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Reclaiming the Radical Imagination

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Posted on Jan 13, 2014
sydney g (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Public and higher education, however deficient, were once viewed as the bedrock for educating young people to be critical and engaged citizens. Schooling was valued as a public good, not a private right. Many educators in the ‘70s and ‘80s took seriously Paulo Freire’s notion of problematizing education, in which he called for students to be taught modes of critical literacy in which they could not only read the word but also read the world critically. According to Freire, young people should be taught to read and write from a position of agency.  This meant learning how to engage in a culture of questioning, restaging power in productive ways, and connecting knowledge to the exercise of self-determination and self-development. Freire’s notion of critical pedagogy and education for freedom denounced banking education because it viewed students as passive containers into which knowledge was endlessly deposited. Rather than allow students to develop their own meanings, banking education assigned meanings for them, largely to memorize and spit out on intellectually bankrupt forms of testing. Banking education is back with a vengeance and ironically parades under the name of educational reform, common standards and race to the top.  Public education has become a site of pedagogical repression, robbing students of the ability to think critically as a result of the two political business parties’ emphasis on education as mainly a project of mindless testing, standardization and the de-skilling of teachers. In addition, school reform has become a euphemism for turning public schools over to private investors who are more concerned about making money than they are about educating young people.  On the other hand, low-income and poor minority students increasingly find themselves in schools in which the line between prison culture and school culture is blurred.

Higher education, especially in the post-World War II period through the ‘60s and ‘70s, was, however ideally, considered a place where young people were taught how to think, engage in critical dialogue, and take on the responsibilities of informed and critical citizens. Now such students are subject to a technically trained docility, defined largely as consumers and told that the only value education has is to prepare them to be workers and consumers ready and eager to serve the ideological and financial interests of the global economy.  Critical thought and the radical imagination have become a liability under casino capitalism and for a growing number of institutions the enemy of public and higher education because they hold the potential to be at odds with the reproduction of a criminogenc culture in which greed, unchecked power, political illiteracy and unbridled self-interest work to benefit the wealthy and corporate elite. Under such circumstances, education becomes simply a business, developing an obsession with accountability schemes, measurable utility, authoritarian governing structures, and a crude empiricism for defining what counts as research.

How else to explain the following comment made by the president of Macomb Community College in Michigan: “Macomb is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.” Or for that matter the blatant anti-intellectual bias imposed on colleges in Florida where Governor Rick Scott wants to push students toward business-friendly degrees by lowering tuition for academic fields and subjects that “steer students toward majors that are in demand in the job market.” Of course, those areas such as philosophy, sociology, music, the arts, and other mainstays of the liberal arts would be more costly and their demise would intensify. Graeber argues that this assault on higher education has now become an object of intense state violence. He writes:

Make no mistake: to threaten someone with a stick is the ultimate anti-intellectual gesture. And if one thing has become clear in recent months, this is the first - really the only - impulse of the current government when faced with challenges to their vision for higher education. Police infiltration, surveillance, elected student leaders banned from political activities on campus, the arrest of students for simple acts of expression like chalking slogans on sidewalks, send a clear and constant message. There can be no reasoned discussion on these issues. There is no longer anything to talk about. Certainly, democracy has absolutely nothing to do with it. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding have been declared nothing but a consumer product, or else a form of technical training to increase overall economic productivity; these are the only way these matters can be discussed; if anyone wishes to gather to object to this, to gather in places of learning to insist that knowledge and understanding are not mere economic goods but something precious and valuable in their own right, they can only do so by permission of those who are telling them otherwise; otherwise, they can expect to be physically attacked.


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Similarly, higher education has become a dead zone for killing the imagination, a place where ideas that don’t have practical results go to die and where faculty and students are punished through the threat of force or harsh disciplinary measures for speaking out, engaging in dissent and holding power accountable. Faculty in most universities have been reduced to part-time jobs and function as indentured servants with no benefits, shockingly low salaries and no power to shape the conditions under which they work. With over 70 percent of faculty now holding the status of contingent labor, they are increasingly becoming one of the largest groups of professionals that qualify for food stamps to survive. These contingent and debt-ridden faculty live in a culture in which time is a burden rather than a luxury and have few opportunities to research, write and engage important social issues. At the same time, they live under both a survivalist mode and a culture of fear knowing that they can be dismissed arbitrarily at any time for the slightest infraction. Even tenured faculty are feeling the heat of a business-oriented de-democratizing university. For example, the Kansas Board of regents recently drastically curtailed tenure and academic freedom by claiming that both tenured and non-tenured faculty who used social media in ways that were not in the interest of the university, decided exclusively by the CEO of the university, were subject to dismissal. Speech that now impairs or reduces the university’s “efficiency” overrides the right of faculty to exercise free speech or address issues they deem socially and politically important.  For all intent and purposes, this signifies not only the end of tenure but academic freedom. Moreover, as William Black points out, “in both substance and dishonesty of presentation, the Regents’ policy is literally Orwellian.”

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