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Angela Davis: Education and the Meaning of Freedom

Posted on Apr 11, 2013
Henry Giroux

Henry Giroux and Angela Davis.

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

We find ourselves at an important historical moment in which there is a need to reclaim the most robust and democratic versions of the discourse of freedom, justice, collective struggle and history. Americans occupy a historical conjuncture in which everything that matters politically, ethically and culturally is being erased - either ignored, turned into a commodity, or simply falsified. Occasionally, we are confronted with the unsullied images, history and legacy of intellectuals who symbolize that rare combination of civic courage, political commitment and rigorous scholarship. Angela Davis is one of those exemplary activists and public intellectuals.

She has struggled bravely and with great dignity for decades to demonstrate that education is a form of political intervention in the world and that learning is not about processing received knowledge but actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice. She has worked in difficult and shifting circumstances to remind us of the power of education as a central element of inspired self-government. Her scholarship and activism demonstrate the educational force of political and intellectual commitment in its attempts to enlighten the mind and create powerful social movements against a wide range of oppressions.

What is particularly crucial about her legacy is that it not only focuses on specific issues, but it also addresses society at large, flatly rejecting identitarian politics. Her work advances, as Robin Kelley points out, a democratic notion of freedom, one that moves far beyond the narrow liberal notion of freedom that enshrines the right of the individual to do what he or she wants unchecked by any impediments, moral or otherwise. [7] Instead, she combines individual rights with social rights and argues that any viable notion of agency is impossible without providing the economic and social conditions that enable people to exercise their political and individual rights. She argues that freedom is about providing choices for people without the constraints that are imposed by subjugation, deprivation and the type of inequality evident in the fact that “For every one dollar of assets owned by a single black or Hispanic woman, a member of the Forbes 400 has over forty million dollars.” [8]

Freedom in this context is freedom that comes with the struggle against injustice, a struggle that demands the shared conditions that would ensure all people could live a fully realized life. Collective freedom is one devoid of material bondage and one that supports the institutions necessary for democracy. In this notion of freedom, education is linked to the struggle for a democratic conception of community, one that is inclusive and provides decent health care, housing, food and education, while abolishing the prison-industrial complex and the ever expanding punishing state. Collective freedom provides the basic conditions for people to narrate their own lives, hold power accountable, and embrace a capacious notion of human dignity. Davis’s notion of freedom rejects the neoliberal understanding of the term as freedom from interference by the government and freedom to merely pursue one’s own private interests, regardless of the social costs. This is a notion of freedom that depoliticizes freedom in the name of greed, corporate power, unchecked individualism and pernicious consumerism.


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Freedom at its best speaks to both a condition and a practice. As a condition, it acknowledges that no viable mode of self and social determination can develop without the social and economic conditions that free people from those material deprivations that cripple matters of choice, power and agency. As a practice, freedom is the ability to not only understand the world but to act on that understanding and be able to shape the commanding forces that bear down on one’s life. Freedom is always part of an ongoing struggle for new subjects, collective agents and social movements that embrace the individual but organize collectively. The weight, if not burden of freedom, cannot be understood in the privatized language of mega corporations and the ultrarich, but in the discourses and struggles of social movements that fight for economic justice, racial equality and the common good. Angela Davis’s legacy as a freedom fighter made her an enemy of the state under the increasingly neoliberal regimes of Nixon, Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover because she understood that the struggle for freedom was not only a struggle for political and individual rights but also for economic rights. She is not an icon; she is a freedom fighter who has given most of her life to join with the dispossessed and excluded in the struggle for freedom.

What is invaluable about Angela Davis’ work is that she does not limit her politics to issues removed from broader social considerations, but connects every aspect of her scholarship and public interventions to what the contours of a truly democratic society might look like. For her, democracy is not only a promise and ideal but also a practice. Angela Davis is a model for what it means to be a public and engaged intellectual dedicated to what she calls “protracted struggles [that refuse] the pitfalls of the particular version of democracy represented by U.S. capitalism.” [9] I can think of no one who embodies the commitment to theoretical rigor, social justice, human dignity and collective resistance more so than Angela Davis. We have a lot to learn from her work, her struggles over the last few decades, her humility and bristling intelligence, and her insistence that pedagogy is the formative basis of not just dissent, but collective struggle. Angela Davis is the other America, the America waiting in the shadows to be born again, waiting once again to tip the scales of justice toward a new ethical horizon, waiting to address and take seriously the promise of a democracy to come.

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