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The Chicago Teachers Strike: Challenging Democracy’s Demise

Posted on Sep 15, 2012
AP/Sitthixay Ditthavong

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

The noble tradition that once viewed public school teaching as an important public service is in rapid decline in the United States. This democratic legacy, advanced by important scholars that extend from John Dewey to Paulo Freire, valued teachers for providing a crucial educational foundation in the service of the greater social good.
Educators were viewed as a valuable resource in teaching students how to take responsibility for their future, develop an unrelenting fidelity to justice and the ability to discriminate between rigorous arguments and heavily-charged opinions. Teaching for the public good did not simply prepare students for subordinated labor but for what Stanley Aronowitz calls a

“self-managed life” in which self-management could only occur when people have fulfilled three goals of education: self-reflection, that is, realizing the famous poetic phrase, “know thyself,” which is an understanding of the world in which they live, in its economic, political and, equally important, its psychological dimensions. Specifically, “critical” pedagogy helps the learner become aware of the forces that have hitherto ruled their lives and especially shaped their consciousness. The third goal is to help set the conditions for producing a new life, a new set of arrangements where power has been, at least in tendency, transferred to those who literally make the social world by transforming nature and themselves.[5]

Such an education focused on enabling young people to develop the values, skills, and knowledge required for them to enter adult life as critical citizens capable of questioning common sense, official knowledge, public opinion, and the dominant media.

Developing the conditions for students to be critical agents was viewed as central to the very process of teaching and learning and was part of the broader project of enabling students to both shape and expand democratic institutions.


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Since the 1980s, however, teachers have faced an unprecedented attack by those forces that view schools less as a public good, than as a private right, with the Chicago Public School system being the most recent object of such an assault. Seldom accorded the well-deserved status of public intellectuals in the current educational climate, teachers remain the most important component in the learning process for students, while also serving as a moral compass to gauge how seriously a society invests in its youth and in the future. Yet teachers are now being deskilled, unceremoniously removed from the process of school governance, largely reduced to clerks of corporate sovereignty, or subordinated to the authority of security guards.

They are also being scapegoated by right-wing politicians who view them as the new “welfare queen,” and their unions as a threat to the power of corporations and the values of a billionaire-sponsored, market-driven educational movement that wants to transform schooling into credential factories for the market, depoliticized commercial spheres that promote conformity and negate intellectual inquiry and the power of critical thinking.

Under policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, public education is guttered as public spheres where students learn to become knowledgeable, thoughtful and capable of participating in the decisions that shape their lives, their relations to others and the larger world. Education as a lesson in public values, civic politics and public life is subordinated, if not erased, under the mandate of preparing students through high-stakes testing for competing in the global marketplace.

Underlying these transformations are a number of forces eager to privatize schools, substitute vocational training for education, promote vouchers and charter schools and reduce teaching and learning to reductive modes of testing and evaluation. All of these reforms are as anti-democratic as they are anti-intellectual. And most importantly, all of them are driven by a deeply anti-labor paradigm and a deep distrust of democracy.

Indications of the poisonous transformation of both the role of the public school and the nature of the work that teachers do abound. The passage of laws promoting high-stakes testing for students and the use of test scores to measure teacher quality have both limited teacher autonomy and undermined the possibility of critical teaching and visionary goals for student learning.

Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content at best, and at worst put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test-taking.

Subject to what might be labeled as a form of repressive pedagogy, teachers are removed from the processes of deliberation and reflection and reduced to implementing lockstep, time-on-task pedagogies that do great violence to students.

Behind the rhetorical smokescreen justifying this kind of pedagogical practice, we will find a contradiction between conception and execution that was originally hatched by bureaucrats and “experts” from mainly conservative foundations.

Questions regarding how teachers motivate students, make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, work with parents and the larger community or exercise the authority needed to become a constructive pedagogical force in the classroom and community are now sacrificed to the dictates of an instrumental rationality largely defined through the optic of measurable utility.

Little is said in this discourse about allocating more federal dollars for public schooling, replacing the aging infrastructures of schools, or increasing salaries so as to expand the pool of qualified teachers.

Nor is anything said about changing the class-based financing structure that allocates unprecedented resources to wealthy children and inadequate financial support for those young people from low-income neighborhoods. Teachers are no longer praised for their public service.

Despite the trust we impart to them in educating our children, we ignore or devalue the firewall they provide between a culture saturated in violence and idiocy, and the radical imaginative possibilities of an educated mind capable of transforming the economic, political and racial injustices that surround us and bear down so heavily on public schools.

Teachers are stripped of their worth and dignity by being forced to adopt an educational vision and philosophy that has little respect for the empowering possibilities of either knowledge or critical classroom practices.

Put bluntly, knowledge that can ‘t be measured or defined as a work-related skill is viewed as irrelevant, and teachers who refuse to implement a standardized curriculum that evaluates young people through “objective” measures of assessment are judged as incompetent.

Any educator who believes that students should learn more than how to obey the rules, take tests, learn a work skill or adopt, without question, the cruel and harsh market values that dominate society “will meet,” as James Baldwin ‘s “Talk to Teachers” insists, “the most fantastic, the most brutal and the most determined resistance.”[6]

And while the mythic character of education has always been at odds with its reality (as Baldwin notes in talking about the toxic education imposed on poor black children), the assault on public schooling in its current form truly suggests that “we are living through a very dangerous time.”[7]

Stanley Aronowitz builds on this notion by pointing out that under current neo-liberal policies, what emerges is a form of education wedded not only to a pedagogy of conformity and subordination, but also to a pedagogy of repression. He writes:

Whether intended or not, we live in an era when the traditional concepts of liberal education and popular critical thinking are under assault. Neo-liberals of the Center, not less than those of the right, are equally committed to the reduction of education to a mean-spirited regime of keeping its subjects’ noses to the grindstone. As the post-war “prosperity” which offered limited opportunities to some from the lower orders to gain a measure of mobility fades into memory, the chief function of schools is repression.[8]

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