If Classrooms Are "Free of Politics," the Right Wing Will Grow

If Classrooms Are “Free of Politics,” the Right Wing Will Grow

A disconcerting number of academics and teachers in the current moment continue to join forces with right-wing politicians and conservative government agencies to argue that classrooms should be free of politics. Their shared conclusion? That schools should be spaces where matters of power, values and social justice should not be addressed.

The scornful accusation in this case is that teachers who believe in civic education indoctrinate their students. Those who make this accusation suggest that it’s possible to exist in an ideologically pure and politically neutral world where pedagogy can be merely a banal transmission of facts in which nothing controversial is stated and teachers are forbidden to utter one word related to any of the major problems facing society more broadly.

Of course, this view of teaching is as much a flight from reality as it is an instance of irresponsible pedagogy. In contrast, one useful approach to embracing the classroom as a political site while rejecting any form of indoctrination is for educators to think through the distinction between a politicizing pedagogy, which insists wrongly that students think exactly as we do as educators, and a political pedagogy, which teaches students through dialogue about the importance of power, social responsibility and taking a stand (without standing still). Political pedagogy, unlike a dogmatic or indoctrinating pedagogy, embodies the principles of critical pedagogy through rigorously engaging the full range of ideas about an issue within a framework that enables students to move from moral purpose to purposeful action in pursuit of a democratic polis.

The Promise of Political Pedagogy

Political pedagogy offers the promise of nurturing students to think critically about their understanding of classroom knowledge and its relationship to the issue of social responsibility. It is also responsive to the challenge of educating students to engage the world critically in order to struggle for those political and economic conditions that make democratic participation in both schools and the larger society possible.

Such a pedagogy affirms the experience of the social sphere and the obligations it invokes regarding questions of social responsibility and political transformation. It does so by opening up important questions about power, knowledge and what it means for students to engage critically the complex conditions influencing themselves and others.

Paulo Freire was right in arguing that critical pedagogy as a political project is, in part, defined by the need to teach students to “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” In addition, political pedagogy provides students with the knowledge and skills to work to overcome the social relations of oppression that make living unbearable for those who are poor, hungry, unemployed, deprived of adequate social services and viewed under the aegis of neoliberalism as largely disposable. The words of German playwright Bertolt Brecht resonate well with the need for pedagogical approaches that combat lies and ignorance. He writes:

Today anyone who wishes to fight lies and ignorance and to write the truth has to overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth, even though it is suppressed everywhere; the cleverness to recognize it, even though it is disguised everywhere; the skill to make it fit for use as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will become effective; [and] the cunning to spread it amongst them.

What is important about this type of pedagogy is how responsibility is understood as both an ethical issue and a strategic act. Responsibility is not only a crucial element regarding what issues teachers address in a classroom; it is also embodied in their relationships to their colleagues, students, parents and the wider society. Responsibility as a crucial part of any pedagogical practice suggests providing the connective tissue that enables students to raise issues about the consequences of their actions in the world and their behaviors toward others, and to analyze the relationship between knowledge and power, and the social costs it often enacts. The emphasis on responsibility highlights the performative nature of pedagogy by raising questions about both the pedagogical relationship that teachers have with students, and about how ideas are situated in the public realm in order to highlight those practices and relationships that expand and deepen the possibilities of both their own sense of agency and the process of democratization.

Central here is the importance for educators to encourage students to connect knowledge and criticism as a precondition to becoming an agent of social change buttressed by a profound desire to overcome injustice and a spirited commitment to social action.

Let’s Not Conflate Political Education With Politicizing Education

Political education teaches students to take risks and challenge those with power. Likewise, it encourages students and teachers to be reflexive about how power is used in the classroom. Political education proposes that the role of the teacher is not to consolidate authority, but to question and interrogate it, and that teachers and students should temper any reliance on authority with a sense of critical awareness and an acute willingness to hold it accountable for its consequences. Moreover, political education foregrounds education guided not by the imperatives of specialization and professionalization, but by goals designed to expand the possibilities of democracy. Linking education to modes of political agency is therefore part of a larger project to promote critical citizenship and address the ethical imperative to alleviate human suffering.

In contrast, politicizing education silences in the name of orthodoxy and imposes itself on students while undermining dialogue, deliberation and critical engagement. Politicizing education is often grounded in a combination of self-righteousness and ideological purity that silences students as it enacts “correct” positions. Authority in this perspective rarely opens itself to self-criticism — or for that matter, to any criticism, especially from students. Politicizing education cannot decipher the distinction between critical teaching and pedagogical terrorism. Its advocates have no sense of the difference between encouraging human agency and social responsibility, on the one hand, and on the other hand, molding students by advocating an unquestioned ideological position and applying it through an orthodox and unflinching pedagogical script. In this discourse, theoretical correctness becomes a vehicle for silencing students in the name of a dogmatic pedagogy. Politicizing education is more about training than educating. It harbors a great dislike for complicating issues, promoting critical dialogue and generating a culture of questioning.

Education operates as a crucial site of power in the modern world. If teachers are truly concerned about safeguarding education, they will have to take seriously how pedagogy functions on local and global levels. Critical pedagogy has an important role to play in both understanding and challenging how power is deployed, affirmed and resisted, within and outside of traditional discourses and cultural spheres. In a local context, critical pedagogy becomes an important theoretical tool for understanding the institutional conditions that place constraints on the production of knowledge, learning, academic labor and democracy itself. Critical pedagogy also provides a discourse for engaging and challenging the production of social hierarchies, identities and ideologies as they traverse local and national borders. In addition, pedagogy as a form of production and critique offers a discourse of possibility — a way of providing students with the opportunity to link understanding to commitment, and social transformation to seeking the greatest possible justice.

If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional sphere of politics from the now transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, and a market economy and a market society. Resistance does not begin with reforming capitalism but abolishing it.

Neoliberal capitalism creates the foundation for what I have called neoliberal fascism and echoes German sociologist Max Horkheimer’s dictum of 1939 that, “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” This suggests developing forms of critical pedagogy capable of challenging neoliberalism, diverse anti-democratic traditions and a growing fascist politics. In this instance, critical pedagogy becomes a political and moral practice in the fight to revive civic literacy, civic culture and a notion of shared citizenship. Politics loses its emancipatory possibilities if it cannot provide the education condition for enabling students and others to think against the grain and where students realize themselves as informed, critical and engaged citizens. There is no radical politics without a pedagogy capable of awakening consciousness, challenging common sense and creating modes of analysis in which people discover a moment of recognition that enables them to rethink the conditions that shape their lives. This is the moment of hope in which, as sociologist Ruth Levitas points out, the sense of “something missing can be read in every trace of how it might be otherwise, how the ever-present sense of lack might [be tempered].”

In addition, educators should do more than create the conditions for critical thinking for their students. They also need to responsibly assume the role of civic educators within broader social contexts and be willing to share their ideas with other educators and the wider public by making use of new media technologies. Communicating to a variety of public audiences suggests using opportunities for writing, public talks and media interviews offered by the radio, internet, alternative magazines, and teaching young people and adults in alternative schools, to name only a few examples. Such means of communication need to become public by crossing over into spheres and avenues of expression that speak to more general audiences in a language that is clear, accessible and rigorous. Capitalizing on their role as intellectuals, educators can address the challenge of combining scholarship and commitment by using a vocabulary that is neither dull nor obtuse, while seeking to speak to a broad audience. More importantly, as teachers organize to assert the importance of their role and that of education in a democracy, they can forge new alliances and connections to develop social movements that include and expand beyond working with unions.

Developing a Discourse of Critique and Possibility

One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers and other cultural workers is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility. This means developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect reading the word with reading the world, and doing so in ways that enhance the creative capacities of young people and provide the conditions for them to become critical agents. In taking up this project, educators and others should attempt to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to become critical and engaged citizens who have the knowledge and courage to struggle in order to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. Hope in this instance is educational, removed from the fantasy of an idealism that is unaware of the constraints facing the dream of a radical democratic society. Educated hope is not a call to overlook the difficult conditions that shape both schools and the larger social order, nor is it a blueprint removed from specific contexts and struggles. On the contrary, it is the precondition for providing those languages and values that point the way to a more democratic and just world.

Educated hope provides the basis for dignifying the labor of teachers; it offers up critical knowledge linked to democratic social change, affirms shared responsibilities, and encourages teachers and students to recognize ambivalence and uncertainty as fundamental dimensions of learning. Such hope offers the possibility of thinking beyond the given. As difficult as this task may seem to educators, if not to a larger public, it is a struggle worth waging.

Against neoliberalism, educators, students and other concerned citizens face the task of providing a language of resistance and possibility, a language that embraces a militant utopianism while constantly being attentive to those forces that seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss those who dare to look beyond the horizon of the given. Fascism breeds cynicism and is the enemy of a militant and social hope. Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination and engaged participation. Without hope, even in the direst times, there is no possibility for resistance, dissent and struggle. Agency is the condition of struggle, and hope is the condition of agency. Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognizing and naming the incomplete nature of the present.

Hope is the affective and intellectual precondition for individual and social struggle. Hope, not despair, is the precondition that encourages critique on the part of intellectuals in and outside of the academy who use the resources of theory to address pressing social problems. Hope is also at the root of the civic courage that translates critique into political practice. Hope as the desire for a future that offers more than the present becomes most acute when one’s life can no longer be taken for granted. Only by holding on to both critique and hope in such contexts will resistance make concrete the possibility for transforming politics into an ethical space and a public act. And a better future than the one we now expect to unfold will require nothing less than confronting the flow of everyday experience and the weight of social suffering with the force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic social transformation. At the same time, in order for resistance to take on the challenges posed by the rise of a fascist politics, it will have to develop an awakening of desire. This form of educated desire is rooted in the dream of a collective consciousness and imagination fueled by the struggle for new forms of community that affirm the value of economic equality, the social contract, democratic values and social relations.

The current fight against a nascent fascism across the globe is not only a struggle over economic structures or the commanding heights of corporate power. It is also a struggle over visions, ideas, consciousness and the power to shift the culture itself. It is also, as Hannah Arendt points out, a struggle against “a widespread fear of judging.” Without the ability to judge, it becomes impossible to recover words that have meaning, imagine alternative worlds and a future that does not mimic the dark times in which we live, and create a language that changes how we think about ourselves and our relationship to others. Any struggle for a radical democratic socialist order will not take place if “the lessons from our dark past [cannot] be learnt and transformed into constructive resolutions” and solutions for struggling for and creating a post-capitalist society.

Progressives need to formulate a new language, alternative cultural spheres and fresh narratives about freedom, the power of collective struggle, empathy, solidarity, and the promise of a real socialist democracy. We need a new understanding of politics, one that refuses to equate capitalism and democracy, refuses to normalize greed and excessive competition, and rejects self-interest as the highest form of motivation. We need a language, vision and understanding of power to enable the conditions in which education is linked to social change and the capacity to promote human agency through the registers of cooperation, compassion, care, love, equality and a respect for difference. Author Ariel Dorfman’s ode to the struggle over language and its relationship to the power of the imagination, collective resistance and hope offers a fitting reminder of what needs to be done. He writes:

We must trust that the intelligence that has allowed humanity to stave off death, make medical and engineering breakthroughs, reach the stars, build wondrous temples, and write complex tales will save us again. We must nurse the conviction that we can use the gentle graces of science and reason to prove that the truth cannot be vanquished so easily. To those who would repudiate intelligence, we must say: you will not conquer and we will find a way to convince.

In the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens and no justice without a language critical of injustice. At the same time, any critical approach to politics will fail if it ignores a radical imaginary that embraces social hope as a mix of collective modes of resistance and democratic possibilities. Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as public and higher education in which civic values, public scholarship and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting pedagogy to the practice of freedom, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. In the age of nascent fascism, it is not enough to connect education with the defense of reason, informed judgment and critical agency; it must also be aligned with the power and potential of collective resistance. Moreover, it is crucial that centrists, liberals and radicals not make common cause with the right over the idea that classrooms should be “free of politics.” We may live in ominous times, but the future is still open. The time has come to develop a political language and pedagogical tools in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency, collective struggle and an impassioned sense of civic courage and political will.

Note: The author would like to thank Dr. Rania Filippakou for her insightful editorial comments on this article.