End of Enlightenment

In a recent article, Dr. Henry Giroux argued that we may be witnessing the dismantling of democracy [1]. He pointed to the neoliberal assault on public education and the transformation of public education into workforce training for the global economy at the hands of state and federal law makers [2]. Giroux’s remarks are sobering. They may actually be more telling than even he realized. Perhaps the neoliberal assault on education is not the destruction of democracy, but rather something much more profound; it may be the end of the Enlightenment.

While it is impossible to put exact definitive markers on historical events, historians argue that the Enlightenment began roughly at the end of the seventeenth century [3]. Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Marquis Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft Thomas Jefferson and later Georg Hegel all wrote of the power of a progressive and liberal education grounded in history and the liberal arts, they wrote about civic duty, public service and the infallibility of true democracy. While their thoughts are varied, and at times contradictory, they all demanded equality, freedom, justice, the rule of reason and the suppression of superstition. Their writings are imbued with a sense of optimism, those social problems such hunger; poverty and war can and would be solved with human effort. Jefferson in particular wrote that an educated citizenry has to be the foundation of any true republican government. Further, he wrote citizens need to be taught history because only with a historical education could they truly hold their leaders accountable [4].

These powerful Enlightenment ideas animated the American and French Revolutions. Historians squabble about the date the Enlightenment ended; many argue that it came to an end after the French Revolution. Yet, the ideals of the Enlightenment never died. In many ways they helped to inspire democratic and socialist movements during the nineteenth century, the abolition of slavery, progressive era, women’s suffrage, and the radical protests of the 1960s to name some of the more famous events. By the 1980s, Jürgen Habermas argued that we must continue to fight for the ideas of Enlightenment, that the ideas of freedom, justice, equality and the rights of the individual were things worth fighting for [5]. Giroux and others, such as Dave Hill, have argued for democratic pedagogy to help instill these Enlightenment values in students and help them carry them to the next generation [6].

Yet, by the 1980s, neoliberals had begun their assault on public education and in a larger sense the values of the Enlightenment. Newfield argued that one of the main intents behind the assault on public education has been driven by a recognition of conservatives of the power of a liberal and progressive education. After the events that higher education helped to inspire in the 1960s, conservatives began an assault on public K-12 and higher education. The weapon they used was the market; they claim that public education is not efficient; it does not prepare students for the marketplace and workplace [7]. In 2013, Giroux’s statement that we may be witnessing the dismantling of democracy has become all the more prophetic. Yet it is not a reason to retreat into cynicism. Rather, it should be a call to arms. There is not magical force driving history. There is only human action. Educators must mobilize and fight for their students, for democracy and for the Enlightenment itself.


  1. Giroux, H. (2013) Public intellectuals against the neoliberal university. Published in https://truthout.org/opinion/item/19654-public-intellectuals-against-the-neoliberal-university
  1. Giroux, H. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York, NY: Continuum.
  2. Giroux, H. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York, NY: Continuum.
  3. Gutek, G. (1995). A history of the western educational experience. (2nd ed). Illinois: Waveland

Jefferson, T. (2010). Notes on the state of Virginia. Introduction by Peter S. Onuf. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Press.

  1. Habermas, J. (1990). Modernity: An unfinished project.
  1. Giroux, H. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York, NY:

Hill, D. (2012). Fighting neoliberalism with education and activism. Philosophers for Change.

  1. Giroux, H. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York, NY: Continuum.