Truthout contributor, director of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project and Board member Henry Giroux responded on June 10, 2013, to questions concerning varieties of pedagogy and fundamentalism, markets, and the prospects for public schools raised by his latest book:
America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth
Henry A. Giroux
Monthly Review Press
New York 2013, 238 pages
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: You have authored over 50 books, all of which deal with education in one form or another and most of which deal with the problems of youth; how would you define the specific focus of America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth?
The focus of this book is on the growing economic, political and cultural gap that has emerged in the United States between political leaders elected to govern and the citizenry whom they represent. It is also about the pernicious gap between ruling financial and corporate elites and the rest of society and how it has intensified the growth of a political and cultural landscape that is as anti-intellectual and devoid of a culture of questioning as it is authoritarian. I argue in this book that the deepening political, economic and moral deficit in America is inextricably connected to an education deficit, which is currently impacting young people most of all by starving them of both the economic resources and the formative educational experiences required to help them develop into knowledgeable and engaged citizens. The book begins with the premise that the crisis of schooling cannot be disconnected from the economic crisis – fueled by endless wars, a bloated military-industrial complex, and vast disparities in wealth and income. I argue throughout the book that as the United States proceeds headlong on a reckless course of civic illiteracy, which serves to legitimate and bolster a malignant gap in income, wealth and power, the end point is sure to entail the destruction of current and future possibilities for developing the educational institutions and formative culture that advance the imperatives of justice and democracy.
The book takes up the theme of the educational deficit by analyzing how recent attacks on youth can be linked to systemic attempts by a corporate and financial elite, conservative think tanks, and other right-wing forces to dismantle the social state and undermine opportunities for critical education, civic courage, and actions that make a world more just and democratic. These attacks range from the militarization of schools and the reduction in social services to the ongoing criminalization of a wide range of youth and adult behaviors and an increasing disinvestment in policies that would provide jobs, health care, and a future for young people.
Examining the regressive educational apparatuses, conservative politics, and cultures of cynicism that have dominated the United States in recent years, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth describes and analyzes how American society is increasingly infused by real and symbolic forms of violence promoted by a range of intersecting forces, including neoliberal policymaking, militarization, religious fanaticism, corporate elitism, the violation of civil liberties, unconstitutional forms of surveillance, the disinvestment in public and higher education, and persistent racism. Despite widespread calls for electoral reform, the nation has arrived at such a crisis in governance that it cannot possibly begin to redress prevailing issues through political reform alone. Education must be taken seriously as a matter of primary importance among anyone who believes in the promise of US democracy.
In addition to documenting the authoritarian and morally malicious policies and actions of a government beholden to corporate, religious and military interests, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth invites the reader to consider the possibilities for democratic renewal embodied by the ongoing actions of various modes of resistance that are emerging among young people, workers, feminists, and other individual and social movements that are demonstrating the importance of critical education, hope, and peaceful resistance against a creeping authoritarianism. All but abandoned by the adult generation, youth, with others are beginning to take matters into their own hands and are teaching themselves the power of democratic expression in a society that has all but relinquished its claim to democracy.
You dedicate the book to teachers everywhere, but also to the memory of Roger Simon. How does that memory influence the book?
The book could not have been written without the presence of having Roger Simon as one of my best friends and colleagues for over thirty years. He was a brilliant scholar whose work extended from critical pedagogy and public memory to higher education and museum studies, among other fields. His archive of work, along with his book Teaching Against the Grain, which is one of the great classics of critical pedagogy and educational theory, have provided me with a rich theoretical framework over the past few decades. Roger taught me about humility and what it meant to approach one’s life and work with a high degree of self-reflection and a deep regard for others. He taught me that friendship was more important than one’s career and that the fullness of our lives should be played out in our compassion with and for others. And he taught me that justice and ethics were central not only to politics and pedagogy but also to how we understood who we were and what it meant to be in the world. All of these qualities have helped me to think through the nature of my own work and also the importance of addressing the suffering, deprivations and struggles young people now face and which they are engaging. We taught each other how to turn away from the poison of political purity, how to laugh, how to approach disagreements with each other as gifts rather than marks of enmity, and we were always reminding each other that the best conversations took place along with the taste of decent wine and the sensuality of good music. Dedicating the book to him was a small gift to a friend whose memory, work, words and friendship have left an indelible mark on me and whose presence I will never forget.
One of your constant themes, building on the work of Zygmunt Bauman, is the disposability of populations. How have neoliberalism’s expanding targets in the last 30 years demonstrated that everyone is ultimately disposable whenever anyone is?
Since the 1970s, there has been an intensification of the anti-democratic pressures of neoliberal policies. What is particularly new is the way in which immigrants, poor minorities and vast numbers of the working and middle classes are increasingly denied any social provisions as a result of an already eviscerated social contract and the degree to which they are no longer viewed as central to how the United States defines its future. Keeping up with the Joneses has been replaced with the struggle to simply survive – and mimics a neo-Hobbesian world in which the politics of disposability has replaced the most minimal elements of the welfare state. With the growth of finance capital, a global shift in power, and a move from a society of producers to a society of consumers, American society took a turn to the dark side, one that eviscerated any pretense to democracy and condemned millions of people to a life of perpetual suffering, hardship and misery. Under the dictates of a neoliberal society, not only are resources and consumer goods thrown away, but human beings are now also considered excess to be relegated to the garbage can of society. In other words, we do not just throw away goods but also people.
For instance, as I point out in the book, low-income and poor minority youth, in particular, are no longer the register where society reveals its dreams for a just and equitable future. On the contrary, such youth increasingly symbolize a space where neoliberal society reveals its nightmares and invokes a culture of cruelty that appears more savage than its full embrace of the ethos of greed. Within neoliberal narratives, youth are either defined as a consumer market, advertisements for such a market, or they symbolize trouble – a generation who do not have problems but are the problem.
The mall and the prison have become the preeminent institutions and spaces for symbolizing what the future holds for young people as they experience either the soft war of commodification or the hard war of hyper-punitiveness and possible incarceration. This shift in how American society talks about young people marginalized by race, class and ethnicity betrays a great deal about what is increasingly new about the economic, social, cultural and political landscape of American society and its growing disinvestment in the common good, democratic public spheres, the social state, and democracy itself. Long-term planning and the institutional structures that support it are now relegated to the imperatives of privatization, deregulation, flexibility and short-term investments. Social bonds have been shredded as a result of the ongoing elimination of social protections provided by the welfare state, just as the current neoliberal mantra places an emphasis on individual solutions to socially produced problems. Heightened expectations and progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness and despair, while giving millions to mega corporations, financial services, banks and the military. The logic of disposability now threatens anyone who cannot fulfill their role as a consumer, provide unquestioned support to established corporate and political bastions of power, willingly accept the capitalist drive for profits regardless of the social costs, and accommodate a notion of the public sphere that is largely white, male and deeply conservative.
What we have seen in the last thirty years is the shredding of all vestiges of the social contract, especially those policies that emerged out of the New Deal and the Great Society. These older programs and modes of governance addressed the importance of the common good, embodied a social contract, however flawed, that served, as Robert O’Self has pointed out, “as the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life.”(1) This appeal to our collective destiny and shared responsibilities has been replaced by a market-driven ideology and mode of politics that now privatizes, commodifies, atomizes and taints mostly everything it touches.
Under the older forms of liberalism there was an agreement between labor and capital that workers had to be protected with decent pensions and working conditions, the future of young people demanded certain social investments, the elderly needed health care and social benefits to protect them from dire poverty and illnesses and workers needed retirement funds to allow them to have a decent life once they reached a certain age. Today, all of these policies and social provisions are viewed as extravagant and the people who receive them are increasingly demonized, especially by right-wing politicians. Under the auspices of a neoliberal notion of austerity, these populations have become a burden rather than an embodiment of a society’s commitment to the social good. Consequently, large and diverse members of the public now inhabit a zone of disposability and a future of terminal exclusion. The reality of redundancy, excess, and disposability, rather than the promise of getting ahead, has become the new normal in American society.
You preface your discussion of the four fundamentalisms with a section on the culture of cruelty: All fundamentalisms seem to share the cruelty of excluding non-believers who are either to be converted or disposed of?
One feature of the savage neoliberal worldview that has a grip on American society, if not most of the larger world, is a commitment to a form of political purity in which all relationships are reduced to a friend/enemy binary. The cheerleaders for neoliberalism and a host of other fundamentalisms live in circles of certainty and are deeply suspicious of anyone who dares to think critically, asks damaging questions, holds power accountable or challenges the existing order. More often than not, the response to those who dare dissent, speak out and question dominant power relations, especially on the part of the state, involves the increased use of state violence, the threat of incarceration and even the threat of assassination – as exemplified in the revelation of an Obama government-sponsored kill list. Fear and the all-engulfing encirclement of the war on terror and the permanent warfare state have not only narrowed and militarized the parameters of civility, dialogue and thoughtfulness, but have largely rendered them pathological, if not dangerous. Such a response is evident in the violence waged against peaceful student protesters, the imprisonment of whistleblowers, the rise of the punishing state and imprisonment binge, the ongoing drug war that is as racist as it is undemocratic and the transformation of public schools into either malls with their myriad forms of advertisement and corporate culture or, more brutally, into models of prison culture.
The culture of cruelty that has been ratcheted up with great intensity since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 provides the symbolic registers for viewing some populations as excess, redundant and disposable. In fact, the language of disposability has become central to a growing culture of cruelty in which it is stated without apology that “the poor in America have it too easy because they have refrigerators and televisions … Poor black and brown children should be given mops and brooms and put in veritable work houses like Dickensian street urchins … Electric fences should be used to kill ‘illegal’ immigrants.”(2) Those populations who are poor, homeless, lacking work, sick, or racially other are now described as a scourge on the American character and are defined in less than human terms, stripped of their rights, and relieved of the promise of the safety and security once offered by the social contract. There is more at work here than the poverty of public discourse. There is also a hardening of the culture in which the shift away from public values and democratic politics is matched by a growing education deficit and an American style form of authoritarianism. Theodor W. Adorno was right when he argued: “I consider the survival of [fascism] within democracy to be potentially more menacing that the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”(3)
The culture of cruelty is also, in part, produced by the dominant neoliberal assumption that politics is an extension of war – a view that reduces politics to a disembodied form of military metaphysics. In this scenario, all disagreements are viewed as acts of violence demanding that those who do not share one’s values or beliefs be considered an enemy, threat or someone who has to be destroyed. This Hobbesian-inspired culture of cruelty is also an outgrowth of a market-driven philosophy in which economics are removed from matters of ethics, morality and social costs. Within this discourse, society as a construct disappears and politics is no longer about the language of the common good, public values or the public interest. Ruthless competition, crushing the enemy and embracing a survival of the fittest ethos have become the new normal dominating American culture.
We now live in a society in which the mass surveillance of Americans by the government makes clear that the distinction between the innocent and guilty, suspects and non-suspects, terrorists and non-terrorists has broken down. Shared fears have replaced shared responsibilities. Consequently, public values, compassion, care for the other, and a robust sense of social responsibility vanish from the political and educational landscape, ushering in a spirit of meanness and harshness that further contributes to the hardening of the culture. Neoliberalism, in this discourse, has created a formative culture in which violence now becomes the most important element of power in mediating social relationships. And as the bonds of trust are replaced by the bonds of fear and humiliation, all forms of dependency and trust are viewed with suspicion – making it easier for a society to inhabit a formative culture in which many Americans seem to delight in human suffering, a particularly pathological mentality at this time when so many Americans are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, homelessness, joblessness and utter despair.
How does the education deficit contribute to the gap you identify between “the people and institutions elected to govern and the citizenry they represent?” How does the education deficit translate into a democracy deficit and vice versa?
No democracy can survive without a formative culture that offers the public the opportunity to broaden their knowledge, skills, and values in ways that enhance and expand their capacities to think critically, imagine otherwise, create the conditions for shared responsibilities, and hold power accountable. A vibrant formative culture expands the critical educative nature of all cultural apparatuses – from schools to the old and new media – as part of a wider project of enabling people to be able to assume the role of critical agents, thinking subjects, and critically engaged citizens willing to learn how to govern rather than merely govern and to able to care for the other. Education becomes central to any viable notion of politics because it provides the tools to enable people, as C. Wright Mills reminded us, to translate private troubles into public concerns. Neoliberalism has created the conditions in which civic literacy and moral responsibility disappear. This Jeffersonian ideal of education providing the conditions to produce an informed citizenry is now under siege at every level of society in which knowledge is produced and circulated. Moral indifference now replaces social responsibility just as civic literacy is now replaced by the idiocy of celebrity culture, the anti-intellectualism embraced by a commodity based-culture, and the current utterly instrumental and repressive view of education.
When civic literacy declines and the attacks on civic values intensify, the commanding institutions of society are divorced from matters of ethics, social responsibility and civic engagement. One consequence is the emergence of a kind of anti-politics in which the discourses of privatization, possessive individualism and crass materialism inundate every aspect of social life, making it easy for people to lose their faith in the critical function of civic education and the culture of an open and substantive democracy. As public spaces are transformed into spaces of consumption, the formative cultures that provide the preconditions for critical thought and agency crucial to any viable notion of democracy are eviscerated. Under such circumstances, civil society, along with critical thought, if not politics itself, cannot be sustained and become short-lived, fickle and ephemeral. At the same time, it becomes more difficult for individuals to comprehend what they have in common with others and what it means to be held together by shared responsibilities rather than by shared fears and competitive struggles.
As someone educated in economics and also with quite fond memories of the real markets I grew up with – Philadelphia’s Italian market and the Reading Station Farmer’s market – I am a little put off by references to “market fundamentalism.” For me one of the problems of the economy is that today’s markets are in no way “free,” but rigged by corporate influence. And the essential condition in classical economics for market performance – perfect information – is impossible when corporations buy “facts” by financing scientific studies with rigged results. That makes your other term “casino capitalism” quite generous: Shouldn’t it be “rigged casino capitalism?” and what do you think of “capitalist fundamentalism?”
I used the term market fundamentalism to highlight the ways in which the market has become a template to organize all aspects of society. In doing so, I attempted to make a distinction between a market economy and a market society. In a market economy, the forces that drive the market are subordinate to larger democratic political forces and corporations do not have the driving force or power to replace political sovereignty with a form of market sovereignty.
On the other hand, a market society is one in which any democratic vision of a just society and good life have been replaced by the totalizing notion that the only framing mechanisms available in which one can address such questions are now supplied by market modes of governance, ideology, values and policies. Under a market society, pedagogy produces political quietism; the quest to survive for many Americans becomes the order of the day; the experience of a better life is replaced by the trauma of trying to stay alive, and as Lauren Berlant points out, in such a society in which the good life is only possible within a market society “one can only imagine oneself as a solitary agent”(4) In measuring everything by the accumulation of capital and the yardstick of profit, market societies erode the effective dimensions of solidarity and the public good while emptying the language of democracy of any substantive meaning. And in doing so, the notion of a free market is oxymoronic and gives way to the swindle of individual choice and a notion of market freedom that seeks to maximize one’s self interest. As I point out in the book, a market society signals not only a change in values and policies but a revolution in the restructuring of politics and modes of governing in which the ideas and institutional basis of the welfare state, along with the social provisions which supported it, are gradually eliminated.
You write “changing consciousness is not the same as altering the institutional basis of oppression and institutional reform cannot take place without a change in consciousness that recognizes the need to reinvent the conditions and practices that would make this possible.” What is the way out of this vicious circle? Many of our contributors rely on new institutional arrangements to change consciousness; do you think that alone would work?
My argument is that democratic reform and structural change are impossible without a transformation in individual and collective consciousness and values. Until people unlearn the values, ideologies and sedimented desires that allow for the internalization of their own subjugation, neoliberalism along with racism and other forms of oppression will be normalized, viewed as common sense, self-evident, and hence removed from critical inquiry. Without a change in consciousness, it becomes difficult for people to recognize the predatory and pernicious ideologies and effects of a savage casino capitalism that has a real stake in promoting injustice, diverse modes of oppression, a full-fledged assault on the environment, and the increasing rise of the warfare state. Regardless of the ruthless forms that state and corporate power assume, such practices have to be legitimated, and this speaks to the necessity of progressives and others grasping what Stuart Hall has called “a sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.”(5) At stake here is the need to recognize that education should be at the center of any viable notion of critical politics in that it is crucial to changing the ways in which people define themselves, their relationships to others and to the larger world.
United action demands a change in collective consciousness, which can only take place through a struggle within and over the commanding cultural apparatuses that constitute the major educative forces of our time. Such a struggle must address the primacy of fighting for those formative cultures and public spheres that make a real democracy possible – spheres that enable individuals to think beyond the discourse of compromise and conduct struggles on the mutually informed terrains of civic literacy, education and power. This is why the struggle for creating the conditions for informed, socially responsible and engaged citizens should be at the heart of any new attempt to reclaim the language of critical thinking, civic courage, social engagement and the promise of a democracy to come.
Instead of embracing neoliberal public pedagogy with its emphasis on privatization, commodification, self-interest and unchecked individualism, Americans need to gain control of existing institutions such as public and higher education in order to counter such ideologies and practices. At the same time, progressives need to struggle vigorously to create alternative educational programs, modes of public pedagogy and communities of care and compassion that promote cultures of deliberation, critical exchange, questioning and thoughtfulness across a wide number of cultural and institutional sites. But the educational task is only the first step in creating a new vision of politics, democracy and economic justice. In order to challenge successfully the neoliberal assumption that a corporate-dominated market society represents the essence of democracy, there is a need to create broad-based social movements that can fight for critical infrastructures, alternative institutions, new community-based modes of communication, and participatory forms of democracy. Everything must be done to rethink politics in light of the current separation of local politics from global forms of power. Any politics that matters must create new institutions for preventing global powers from shaping local and global politics. Americans need a new sense of utopia, one that recreates the coordinates of the real and the possible – an adoption of what I have called educated hope. An informed consciousness and a radical vision of a new sense of democracy suggests that people move into the streets, engage in civil disobedience, create organizations that are not merely defensive, refuse ideological dogmatism, and create robust and democratic institutions that mirror the radical imagination and serve the basic needs of those marginalized by race and class.
Given the power and the money behind what you call “public pedagogy” and our constant immersion in it, don’t you consider the level of resistance amazing; I mean the degree to which people don’t believe what the media is screaming at them. On the other hand, I guess all too many have internalized a sense of being alone in their skepticism and unable to change the way things are?
The current resistance to neoliberal public pedagogy – especially among young people – offers a ray of hope and proves once again that power is never defined exclusively by the parameters of domination. At the same time, while there is a great deal of skepticism and disbelief about the public pedagogy of those institutions that commercially carpet-bomb our children, try to fashion citizenship as simply an obligation of consumerism, and celebrate violence as sport, fantasy and spectacle of entertainment, too many Americans have internalized the assumption that there is no alternative to society as it is currently constructed, that their desires can only exist with the demands of the market, and that their suffering, hardships and successes are simply a function of individual choice and responsibility. Hopefully, the growing resistance to casino capitalism will be matched by the political and pedagogical need to be creative in teaching people how to unlearn their attachments to the cruel injustices perpetrated through market ideologies, values, policies, and modes of governance. We also need to be creative in developing a language of both critique and hope, one that is as meaningful as it is critical and transformative. How we are shaped as consuming and militarized subjects is a crucial political and pedagogical question that must be addressed by any viable social and educational movement. And as Alain Badiou reminds us, “For a politics of emancipation, the enemy that is to be feared most is not repression at the hands of the established order. It is the interiority of nihilism, and the unbounded cruelty that can come with emptiness.”(6)
Digging into what you write about schooling and formal education, how can one further education as a moral and political practice when respect has been eliminated from social relations?
I think this is an interesting question because once education becomes instrumentalized, transformed into training for the workplace, or reduced to the mind-numbing misery of teaching for the test, those pedagogies and values that encourage students to take risks, engage in critical, creative and collaborative thinking, care for the other, and cultivate a deep commitment to the public good begin to vanish from our educational institutions, if not public discourse. This stripping of education as a public good and transforming it into a private right has been going on for a long time, as was evident in the emergence of neoliberal polices aimed at disinvesting funds and resources from public education from the late 1970s on. The attack on public and higher education was also made clear in the culture wars of the 1980s and in the more recent attack by right-wing politicians, pundits and anti-public intellectuals on teachers who have been labeled as lazy bureaucrats, welfare queens and moochers rather than dedicated public servants. The historical forces behind these attacks need to be made visible in order to reclaim education as a public good, teachers as public intellectuals, and students as a valuable social, cultural and political resource rather than as clients and consumers. The public needs to be convinced that early childhood education, public education and higher education are crucial for a democracy to survive and that, as Erica Shaker has argued, educated societies are more healthy, equitable and democratic. Education as a moral and political practice needs to be tied to the conviction that education for everyone is crucial for an open society and culture of democracy that values equity, justice, conviction, and a culture of civic responsibility.
Isn’t the absence of respect behind the push for “quantitative measures” and the denigration of professional judgment, not only in teaching but in other professions as well?
There is more being lost in the push for quantitative measures than a loss of respect for teachers, students and professional judgment. What is also being lost is the power of the public to develop, finance, maintain and protect educational institutions that are public and crucial to creating engaged and critical citizens and sustaining the formative cultures necessary for the ongoing development of democratization. The war against public schools, higher education and professionalization of the best kind is really about politics and power, with respect being but one element of collateral damage. Respect is not quantifiable; it does not increase the bottom line; it does not produce narrow forms of agency, and in the end, it is an impediment to the neoliberal project of privatization, deregulation, commodification and the production of a passive and accommodating public. The hedge fund managers, billionaires such as the Koch brothers and the Bill Gates liberals could care less about the notion of respect because what they really want is concentrated power, control over American society’s commanding institutions, and new markets to sell their junk and endless array of products. They not only devalue respect but also the kind of humanistic political and educational culture that produces responsible and critically engaged citizens. In their ravenous struggle for concentrated power, they corrode public spaces, reinforce wide disparities in income and wealth, turbo-charge a culture of cruelty, reproduce racist practices, and corrupt any democratic rendering of politics.
Didn’t teachers open themselves up for attack when they used the agency acquired through strong teachers’ unions in the service of self-interest rather than modeling critical pedagogy? And hasn’t that begun to change? How would you contrast the real versus the ostensible goals of education “reformers”? What has to happen now? And concretely, what must each of us do?
The narrative about the contemporary assault on public schools doesn’t begin with the failings of public schools. One can’t even talk about them in such monolithic terms; some are outstanding and some are a disgrace, which is largely the result of a funding structure that has always been deeply unequal. But a critical understanding of the current war on public and higher education might begin in the seventies when right-wing billionaires and ideologues decided that the biggest problem with public schools was not that they were failing – but that they were public. The so-called new “reformers” are really radicals who want to transform the entire structure of public and higher education to serve elite, corporate and military interests. The project that informs their understanding of education is anti-humanistic, unjust, iniquitous and authoritarian in its attack on all things public, which also includes public servants such as teachers and especially teachers’ unions. The so-called new “reformers” are thoroughly ideological, politicized and market-driven missionaries who camouflage their intentions and their interests by advancing elements of a progressive discourse to push their deeply conservative agenda. Terms like “freedom,” “choice,” “equity” and “democracy” are emptied of meaningful content and bandied about in order to promote the neoliberal script of privatization, standardization, high stakes testing, commodification and unchecked competition. The new reformers are reactionaries who assume the posture of committed, avant garde patron saints of educational renewal. But in reality they are a new breed of philanthro-capitalists looking to dictate the educational experiences of entire generations of students – their aptitudes, their competencies, their consciousness, their aspirations – and make a lot of money at the same time. They are as disingenuous as they are backward looking. The new “reformers” are, in reality, pushing an old right-wing attack on schools and teachers. According to them, teachers are the problem because they lack accountability and unions promote a self-interested bureaucracy. Underlying this claim is a refusal to address how larger structural issues such as racism, income inequality and exploding poverty impact on school failings or how they should be reformed in light of these forces. Fixing public education is reduced to bashing teachers, unions, public servants, and funneling taxpayer money “away from the public school system’s priorities (hiring teachers, training teachers, reducing class size, etc.) and into the private sector (replacing teachers with computers, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, etc.).”(7) The alleged new “reformers” are in reality a mix of conservative billionaires, hedge fund managers, bankers and right-wing ideologues that constitute an anti-public education movement that has produced “just another get-rich-quick scheme shrouded in the veneer of altruism.”(8)
Unlike current “reformers,” those who advocate egalitarian reforms – who promote education as the practice of freedom – are well aware that if public schools are going to improve, they have to be defined and appropriately funded. Such schools should serve as laboratories of democracy, critical and accommodating spaces where young people have access to the expertise, skills and experience that both deepen their understanding of history, the arts, sciences – of humanistic traditions and archives in general – and the new world of advanced technologies, digital communications and screen culture. The acquisition and mastery of such diverse technologies, knowledge and skills are important not only so young people can find meaningful work but also so they can determine judiciously and rigorously their appropriate and inappropriate uses. In short, so they can rise to the level of critical and engaged citizens of the world.
Public schools must be defended as public goods that benefit not just individual children and their parents but an entire society. Critical reformers must also fight to protect teacher autonomy, struggle for equitable modes of financing, and recognize that any talk about improving schools under conditions of alleged austerity has to include an analysis of the failed domestic war on drugs and the wars abroad and the devastating effects they have had on such basic social services by diverting funds from public schools and increasingly criminalizing the behavior of low-income white and poor minority students. True reformers have to fight against the neoliberal onslaught on teachers, unions, curricula, diverse modes of accountability, and reclaim democratic values and civic education as crucial for creating quality public schools. The most important starting point for creating genuine educational reform is the necessity of acknowledging that the crisis of education cannot be separated from the war on youth, the rise of the neoliberal state, the war on terrorism, and the ongoing financialization and militarization of the entire society. To not understand these basic connections is to misrecognize the real drivers in shaping currently proposed changes and misdiagnose meaningful educational reform. Those market and corporate forces that now undermine public education in the name of fixing it have little to do with democracy and critical teaching and learning, except to weaken both as part of a larger corporate restructuring and militarization of public education as a securitized, profit-based entity. Battling against those forces clearly puts one on the side of genuine educational reform.
In strategic terms what would this mean? In my view, genuine educational reform should begin with rejecting the financing of schools through local taxes, which is fundamentally out of step with the funding models for public education in every other advanced, industrialized nation. Moreover, the struggle over the proper funding of public education should coincide with the struggle for smaller schools and classes, more resources, and more full time quality teachers – which would also entail a robust commitment to critical and comprehensive teacher education and so a rejection of its current debased state. Schooling is a public necessity that is as important as national defense and should be funded as such. Secondly, all attempts at the privatization and corporatization of schools must be rejected so as to make education truly public and widely accessible, removed from those who see it largely as another source of profits harnessed to corporate power. Schools must be defined as democratic public spheres and not simply as sites whose worth is determined by the morally truncated, narrow instrumental standards of measurable utility. Teachers need to work under conditions that provide them with the autonomy that enables them to take risks, be creative, and draw upon a range of educational approaches and pedagogies. Schools must be defined as sites of political and moral practice deeply involved in the production of democratic agents. Moreover, matters of vision, agency, and support should be connected to the struggle against those pedagogies of repression that reduce teaching to the imperatives of standardization and testing. We need modes of pedagogy that enliven the imagination, create thoughtful and curious students, incorporate an ethic of civic responsibility, and teach the practice of freedom. That means connecting pedagogy to the histories, experiences, and narratives that young people bring to any learning situation – the very educative contexts denied by the standardization juggernaut. Pedagogy should not mimic economic models with their reductionist worship of method, stripped of any sense of morality or social context. Instead, pedagogy should provide the conditions for students to invest in robust and critical forms of self and social agency. Pedagogy is not a neutral method, but a deeply political practice that is always connected to the acquisition of agency, a practice that demands that educators be vigilant about what identities are being produced under what conditions and for what purposes.
Critical educators, in concert with concerned citizens, need to raise the bar so as to demand modes of education in which teachers are knowledgeable and reflexive, function as agents of civic education, and create pedagogies that are provocative and illuminating in their ability to get students to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Any viable mode of critical pedagogy must treat young people with respect and enable them to develop their own voice and sense of agency, and do so in an environment that is thoughtful, critical, humane and challenging. In the end, I think it is reasonable to argue, as I do in this book, that education at all levels is the fundamental precondition that makes democratic politics possible, provides a space where meaningful histories, voices and cultural differences can flourish, and enables students to grow intellectually and morally, reflect critically about their relationship with others, and interrogate thoughtfully their relationship with the broader society and the larger world. I make no apologies in arguing that the project that informs this book furthers the attempt to establish a connection between learning and social change, educate young people to be able to translate private troubles into broader social considerations, and create the pedagogical conditions for the development of a formative culture that expands and deepens the possibilities of a democratic society. The Education Deficit and the War on Youth is a call for educators and others to organize collectively both within and outside of schools to further develop the ideas, values and institutions necessary to sustain a world where justice prevails and individual and collective consciousness does not fall asleep.
1. Robert O. Self, “The Antisocial Contract,” The New York Times, (August 25, 2012). Online:
2. Chauncey DeVega, “Unproductive Citizens, Guns, Minorities, and the 47 Percent: The New Movie ‘The Purge’ is a Dream and a Nightmare for the Republican Party,” (June 8, 2013). Personal correspondence.
3. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University press, 1998), p. 90
5. Hall cited in Zoe Williams, “The Saturday Interview: Stuart Hall,” The Guardian (February 11, 2012). Online: https://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2012/feb/11/saturday-interview-stuart-hall
7. David Sirota, “It’s No Coincidence that the Public Education and Poverty Crises are Happening at the Same Time,” AlterNet (June 3, 2013). Online: https://www.alternet.org/education/us-department-education-releases-study-schools-and-poverty-rate