June 18, 2013
The War Against Teachers in Dark Times
Posted on Dec 18, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Within this atomistic, highly individualizing script, shared struggles and bonds of solidarity are viewed as either dangerous or pathological. Power relations disappear and there is no room for understanding how corporate power and civic values rub up against each other in ways that are detrimental to the promise of a robust democracy and an emancipatory mode of schooling. In fact, in this discourse, corporate power is used to undermine any vestige of the civic good and cover up the detrimental influence of its anti-democratic pressures. It gets worse. A pedagogy of management and conformity does more than simply repress the analytical skills and knowledge necessary for students to learn the practice of freedom and assume the role of critical agents, it also reinforces deeply authoritarian lessons while reproducing deep inequities in the educational opportunities that different students acquire. As Sara Robinson points out,
As powerful as this utterly reactionary and right-wing educational reform movement might be, educators are far from willingly accepting the role of deskilled technicians groomed to service the needs of finance capital and produce students who are happy consumers and unquestioning future workers. Public school teachers have mobilized in Wisconsin and a number of other states where public schools, educators and other public servants are under attack. They have been collectively energized in pushing back the corporate and religious fundamentalist visions of public education, and they are slowly mobilizing into a larger social movement to defend both their role as engaged intellectuals and schooling as a public good. In refusing to be fit for domestication, many teachers are committed to fulfilling the civic purpose of public education through a new understanding of the relationship between democracy and schooling, learning and social change. In the interest of expanding this struggle, educators need a new vocabulary for not only defining schools as democratic public spheres, students as informed and critically engaged citizens, but also teachers as public intellectuals. In what follows, I want to focus on this issue as one important register of individual and collective struggle for teachers. At stake here is the presupposition that a critical consciousness is not only necessary for producing good teachers, but also enables individual teachers to see their classroom struggles as part of a much broader social, political and economic landscape.
Unlike many past educational reform movements, the present call for educational change presents both a threat and a challenge to public school teachers that appear unprecedented. The threat comes in the form of a series of educational reforms that display little confidence in the ability of public school teachers to provide intellectual and moral leadership for our youth. For instance, many recommendations that have emerged in the current debate across the world either ignore the role teachers play in preparing learners to be active and critical citizens or they suggest reforms that ignore the intelligence, judgment and experience that teachers might offer in such a debate. At the same time, the current conservative reform movement aggressively disinvests in public schooling so as to eliminate the literal spaces and resources necessary for schools to work successfully.
While the political and ideological climate does not look favorable for the teachers at the moment, it does offer them the challenge to join a public debate with their critics, as well as the opportunity to engage in a much needed self-critique regarding the nature and purpose of schooling, classroom teaching and the relationship between education and social change. Similarly, the debate provides teachers with the opportunity to organize collectively to improve the conditions under which they work and to demonstrate to the public the central role that teachers must play in any viable attempt to reform the public schools.
In order for teachers and others to engage in such a debate, it is necessary that theoretical perspectives be developed that redefine the nature of the current educational crisis while simultaneously providing the basis for an alternative view of teacher work. In short, this means recognizing that the current crisis in education cannot be separated from the rise and pernicious influence of neoliberal capitalism and market driven power relations, both of which work in the interest of disempowering teachers, dismantling teacher unions, and privatizing public schools. At the very least, such recognition will have to come to grips with a growing loss of power among teachers around the basic conditions of their work, but also with a changing public perception of their role as reflective practitioners.
I want to make a small theoretical contribution to this debate and the challenge it calls forth by examining two major problems that need to be addressed in the interest of improving the quality of “teacher work,” which includes all the clerical tasks and extra assignments as well as classroom instruction. First, I think it is imperative to examine the ideological and material forces that have contributed to what I want to call the deskilling and commodification of teacher work; that is, the tendency to reduce teachers to the status of specialized technicians within the school bureaucracy, whose function then becomes one of the managing and implementing curricular programs rather than developing or critically appropriating curricula to fit specific pedagogical concerns and the particular needs of students. Second, there is a need to defend schools as institutions essential to maintaining and developing a critical democracy and also to defending teachers as public intellectuals who combine scholarly reflection and practice in the service of educating students to be thoughtful, active citizens.
Devaluing and Deskilling Teacher Work
One of the major threats facing prospective and existing teachers within the public schools is the increasing development of instrumental and corporate ideologies that emphasize a technocratic approach to both teacher preparation and classroom pedagogy. At the core of the current emphasis on the instrumental and pragmatic factors in school life are a number of important pedagogical assumptions. These include: a call for the separation of conception from execution; the standardization of school knowledge in the interest of managing and controlling it, the increased call for standardized testing, and the devaluation of critical, intellectual work on the part of teachers and students for the primacy of practical considerations. In this view, teaching is reduced to training and concepts are substituted by methods. Teaching in this view is reduced to a set of strategies and skills and becomes synonymous with a method or technique. Instead of learning to raise questions about the principles underlying different classroom methods, research techniques and theories of education, teachers are often preoccupied with learning the “how to,” with what works or with mastering the best way to teach a given body of knowledge.
What is ignored in this retrograde view is any understanding of pedagogy as a moral and political practice that functions as a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge, values and identities are produced with particular sets of classroom social relations. What is purposely derided in conservative notions of teaching and learning is a view of pedagogy, which in the most critical sense, illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power and draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Pedagogy in this sense addresses and connects ethics, politics, power and knowledge within practices that allow for generating multiple solidarities, narratives and vocabularies as part of a broader democratic project. As Chandra Mohanty insists, pedagogy is not only about the act of knowing, but also about how knowledge is related to the power of self-definition, understanding one’s relationship to others and one’s understanding and connection to the larger world. In the end, pedagogy is not, as many conservatives argue, about immersing young people in predefined and isolated bits of information, but about the issue of agency and how it can be developed in the interest of deepening and expanding the meaning and purpose of democratization and the formative cultures that make it possible.
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