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Marching in Chicago: Resisting Rahm Emanuel’s Neoliberal Savagery

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Posted on May 24, 2013
sdpurtill (CC BY 2.0)

Rahm Emanuel.

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

This is all the more reason for educators and others to address important social issues and to defend public education as democratic public sphere. And it is all the more reason to defend the Chicago Public Teachers Union in their struggle with Emanuel because this battle is not a local issue. On the contrary, it is a national issue that will set the stage for future of American public education, which is on its deathbed.The struggle in Chicago must be understood as part of a larger set of market-driven policies in which everything is privatized, transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” and subject to the vicissitudes of the military- security state. One consequence is the emergence of what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society”—“one that is stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found in” any viable democracy.This grim reality represents a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy. It is also part of a politics that strips the social of any democratic ideals. It is also the politics that drives Emanuel’s policies in Chicago around education and a host of other issues.

In Emanuel’s ideological script, the common good is viewed as either a source of profits or pathology. The market is the only template that matters in shaping all aspects of society and freedom is reduced to the freedom to shop, indulge one’s self-interests, and willingly support a society in which market values trumps democratic values. According to Emanuel and his ilk, the arch enemies of freedom are the welfare state, unions, and public service workers such a public school teachers. And as was evident in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities just as war becomes the all-embracing organizing principle for developing a market-driven society and economy.  Emanuel’s neoliberal policies have a long genealogy and have intensified since the late 1970s with a vengeance. As disparities in income, wealth, and power intensify, the unchecked political and cultural influence of the ultra-rich in shaping educational policies becomes more visible and dangerous. As Diane Ravitch points out in her comment on the Gates Foundation and the politics of philanthropy:

The Gates Foundation, for example, underwrites almost every organization in its quest to control American education. It supports rightwing groups like Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence and Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution. In the recent past, it gave money to the reactionary ALEC. It pays young teachers to oppose unions and to testify against the rights of tenured teachers. It also pays unions to support its ideas about evaluations, despite their flaws. It spends hundreds of millions of dollars to support “independent” think tanks, which are somewhat less independent when they become dependent on Gates money.

Emanuel is no stranger to the neoliberal agenda pushed by The Gates Foundation and other right-wing conservative corporate groups. He supports a notion of educational reform in which pedagogy is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique or the practice of a craft-like skill. Even worse, pedagogy becomes a sterile method for developing skills aimed at raising test scores. The Chicago public school teachers and other educators must reject this definition of teaching and educational reform, along with its endless slavish imitations even when they are claimed as part of an “educational reform” project.  In opposition to the instrumental reduction of pedagogy to a method—which has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship—progressive educators need to argue for modes of critical pedagogy that illuminate the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power.  For instance, any viable reform movement must raise questions regarding who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Is the production of knowledge and curricula in the hands of teachers, textbook companies, corporate interests, or other forces? 

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Central to any viable notion that what makes a pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that pedagogy is always a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledges and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. Of crucial importance is the question of authority and how it is legitimated, used, and exercised.  When teachers are stripped of authority, pedagogy becomes lifeless, methodical, and militarized, reduced to low level skills and modes of standardization that debases creativity and cripples the imaginative capacities of both teachers and students. Part of what the Chicago teachers are doing in their protests against the school closings is drawing attention to the ways in which authority, knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced under specific basic conditions of learning and in doing so they are shedding light on educational reform movements in which teaching is stripped of its sense of accountability to parents, place, and the complex dynamic of history and communities. Under such circumstances, the Chicago teachers are refusing educational policies in which matters of authority and pedagogy are removed from matters of values, norms, and power.

Emanuel’s neoliberal educational philosophy has no understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings because it is incapable of raising questions regarding what the relationship is between learning and social change, what knowledge is of most worth, what it means to know something, and in what direction should one desire. Nor does he acknowledge that pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices teachers and students might engage in together along with the values, social relations, and visions such practices legitimate. What scares Emanuel and other neoliberal reformers is that pedagogy is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment. 

At the heart of the Chicago demonstrations against Emanuel’s polices are a series of broader questions that situate the right-wing reform movement in a broader set of market-driven politics. For instance, what kind of society allows economic injustice and massive inequality to run wild in a society allowing drastic cuts in education and public services?  Why are more police being put in schools just as more prisons are being built in the United States? What does it mean when students face not just tuition hikes but a lifetime of financial debt while governments in Canada, Chile, and the U.S. spend trillions on weapons of death and needless wars? What kind of education does it take both in and out of schools to recognize the emergence of various economic, political, cultural, and social forces that point to the dissolution of democracy and the possible emergence of a new kind of authoritarian state?


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