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Henry A. Giroux | Barbarians at the Gates: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Public Education

"It is impossible to understand the current assault on public education without coming to grips with the project of neoliberalism," writes Giroux. (Image via Shutterstock)

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As public schools are privatized, succumbing to corporate interests, critical thought and agency are erased, and education emphasizes market values rather than democratic ideals. The emergence of larger radical social movements depends on public education maintaining its role as a democratic sphere.

Once 2015 begins both the US Senate and House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republican Party, one of the most extremist political parties in US history. (1) Coupled with the empty centrism of the Democratic Party, its ascendency does not bode well for public education or a host of other important social issues. Nor does it bode well for democracy. If we conjured up George Orwell and his fear of state surveillance, Hannah Arendt and her claim that thoughtlessness was the foundation of totalitarianism, and Franz Kafka whose characters embodied the death of agency and the “helplessness of the living,” (2) it would be difficult for these dystopian works of literary and philosophical imagination to compete with the material realization of the assault on public education and public values in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century.

These are dangerous times. Compromise and compassion are now viewed as a pathology, a blight on the very meaning of politics. Moreover, in a society controlled by financial monsters, the political order is no longer sustained by a faith in reason, critical thought and care for the other. As any vestige of critical education, thought and dissent are disparaged, the assault on reason gives way to both a crisis in agency and politics. The right-wing Republican Party and their Democratic counterparts, along with their corporate supporters, despise public schools as much as they disdain taxation, institutions that enable critical thinking, and any call for providing social provisions that would benefit the public good. Not only are both parties attempting to privatize much of public education in order to make schools vehicles for increasing the profits of investors, they are also destroying the critical infrastructures that sustain schools as democratic public spheres.

The educational needs of students for many Republican and Democratic Party members, pundits, lobbying groups and politicians rank low next to the financial needs of hedge fund managers.

Teachers have been deskilled. Losing much of their autonomy to be creative in the classroom, they have been relegated to technicians whose sole objective appears to be enforcing a deadening instrumental rationality in which teaching to the test becomes the primary model of teaching and learning. Moreover, they are being demonized by the claim that the major problem with public education is lack of teacher accountability. The hidden order of politics here is that larger political and economic considerations such as crushing poverty, mammoth inequality, a brutalizing racism and iniquitous modes of financing public education all disappear from the list of problems facing schooling in the United States. Teachers also serve as an easy target for the (un)reformers to weaken unions, bash organized labor, discredit public servants, and “argue that education can be improved if taxpayer money is funneled away from the public school system’s priorities (hiring teachers, implementing creative pedagogies, increasing teacher autonomy, reducing class size etc.) and into the private sector (replacing teachers with computers, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools etc.).” (3)

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project.

These policies and practices echo the principles of casino capitalism or neoliberalism and are designed to enforce a pedagogy of repression, one that kills the imagination, sanctions a deadening mode of memorization and instills in students the discipline necessary for them to accommodate willingly to existing power relations at the expense of developing their capacity to be critical and engaged agents. In this case, the aim of this pedagogy of repression mimics Hannah Arendt’s claim that “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” (4) Public schools are also being defunded as states increasingly develop policies that drain state budgets by giving corporations substantial tax breaks. Diane Ravitch elaborates on the right-wing agenda to destroy public education, which consists of a range of groups ranging from right-wing politicians to shadowy groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). She is worth quoting in full:

Since the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of many states, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights. Even some Democratic governors, seeing the strong rightward drift of our politics, have jumped on the right-wing bandwagon, seeking to remove any protection for academic freedom from public school teachers. This outburst of anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators. Its hallmark is promotion of privatization and corporate interests in every sphere, not only education, but healthcare, the environment, the economy, voting laws, public safety, etc. It drafts model legislation that conservative legislators take back to their states and introduce as their own “reform” ideas. ALEC is the guiding force behind state-level efforts to privatize public education and to turn teachers into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason. The ALEC agenda is today the “reform” agenda for education. (5)

The educational needs of students for many Republican and Democratic Party members, pundits, lobbying groups and politicians rank low next to the financial needs of hedge fund managers; the ultra-rich such as Bill Gates, the Walton family and the Koch brothers; the legislators who make up ALEC; and any number of major corporations. Individual achievement is invoked to justify education as a private right rather than as a public good. The discourses of empiricism and standardized testing become the ultimate measures of achievement just as pedagogical matters concerning civic responsibility, engaged citizenship, thoughtfulness and critical thought disappear from the vocabulary of educational reform.

Under the regime of neoliberalism, community and working together are viewed as burdens because they are at odds with the neoliberal celebration of a survival-of-the-fittest ethos. Paul Buchheit goes even further arguing that “Privatizers believe that any form of working together as a community is anti-American.” (6) In this instance, the labeling of community and caring for the other as anti-American has deeper political roots. As Robert Hunziker observes, “As for neoliberalism, its dictate of ‘survival of the fittest economics’ is really ‘bottom-feeder economics’ whereby the rich accumulate more and more and more at the expense of lower and lower and lower wages, less benefits, and crushed self-esteem. What could be worse?” (7)

Equality, justice and the search for truth no longer define the mission of public education.

Defunding for public education has gotten so out of control that, as Aaron Kase reports, one public school in Philadelphia asked parents to “chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.” (8) Equality, justice and the search for truth no longer define the mission of public education. Economic policies that benefit the bankers, corporations and the financial elite result in massive inequities in wealth, income and power and increasingly determine how the US public views both public education and the needs of young people. As market economies are transformed into market societies, the investment in human capital such as young people has been replaced by an overdetermined emphasis on investing in economic capital. Unchecked market fundamentalism now eats its own children while destroying any viable hope they may have for being included in the social and political infrastructure of democracy and a future that benefits them. (9)

Moreover, the rights of teachers and children are more difficult to protect as unions are either dismantled or weakened by the apostles of neoliberalism and privatization. Secondary education is no longer a right but an entitlement designed mostly to benefit the children of the rich who either flee from public schools to wealthy private schools or attend public schools in wealthy communities that more often than not resemble private schools in terms of how they segregate by class and race, cater to the whims of the rich and enshrine values that are consistent with the market. Schooling for poor people and people of color defined by the school-to-prison-pipeline has come to represent an appendage of the carceral state. This is not only an attack on public education, but an attack on democracy itself. The infrastructure of education has been under assault since the 1980s with the advent of market fundamentalism in the United States and the growing disdain for the welfare state, the public good and public values. By infrastructure, I am referring to the material, financial and intellectual resources necessary for public schools to be able to function in ways that protect teacher autonomy, encourage viable unions, create curricula that are both critical and meaningful, and produce modes of critical pedagogy that truly embrace education as the practice of freedom and young people as critical agents and engaged citizens necessary for making democracy meaningful and substantive.

The shadow of Orwell now haunts public education and democracy itself as the political defenders of torture and state surveillance take control of Congress. As lawlessness and moral depravity infect all modes of governance, the push toward treating public schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, as prisons, and students as objects of surveillance and control has become more widespread. The presence of police, guards, cameras, and a host of surveillance and security apparatuses has turned schools into incubators for students willing to surrender their freedoms to the national security state. The ghost of Kafka disturbs any vision of democratic education as fear becomes the operative principle in organizing public education, especially for schools largely inhabited by poor people and people of color. For the underserved, education is designed not to inspire and energize, nor is it designed to get students to think, reflect or question. On the contrary, such schools disable the capacities of students to become knowledgeable, informed speaking agents. Instead, it relegates them to the dreary pedagogical tasks of mastering low-level skills such as memorization, a willingness to conform and a refusal to question authority. This is more than a pedagogy of repression; it is a pedagogy of helplessness that infantilizes students while dethroning any relationship between learning and social change.

Schools have become punishing factories subjecting students to zero-tolerance policies that three decades ago were only tolerated in prisons.

Schools have become punishing factories subjecting students to zero-tolerance policies that three decades ago were only tolerated in prisons. (10) Security has been turned into a police matter rather than a term that points to pedagogies, classroom policies, emotional support and modes of administration that provide spaces that dignify students, invest in their welfare, encourage them to expand their capacities for learning and embrace pedagogies that are meaningful, critical and transformative. Schools no longer are viewed as places that create dreams of greatness, extend the horizons of the imagination or point to a future that refuses to mimic the present. On the contrary, they are increasingly held hostage both to the market values embraced by the corporate and financial elite and the fundamentalist ideologies of religious conservatives. It gets worse.

Orwell’s premonition about state induced surveillance and Kafka’s understanding of the danger of powerlessness encouraged by regimes of fear are now matched by Arendt’s warning that human subjectivity is the foundation of politics and that any threat to critical thought, especially through a culture that directs desire into the most trivial of pursuits and anti-intellectual modes of learning, is as dangerous to democracy as the heavy hand of state repression. Although Arendt did not use the phrase “radical imagination” to bring home her warning about the crisis and death of critical agency, that is exactly what is being destroyed in the testing factories and penal warehouses replacing public education. As the imagination no longer becomes the subject and object of learning, thoughtlessness expands, as does the foundation for creating students more suited for a totalitarian regime than for a struggling democracy. Totalitarian governments believe that thinking is dangerous and rightly so. As Arendt points out,

Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. So how I can convince . . . I think, nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking, ne pas reflechir c’est plus dangereux encore [not thinking is even more dangerous]. (11)

In the new Gilded Age with its growing economic divisions, vast punishing state, criminalization of social behaviors, and war on youth, poor people and people of color, public education is being destroyed. Against the prevailing anti-democratic reforms of the economic and religious fundamentalists, the noble belief in schools as democratic public spheres and in schooling as the center of critical thinking and learning needs to be reclaimed, struggled over and taken up as part of a larger social movement for the defense of the public good, public values and the democratic commons. It is precisely the concept of education as a building block for both critically engaged youth and a broader public, and for a radical politics, that inspires a great deal of fear in the billionaire, anti-public (un)reformers. (12)

Within the next decade the new extremists who now control the commanding institutions of culture, politics and economics will do everything they can to replace a weakly implemented ideal of democracy with the economic and social principles of a ruthless mode of casino capitalism, which constitutes a new form of authoritarianism. Public spheres that provide a challenge to market-driven fundamentalisms that “promote selfishness and thereby corrode both society and the moral character of individuals” will be under further assault and run the risk of disappearing altogether. (13) As selfishness and the amassing of great wealth and power are transformed by the new extremists into a civic virtue, agency itself withers, trapped within the orbit of an inward looking, privatized world.

But there is more at stake here than the collapse of public values and the destruction of a comprehensive vision of politics, largely under assault by the ongoing predatory market forces of commodification, privatization and an unchecked celebration of self-interests as the cornerstone of human agency. Racist killings, the loss of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, growing poverty and widening inequality, the increasing corporatization of public goods, and the depleting of resources that serve the commons all point to something more than the mounting privatization and atomizing of everyday life, along with the growing militarization, spying, xenophobia, racism and other anti-democratic practices in US society.

What must be acknowledged is that a pedagogy of fear and repression now leaks into other spheres to stifle dissent, punish those who speak out such as academic Steven Salaita, who lost his job because he dared speak out against what he viewed as an injustice by the Israeli government, and the egregious attack on radical attorneys such as Stanley Cohen and Lynn Stewart, who have been incarcerated for speaking in defense of the those who resist repression and are demonized by the government. In this instance, the ghosts of Orwell, Kafka and Arendt all point to an attack on, not just education or the formative cultures that support dissent, critical thought and engaged civic action, but democracy itself.

It is impossible to understand the current assault on public education without coming to grips with the project of neoliberalism.

What unites all of these disparate issues is a growing threat of authoritarianism – or what might be otherwise called totalitarianism with elections. Neoliberal societies embrace elections because they “exclude and alienate most people from political power” and thus provide a kind of magical defense for the authoritarian project of depoliticizing the public while removing all obstacles to their goal of defending massive inequities in power, wealth and the accumulation of capital. (14) It is impossible to understand the current assault on public education without coming to grips with the project of neoliberalism and its devaluation of the social, critical agency and informed thinking as part of its attempt to consolidate class power in the hands of a largely white financial and corporate elite.

The struggle for public education as a crucial civic resource and public good must continue through the large-scale organizing of teachers and labor unions, students and groups outside of education who are also struggling against a range of injustices. The struggle over public education cannot be removed from wider struggles against student debt, funding for public goods, the elimination of massive inequalities in wealth and power, the elimination of the military-industrial-security state, the abolition of police brutality, and the eradication of the punishing-mass incarceration state, among other struggles. These struggles all share underlying interests in restoring and reclaiming a notion of radical democracy that puts power in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the ruling elites. They also intersect around the need to elevate social needs over the narrow interests of the market and those elites who benefit from the financialization of society.

As the ruthlessness and misery produced by neoliberalism are made clear, the state resorts to increased levels of violence, often with impunity, particularly when it comes to attacking peaceful student protesters, and assaulting and often killing unarmed black men. (15) At the present moment, large-scale protests are taking place throughout the United States making clear that the public will no longer tolerate the indiscriminate killing of black men, the enforcement of racist policies across a wide social landscape, unrestrained police brutality and the continuing of widespread lawlessness that corrupts every institution – and schools in particular – that have been privatized and organized according to the narrow, if not savage and anti-democratic, interests of the market.

The ongoing protests in response to the killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and the non-indictments of police officers who killed them, must intersect with protests over the defunding of public schools, the attack on welfare state institutions and services, the movement to save the environment, the anti-nuclear movements and a host of other isolated movements that need to join together in a new political formation capable of challenging the financial elite who have taken over the US government and all the commanding institutions of US society. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” protests must overlap and connect with the struggle over public and higher education and the broader struggle for reclaiming a democracy that fulfills both its most radical ideals and its commitment to the common good, public values and a capacious notion of justice.

The Obama administration’s educational policies have been more conservative than that of his predecessor and are based on accountability schemes that reproduce the worst of the testing craze.

The best hope for reforming public education resides in the emergence of what Stanley Aronowitz calls “disruptive social movements that operate outside of the two-party system.” (16) Young people, single women, gays, students, union members, and other left groups no longer believe in either the Democratic Party or the two-party system. How else to explain their massive refusal to vote in the 2014 elections, which had the lowest voter turnout since 1943? As Aronowitz points out, for the last few decades, the Democratic Party has been particularly beholden to big money, wealthy donors and the Pentagon, and has pursued “centrist politics that allow them to follow the Republicans ever further to the right.” (17) President Obama personifies the political and moral cowardice of the Democratic Party given his violation of civil liberties and civil institutions, the development of a foreign policy that amounts to a doctrine of perpetual war, and his backing of “corporate-friendly economic policies.” (18) Moreover, the Obama administration’s educational policies have been more conservative than those of his predecessor George W. Bush and are based on accountability schemes that reproduce the worst of the testing craze along with an aggressive approach to promoting charter schools, attacking unions and privatizing public education.

The current “disruptive social movements” emerging all over the country have not only opened up a national conversation about police brutality; they have also challenged the “conventional wisdom about what is possible” politically, and if they continue, they could produce more far-reaching changes. (19) Both the movements against police brutality and the now largely defunct Occupy movement have provided new discursive signposts for acknowledging important social issues such as racially based police brutality and massive inequality in wealth, income and power. Central to these movements is the recognition of the educative nature of politics and the need to harness the rage of the public to points of identification that move people and indicate to them that they have the power collectively to challenge and transform the current corrupt regime of neoliberal capitalism.

These movements have created new ideological and affective spaces in which to assert the radical imagination and develop a project and politics of educated hope. Making education and the symbols of culture central to their tactics, they have engaged in a war in which representation, affect, struggle and the need to produce new desires, identities, and modes of consciousness and agency matter. But they have done something more. These emerging movements are taking risks in not only confronting the raw power of state repression; they are also putting forth bold new and controversial issues such as gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the call for a social wage, single-payer universal health care, a shorter work week, the dismantling of the surveillance state, a new Marshall Plan for job development, free education, subsidized child care and racial justice.

Some progressives believe that one response to the extremism of the Republican Party can be found in pushing the Democratic Party to embrace more radical reforms such as gay marriage and raising the minimum wage. The notion that real political, economic and social reform can be realized within the Democratic Party is more than pure fantasy; it also suffers from a form of historical amnesia that refuses to recognize that the only “reform the Democratic Party has implemented is to move more and more to the right, all in the name of a safe centrism that has marked its legacy for the last fifty years.” (20)

At its best, education is dangerous because it offers young people and other actors the promise of racial and economic justice, a future in which democracy becomes inclusive and a dream in which all lives matter.

What Orwell, Arendt and Kafka have taught us is that when power is decoupled from accountability and responsibility, thoughtlessness prevails, repression increases and fear becomes the organizing principle of totalitarian societies, whatever form they may take. The legacy of fear and the lawlessness it inspires runs deep in the United States and its destructive effects are spreading into every public sphere capable of offering critical reflection on the nature of power in a society. The collapse of education into training, the loss of autonomy by teachers, the removal of the conditions that enable students to be critical and engaged citizens all speak to the character of a society in which independent thought is debased; creativity, stifled; and dissent, squelched.

We live in an age dominated by financial barbarians who are more than willing to place the vast majority of Americans in strangulating debt, low paying jobs, devastating poverty and spheres of life-threatening abjection, or, even worse, in “criminogenic ghettoes” and penal gulags. Under such circumstances, the rich commit crimes with impunity while the poor are put in jail in record numbers. Depravity and illegality feed each other as torture is defended by the political leadership as a reasonable tactic to extract crucial information from prisoners. All that stands between state terrorism and mass induced fear are informed citizens, critically educated agents and political formations willing to act with the courage necessary to think politics anew while developing innovative strategies, institutions and organizations that make it possible. Such struggles will not happen in the name of reform alone. Mass resistance to the authoritarian financial state must take place and its goal must be the dismantling of the current corrupt political system that has little to do with democracy and a great deal to do with the values, practices and policies of authoritarianism. Liberal reforms constitute a form of political regression and lack a powerful vision for challenging the corrupt and lifeless political vision produced by the regime of neoliberalism.

At the same time, the democratic institutions in which education is defined as the practice of freedom, critical learning and civic responsibility may be under siege by the lobbyists, hedge fund managers and the billionaires club, but the radical spirit of education is too powerful to be contained under state and corporate repression. The promise of educated citizens along with the enduring character of critical reflection and the search for economic, political and racial justice lives on in the demonstrations of workers, unions and young people all across the United States who are not just protesting police brutality, but also marching in order to have their voices heard as part of the promise of a radical democracy along with the arrangements that give it and them a meaningful and just life. At its best, education is dangerous because it offers young people and other actors the promise of racial and economic justice, a future in which democracy becomes inclusive and a dream in which all lives matter. Ursula K. Le Guin who was recently honored at the National Book Awards speaks about the power of books, words and artists who believe in the power of freedom, but I think her words also apply to education and other public intellectuals as well. She writes:

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words. I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality. (21)

Le Guin’s words remind us of the power of education and point indirectly to the need to resist all forms of miseducation. Miseducation breeds isolated consumerism, ignorance, militarism, a hatred of the other and indifference to the public good, and feeds a logic of disposability embraced by those who view justice and democracy as a liberal burden, if not a pathology. At its best, the critical and humane spirit of public education lives on in the future of social movements and militant labor unions willing to unify into a third party, create a new language of politics, defend those civic principles that are incompatible with casino capitalism and recognize that the most important investment a country can make is in its youth and educational institutions. The war on public education is part of the war on democracy and it is, in part, born of the legitimate fear that the emergence of larger radical social movements will depend on the development of a formative educational culture and modes of subjectivity that enable the agents for such movements. That is a concern worth nurturing and a struggle worth waging, but time is running out.


1. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

2. Cited in Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt, Trans by David Dollenmayer (New York: Other Press, 2013), p. 10.

3. David Sirota, “New data shows school ‘reformers’ are full of it,” Salon, (June 3, 2013). Online:

4. Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York: 2001). pp. 468.

5. Diane Ravitch, “The People Behind the Lawmakers Out to Destroy Public Education: A Primer
What You Need To Know About ALEC,” Common Dreams (May 2, 2012). Online:

6. Paul Buchheit, “How Our Public Schools Became a “Communist Threat”,” Common Dreams (November 18, 2013). Online:

7. Robert Hunziker, “A Neoliberal Spring?,” CounterPunch (December 18, 2014.) Online:

8. Aaron Kase, “Public School Asks Parents to Pay $613 Per Student As Right-Wing Governor Destroys Public Education with Insane Defunding,” AlterNet (August 22, 2013). Online:

9. See for instance, Roger Cohen, “‘Capitalism Eating Its Children,” The New York Times (May 29, 2014). Online:

10. See, for instance, the classic work on zero tolerance: William Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Rick Ayers, eds. Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in our Schools (New York: The New Press, 2001). See also, Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2013).

11. Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2013), p. 123.

12. Michael D. Yates, “Public School Teachers: New Unions, New Alliances, New Politics,” Truthout, (July 24, 2013). Online:

13. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, “Selfishness in austerity times,” Soundings, Issue 56, Spring 2014. p. 55.

14. Lorenzo Del Savio and Matteo Mameli, “Anti-representative democracy and oligarchic capture” Open Democracy (August 16, 2014). Online:

15. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait: Resisting the War Against the Black and Brown Underclass,” Counterpunch (November 25, 2014). Online:

16. Stanley Aronowitz, “Democrats in Disarray,” The Indypendent (December 16, 2014), p. 12. Online:

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. One recent example of this kind of pie in the sky politics can be found in Scott Galindez, “2014: The Beginning of the End for the GOP?” Reader Supported News (December 26, 2014). Online:

21. Ursula K. Le Guin, “We will need writers who can remember Freedom,” Speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. Online:

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