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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 3)

As education is reduced to a mindless infatuation with metrics and modes of testing, the space of public schooling increasingly enforces this deadening experience with disciplinary measures reminiscent of prison culture. Moreover, as the vocabulary and disciplinary structures of punishment replace education, a range of student behaviors are criminalized, resulting in the implementation of harsh mandatory rules that push many students deeper into the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. [9]

With the rise of the governing-through-crime complex, war has now become a mode of governance in schools and one consequence is that teachers are increasingly removed from dealing with children as an important social investment and democratic symbol of the future.

As the school is militarized, student behavior becomes an issue handled either by the police or security forces. Needless to say, when Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan was the CEO of the Chicago School System, he expanded the ongoing militarization of public schools to the great detriment of low-income and poor minority students. Removed from the normative and pedagogical framing of classroom life, teachers no longer have the option to think outside of the box, experiment, be poetic, or inspire joy in their students.

Instead, with curriculum and policies now designed to kill the imagination of both teachers and students, the hours spent in classrooms are a kind of “dead” time. When not reduced to high-stakes drill centers, schools increasingly have become armed camps, sites for those young people now considered excess, disposable or simply human waste.


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For years, teachers have offered advice to students, corrected their behavior, offered help in addressing their personal problems and gone out of their way to understand the circumstances surrounding even the most serious of student infractions. But the role of teachers, as both caretakers and engaged intellectuals, has been severely restricted by the imposition of a stripped-down curriculum that actually disdains creative teacher work while relegating teachers to the status of clerks.

Ignorance, fear, and learning how to take bubble tests is what now gives public schools a sense of mission and community. Teaching students to take risks, think critically or exercise their imagination is now considered a crime in many schools. Profit and efficiency measures now seem to be the only sources of motivation. One consequence of this transformation is the growing frequency of corruption and cheating among school administrators and teachers who want to cash in on the bonuses available to them if they raise student scores.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the model of the racetrack and prison represent mutually reinforcing sides of how public education is now defined. Needless to say, the consequences for both teachers and students have been deadly. Great ideas, modes of knowledge, disciplinary traditions, and honorable civic ideals are no longer engaged, debated and offered up as a civilizing force for expanding the students ’ capacities as critical individuals and social agents. Knowledge is now instrumentalized, and the awe, magic, and insight it might provide are rendered banal as it is redefined through the mindless logic of quantification and measurement that now grips the culture of schooling and drives the larger matrix of efficiency, productivity and consumerism shaping broader society.

As testing becomes an end in itself, it both deadens the possibility of critical thinking and removes teachers from the possibility of exercising critical thought and producing imaginative pedagogical engagements. These modes of bare pedagogy that take their cues from a market-driven business culture treat teachers as fast-food like minimum wage workers and disdain the notion that public schools may be one of the few remaining places where students can learn how to deal with complicated ideas. As public schools become more business friendly, teachers are rendered increasingly more powerless and students more ignorant.

What we see happening in Chicago and in a host of other cities are a series of market-driven reforms designed to turn public schools into political tools for corporate-dominated legislators, while simultaneously depriving students of any viable notion of teaching and learning. Bad for schools, teachers, students and democracy, such neo-liberal reforms lack any viable ethical and political understanding of how schools work, what role they should play in a democracy, and what the myriad forces are that are working to undermine both critical teaching and critical learning.

Yet this degradation of teaching and the dumbing-down of the curriculum through an emphasis on high-stakes testing, an obsession with free market values and a devaluing of any form of knowledge or experience that cannot be measured does not capture what is perhaps the most detrimental effect of such reforms: namely, that they promote modes of stratification that favor existing class, racial, and cultural hierarchies.

Chicago educators are calling for a new language for understanding public education as a formative force for democratic institutions, and for the vital role that teachers play in such a project. They are demanding that education should be viewed as a moral and political practice that always presupposes particular renditions of what constitutes legitimate knowledge, values, citizenship, modes of understanding and views of the future. In other words, teaching is always directive in its attempt to shape students as particular agents and offer them a particular understanding of the present and the future.

And while schools have a long history of simply attempting to reproduce the ideological contours of the existing society, they are capable of much more, and therein lie their danger and possibilities. At their worst, teachers have been viewed as merely gatekeepers. At best, they occupy one of the most valued professions we have to educating future generations in the discourse, values and relations of democratic empowerment. Rather than viewed as disinterested technicians, teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals. Regardless of the terms in which this strike will be settled, their fight is not over.

And teachers in Chicago and elsewhere should be supported in their efforts to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills and culture of questioning that are necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power, and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national, and global public spheres.

Chicago teachers are assuming the role of engaged public intellectuals and fighting for schools as democratic public spheres. Central to fostering a pedagogy that is open, discerning and infused with a spirit of critical inquiry, rather than mandates, is the assumption that teachers should not only be critical intellectuals but also have some control over the conditions of their own pedagogical labor. Academic labor at its best flourishes when it enhances modes of individual and social agency and respects the time and conditions teachers need to prepare lessons, research, cooperate with each other and engage valuable community resources.

Put differently, teachers are the major resource for what it means to establish the conditions for education to be linked to critical learning rather than training, to embrace a vision of democratic possibility rather than a narrow instrumental notion of education, and to honor the specificity and diversity of children’s lives rather than treat them as if such differences do not matter. Hence, teachers deserve the respect, autonomy, power, and dignity that such a task demands.

The basic premise that drives the strike by Chicago public school teachers is that if public education is a crucial sphere for creating citizens equipped to exercise their freedoms and learn the competencies necessary to question the basic assumptions that govern democratic political life, then public school teachers must be allowed to shape the conditions that enable them to assume their responsibility as citizen-scholars. Being able to take critical positions, relate their work to larger social issues, offer multiple forms of literacies, and foster debate and dialogue about pressing social problems makes it possible for teachers to provide the conditions for students to conjure up the hope and belief that civic life matters.

Students should see teachers modeling in the classroom the principle that they can make a difference in shaping society so as to expand its democratic possibilities for all groups. Of course, this is not merely a matter of changing the consciousness of teachers or the larger public, or the ways in which teachers are educated. These are important considerations, but what must be embraced in this recognition of the value of public school teachers is that such an investment in young people is an issue of politics, ethics and power, all of which must be viewed as part of a larger struggle to connect the crisis of schooling and teaching to the crisis of democracy itself.

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