But interestingly enough, main streets across the world have now begun to gentrify and replicate Disney's Main Street. In other words, Disney has informed and changed our reality through their simulation. Our idealized past is based off a corporate interpretation of what it used to be.
  4. The fourth order is the Disneyverse itself: a series of products, branding, and marketing that inform how we live our entire lives. For example, the values and morals surrounding "Disney princesses." It's no longer that Disney creates a space that we visit and bring back with us, but that everything around us is our reality - we don't even recognize that it is Disney anymore. Kline & Holland state this as "life imitating art", in the same way politicians talk about "the market", common conversations refer to Freudian psychology, or how behaviorists think about the classroom. This limits our ability to judge what's effective & noneffective or just & unjust.

Modern Baudrillard-inspired philosophers are highly concerned that our connection to digital spaces and tools will reinvent what reality is. In an era of deep fakes, our ability to distinguish between the real and unreal disappears, and we can fake entire experiences. We can change our history in ways that textbooks and curriculum never could have.

Pictured: Disneyland's Main Street, showing a variety of colorful storefronts. Compare this to "The most beautiful main street in every state" from Insider

This connects to the "algorithm", a widely known facet of our online presence. We recognize that what we see online, especially through social media, is determined by a variety of outside forces from our peers to marketing companies. The algorithm persuades us to make decisions on how to live our lives, sorting through thousands of human experiences to determine what is the "correct" lifestyle, even creating algorithms for those who supposedly reject the premise of living according to others. For instance, I think of the Reddit community /r/minimalism which in premise encourages users to ditch objects to focus more on things that matter to them, but more often than not users debate on whether or not what they're doing is "minimalist." Who or what determines what's minimalist?

Pictured: A screenshot from the /r/minimalism community, with a user talking about the tension of "thrift."

Ultimately, our algorithmic reality is determined by corporations and the elite. Those with power can deterministically select what you see and what you don't see, what you believe and don't believe. This is best evidenced in the "post-truth" or "fake news" phenomena: facts don't matter anymore - it's just what you believe and saying it enough. After all, we live in a world where families send their children to schools that have required vaccinations for decades yet are not supportive on mandatory FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccinations. Compare this to the polio vaccine, where in spite of set-backs and a disastrous rollout:

When the results of those studies showed the vaccine to be safe and effective in 1955, church bells rang. Loudspeakers in stores, offices and factories blared the news. People crowded around radios. "There was jubilation," says Stewart. People couldn't wait to sign their kids up for a shot. (Brink, 2021)

Kline & Holland note that this ability to differ truth and fiction is what we find in neuroscience: we hallucinate reality. We take the information presented to us and create our own world based on these ideas - we lie to ourselves. And when we lie to ourselves, we create false perceptions about our society, education, and the classroom.

Anti-Pedagogy & Corporate Outcomes

Baudrillard's chief claim through much of his work was that traditional forms of critique and resistance are ineffectual because we're only making signs of resistance. By operating within a traditional framework of producing evidence to inform change, capitalist forces quickly co-opt movements, transforming them to appear as "change" but ultimately reinforcing existing structures.

This is evidenced in an article I wrote in 2019 titled "Neo-Progressivism", where ed tech and education consultants read into experiential education, social-emotional learning, or student voice initiatives, transforming them into a sellable package that sound like progressive education but ultimately are standardized, packaged, branded, and commodified. As a result, the school feels like they've made change through new buzzwords and professional development, but the end result feels and looks really similar to what was in place before. As Kline & Holland write, "[t]he late capitalist code is adept at subsuming critique and offering it back as a set of signs to be consumed."

Baudrillard saw schools engaging in anti-pedagogy, or a pure and empty version of teaching and learning. Instead of students as artists working together to co-create learning beside a teacher, education has been morphed to a technical-oriented concept that features modals of bellringers, ed-tech activities, and review games. At its most extreme, districts have implemented entirely scripted lessons for teachers to recite. It is commonplace to visit an educational conference and be sold on the idea of entirely pre-made lessons. They're "teacher-proof."

Kline & Holland offer that the reason why student teachers could effectively be temporarily hired on and "be teachers" during the COVID-19 pandemic was due to our lack of pedagogy. We have "perfected' anti-pedagogy, because all teachers need to do is stick to a script and the pre-determined outcomes will play out. This reflects our general idea of standardization and need for perfection in neoliberal society: our goal is for everyone to have equally fantastic outcomes (and as a result, everyone has stale, standardized outcomes).

Further, the authors bring up that the use of ed-tech tools, such as smartboards, are simply replicating the ways of the past. No one is questioning the value of the pedagogy itself, but simply finding ways to (presumably) improve the existing model because new must be better. Kline & Holland point to "tech brand" teachers, such as Seesaw ambassadors or Google Classroom Level 1 or Level 2 teachers, who are so attached to technology as improvement that they'll "rep" a corporate brand, tying themselves to the service. It is a fully actualized version of blending neoliberal education and pedagogy and fits into our overwhelming corporate narrative of learning.

This narrative is exemplified with popular educational critics Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner. Dintersmith and Wagner advocate for hands-on, project-driven schools. A critique I offer is that although the educational changes they desire are in many ways more engaging than what we're doing now, they are rooted in the idea of increased corporate growth. Their most popular work, Most Likely to Succeed, summarizes itself stating (emphasis mine)...

...while students may graduate with credentials, by and large they lack the competencies needed to be thoughtful, engaged citizens and to get good jobs in our rapidly evolving economy...

Most Likely to Succeed presents a new vision of American education, one that puts wonder, creativity, and initiative at the very heart of the learning process and prepares students for today’s economy.

Wagner and Dintersmith argue...that success and happiness will depend increasingly on having the ability to innovate (Chicago Tribune), and this crucial guide offers policymakers and opinion leaders a roadmap for getting the best for our future entrepreneurs.

In a neoliberal framework, it cannot be that these changes are advocated for because of pro-student policies that make an impact and change the world for the better. Instead, the entire argument for change is rooted in economic superiority: in bettering the system of capitalism that already exists. As a former humanities and current digital arts teacher, I know this narrative well - our entire selling on the value of humanities and the arts is because employers desire "21st century skills." That argument must be made because no stakeholder wants to listen to a non-capitalist framed argument, we must press forward with (economic) "innovation."

In this case, the ends do not always justify the means. When we interpret education through a neoliberal lens, even if that improvement creates engaging spaces for learners, it harms our ability to radically transform spaces.

Inescapable Systems

In 2009, British theorist Mark Fisher wrote Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? where he claimed that neoliberal, capitalist societies are not only the most powerful force on the planet, but something we can no longer imagine a true alternative to. In part, Fisher drew upon Baudrillard's ideas of the hyperreal to claim that the future of capitalism isn't hypercapitalism (for example, people being literally owned by corporations), but a constant faux battle being waged by all members of society that ultimately goes nowhere. In other words, the future is stagnant - nothing ever changes, people continue doing what they're doing (even if it's fighting against capitalism) and no one creates a real alternative.

Fisher points to a variety of situations that posit changing capitalism, and with it neoliberal society in general such as our schools, as being almost impossible to do. For example, every time that schools begin to stray from the norm and reject standardization, such as the Free Schools Movement, a new reform measure such as A Nation at Risk or Race to the Top restandardizes the process, calling on schools to go "back to basics" which is code for returning to the status quo and focusing on traditional methods. After all, our capitalistic society cannot function if our students are falling behind in test scores versus other nations.

Whenever someone claims that alternatives to the system can exist, they're met with aggressive rebuttals. "Yes, the system isn't perfect, but at least we're not being watched in our classrooms like China." We don't focus on true alternatives. When new ideas are proposed, they're lofting and idealized. Fisher cites music journalist Simon Reynolds who stated,

'real' has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. 'Real' also signifies that the music reflects a 'reality' constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. 'Real' means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by...downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).

In other words, being "real" recognizes that we're seeing the world for what it truly is. For progressive educators in the classroom, this means that the work is messy, that the ideas don't always work, and a lot of times we'll fail. It simultaneously means that the current system is the exact same way. A perfect solution does not exist. And, when progressive ideas are marketed as perfect solutions (which will inevitably fail at some point), the reaction is that progressive ideas are bunk and misconceptions are formed. This leads what I call the "fad cycle of progressive education." It becomes less and less possible to escape the neoliberal system.

A danger also arrises when we believe an alternative exists but it's presented by the same forces that are causing the problem. Fisher cites how many blockbuster movies will show the main antagonist as a chief CEO of a multinational corporation, while simultaneously being produced by a multinational corporation. Or, for example in the film WALL-E where viewers see a world destroyed by corporate consumption gone wrong, yet simultaneously are engaging in this behavior.

Robert Pfaller calls this interpassivity, where media performs our anti-capitalism for us. We can consume without feeling guilty, nor do we actually change our behavior as a result. This is expanded upon by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who writes that we can participate in capitalism knowing that capitalism is exploitative, because we know that it's bad. Recognizing that there's a problem (and that we should feel bad about it) softens the blow of engaging in the practice. In other words, we've created a soft barrier that helps us rationalize harm.

Yet, those with the power to change things see these practices as necessary evils that must exist. Those in education who have the power to change and remove standardized testing, for example, continually incorporate the practice as a needed one despite overwhelmingly evidence against their use. Removal of these tests would result in financial catastrophe for a multi-billion dollar industry. In the same way, district leaders incorporate traditional grading, college-preparation, harmful discipline structures, and more.

For educators, many of us face is what Fisher calls reflexive impotence. We know that all of these problems exist and we don't think we can do anything about it. However, Fisher calls reflexive impotence a self-fulfilling prophecy. By understanding that all of these problems exist, it isn't that apathy or cynicism has overwhelmed us but that our sincere internal belief in the lack of an alternative means we have given up.

Inescapable Systems (for students)

We've become so attached to existing systems that even our ability to reimagine them is difficult. Fisher writes about how capital follows us in our dreams and that work and life are inseparable. We have in many ways become our careers, with our typical first question in getting to know someone being "what do you do?" - implying their profession. For students, their profession is their schoolwork, and their ability and trajectory is coded through grades.

A student's full life-path is interpreted by their ability to perform in the school system, an inescapable path that is reinforce by peers, teachers, and the hidden curriculum. If a student has C's, it's presumed they'll be relegated to an "undesirable" manual labor career. (In which a C is meant to be average, but in the same way "satisfactory" equates to "poor performance" in a workplace evaluation.) If a student has A's, they're preparing in addition to many other checkboxes for a "successful" path. In many circumstances, peer groups form based off students' abilities and their perceived social norms of being with others who either succeed or don't succeed in the system.

The currency of grades is widely critiqued by educators. Yet, when we imagine an alternative to the system, critics state that a system without grades cannot be successful. Outside of the problems with college admissions and "success metrics", why would a student ever do anything? Of course, this is interpreting grades within the current system, not imagining a new one.

When I was younger I was obsessed with the video game The Sims, a virtual world where one would essentially replicate real life: they'd manage a family working, raising children, decorating their house, and having social interactions. The main loop of the game was to meeting your Sim's (game character's) needs such as going to the bathroom and eating, raising skills such as athletics or artistry (usually for a job requirement), and going to work (to make money and buy new things). In-between these activities, you'd craft storylines by having Sims interact with each other.

Pictured: A screenshot from the original The Sims, showing a video game house and person, with a "Needs" bar with Hunger, Energy, Fun, and more.

One day, I discovered that there were cheats for The Sims. A simple command could give you all the money you'd ever ask for! I quickly entered the codes and was excited to decorate and build my massive new home. I spent hours crafting it...then never played the game again. I "beat" the game. Despite essentially having a giant dollhouse for Sims to interact it, the core part of the game was to fulfill my needs (now easy due to my profound wealth), get promoted, and go to work. The social interactions just weren't that interesting by themselves. It was over.

All of this is to say that removing grades from school by itself in the current system would be a disaster. If grades are our currency, students simply don't need to work anymore. This is why progressive educators, including us at the Human Restoration Project, advocate for systemic changes - recognizing that for one to ungrade you also need to build purpose-driven classrooms, let students co-design curriculum, have space for student voice, and more. In the same way that The Sims needed additional things to do outside of earning money, classrooms need something to change in lieu of grades. (And that replacement shouldn't be grading by another name.)

It isn't that the system is inescapable - it's that we are not defining change through transformation with new ideas, but through improvement of existing ones. No system can be escaped unless we take steps to remove ourselves from that system, and that cannot happen in the void of one practice.*

Fatal Strategies

The ability to fight back against traditional education cannot simply be by presenting logical evidence contrary to the fact. Baudrillard wants us to not just examine the realities we live in and how they've been co-opted by capitalist forces, but how our critique has as well. Kline & Holland note that in response to those who reject research, such as climate science, researchers will often produce more research in different ways. Yet, the problem isn't that the research doesn't exist or that we don't have access to this information (we currently have more access to information than ever before), but that the truth does not matter. Those who have bought into their ever-present hyperreality no longer care about what someone not in their reality thinks. Baudrillard believed that the more traditional critique occurred, the larger the growth of "post-truth" would become. This leads into Baudrillard's most radical and confusing idea, fatal strategy:

Resist the probability of any image or information whatever. Be more virtual than events themselves, do not seek to re-establish the truth, we do not have the means, but do not be duped, and to that end re-immerse the war and all information in the virtuality from whence they come. Turn deterrence back against itself. Be meteorologically sensitive to stupidity.

Therefore, when we recognize that our education system and the forces that inform aren't real, how do we know how to change it, or what it could change to? In other words, Baudrillard writes,

To the more true than true we will oppose the more false than false. We will not oppose the beauty and the ugly; we will seek what is more ugly than the ugly: the monstrous. We will not oppose the visible to the hidden; we will seek what is more hidden than hidden: the secret.

In our current model of anti-pedagogy, no new information is created. As Paulo Freire stated, "the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat." When we become obsessed with what evidence is produced, we end up creating learning experiences that solely focus on getting through information. Even in contemporary classrooms that reject desks in rows and lecturing, the actual activities (gallery walks, Kahoot reviews, think-pair-share) rarely produce knowledge. This isn't to say that past knowledge isn't important but to exemplify that students rarely have opportunities to create. We must build learning pathways that are generated by students.

This isn't nihilism on what our education system is, it's hope - it's our ability to recognize that this problem exists and there is an escape route.

In looking at our current system, we must consider removing what's currently there as opposed to adding on. Current efforts to transform classrooms are to "better" existing concepts, rather than dissecting what our actual values are and how they conflate with our practice. It requires a deep understanding of pedagogy and principle, and conversations and co-determining with young people. This process has occurred in many unschooling communities to great success - students are engaged and families are deeply involved in the process - but to imagine this change at a nationwide level is difficult.

In "PSA: Teach to Get Fired", I wrote that instead of falling into the trap of just doing what someone else tells us to do, we need to make our values irreconcilable to our practice. To change a system, we can't continually just research and make arguments for change, we have to put that change into practice. And in the classroom, that means just doing it: praxis. At the same time, we must reject opportunities to package and commodify these changes. We cannot standardized the pedagogy of progressive education, it's antithetical to that. Working with students to create a classroom means that every context is different and everyone will be incorporating the philosophy in a different way. This means that ed tech tools and resources can still be used but it isn't a model to be sold-as-fact to every single educator.

Baudrillard's fear is that ultimately we would do nothing different about changing the world. For example, when we recognize that what we're doing, such as producing evidence that progressive education works, isn't working to change the discourse, our response would be to produce more evidence. This leads to a stagnant, never-changing state controlled by corporate narratives, baked in consumption, and a never-ending rat race. Everyone is essentially a tool of the machine, including those who believe they are fighting it.

Although Baudrillard did not believe The Matrix captured his theory effectively, the Architect scene from The Matrix Reloaded exemplifies the idea of revolution as neoliberal tool. It turns out that Neo's existence is an intentional part of The Matrix's design, giving humans a prophetical hope to change the world and therefore keep them controlled. Neo ends up breaking this cycle by not choosing to follow any paths put forward by the Architect.

What does it look like to break free of this cycle? Perhaps we should look to Freire and later, bell hooks' interpretation of a pedagogy of hope. As hooks states,

When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.

By coupling action and with it, joy, we learn to enjoy the spaces we've created despite the crippling fear of doing something different than the status quo. It's learning to love that we don't have all the answers. Our solution to these problems isn't entirely planned out, nor should it be, and we must be comfortable with the relative chaos of progressive education. Thus: fatal strategies. Instead of finding ways to fight fire with fire through more critique, we deviate from the norm in ways that confuse, conflate, and separate ourselves from the narrative. Baudrillard-inspired theorist Franco Berardi writes, "the best thing to do is to make friends with chaos." In our work to create a modern movement of progressive education, we must be comfortable with chaos and take risks. It's not entirely planning, philosophizing, and debating: it's about acting on and changing the narrative.


This writing is heavily inspired by Jean Baudrillard and Radical Education Theory: Turning Right to Go Left by Kep Kline and Kristopher Holland. If this reading even remotely interested you, I would definitely check it out.

I was turned on to this work by Nicholas Stock, author of The weird, eerie, exit pedagogy of Mark Fisher.

And the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher is cited at many times in this piece.

Finally, see Unpacking Neoliberal Schooling pt.1; Unpacking Neoliberal Schooling pt.2: Teachers Pay Teachers

*That being said, those who do ungrade successfully also do many of what I state above. Human Restoration Project produces a variety of free resources that are meant to help educators realize these changes.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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