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The War Against Teachers in Dark Times

Posted on Dec 18, 2012
toddwendy (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Technocratic and instrumental rationalities are also at work within the teaching field itself, and they play an increasing role in reducing teacher autonomy with respect to the development and planning of curricula and the judging and implementation of classroom instruction.  In the past, this took the form of what has been called “teacher-proof” curriculum packages. The underlying rationale in many of these packages viewed teacher work as simply the carrying out of predetermined content and instructional procedures. The method and aim of such packages was to legitimate what might be called “market-driven management pedagogies.”  That knowledge is broken down into discrete parts, standardized for easier management and consumption and measured through predefined forms of assessment. Curricula approaches of this sort are management pedagogies because the central questions regarding teaching and learning are reduced to the problems of management, regulation and control.  While such curricula are far from absent in many schools, they have been replaced by modes of classroom instruction geared to a pedagogy of repression defined through the rubric of accountability. This approach works to discipline both the body and mind in the interest of training students to perform well in high-stakes testing schemes. It defines quality teaching through reductive mathematical models.[18]

Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on “measurements of value derived from market competition.” [19] Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.  It is also a pedagogy that infantilizes both teachers and students. For instance, the Texas GOP built into its platform the banning of critical thinking.[20] Not too long ago, the Florida legislature passed a law claiming that history had to be taught simply as a ledger of facts, banning any attempt at what can loosely be called interpretation.

The soft underlying theoretical assumption that guides this type of pedagogy is that the behavior of teachers needs to be controlled and made consistent and predictable across different schools and student populations.  The more hidden and hard assumption at work here is that teachers cannot be intellectuals, cannot think imaginatively and cannot engage in forms of pedagogy that might enable students to think differently, critically or more imaginatively. The deskilling of teachers, the reduction of reason to a form of instrumental rationality, and the disinvestment in education as a public good is also evident on a global level in policies produced by the World Bank that impose on countries forms of privatization and standardized curricula that undermine the potential for critical inquiry and engaged citizenship. Learning in this instance is depoliticized, prioritized as a method and often reduced to teaching low-level skills, disciplinary-imposed behaviors and corporate values. Neoliberal disciplinary measures now function to limit students to the private orbits in which they experience their lives while restricting the power of teachers to teach students to think rationally, judge wisely and be able to connect private troubles to broader public considerations.

Public schools have become an object of disdain, and teachers labor under educational reforms that separate conception from execution, theory from practice, and pedagogy from moral and social considerations. As content is devalued, history erased and the economic, racial and social inequities intensified, public schools increasingly are hijacked by corporate and religious fundamentalists. The effect is not only to deskill teachers, to remove them from the processes of deliberation and reflection, but also to routinize the nature of learning and classroom pedagogy. Needless to say, the principles underlying corporate pedagogies are at odds with the premise that teachers should be actively involved in producing curricula materials suited to the cultural and social contexts in which they teach.


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More specifically, the narrowing of curricula choices to a back-to-basics format and the introduction of lock-step, time-on-task pedagogies operate from the theoretically erroneous assumption that all students can learn from the same materials, classroom instructional techniques and modes of evaluation. The notion that students come from different histories and embody different experiences, linguistic practices, cultures and talents is strategically ignored within the logic and accountability of management pedagogy theory. At the same time, the school increasingly is modeled as a factory, prison or both.  Curiosity is replaced by monotony, and learning withers under the weight of dead time.

Teachers as Public Intellectuals

In what follows, I want to argue that one way to rethink and restructure the nature of teacher work is to view teachers as public intellectuals. The category of intellectual is helpful in a number of ways. First, it provides a theoretical basis for examining teacher work as a form of intellectual labor, as opposed to defining it in purely instrumental or technical terms. Second, it clarifies the kinds of ideological and practical conditions necessary for teachers to function as intellectuals. Third, it helps to make clear the role teachers play in producing and legitimating various political, economic and social interests through the pedagogies they endorse and utilize.

By viewing teachers as public intellectuals, we can illuminate the important idea that all human activity involves some form of thinking. No activity, regardless of how routinized it might become, can be abstracted from the functioning of the mind in some capacity. This is a crucial issue, because by arguing that the use of the mind is a general part of all human activity we dignify the human capacity for integrating thinking and practice, and in doing so highlight the core of what it means to view teachers as reflective practitioners. Within this discourse, teachers can be seen not merely as “performers professionally equipped to realize effectively any goals that may be set for them. Rather [they should] be viewed as free men and women with a special dedication to the values of the intellect and the enhancement of the critical powers of the young.”[21]

Viewing teachers as public intellectuals also provides a strong theoretical critique of technocratic and instrumental ideologies underlying educational theories that separate the conceptualization, planning and design of curricula from the processes of implementation and execution. It is important to stress that teachers must take active responsibility for raising serious questions about what they teach, how they are to teach and what the larger goals are for which they are striving. This means that they must take a responsible role in shaping the purposes and conditions of schooling. Such a task is impossible within a division of labor in which teachers have little influence over the conceptual and economic conditions of their work. This point has a normative and political dimension that seems especially relevant for teachers. If we believe that the role of teaching cannot be reduced to merely training in the practical skills, but involves, instead, the education of a class of engaged and public intellectuals vital to the development of a free society, then the category of intellectual becomes a way of linking the purpose of teacher education, public schooling and in-service training to the principles necessary for developing a democratic order and society. Recognizing teachers as engaged and public intellectuals means that educators should never be reduced to technicians, just as education should never be reduced to training. Instead, pedagogy should be rooted in the practice of freedom - in those ethical and political formations that expand democratic underpinnings and principles of both the self and the broader social order.

I have argued that by viewing teachers as intellectuals we can begin to rethink and reform the traditions and conditions that have prevented teachers from assuming their full potential as active, reflective scholars and practitioners. I believe that it is important not only to view teachers as public intellectuals, but also to contextualize in political and normative terms the concrete social functions that teachers have both to their work and to the dominant society.

A starting point for interrogating the social function of teachers as public intellectuals is to view schools as economic, cultural and social sites that are inextricably tied to the issues of politics, power and control. This means that schools do more than pass on in an objective fashion a common set of values and knowledge. On the contrary, schools are places that represent forms of knowledge, language practices, social relations and values that are particular selections and exclusions from the wider culture. As such, schools serve to introduce and legitimate particular forms of social life. Rather than being objective institutions removed from the dynamics of politics and power, schools actually are contested spheres that embody and express struggles over what forms of authority, types of knowledge, forms of moral regulation and versions of the past and future should be legitimated and transmitted to students.

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