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Angela Davis, Freedom and the Politics of Higher Education

Angela Davis and Henry Giroux. (Photo courtesy of Henry Giroux)

At a time when higher education is under siege all over the globe by market mentalities and moralities, there is an urgent necessity on the part of the American public to reclaim the academy in its multiple forms as a site of critique and a public good, one that connects knowledge and power, scholarship and public life, and pedagogy and civic engagement. The current assault on higher education by the apostles of neoliberalism and religious fundamentalists makes clear that it should not be harnessed to cost-benefit analyses or the singular needs of corporations, which often leads to the loss of egalitarian and democratic pressures. Universities should be about more than developing work skills. They must also be about producing civic minded and critically engaged citizens – citizens who can engage in debate, dialogue and bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance. Universities are some of the few places left where a struggle for the commons, for public life, if not democracy itself, can be made visible through the medium of collective voices and social movements energized by the need for a politics and way of life counter to authoritarian capitalism.

We are living in a time in which democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish – from public schools to health care centers – there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values and the common good. We increasingly live in societies based on the vocabulary of ‘choice’ and a denial of reality – a denial of massive inequality, social disparities, the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands, and a growing machinery of social and civil death. 1 More and more individuals and groups are becoming imaginary others defined by a free-floating capitalist class that inscribes them as disposable, redundant and irrelevant. The American public increasingly inhabits zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion. This is all the more reason for scholars to address important social issues and for the university to defend itself as a democratic public sphere.

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We live in a world in which everything is now privatized, transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” and subject to the vicissitudes of the national security state. 2 One consequence is the emergence of what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society”- one that is “stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found in” any viable democracy. 3 This grim reality has been called a “failed sociality” a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will and open democracy. As the welfare state continues to be attacked and the punishing state increasingly criminalizes social issues, extending from homelessness and peaceful protest to dress code violations in public schools, academics and other cultural workers should not, under the guise of professionalism, remove themselves from ethical considerations and the power relations that impact them and the world. Nor should they claim disinterestedness at a time when the very concepts of justice, equality, freedom and democracy are actively traded for the forces of privatization, consumerism, unchecked individualism and “a political culture of hyper punitiveness.” 4

The university likewise should not collude with the ongoing assaults against social provisions that are waged by policymakers who view marginalized populations as disposable, as waste products of a society that would rather warehouse its citizens, particularly poor minorities, in dilapidated schools and prisons than provide them with decent social protections, health care, jobs, a quality education and a future that matters. 5 Hence, one goal of those concerned about creating engaged citizens capable of struggling for a radical democracy is to develop new pedagogical practices and modes of civic literacy that connect rigorous scholarship to important social issues, such as the war being waged on youth today, the increasing militarization of all aspects of society, the attack on the welfare state, the growing assault on women’s civil and reproductive rights and the escalating destruction of the environment.

There is a need to reclaim those vibrant ideologies, legacies and struggles that served and continue to serve as a reminder of how important the liberal arts are, not just as specific fields of study, but also as a broader civic educational force that enables the development of the formative culture necessary for all students to enliven the imagination, think critically, recognize the ethical grammar of suffering and connect public values to collective struggles that expand and deepen the processes of democracy. Informing such a project would be an attempt to develop a language of critique and possibility, one that recognizes that education is, in part, a moral and political practice whose mission, as the poet Robert Hass points out, “is to refresh the idea of justice going dead in us all the time.” 6

We find ourselves at an important historical moment in which there is a need to reclaim the most robust and democratic versions of the discourse of freedom, justice, collective struggle and history. Americans occupy a historical conjuncture in which everything that matters politically, ethically and culturally is being erased – either ignored, turned into a commodity, or simply falsified. Occasionally, we are confronted with the unsullied images, history and legacy of intellectuals who symbolize that rare combination of civic courage, political commitment and rigorous scholarship. Angela Davis is one of those exemplary activists and public intellectuals.

She has struggled bravely and with great dignity for decades to demonstrate that education is a form of political intervention in the world and that learning is not about processing received knowledge but actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice. She has worked in difficult and shifting circumstances to remind us of the power of education as a central element of inspired self-government. Her scholarship and activism demonstrate the educational force of political and intellectual commitment in its attempts to enlighten the mind and create powerful social movements against a wide range of oppressions.

What is particularly crucial about her legacy is that it not only focuses on specific issues, but it also addresses society at large, flatly rejecting identitarian politics. Her work advances, as Robin Kelley points out, a democratic notion of freedom, one that moves far beyond the narrow liberal notion of freedom that enshrines the right of the individual to do what he or she wants unchecked by any impediments, moral or otherwise. 7 Instead, she combines individual rights with social rights and argues that any viable notion of agency is impossible without providing the economic and social conditions that enable people to exercise their political and individual rights. She argues that freedom is about providing choices for people without the constraints that are imposed by subjugation, deprivation and the type of inequality evident in the fact that “For every one dollar of assets owned by a single black or Hispanic woman, a member of the Forbes 400 has over forty million dollars.” 8

Freedom in this context is freedom that comes with the struggle against injustice, a struggle that demands the shared conditions that would ensure all people could live a fully realized life. Collective freedom is one devoid of material bondage and one that supports the institutions necessary for democracy. In this notion of freedom, education is linked to the struggle for a democratic conception of community, one that is inclusive and provides decent health care, housing, food and education, while abolishing the prison-industrial complex and the ever expanding punishing state. Collective freedom provides the basic conditions for people to narrate their own lives, hold power accountable, and embrace a capacious notion of human dignity. Davis’s notion of freedom rejects the neoliberal understanding of the term as freedom from interference by the government and freedom to merely pursue one’s own private interests, regardless of the social costs. This is a notion of freedom that depoliticizes freedom in the name of greed, corporate power, unchecked individualism and pernicious consumerism.

Freedom at its best speaks to both a condition and a practice. As a condition, it acknowledges that no viable mode of self and social determination can develop without the social and economic conditions that free people from those material deprivations that cripple matters of choice, power and agency. As a practice, freedom is the ability to not only understand the world but to act on that understanding and be able to shape the commanding forces that bear down on one’s life. Freedom is always part of an ongoing struggle for new subjects, collective agents and social movements that embrace the individual but organize collectively. The weight, if not burden of freedom, cannot be understood in the privatized language of mega corporations and the ultrarich, but in the discourses and struggles of social movements that fight for economic justice, racial equality and the common good. Angela Davis’s legacy as a freedom fighter made her an enemy of the state under the increasingly neoliberal regimes of Nixon, Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover because she understood that the struggle for freedom was not only a struggle for political and individual rights but also for economic rights. She is not an icon; she is a freedom fighter who has given most of her life to join with the dispossessed and excluded in the struggle for freedom.

What is invaluable about Angela Davis’ work is that she does not limit her politics to issues removed from broader social considerations, but connects every aspect of her scholarship and public interventions to what the contours of a truly democratic society might look like. For her, democracy is not only a promise and ideal but also a practice. Angela Davis is a model for what it means to be a public and engaged intellectual dedicated to what she calls “protracted struggles [that refuse] the pitfalls of the particular version of democracy represented by U.S. capitalism.” 9 I can think of no one who embodies the commitment to theoretical rigor, social justice, human dignity and collective resistance more so than Angela Davis. We have a lot to learn from her work, her struggles over the last few decades, her humility and bristling intelligence, and her insistence that pedagogy is the formative basis of not just dissent, but collective struggle. Angela Davis is the other America, the America waiting in the shadows to be born again, waiting once again to tip the scales of justice toward a new ethical horizon, waiting to address and take seriously the promise of a democracy to come.


See, for instance, on the rise of the racist punishing state, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); on the severe costs of massive inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012); on the turning of public schools into prisons, see Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2011).


Quoted in Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews. “(Re)Presenting Baltimore: Place, Policy, Politics, and Cultural Pedagogy.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 33 (2011), p. 436.


Terry Eagleton, “Reappraisals: What is the worth of social democracy?” Harper’s Magazine, (October 2010), p. 78.


Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown, “Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive Neoliberal City,” Antipode (2006), p. 757.


Henry A. Giroux, Education and the Crisis of Public Values (New York: Peter Lang, 2013) and Henry A. Giroux, The Education Deficit and the War on Youth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).


Hass cited in Sarah Pollock, “Robert Hass,” Mother Jones (March–April 1992), p. 22.


Robin Kelley, “Foreward,” Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom, (San Francisco, U.S.: City Lights Books, 2012), pp. 7-16.


Paul Buchheit, “Five Ugly Extremes of Inequality in America – The Contrasts Will Drop Your Chin to the Floor,” Alternet, (March 24, 2013).


Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, (Seven Stories Press, 2005) pp. 72-73.