May 20, 2013
The War Against Teachers in Dark Times
Posted on Dec 18, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Schools are always political because they both produce particular kinds of agents, desires and social relations and they legitimate particular notions of the past, present and future. The struggle is most visible in the demands, for example, of right-wing religious groups currently trying to inject creationism in the schools, institute school prayer, remove certain books from school libraries and include certain forms of religious teachings in the curricula. Of course, different demands are made by feminists, ecologists, minorities, and other interest groups who believe that the schools should teach women’s studies, courses on the environment or black history. In short, schools are not neutral sites, and teachers cannot assume the posture of being neutral either.
Central to the category of public intellectual is the necessity of making the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical. Making the pedagogical more political means inserting schooling directly into the political sphere by arguing that schooling represents both a struggle to define meaning and a struggle over agency and power relations. Within this perspective, critical reflection and action become part of a fundamental social project to help students develop a deep and abiding faith in the struggle to overcome economic, political and social injustices, and to further humanize themselves as part of this struggle. In this case, knowledge and power are inextricably linked to the presupposition that to choose life, to recognize the necessity of improving its democratic and qualitative character for all people, is to understand the preconditions necessary to struggle for it. Teaching must be seen as a political, civic and ethical practice precisely because it is directive, that is, an intervention that takes up the ethical responsibility of recognizing, as Paulo Freire points out, that human life is conditioned but not determined.
A critical pedagogical practice does not transfer knowledge but create the possibilities for its production, analysis and use. Without succumbing to a kind of rigid dogmatism, teachers should provide the pedagogical conditions for students to bear witness to history, their own actions and the mechanisms that drive the larger social order so that they can imagine the inseparable connection between the human condition and the ethical basis of our existence. Educators have a responsibility for educating students in ways that allow them to hold power accountable, learn how to govern and develop a responsibility to others and a respect for civic life. The key here is to recognize that being a public intellectual is no excuse for being dogmatic. While it is crucial to recognize that education has a critical function, the teachers’ task is not to mold students but to encourage human agency, to provide the conditions for students to be self-determining and to struggle for a society that is both autonomous and democratic.
Making the political more pedagogical means treating students as critical agents; making knowledge problematic and open to debate; engaging in critical and thoughtful dialogue; and making the case for a qualitatively better world for all people. In part, this suggests that teachers as public intellectuals take seriously the need to give students an active voice in their learning experiences. It also means developing a critical vernacular that is attentive to problems experienced at the level of everyday life, particularly as they are related to pedagogical experiences connected to classroom practice. As such, the pedagogical starting point for such intellectuals is not the isolated student removed from the historical and cultural forces that bear down on their lives but individuals in their various cultural, class, racial and historical contexts, along with the particularity of their diverse problems, hopes, and dreams.
As Judith Butler has argued, there is more hope in the world when we can question common sense assumptions and believe that what we know is directly related to our ability to help change the world around us, though it is far from the only condition necessary for such change. Hope provides the basis for dignifying our labor as intellectuals; it offers up critical knowledge linked to democratic social change, and allows teachers and students to recognize ambivalence and uncertainty as fundamental dimensions of learning.
As Ernst Bloch insists, hope is “not yet in the sense of a possibility; that it could be there if we could only do something for it.” Hope offers the possibility of thinking beyond the given - and lays open a pedagogical terrain in which teachers and students can engage in critique, dialogue and an open-ended struggle for justice. As difficult as this task may seem to educators, if not to a larger public, it is a struggle worth waging. To deny educators the opportunity to assume the role of public intellectuals is to prevent teachers from gaining control over the conditions of the work, denying them the right to “push at the frontiers, to worry the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected things, to find magic in places where others never thought to look,” and to model what it means for intellectuals to exhibit civic courage by giving education a central role in constructing a world that is more just, equitable and democratic in dark times.
What role might public school teachers play as public intellectuals in light of the brutal killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School? In the most immediate sense, they can raise their collective voices against the educational influence of a larger culture and spectacle of violence and the power of the gun lobby to flood the country with deadly weapons. They can show how this culture of violence is only one part of a broader and all-embracing militarized culture of war, arms industry and a Darwinian survival of the fittest ethic, more characteristic of an authoritarian society than a democracy. They can mobilize young people to both stand up for teachers, students and public schools by advocating for policies that invest in schools rather than in the military-industrial complex and its massive and expensive weapons of death. They can educate young people and a larger public to support gun regulation and the democratization of the culture industries that now trade in violence as a form of entertainment; they can speak out against the educational, political, and economic conditions in which violence has become a sport in America - one of the most valuable practices and assets of the national entertainment state. The violent screen culture of video games, extreme sports, violent Hollywood films, television dramas and other cultural productions do not just produce entertainment, they are mainly teaching machines that instruct children into a sadistic culture in which killing is all right, violence is fun and masculinity is defined increasingly through its propensity to make celebrities out of killers. This is a culture that serves as a recruiting tool for the military, makes military force rather than democratic idealism the highest national ideal and war the most important organizing principle of society.
Public school teachers can join with parents, churches, synagogues, Mosques and other individuals and institutions to address the larger socioeconomic and ideological values and practices that legitimize a hyper-masculinity fueled by the death-dealing assumption that war and a primitive tribalism make men, irrespective of the violence they promote against women, gays, students and people with disabilities. America is obsessed with violence and death, and this fixation not only provides profits for Hollywood, the defense industries and the weapons industries, it also reproduces a culture of war and cruelty that has become central to America’s national identity - one that is as shameful as it is deadly to its children and others. The war on public school teachers and children has reached its tragic apogee with the brutal and incomprehensible killing of the young children in Sandy Hook. What kind of country has the United States become in its willingness allow this endless barrage of symbolic and material violence to continue? Why has violence become the most powerful mediating force shaping social relations in the United States? Why do we allow a government to use drones to kill young children abroad? Why do we allow the right-wing media and the mainstream press to constantly denigrate both teachers and young people? Why are the lives of young people one of our lowest national priorities? Why do we denigrate public servants such as teaches, who educate, nurture and safeguard young people? What kind of country betrays its teachers and denigrates public education? How does the violence against teachers and students destroy the connective tissue that makes the shared bonds of trust, compassion and justice possible not only in our schools but also in a democracy?
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