May 22, 2013
The Neoliberal Attack on Education
Posted on Oct 17, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Schools should be viewed as crucial to any viable notion of democracy, while the pedagogical practices they employ should be consistent with the ideal of the good society. This means teaching more than the knowledge of traditional canons. In fact, teachers and students need to recognize that as moral and political practice, pedagogy is about the struggle over identity just as much as it is a struggle over what counts as knowledge. At a time when censorship is running amok in public schools, the debate over whether we should view schools as political institutions seems not only moot, but irrelevant. Pedagogy is a mode of critical intervention, one that believes teachers have a responsibility to prepare students not merely for jobs, but for being in the world in ways that allow them to influence the larger political, ideological and economic forces that bear down on their lives. Schooling is an eminently political and moral practice, because it is both directive and actively legitimates what counts as knowledge, sanctions particular values and constructs particular forms of agency.
One of the most notable features of contemporary conservative reform efforts is the way in which it increasingly positions teachers as a liability and in doing so aligns them with modes of education that are as demeaning as they are deskilling. These reforms are not innocent and actually promote failure in the classroom. And when successful, they open the door for more public schools to be closed, provide another chance at busting the union and allow such schools to be taken over by private and corporate interests. Under the influence of market-based pedagogies, teachers are the new welfare queens, and are repeatedly subjected to what can only be described as repressive disciplinary measures in the school and an increasing chorus of verbal humiliation from politicians outside of the classroom. Teachers are not only on the defensive in the neoliberal war on schools, they are also increasingly pressured to assume a more instrumental and mercenary role. Such approaches leave them with no time to be creative, use their imagination, work with other teachers or develop classroom practices that are not wedded to teaching for the test and other demeaning empirical measures. Of course, the practice of disinvesting in public schools has a long history, but it has strengthened since the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and has intensified in the new millennium. How else to explain that many states invest more in building prisons than educating students, especially those who are poor, disabled and immersed in poverty. The right-wing makeover of public education has resulted in some states, such as Texas, banning critical thinking in their classrooms while in Arizona legislation has been passed that eliminates all curricula material from the classroom that includes the histories of Mexican-Americans.
Fighting for democracy as an educational project means encouraging a culture of questioning in classrooms, one that explores both the strengths and weaknesses of the current era. I think Zygmunt Bauman is right in arguing that “if there is no room for the idea of a wrong society, there is hardly much chance for the idea of a good society to be born, let alone make waves.” At stake here is the question of what kind of future do our teachings presuppose? What forms of literacy and agency do we make available to our students through our pedagogical practices? I believe that this broader project of addressing democratization as a pedagogical practice should be central to any worthwhile attempt to engage in classroom teaching. And this is a political project. As educators, we have to begin with a vision of schooling as a democratic public sphere, and then we have to figure out what the ideological, political and social impediments are to such goals and organize collectively to derail them. In other words, educators need to start with a project, not a method. They need to view themselves through the lens of civic responsibility and address what it means to educate students in the best of those traditions and knowledge forms we have inherited from the past, and also in terms of what it means to prepare them to be in the world as critically engaged agents.
Educators need to be more forceful, if not committed, to linking their overall investment in democracy to modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough. Moreover, such a commitment suggests that a viable democratic society must constantly nurture the possibilities for self-critique, collective agency and forms of citizenship in which teachers and students play a fundamental role. Rather than forced to participate in a pedagogy designed to up test scores and undermine forms of critical thinking, students must be involved pedagogically in critically discussing, administrating and shaping the material relations of power and ideological forces that form their everyday lives. Central to such an educational project is the ongoing struggle by teachers to connect their pedagogical practices to the building of an inclusive and just democracy, which should be open to many forms, offers no political guarantees and provides an important normative dimension to politics as an ongoing process that never ends. Such a project is based on the realization that a democracy open to exchange, question and self-criticism never reaches the limits of justice; it is never just enough and never finished. It is precisely the open-ended and normative nature of such a project that provides a common ground for educators to share their resources with a diverse range of intellectual pursuits, while refusing to believe that such struggles in schools ever come to an end.
But educators need to do more than create the conditions for critical learning for their students; they also need to responsibly assume the role of civic educators willing to share their ideas with other educators and the wider public by writing for a variety of public audiences in a number of new media sites. This suggests using opportunities offered by a host of public means of expression including the lecture circuit, radio, Internet, interview, alternative magazines and the church pulpit, to name only a few. Such writing needs to become public by crossing over into spheres and avenues of expression that speak to more general audiences in a language that is clear but not theoretically simplistic. Capitalizing on their role as intellectuals, educators can address the challenge of combining scholarship and commitment through the use of a vocabulary that is neither dull nor obtuse, while seeking to speak to a broad audience. More importantly, as teachers organize to assert the importance of their role and that of public schooling in a democracy, they can forge new alliances and connections to develop social movements that include and also expand beyond working with unions.
Educators also need to be more specific about what it would mean to be both self-critical as well as attentive to learning how to work collectively with other educators through a vast array of networks across a number of public spheres. This might mean sharing resources with educators in a variety of fields and sites, extending from other teachers to community workers and artists outside of the school. This also suggests that educators become more active in addressing the ethical and political challenges of globalization. Public schools teachers need to unite across the various states and make a case for public education. At the very least, they could make clear to a befuddled American public that the deficit theory regarding school cutbacks is a fraud. There is plenty of money to provide quality education to every student in the United States. As Salvatore Babones points out, “The problem isn’t a lack of money. The problem is where the money is going.” The issue is not about the absence of funds as much as it is about where funds are being invested and how more revenue can be raised to support public education in the United States. The United States spends around $960 billion on its wars and defense-related projects. In fact, the cost of war over a ten year period “will run at least $3.7 trillion and could reach as high as $4.4 trillion,” according to the research project “Costs of War” by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.” As Babones argues, the crucial recognition here is that research consistently shows that education spending creates more jobs per dollar than any other kind of government spending. A University of Massachusetts study ranked military spending worst of five major fiscal levers for job creation. The UMass study ranked education spending the best. A dollar spent on education creates more than twice as many jobs than a dollar spent on defense. Education spending also out-performs health care, clean energy and tax cuts as a mechanism for job creation.
Surely, this budget could be trimmed appropriately to divert much-needed funds to education, given that a nation’s highest priority should be investing in its children rather than in the production of organized violence. As capital, finance, trade and culture become extraterritorial and increasingly removed from traditional political constraints, it becomes all the more pressing to put global networks and political organizations into play to contend with the reach and power of neoliberal globalization. Engaging in intellectual practices that offer the possibility of alliances and new forms of solidarity among public school teachers and cultural workers such as artists, writers, journalists, academics and others who engage in forms of public pedagogy grounded in a democratic project represents a small, but important, step in addressing the massive and unprecedented reach of global capitalism.
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