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The Chicago Teachers Strike: Challenging Democracy’s Demise
Posted on Sep 15, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Today’s educators face the daunting challenge of creating new discourses, pedagogies and collective strategies that will offer students the hope and tools necessary to revive education as a political and ethical response to the demise of democratic public life. Such a challenge suggests struggling to keep alive those institutional spaces, forums, and public spheres that support and defend critical education and that help students come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. And that is exactly what Chicago teachers are fighting for.
What the Chicago teacher ‘s strike has made clear is that the “public” in education becomes dangerous when it associates teaching and learning with civic values, civic courage, and a respect for the common good -a position decidedly at odds with the unbridled individualism, privatized discourse, excessive competition and hyper-militarized culture that now run rampant through American society. Public education is about much more than learning how to take a test, prepare for a job, or raise one ‘s critical consciousness; it is about imagining a more democratic society and a better future, one that does not simply replicate the present. In contrast to the cynicism and political withdrawal fostered by mainstream media culture, a critical education demands that its citizens be able to translate the interface of private considerations and public issues, recognize those anti-democratic forces that deny social, economic, and political justice and give some thought to their experiences as a matter of anticipating and struggling for a more just world. In short, democratic, rather than commercial, values should be the primary concerns of public education.
If the right-wing educational reforms now being championed by the Obama administration and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago continue unchallenged after the strike ends, America will become a society in which a highly-trained, largely white elite continues to command the techno-information revolution while a vast, low-skilled majority of poor and minority workers is relegated to filling the McJobs proliferating in the service sector. The children of the rich and privileged will be educated in exclusive private schools while the rest of the population, mostly poor and non-white, will be offered deficit forms of pedagogy suitable only for working in the dead-end, low-skill service sector of society, assuming that these jobs will even be available.
Teachers will lose most of their rights, protections, and dignity and will be treated as clerks of the empire. And as more and more young people fail to graduate from high school, they will join the ranks of those disposable populations now filling up our prisons at a record pace. In contrast to this vision, I strongly believe that genuine, critical education cannot be confused with job training.
At the same time, public schools have to be viewed as institutions just as crucial to the security and safety of the country as national defense. If educators and others are to prevent the distinction between education and training from becoming blurred, it is crucial to challenge the ongoing corporatization of public schools, while upholding the promise of the modern social contract in which all youth - guaranteed the necessary protections and opportunities - are seen as a primary source of economic and moral investment and as symbolizing the hope for a democratic future. This is precisely what the teachers strike in Chicago is about.
When Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told a massive crowd of supporters that “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere,” she was only partly right. The struggle in Chicago is as much about the fate of democracy as it is about the fate of public schooling in America.
The demonization of public school teachers, unions and public schooling in general permeates American popular culture and is now a theme dominating a number of right-wing billionaire-produced Hollywood films.  The enemy of education in these films is not under- performing teachers or misguided unions, but democracy itself. The current vicious assault on public school teachers, particularly in Chicago at the present moment, is a reminder that the educational conditions that make democratic identities, values and politics possible have to be fought for more urgently at a time when democratic public spheres, public goods and public spaces are under attack by market fanatics and other ideological fundamentalists.
These enemies of democracy believe that corporations can solve all human problems or that dissent is comparable to aiding terrorists - positions that share the common denominator of disabling a substantive notion of ethics, politics and democracy. The rhetoric of accountability, privatization, choice, charter schools and standardization that now dominates both major political parties in the United States does more than deskill teachers, weaken teacher unions, dumb down the curriculum, punish students, and create a culture of ignorance. It also offers up a model for education that undermines the idea that the very institution itself is a public good while disinvesting in a formative culture necessary in creating critical citizens. In this state of fragile democracy, the opportunity for students to learn how to govern and be critical citizens is at serious risk of being hijacked. We should all be grateful for the brave teachers, staff and students in Chicago who are making visible what should be clear to all Americans: education matters as a public good because democracy is too important to hand over to corporations, hedge fund operators and other apostles of casino capitalism. But, of course, the Chicago teachers need more than our gratitude, they need our support and they need it now, regardless of the fact that the strike is coming to a settlement. The Chicago teachers’ strike is an important call and salvo in the war being waged against all things public, all things associated with public values, all things democratic and it is far from over. Regardless of how this strike ends, it should have a life far beyond its resolution. Hopefully, this example of this strike will provide the fulcrum for social movements to emerge that will take up this fight remembered, not just as a struggle for the future of Chicago public schools, but for the fate of all young people and the possibility of their living in a society in which equality, freedom and justice, become the driving force for learning, agency, democracy and the future.
1. Anthony DiMaggio, “Gutting Public Education: Neoliberalism and the Politics of Opportunity”, TruthOut, (June 25, 2010)
2. Nick Couldry, “Fighting For Its Life: The English University in 2010,” Unpublished manuscript.
3. 1G. Rendell, “Politics, pedagogy, the press, and professors (a prickly post),” Blog U, (December 15, 2009).
4. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Education for Profit, Education for Freedom,“Liberal Education, (Summer 2009), p.13.
5. Stanley Aronowitz, “Forward,“Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities, ed. Sheila L. Macrine, (N.Y.: New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) p. ix.
6. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” Saturday Review (December 21, 1963).
8. Stanley Aronowitz, “Paulo Freire ‘s Pedagogy: Not Mainly a teaching method,“in Robert Lake and Tricia Kress, Paulo Freire’s Intellectual Roots: Toward Historicity in Praxis (New York, NY: Continuum, 2012), in press.
9. I take this up in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2009).
10. Danny Weil, “Film ‘Won ‘t Back Down ’ Models Hollywood Propaganda in Age of School Reform.” Truthout (September 5, 2012).
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