By Henry A. Giroux, Monthly Review Press
This excerpt from Henry A. Giroux’s new book, “America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth” (2013, Monthly Review Press), first appeared at Truthout.
There is by now an overwhelming catalogue of evidence revealing the depth and breadth of the corporate- and state-sponsored assaults being waged against democracy in the United States. Indeed, it appears that the nation has entered a new and more ruthless historical era, marked by a growing disinvestment in the social state, public institutions, and civic morality. The attack on the social state is of particular importance because it represents an attempt to shift social protections to the responsibility of individuals while at the same time privatizing investments in the public good and undermining the bonds of communal solidarity. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman makes this clear in his definition and defense of the social state:
A state is “social” when it promotes the principle of the communally endorsed, collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences. . . . And it is the same principle which lifts members of society to the status of citizens—that is, makes them stakeholders in addition to being stockholders, beneficiaries but also actors responsible for the benefits’ creation and availability, individuals with acute interest in the common good understood as the shared institutions that can be trusted to assure solidity and reliability of the state-issued “collective insurance policy.” The application of that principle may, and often does, protect men and women from the plague of poverty—most importantly, however, it stands a chance of becoming a profuse source of solidarity able to recycle “society” into a common, communal good, thanks to the defense it provides against the horror of misery, that is, of the terror of being excluded, of falling or being pushed over the board of a fast-accelerating vehicle of progress, of being condemned to “social redundancy” and otherwise designed to “human waste.”
Matters of politics, power, ideology, governance, economics, and policy now translate unapologetically into a systemic disinvestment in those public spheres that traditionally provided the minimal conditions for social justice, dissent, and democratic expression. The reign of the commodity, with its growing economy of individualism, privatization, and deregulation, offers a market solution for all of society’s problems. Yet, given that the apostles of neoliberalism work tirelessly to destroy with naked power the numerous essential institutions of social justice and social protections that exemplify the social state, it is clear that solving society’s problems is not their goal. Neoliberalism aims to enhance the wealth and power of those already rich. No longer responsive to the social contract and the preservation of labor, neoliberalism “shifts into a mode of elimination that targets most of us—along with our environment—as waste products awaiting managed disposal.” Unfortunately, neoliberalism, or what might better be called “casino capitalism,” has become the new normal.
Unabashed in its claim to financial power, self-regulation, and a survival of the fittest value system, neoliberalism not only undercuts the formative culture necessary for producing critical citizens and the public spheres that nourish them, it also facilitates the conditions for producing a bloated defense budget, the prison-industrial complex, environmental degradation, and the emergence of “finance as a criminalized, rogue industry.” It is clear that an emergent authoritarianism haunts a defanged democracy now shaped and structured largely by corporations. Money dominates politics; the gap between the rich and poor is ballooning; urban spaces are becoming armed camps; militarism is creeping into every facet of public life; and civil liberties are in shreds. Neoliberalism’s ideology of competition now dominates policies that define public spheres such as schools, allowing them to be stripped of a civic and democratic project and handed over to the logic of the market. Regrettably, it is not democracy, but authoritarianism, that remains on the rise in the United States as we move further into the twenty-first century.
The Politics of Fraud
The 2012 U.S. presidential election took place at a pivotal moment in this transformation away from democracy, a moment in which formative cultural and political realms and forces, including the rhetoric used by election candidates, appeared saturated with celebrations of war and social Darwinism. Accordingly, the possibility of an even more authoritarian and ethically dysfunctional leadership in the White House in 2013 caught the attention of a number of liberals and other progressives in the United States. American politics in general, and the 2012 election in particular, presented a challenge to progressives, whose voices in recent years have been increasingly excluded from both the mainstream media and the corridors of political power. Instead, the media played up the apocalyptic view of the Republican Party’s fundamentalist warriors, who seemed fixated on translating issues previously seen as non-religious—such as sexual orientation, education, identity, and participation in public life—into the language of a religious revival and militant crusade against evil.
How else to explain Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s claim that the struggle for the future is a “fight of individualism versus collectivism,” with its nod to McCarthyism and the cold war rhetoric of the 1950s? Or former senator Rick Santorum’s assertion that “President Obama is getting America hooked on ‘the narcotic of government dependency,’” promoting the view that government has no responsibility to provide safety nets for the poor, disabled, sick, and elderly.
There is more at work here than simply a ramped-up version of social Darwinism, with its savagely cruel ethic of “reward the rich, penalize the poor, [and] let everyone fend for themselves.” There is also a full-scale attack on the social contract, the welfare state, economic equality, and any viable vestige of moral and social responsibility. As Robert O’Self argues, the social contract is crucial to what it means for Americans to lead a decent life. At the same time, he wonders if there is a place for women in the Republican Party’s view of the contract. Of course, he could easily have added youth, people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and the unemployed. He writes:
The social contract is supposed to bind us together. It’s everything from Medicare to the Americans with Disabilities Act to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act. It is the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life. The social contract says that though our individual fates differ, we have a collective destiny, too. Many of us respond viscerally to comments from politicians like Mr. Akin because he leaves us wondering what place for women Republicans see in that collective future.
The Romney-Ryan appropriation of Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness and self-interest is of particular importance because it offers not only a glimpse of a ruthless form of extreme capitalism in which the social contract is shredded, but also provides a testimony to a logic of cruelty and disposability in which the poor are considered “moochers,” viewed with contempt, and singled out to be punished. But this theocratic economic fundamentalist ideology does more. It destroys any viable notion of civic virtue in which the social contract and common good provide the basis for creating meaningful social bonds and instilling in citizens a sense of social and civic responsibility. The idea of public service is viewed with disdain just as the work of individuals, social groups, and institutions that benefit the citizenry at large are held in contempt.
As George Lakoff and Glenn W. Smith point out, casino capitalism creates a culture of cruelty, with “its horrific effects on individuals— death, illness, suffering, greater poverty, and loss of opportunity, productive lives, and money.” But it does more by crushing any viable notion of the common good and public life by destroying “the bonds that hold us together.” Under casino capitalism, the spaces, institutions, and values that constitute the public are now surrendered to powerful financial forces and viewed simply as another market to be commodified, privatized, and surrendered to the demands of capital. With market-driven zealots in charge of both parties, politics becomes an extension of war, and greed and self-interest trump any concern for the well-being of others. For the extremists who now control the Republican Party, in particular, reason is trumped by emotions rooted in absolutist certainty and militaristic aggression, and skepticism and dissent are viewed as the work of Satan.
At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats embrace the logic of casino capitalism in which Wall Street creates an economy focused on speculative, short-term investments “designed to make a killing rather than expanding the productive base of the economy.” Casino capitalism is the true religion of America and provides a common ground for both major parties, in spite of their differences on the role of government and the welfare state. Casino capitalism does not make tangible products needed to address basic human needs or foster broad-based prosperity as much as it “creates an infinite amount of paper assets that can be traded between individuals.” It is an economy that has become a playground for gamblers and bettors in which the dice are loaded in favor of the ultra-rich, bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial elite who operate on the assumption that “society’s resources are best allocated by profit-seeking individuals betting on short-term price movements in intangible or paper assets.” Casino capitalism thrives on a deregulated and ascendant financial sector that offers easy credit (particularly evident before the 2007 economic recession), cheap mortgages, and the seductive lure of a promising lifestyle built on ever burdening debt.
Appeals to religion often provide a rationalization for the culture of greed, war, repression, and cruelty that drives casino capitalism, but both parties support unfettered capital accumulation, the endless search for short investments, and the criminalization of dissent. What is new in American politics in the current historical conjuncture is the emergence of a casino capitalism largely unchecked by massive social movements, the religionization of politics, and the intense role that religion increasingly plays as a formative register in legitimating the very parameters of politics.
The Religionization of Politics
It is also the case that something far more serious and dangerous is unfolding in American politics than the politicization of religion and the march toward authoritarianism. We are witnessing what Zygmunt Bauman has called the “religionization of politics,” whereby secular politics and policymaking will be reshaped by the logic and certitude of religious fundamentalism. As Bauman points out in a different context:
Much too little attention is paid to . . . the “religionization of politics,” arguably still more dangerous and often much more gory in its consequences [than the politicization of religion]. A conflict of interests calling for negotiation and compromise (the daily bread of politics) is then recycled into an ultimate showdown between good and evil that renders any negotiated agreement inconceivable and from which only one of the antagonists can emerge alive (the liminal horizon of monotheistic religions).
If the Republican candidacy race of 2012 is any indication, then political discourse in the United States has not only moved to the right—it has introduced totalitarian values and ideals into the mainstream of public life. Religious fanaticism, consumer culture, and the warfare state work in tandem with neoliberal economic forces to encourage privatization, corporate tax breaks, income and wealth inequality, and the further merging of the financial and military spheres in ways that diminish the authority and power of democratic governance. Neoliberal interests in freeing markets from social constraints, fueling competitiveness, destroying education systems, producing atomized subjects, and loosening individuals from any sense of social responsibility prepare the populace for a slow embrace of social Darwinism, state terrorism, and the mentality of war—not least of all by destroying communal bonds, dehumanizing the other, and pitting individuals against the communities they inhabit.
The Dark Shadows of Authoritarianism
Totalitarian temptations now saturate the media and larger culture in the language of austerity as political and economic orthodoxy. What we are witnessing in the United States is the normalization of a politics that exterminates not only the welfare state, and the truth, but all those who bear the sins of the Enlightenment—that is, those who refuse a life free from doubt. Reason and freedom have become enemies not merely to be mocked, but to be destroyed. And this is a war whose totalitarian tendencies are evident in the assault on science, immigrants, women, the elderly, the poor, people of color, and youth. What too often goes unsaid, particularly with the media’s focus on inflammatory rhetoric, is that those who dominate politics and policymaking, whether Democrats or Republicans, do so largely because of their disproportionate control of the nation’s income and wealth.
Increasingly, it appears that these political elite choose to act in ways that sustain their dominance through the systemic reproduction of an iniquitous social order. In other words, big money and corporate power rule while electoral politics are rigged. The secrecy of the voting booth becomes the ultimate expression of democracy, reducing politics to an individualized purchase—a crude form of economic action and a claim to hermetic power. A politics willing to invest in such ritualistic pageantry only adds to the current dysfunctional nature of our social order while reinforcing a profound failure of political imagination. The issue should no longer be how to work within the current electoral system, but how to dismantle it and construct a new political landscape capable of making a claim on equity, justice, and democracy for all of its inhabitants. Obama’s once inspiring call for hope has degenerated into a flight from responsibility. The Obama administration has worked to extend the policies of the George W. Bush administration by legitimating a range of foreign and domestic policies that have shredded civil liberties (going so far as to claim the authority to kill Americans without recourse to due process), expanding the permanent warfare state, and increasing the domestic reach of the punitive surveillance state. And if Romney and his ideological cohorts, now viewed as the most extreme faction of the Republican Party, had come to power, surely the existing totalitarian and anti-democratic tendencies at work in the United States would very likely have been dangerously intensified.
The War against Youth
One measure of the increasing move toward authoritarianism in the United States is evident in that the war against democracy and for neoliberalism is now being directed with special force and intensity against young people, especially low-income youth and poor minorities. We now live during an era in which obscene violence is directed with impunity against young protesters, and youth increasingly serve as targets of myriad forms of public and state-sanctioned punishment. The purpose of this book is to bring into the realm of consciousness the degree to which U.S. public spheres, institutions, and values have been hijacked by a politics of distraction and by violent spectacles whose alleged entertainment value conceals an underlying culture of degradation, state-sponsored repression, and an unrelenting depravity that, while it affects everyone, has the most damaging effects on today’s and tomorrow’s youth. A catalogue of indicting evidence reveals the depth and breadth of the war being waged against the social state, and particularly against young people. Beyond exposing the moral depravity of a nation that fails to protect its young, such a war speaks to nothing less than a perverse death wish, a barely masked desire for self-annihilation. The willful destruction of an entire generation not only transforms U.S. politics into pathology but is sure to signal the death knell for America’s future. How much longer will the American public have to wait before the nightmare comes to an end?
For these dire reasons, the time has come for progressives and others to shift the critique of Obama (or the Romney-Ryan platform for that matter) away from an exclusive focus on the policies and practices of his administration and instead develop a new language for politics—one with a longer historical purview and a deeper understanding of the ominous forces that now threaten any credible notion of the United States as an aspiring democracy. Democracy in this case serves not only as a referent for engaging the gap between the existing reality and the promise of its principles and ideals, but also as a site of ongoing struggle that is never finished or completed.
Toward a New Political Project
The first part of this book examines the trends and forces that are contributing to a widespread shift in American life toward authoritarianism. An awareness of the material and cultural elements that have produced these conditions is important; however, it is simply not enough. The collective response here must be to refuse to enter the current political discourse of compromise and accommodation—to think well beyond the discourse of facile concessions and to conduct struggles on the mutually informed terrains of civic literacy, education, and power. A rejection of traditional forms of political mobilization must be accompanied by a new political discourse, one that uncovers the hidden practices of neoliberal domination while developing rigorous models for critical reflection and fresh forms of intellectual and social engagement. As discussed in the second part of this book, young people across the United States and the globe are certainly doing so, despite the barbaric treatment to which they have been subjected over the past two decades, and particularly since the economic collapse of 2008.
Finding our way to a more humane future demands a new politics, a new set of values, a new understanding of politics, and a renewed sense of the fragile nature of democracy. In part, this means that the militant rhetorical war being waged by social conservatives guided by a distorted notion of religion or austerity under the guise of sound fiscal policy must be understood as a facet of contemporary authoritarianism. These tendencies have a long legacy in American history. But the current historical moment seems at an utter loss to create a massive social movement capable of addressing the totalitarian nature and social costs of a religious and political fundamentalism that is merging with an extreme market fundamentalism. In this case, a fundamentalism whose idea of freedom extends no further than personal financial gain and endless consumption.
Under such circumstances, progressives should focus their energies on working with the Occupy movement and other social movements to develop a new language of radical reform and to create new public spheres that will make possible the modes of critical thought and engaged agency that are the very foundations of a truly participatory and radical democracy. Such a project must work to develop vigorous educational programs, modes of public communication, and communities that promote a culture of deliberation, public debate, and critical exchange across a wide variety of cultural and institutional sites. Ultimately, it must focus on the end goal of generating those forma- tive cultures and public spheres that are the preconditions for political engagement and vital for energizing democratic movements for social change—movements willing to think beyond the limits of a savage global capitalism. Pedagogy in this sense becomes central to any substantive notion of politics and must be viewed as a crucial element of organized resistance and collective struggles.
The deep regressive elements of neoliberalism constitute both a pedagogical practice and a legitimating function for a severely oppressive social order. Pedagogical relations that make the power relations of casino capitalism disappear must be uncovered and challenged. Under such circumstances, politics becomes transformative rather than accommodating and aims at abolishing a capitalist system marked by massive economic, social, and cultural inequalities. A politics that uncovers the harsh realities imposed by casino capitalism should also work toward establishing a society in which matters of justice and freedom are understood as the crucial foundation of a substantive democracy. This book draws hope from youth movements doing this very thing, despite the intensification of emerging social and political forces that are relentlessly damaging young people and any prospects they might have for the future.
Rather than invest in electoral politics, it would be more worthwhile for progressives to develop formative conditions that make a real democracy possible. Central to such a project is the development of a new radical imagination that operates in the service of a broad-based social movement that can move beyond the legacy of a fractured left/ progressive culture and politics in order to address the totality of society’s problems. As Angela Davis has suggested, this means engaging “in difficult coalition-building processes, negotiating the recognition for which communities and issues inevitably strive [and coming] together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive, but complex and emancipatory, recognizing, in June Jordan’s words, that ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for.’” Developing a broad-based social movement means finding a common ground upon which challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion can become part of a wider effort to create a radical democracy. Language is crucial here, particularly language that addresses what it means to sustain a broad range of commitments to others and build more inclusive notions of community. Appeals to social and economic injustice are important, but do not go far enough. There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other. This is not merely about skill sharing or democratizing education and politics; it is about generating a new vision of democracy and a radical project in which people can recognize themselves, a vision that connects with and speaks to the American public’s desires, dreams, and hopes.
Reclaiming a Discourse of Ethics and Social Responsibility
Questions of what it means to be a critical and engaged member of society (and how these are linked to the ways people understand themselves, their relations to others, and their relation to the world) are at the heart of a politics wedded to the primacy of the radical imagination. In part, this necessitates, as media scholar Nick Couldry has argued, reclaiming a discourse of ethics and morality, elaborating a new model of democratic politics, and developing fresh analytical concepts for understanding and engaging the concept of the social. The social has to be reconfigured so as to expose and eliminate a market-driven project—or what I refer to as the Big Lie—that individualizes responsibility while also silencing claims made in the name of democracy. Reclaiming a democratic notion of the citizen-subject goes hand-in-hand with inventing a new understanding of social conditions, civic responsibility, and critical citizenship.
Matters of education and how the public is educated (what I call public pedagogy) are central to a new understanding of politics. Issues of identity, desire, and agency must be considered as part of an energized struggle to reclaim the promise of a substantive global democracy. This entails teaching people to feel a responsibility toward others and the planet, to think in a critical fashion, and to act in ways that support the public good. In this instance, progressives need to create public spheres of engagement using new technologies and other tools that open up new modes of communication and social relations. These efforts should be situated in a larger project rooted in an understanding that critical education and democracy are the primary and mutually constituting elements of any society that can make a claim to promoting the health, justice, and equality of its citizenry. The radical imagination rejects the notion that a corporate-dominated market society represents the essence of democracy. In doing so, it connects economics to social costs and measures the political and spiritual life of a nation by the degree to which it offers collective security, justice, equality, and hope to existing and future generations. At the same time, it refuses the seductions of the prevailing economic and political system, whether in the form of an appeal to the virtues of the electoral system or the call for acting within the existing framework of reform. Young people have “experienced a lifetime of betrayal” and what they need is more “than protection from uncontrolled market forces.” Instead of reformist blabber, what is needed are critical viewpoints, modes of governance, and policymaking that address matters of democracy, public life, equality, and the redistribution of wealth and power. Crucial here is the development of new critical vocabularies, modes of knowledge, theoretical resources, and a far-reaching and visionary political project capable of informing and empowering those who have been reduced to the margins of society, barely surviving, while the upper 1 percent accrues highly disproportionate amounts of wealth, income, and power.
This means that progressives must take a cue from youth protesters the world over and develop new ways to challenge the corporate values that shape American and, increasingly, global politics. It is especially crucial to provide alternative values that challenge market-driven ideologies that equate freedom with radical individualism, privatization, and deregulation, while undermining democratic social bonds, the public good, and the welfare state. Such actions can be further addressed by recruiting young people, teachers, labor activists, religious leaders, and other engaged citizens to become public intellectuals who are willing to use their skills and knowledge to make visible how power works and to address important social and political issues. Of course, the American public needs to do more than talk. It also needs to bring together educators, students, workers, and anyone else interested in real democracy in order to create a social movement—a well-organized movement capable of changing the power relations and vast economic inequalities that have created the conditions for symbolic and systemic violence in American society.
Building New Educational Spaces
Regarding policy interventions, progressives can explore a variety of options to build coalitions with labor unions, environmental organizations, and public servants in order to develop a broad-based alternative party to push for much-needed reforms, including paid family and medical leave, a new equal rights amendment for women, literacy and civic engagement programs, a guaranteed minimum income, ecological reform, free child care, new finance laws for funding public education, the cancellation of higher education debt obligations for middle- and working-class students, health care programs, and a massive jobs program in conjunction with a Marshall Plan–like program to end poverty and inequality in the United States. But, to achieve these goals, progressives will invariably need to take on the role of educational activists. One option would be to create microspheres of public education that further modes of critical learning and civic agency, and thus enable young people and others to learn how to govern rather than be governed. This could be accomplished through a network of free educational spaces developed among diverse faith communities and public schools, as well as in secular and religious organizations affiliated with higher educational institutions. These new educational spaces, focused on cultivating both dialogue and action in the public interest, can look to past models in those institutions developed by socialists, labor unions, and civil rights activists in the early twentieth century and later in the 1950s and 60s. Such schools represented oppositional public spheres and functioned as democratic public spheres in the best educational sense and ranged from the early networks of radical Sunday Schools to the later Brookwood Labor College and Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Stanley Aronowitz rightly insists that the current system “survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population, and the conformity of its intellectuals who, to a large extent, are subjugated by their secure berths in the academy, less secure private sector corporate jobs, and centrist and center-left media institutions.”
At a time when critical thought has been flattened, it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility—one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of our reach. Threatening the future of not only youth, but any group marginalized by virtue of age, gender, race or class, is a growing democratic deficit among developed countries as the gap widens between the people and institutions elected to govern and the citizenry they represent. Chapter 1 of this book provides the contexts for understanding how democratic decline in America now works in tandem with a national education deficit, whereby the critical and civic literacies needed for people to engage as active citizens are undermined by both educational policies and practices in schools and the weakening of the public-political culture in broader society. If left unchecked, then tomorrow’s concern will be less a persistent democratic deficit than the rise of a new authoritarianism. Chapter 2 reviews how the forces of authoritarianism have evolved from neoliberal-infused political culture, which is driven to restructure society to empower the wealthy and erode the state’s ability to act as a defense on behalf of citizens. This is especially dire for society’s most vulnerable, who suffer disproportionately from the set of orthodoxies characterizing the dominant pedagogy of late twentieth-century neoliberal capitalism with respect to market deregulation, extreme patriotic and religious fervor, the instrumentalization of education, and the militarization of the entire society. These four fundamentalisms marshal a set of pernicious forces that fuel inequality, unemployment, cultures of cruelty and violence, a harsh penal system, the suppression of dissent, and a lack of access to education, among other ruinous social and economic conditions.
The permanent state of warfare abroad and at home has resulted in cultures of violence across several public spheres beyond the military. Chapter 3 focuses in more detail on U.S. popular culture and a growing celebration of military-like values, which has led not only to an infusion of militaristic technologies and ways of thinking across society, but also to the militarization of public spaces, such as schools. The normalization of violence is accomplished through the reproduction of violent pedagogies in contexts that lack (and sometimes actively destroy) the critical apparatuses by which the public becomes sensitized and thus resists the dehumanization, suffering, and social costs entailed by acts of violence. A mass culture of violence leads to the gradual acceptance of violence in everyday life—seen in, for example, grotesque spectacles such as The Hunger Games and the television series The Following. Chapter 4 turns to the tragic death of the African American youth Trayvon Martin, and the way media coverage fixated on the “hoodie” and its alleged symbolic power to trigger life-threatening fear and brutal violence supposedly apart from persistent forms of racism. Analysis of the “color-blind” media suggests that mass spectacles along with fantasies of post-racialism have diverted public attention away from the hidden modes through which neoliberal racism and social inequality continue to operate in American society, particularly through the criminalization of poor minority youth.
Through the alienation and isolation of increasing numbers of young people, the United States is moving ever closer to self-annihilation. Chapter 5 expands further on the war on youth through connecting it to Paul Virilio’s notion of a “suicidal state”—defined as a state that “works to destroy its own defenses against anti-democratic forces.” Capitulating to authoritarian tendencies, the government works systematically to disenfranchise its own youth, thus attacking the very elements of a society that allow it to reproduce itself. In the United States, but increasingly everywhere, youth are subject to social conditions that are based on mistrust and fear; they are isolated by society and considered expendable or redundant. Chapter 5 also explores how the demonization of young people in the broader culture and neoliberal values rooted in a virulent social Darwinism have now joined forces with increasingly pervasive forms of state-sanctioned cruelty—all of which escalate the violence used against young people and threatens to culminate in an unprecedented and disastrous global war on youth.
Pointing to the challenges inherent in opposing the warfare state and its culture of cruelty is important, but mere vilification of these ideologies is not enough. Political and pedagogical interventions that enter the conversation in ways that offer both critique and hope should be central in the struggle to create the conditions for a more critical and engaged citizenry. In chapter 6, educators committed to cultivating students as thoughtful citizens are called upon to engage with broader public discourse over the vital importance of public education, as well as the ongoing challenges besetting it, among which are a host of frightening projects rooted in totalitarian logic. There is an urgent necessity in such dark times for intellectuals and various cultural workers to bring the fruits of their scholarship to bear on the crucial issues of the day. In part, this suggests a pressing need for progressives to oppose the right-wing agenda to privatize (and thus demolish) one of the few remaining spaces where critical thinking can be fostered among all young people regardless of privilege and wealth: the public school system and the system of higher education. Religious fundamentalists, in particular, are attempting to steamroll democracy by limiting people’s access to critical education—democracy’s strongest pillar. Through appeals to moral superiority and self-interest, proponents of privatization like Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich work to disarm the citizenry and prevent people from seeing the most pernicious impacts triggered by privatization on educational policy and practices, most notably the expansion of charter schools, the narrowing of the teaching curriculum, the dismantling of financial and other supports for students, and the skyrocketing costs of higher education, much of which the Obama administration opposes. Most alarming is how the far-right arm of the Republican Party is using private religious schools to destroy the democratic edifice built on the separation of church and state, and ultimately to marshal support for a theocracy in the United States.
Since the emergence of the Occupy movement in 2011, the potential for collective resistance has grown exponentially. Chapter 7 encourages critical educators to join with Occupiers and other youth in supporting a collective cultural campaign that links the defense of accessible public and higher education to progressive social movements and independent media sources. What must be resisted are the “disappearing acts” of corporate-funded, anti-public intellectuals who erect walls around knowledge, while simultaneously rendering invisible those disadvantaged populations who are deserving of compassion and social protections. These gated intellectuals, often abetted by the dominant media, use privilege and ideological narrowness to divorce themselves from understanding the systemic elements that contribute to social and economic injustice. Their views reduce citizenship to consumption, support corporate greed and private interests, and fuel hyper-individualized notions of equality and freedom. In contrast, engaged public intellectuals might adopt a “borderless pedagogy” that crosses zones of knowledge control and policing and aims to democratize power and knowledge. These new modes of resistance are necessary because a sustainable democratic future will require more than electoral democracy or democracy in name only. It will require a multitude of public and free access forums along with the broad mobilization of traditional and new educational sites in which public intellectuals can do the work of resistance, engagement, and policymaking to support a democratic politics.
Chronicling how the Occupy Wall Street movement has broadly impacted political discourse, chapter 8 explains in detail why a movement that foregrounds the importance of critical education is especially necessary in the current historical moment. The Occupy movement initiated such a task by challenging the fatalism inherent in the capitalist system and developing a new vision of politics. Through the practical translation of theoretical discourses into action for social change, the hope produced by the Occupy movement extends its life to new movements and causes. In the face of police brutality leveled against peaceful protesters with impunity, generations both young and old have a duty to reverse the pressures of the punishing state and develop social movements that not only restore the principles and practices of democracy but build and sustain institutions and formative cultures that can provide a safe, dignified future to young people everywhere. As neoliberal educational policies organize schools today in alignment with punitive and market cultures, the abilities of educators to carry out pedagogies that will ignite students’ social responsibility and political consciousness are being stifled. In this new, corporatized climate, teachers are consigned to the role of technicians and are allowed to do little more than robotically carry out assigned curriculum, teaching-to-the-test mandates, or uphold harsh disciplinary policies. In response to this crisis of pedagogical agency among educators, chapter 9 unravels the current neoliberal attacks being waged on teachers in today’s culture of consumerism and violence. Taking up the media’s momentary celebration of teachers as protectors of youth after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in the fall of 2012, this chapter addresses the heightened difficulty teachers face in safeguarding the futures of young people. At this specific historical conjuncture teachers are subject to an onslaught of attacks against their role as public servants and critical intellectuals. In addition, the very concept of educator should be continually conceptualized as a defender of youth, rather than being celebrated as such only after this kind of tragedy—a short-lived praise quickly lost in the sea of assaults teachers remain subjected to at the hands of advocates for school privatization and market-based education. Importantly, this chapter calls for educators to fight against this anti-democratic configuration of education by reconceptualizing themselves as engaged citizens and public intellectuals committed to making the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical, nurturing the critical and civic capacities of the next generation that will challenge the emergent authoritarianism.
Chapter 10 focuses further on the educational foundations of a truly democratic society and the vital role of critical pedagogy for any democratizing movement. Unfortunately, the growing popularity of neoliberal narratives coincides with a trend of thinking about society through a strictly economic lens, and this has produced a generation that views education as a form of technical training whereby a student’s skills only matter if they can be commodified and traded in the marketplace. As the reigning market orthodoxy translates all aspects of our personal and social lives into the context of commerce, the mode of critique that searches for the gaps between the sociopolitical configuration of the moment and the ideal of democracy to come is quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by a desire not for our collective betterment and the public good, but for private gain of a distinctly selfish bent. When political engagement disappears, how can a movement toward equality and social justice even begin to emerge? This final chapter explains the crucial responsibility and pivotal role that critical educators as public intellectuals can assume in resisting the neoliberalization of society by using new political and pedagogical languages to recontextualize democracy outside of market values, while equipping young people with the critical skills and sense of agency they need to play an active role in struggling for and shaping a genuinely democratic future. Central to addressing the education deficit in America will be a robust, broad-based social movement that prioritizes a defense of public and higher education as the crucibles out of which engaged citizenship and democracy are forged.
As a whole, this book provides a context for understanding the war on youth through an examination of the regressive educational apparatuses and culture of cynicism that are now dominating the United States as well as Canada, all of which indicate how both societies are increasingly infused with violence. These real and symbolic forms of violence are promoted by a range of intersecting forces, including neoliberal policymaking, militarization, religious fanaticism, corporate elitism, and persistent racism. Despite widespread calls for electoral reform, the United States, in particular, has arrived at such a crisis in governance that it cannot possibly begin to engage prevailing issues through political reform alone. Education—and critical education in particular—must be taken seriously as a matter of primary importance among all who believe in the promise of U.S. democracy. The education deficit will require wholesale cultural and policy change if the United States is going to redress its devastating impact across all levels of society, particularly on young people. But with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and other social movements, there is hope on the horizon. Indeed, abandoned by an increasingly punitive state and a generation of adults, youth are taking matters into their own hands and are asserting the power of democratic expression and collective struggle in a society that has all but relinquished its claim to equity, justice, social responsibility, and public life.
Monthly Review Press